By Kamran Pasha
The Hajj, the grand Pilgrimage to Mecca, has just ended after having attracted a record four million Muslims from all over the world for a week of worship in the vast Arabian desert. I attended this year for the first time, along with my mother, and experienced one of the most remarkable and transformative events known to humanity. Four million believers of every race, nation and age brought together to the heart of Islam to perform rituals that are thousands of years old. Rituals that are meant to transcend our artificial divisions by appearance, language and economic class and unite human beings in the search for something greater than the pursuit of wealth and social status.
The full details of my journey can be found on my blog at www.kamranpasha.com. But I wanted to take a moment here to talk about the one topic that was on everyone's lips as we sat together under a tent in the pilgrim camp at Mina – the improbable election of Barack Hussein Obama to the Presidency of the United States. I spoke with believers from all over the world – Indonesia, Singapore, Egypt, France, Mali – and all expressed wonder at God's will in bringing such remarkable change after eight years of George W. Bush. Most were hopeful that Obama could restore to America its prestige as the moral leader of the world, squandered so recklessly by an Administration that redefined the meaning of the word "hubris." But many feared that entrenched interests in Washington D.C. would prevent Obama from bringing meaningful change to America's dealings with the Muslim world.
There was much that I learned from the Hajj on a personal spiritual level. But I also gained insight on the state of global public opinion and the evolution of Muslim politics. These are lessons that would be helpful for our incoming President to keep in mind as he attempts to re-imagine America's relationship with the Islamic world. Here are some of my thoughts:
Muslims are America's allies against Al-Qaeda
One of the most consistent themes that I heard during the weeklong vigil at Mecca was the profound abhorrence for violence against civilians in the name of Islam. Whether I spoke with a Syrian neurosurgeon or a Saudi taxi driver, a deep-rooted rejection of Al-Qaeda and its brand of extremism was evident. This was particularly poignant due to the horrific events playing out in Mumbai at the height of the Pilgrimage. Indian pilgrims I met sorrowed for their besieged countrymen, many expressing horror that the streets they regularly walked in Mumbai had become a battlefield. Here in Mecca, where speaking truth before God is a central requirement of the Pilgrimage, Muslims were passionately and vociferously calling out to reclaim their faith from a handful of monsters.
President Obama must recognize that the vast majority of the world's 1.5 billion Muslims reject murder in the name of Islam and are America's allies against terrorism. This was a lesson the US Army learned belatedly in Iraq, as the traditional sheiks of al- province ultimately proved to be its greatest allies against Al-Qaeda's suicide bombers. The United States must engage with this not-so-silent majority and work with it to defeat the extremists whose barbarism represents a wholesale rejection of Islamic tradition in the name of political expediency.
Part of that engagement process will be to listen to these Muslims as well and address their grievances. My conversations with fellow believers at the Hajj reaffirmed that Muslims reject terrorism, and they also reject political oppression. The suffering of Palestine remains the greatest ache in the heart of the Muslim Ummah, and many of the prayers in Mecca were focused on the long-suffering people of Gaza who are being literally starved to death by the Israeli blockade. Whether it be the oppression of innocent Muslims in Palestine, Kashmir, Chechnya, or at Guantanamo Bay, Muslims have valid grievances that are too often ignored by Americans. In his brilliant book Imperial Hubris, former CIA agent Michael Scheuer pointed out the legitimate political grievances of Muslims that need to be addressed by Washington. Scheuer was fired by the Bush Administration, which chose not only to ignore his advice, but to aggravate the policies of imperialism and aggression that have alienated many Muslims from the nation they loved and admired. Obama should read the book and understand that the security of America requires a two-pronged approach – allying with mainstream Muslims against Al-Qaeda, while addressing the political grievances that are allowing extremists to recruit among the disenfranchised.
As someone who is deeply respected in the Islamic world, Obama has a unique opportunity to engage and inspire Muslims to work with America to defeat our common enemies. But he can only do so if he shows empathy for the grievances of the Muslim world and recognition that our foreign policy has not always lived up to our own ideals as Americans. Bush chose the two-pronged approach of self-righteous lecturing about American values, while raining down bombs on millions of innocent Muslims. Anyone who has read the Qur'an will realize that hypocrisy is one of the most reprehensible sins in Islam, and as long as the United States is seen as a self-serving Great Hypocrite, it will never be able to join forces with the millions of Muslims whose help it needs to keep our nation safe. The Hajj has shown me that Obama has a rare opportunity to change all that. Our children and grandchildren's future will depend on whether he is a man of action as well as eloquent rhetoric.
Saudi reform should be encouraged
As an American Muslim raised in Brooklyn, Saudi Arabia is another planet as far as I am concerned. The Kingdom's synthesis of modern skyscrapers and medieval ideology is mind-boggling, and I often felt deeply frustrated dealing with arrogant Saudi bureaucrats and religious police while on Hajj. And yet the nation is changing for the better. The new king Abdullah has proven to be a wise statesmen, working to disempower the old Wahhabi fundamentalist elites who spawned Al-Qaeda and blindly pushed the country to self-destruction. Everywhere I went in Mecca, I heard sincere relief from both Saudi locals and immigrant workers that the new King was diligently guiding his country into the 21st century. King Abdullah surprised and delighted the Muslim world in Mach 2008 when he held a conference in Mecca inviting religious scholars of every branch of Islam, both Sunni and Shia, to work together to promote an Islam of compassion and human brotherhood. A few weeks later, he stunned the world by hosting an interfaith conference in Madrid, bringing together Jews, Christians, Buddhists, and Hindus with Muslims to work toward global peace. The idea that the King of Saudi Arabia would spearhead such ecumenical cooperation is frankly stunning. And King Abdullah has paid a political price at home, with fundamentalists in his country becoming increasingly agitated by his openness.
