Friday, January 28, 2011

Reflections On My Visit In the Malay Archipelago

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by Dr Muzaffar Iqbal

For some unknown reason, it was only after landing in Jakarata that I felt the “adrenaline rush”, although the main event of my trip was held in Kuala Lumpur, where some 300 people had gathered in the auditorium of the Mahsa University College for the second Abdullah Yusuf Ali Lecture, for which I had chosen the theme, “Between Believers and Disbelievers: Qur’an in the Contemporary World”.

The lecture was jointly organized by the Islamic Book Trust and Yayasn Pendidikan Islam in honor of a man whose translation of the Holy Qur’an has helped millions of human beings since 1938, when it was first published by a publisher in Lahore.

The inaugural lecture of the series was delivered by M. A. Sherif in December 2008. Sherif is the author of Searching for Solace, the only book-length biography of Abdullah Yusuf Ali who was found sitting on the steps of a house in Westminster on a harsh winter day of 1953. On that Wednesday, December 9, the confused old man was taken by the police to Westminster Hospital. The next day, he was discharged from the hospital and taken to a London County Council home for the elderly situated on Dovehouse Street, Chelsea. The next day, he suffered a heart attack, was rushed to St Stephen's Hospital in Fulham where he died three hours later.

There were no relatives to claim the body and arrange his funeral. However, the deceased was known to the Pakistan High Commission and as soon as the Coroner for the County of London had completed the inquest, an Islamic burial was arranged in the Muslim section of Brookwood cemetery, Surrey, where his grave is not visited by many people today.

When he died at the age of 81, his translation of the Glorious Qur’an was hardly known outside a small circle. Today, it is virtually found everywhere in the world.

Thus I felt honored to be in Kuala Lumpur to deliver the second Abdullah Yusuf Ali Lecture named after a man whose life reflected, within its macro-cosmic details, some of the fundamental dilemmas of those Muslims who were born in the nineteenth century—a century of deluge, which witnessed the colonization of almost the entire Muslim world—as well as those who lived in the first half of the twentieth century, torn between the dictates of their faith and loyalties to their colonial rulers.

For those Muslims, the world was divided into two neat compartments: there was the dead past with its dim glow which failed to evoke any sense of glamour or glory, especially in comparison to the power of the King-Emperor—whose glamorous portraits adorned the high offices of the Empire not too long ago—and whose dominion, by 1922, consisted of almost one-quarter of the world’s population, covering 34 million square km, which is almost a quarter of the Earth’s total land area—an Empire over which the sun never set, as they used to say.

If they were not the loyal subjects of the British Emperor, Muslims then likely lived in the vast realm of a French colonial empire which extended over 13 million square kilometers at its height, covering some 8.7% of the total land of Earth, and about 5% of the world population.

Of course, there were Muslims who lived outside the territories occupied by the British, French, Dutch, or Russian colonizing powers, but even the 18 million Muslims who lived in the declining Ottoman Empire (1299-1923) or the far fewer number who lived in the Qajar dynasty (1794-1925) of Iran during the period under consideration, felt the force of European influence and power more intimately than the force and influence of their own historical past.

For all practical purposes, their own historical past was dead, not because they had ceased to be Muslim—although forced or coerced abandonment of faith was surely the most humiliating part of the colonial experience of millions of Muslims, especially those under Soviet rule in Central Asia—but because Muslims who lived in occupied lands drew little psychological, emotional, or intellectual inspiration from their own glorious tradition in any meaningful way. It was a time when the imperial European presumption that both Islam and Muslims had become a “spent force” was written large on the wall for everyone to see.

Before the lecture, I sat with Tun Abdullah Badawi, the former Prime Minister of Malaysia, who was the guest of honor, and we discussed the state of the Muslim world in general terms. Tun Abdullah comes from a family of scholars and I had met him before on a previous visit to Malaysia, which he seemed to remember. There was no pomp a la Pakistan; everything was simple, authentic, and filled with that typical Malaysian humility which keeps everything within human proportions.

In my lecture, I addressed the situation of the Qur’an in the contemporary world with respect to those who believe in its Divine origins as well those who do not. I mentioned that the verdict passed against Islam and Muslims at the time of colonization was based on brute military force, but it also emerged in the wake of a rich crop of ascending European “isms”, which fueled the European domination of the world in many ways.

The most important of these new “isms” was secular humanism, that reduced everything to the human plane and rejected all supra-human realms as superstitious dogma; religion was the most important casualty of this new philosophy which based itself exclusively on human reason, from which it extracted a new ethical system based purely based on human considerations.

It strove to make the here-and-now the pinnacle of all human activity. Human life was to be lived to the utmost limits in fulfillment of a self-constructed meaning and purpose, which had no consideration for the Hereafter and which was based on a total forgetfulness of the sacred origin of all things including human life itself.

This new philosophy was fully supported by an ascending science in whose theories people had more faith than they had in God and whose “fruits” everyone could see in the form of newly laid railway tracks, new modes of communication, and numerous other existing and emergent technological innovations which were changing the way life was lived over the world.


Jakarta was enchanting. Its colonial past seemed to be hanging in the air. Its teaming millions, locked in a small area of 255 sq miles, were not yet in sight as the car drove from the airport toward the city center.

Unlike Kuala Lumpur, Jakarta had personal associations going back to the time of Sukarno—the founding father who had unilaterally declared independence when the occupying Japanese army surrendered to the allies in August 1945.

Sukarno’s downfall had coincided with a turning point in Pakistan’s history after the 1965 war. ZA Bhutto had just emerged on the political scene with a bag containing the Tashkent black cat, which he was holding in his hand as he toured the country. He was going to bring it out at an appropriate time to let Pakistanis know what really happened in Tashkent and how they were betrayed.

It was a time of massive public rallies the like of which had not been seen in Pakistan for over a decade. It was through his article in People’s Party’s official newspaper, Masawat, that most Pakistanis heard about a CIA plot against Sukarno. ZA Bhutto reminded Pakistanis of the immense support Sukarno had given to Pakistan during the war. I remembered that in his article Bhutto had mentioned ten-hour long public speeches which Sukarno used to deliver to mesmerized and spell-bound crowds.

These memories surfaced in my mind as the car entered the city limits and slowed down. The city was lush; recent rain had washed away all the dust from the leaves. Sukarno did not survive, I recalled in my mind, but the way ZA Bhutto projected his cause brought out yet another leaf of history. It was a time of ideological struggle between the left and the right, the red star was rising from the east and communism was gaining ground in scores of third world countries where a new brand of fiery nationalistic leadership was standing up to the West’s imperialism.

Sukarno was a forerunner of that leadership and Bhutto was inspired by his example both in his political views as well as in his approach to masses. He modeled Pakistan Peoples’ Party on the pattern of Sukarno's vision for Indonesia, which consisted of five principles blending Marxism, nationalism and Islam. These principles were Indonesian nationalism, Internationalism, Deliberative consensus emphasizing representative democracy, social welfare, and monotheism.

Just as Sukarno summarized his five principles in one phrase (“gotong royong”), Bhutto was to sum up his political philosophy in one phrase: Roti, Kapra and Makan. Just as Sukarno reached out to the leaders of the People's Republic of China, Bhutto was to do the same.

The greatest contribution Sukarno made to the international politics of his time was to attempt to forge a new alliance, the “New Emerging Forces”, as a counter to the old superpowers, whom he accused of spreading “Neo-Colonialism, Colonialism and Imperialism". In this he was a visionary who wanted to create a third power block. He was one of the main organizers of the Bandung Conference (1955), with the goal of uniting developing Asian and African countries into a non-aligned movement to counter against the competing superpowers at the time.

Just as CIA plotted against Sukarno, Bhutto accused CIA of plotting against him. There are well-documented proofs of CIA’s involvement in many assassination attempts on Sukarno’s life. CIA used a mix of anti-communist and so-called Islamic movements to attack Sukarno.

In 1958, J. Allan Pope, an American pilot, was shot down after a bombing raid in northern Indonesia which was organized by CIA. In 1961, he founded the Non-Aligned Movement with Egypt’s President Gamal Abdel Nasser, India’s Prime Minister Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru, Yugoslavia's President Josip Broz Tito, and Ghana's President Kwame Nkrumah, in an action called The Initiative of Five (Sukarno, Nkrumah, Nasser, Tito, and Nehru).

The past came rushing as the car stopped in the heart of the city inside a college building where I was going to give first of the two lectures to a crowd of over 500 students. They all seem to emerge from behind the trees, eager to listen. It was an open area between two blocks of building. The stage was set up and as the students gathered, we went to pray the noon prayer in the college mosque.

As I returned to the venue, I found myself still immersed in the past—days when a new world order was being envisioned by a handful of third world leaders, an order in which millions of poor people will finally have a voice. That world order never became a reality, but Sukarno did succeed in stirring up an anti-American campaign.

He withdrew Indonesia from the UN membership in 1965 when, with US backing, the nascent Federation of Malaysia took a seat of UN Security Council. He forged a new link with China and the Peking-Jakarta axis was going to stand up against the hegemony of the West, but CIA finally demolished the nascent hopes.

On the night of 30 September 1965, six of Indonesia's most senior generals were killed mysteriously. Major General Suharto, commander of the Army’s strategic reserves, took control of the army the following morning. What happened after this remains unclear to this day. Sukarno was eventually stripped of his presidential title on March 12, 1967, and remained under house arrest until his death from kidney failure in Jakarta on June 21, 1970 at age 69.

The leaf from history could not be read through as students had now gathered and the session was about to start, but this brief reminiscence was a wonderful way to begin the two-day visit to Jakarta.

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