And yet what I saw at Hajj showed that these fundamentalists are losing ground in the Muslim community. Wahhabism, the strict and puritanical brand of Islam that was developed in the 18th century, has never been popular or respected by mainstream Muslims. Most Muslims do not identify with the fundamentalists and their obsessive-compulsive obedience to extreme interpretations of Islamic law. Islam did not become a global civilization of 1.5 billion people by following the harsh and uncompromising vision of desert radicals, and my experience at Mecca reconfirmed that it remains a vibrant, living faith that cannot be trapped inside a medieval box.
The Muslims I spoke with expressed relief that the mutawwin, the Saudi religious police, had stopped harassing Pilgrims for alleged infractions of minor rules. Once deeply feared, strutting about arrogantly with sticks to punish those who violated some obscure Wahhabi tenet, they are becoming a toothless dragon, relegated to grumbling at believers who show "too much" love and reverence at Prophet Muhammad's tomb in Medina. But the fundamentalists should not be counted out just yet. The state of Saudi Arabia was founded on a literal deal with the devil – the tribal chief Ibn Saud seized control of the peninsula with the help of Wahhabi fanatics, and gave them control over religious affairs while his sons drank and gambled away the nation's Petrodollars. The religious establishment may strike back against the Abdullah's efforts to liberalize the Kingdom, and the prospect of civil war in Saudi Arabia one day is not impossible.
What President Obama will have to do is work with King Abdullah to strengthen the modernizing elements within his regime. The most important reform Obama can encourage is to break the monopoly of Wahhabi religious scholars on interpreting Islam inside the Kingdom. The Kingdom must welcome Muslim thinkers of every school of thought into its Council of Senior Ulama, the clerical body that is the final authority on religious matters. King Abdullah has made strides by inviting diverse points of view to speak at his conference in Mecca – now he must actually let those voices have a real pulpit within the Kingdom to promote reform. And he will find support from most of the Muslim world. The believers I met on Hajj were united in their desire to see Saudi religious scholars bring their interpretations more in line with mainstream Muslim thought, especially in the area of women's rights, which have been severely curtailed in the Kingdom. One of the reasons I wrote my novel Mother of Believers about the Prophet's wife Aisha was to show how active and influential women were during the birth of Islam, a tradition that has been ignored and suppressed by modern fundamentalists. Aisha was a scholar, a poet and a warrior who led armies into Iraq on an armored camel. She would have been shocked by the Saudis' stubborn refusal to let women drive cars.
President Obama will be in a position to help King Abdullah's reform efforts. As a well-read and thoughtful man, someone who has known Muslims since childhood, Obama should be well aware that the fundamentalists are a small, if troublesome, minority in Islam. Now that King Abdullah has begun the long and painful process of moving his country out of the Middle Ages, he must be supported by the United States. Saudi Arabia has always been a useful punching bag for American politicians in speeches, even as these same politicians shake hands with the oil sheiks in private. But public discourse must now turn away from the Saudis as America's "frenemy" and move to serious discussion as to how to promote and support reform efforts. The liberalization of Saudi thinking and attitudes will be welcomed by Muslims worldwide and will help combat the power of extremist groups like Al-Qaeda.
The center of Muslim power is moving East
One of the most remarkable things I noticed during the Pilgrimage was how many believers had come from East Asia. Most of the Muslims I had grown up with in the United States were either of Indo-Pakistani descent, Arabs or African Americans. While these three groups were richly represented on the Hajj, they were balanced by the presence of huge numbers of faithful from Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore and China. The latter was particularly surprising, as I had never met Chinese Muslims before, and now found myself in a sea of thousands.
Islam's history in China goes back to its earliest days when the Prophet's son-in-law Uthman ibn Affan sent a delegation to the Chinese emperor Gaozong in 651 A.D. Muslims have been politically influential in China for centuries, and the great Chinese Muslim admiral Zheng He led the Emperor's navies to Southeast Asia and Africa on trading missions (and, according to Gavin Menzies' controversial theory, may have reached America in 1421 before Columbus). There are currently at least 20 million Muslims in China (the official Communist Party census number), but some scholars believe that the actual number could be as high as 60-100 million.
As China continues to expand economically, its Muslim population will serve as a pivotal bridge between East and West. President Obama would be wise to reach out to the Chinese Muslim community, which has in recent years been suppressed by heavy-handed Beijing rule. Chinese Muslims would have a moderating influence on neighboring Pakistan, which has a historically friendly relationship with China. An invitation for a Chinese Muslim delegation to the White House could begin a series of dialogues that would encourage Muslim efforts to rein in extremism in politically fragile and nuclear-armed Pakistan.
Looking to Southeast Asia, what became clear to me on the Pilgrimage was that Indonesia and Malaysia are rapidly becoming the future centers of Islamic influence. Speaking with many Southeast Asian Muslims, I realized that cultivating Indonesia, the largest Muslim nation with over 200 million believers, will be pivotal for America's relationship with Islam. The fact that Obama studied in Jakarta as a child is a remarkable basis to solidify a strong friendship between our countries. Indonesian Muslims embrace a deeply tolerant interpretation of Islam, based on Sufi mysticism, that is anathema to fundamentalism. The White House must promote Indonesian voices in its efforts to build bridges with mainstream Muslims. There have been reports in recent days that Obama is planning to give a speech in a major Muslim country, and Indonesia should be placed at the top of the list of candidates. With an economy that is still growing at a brisk 6 percent at a time of global economic crisis, Indonesia will serve as a partner to strengthen America's influence not only with the Muslim world, but also with Asian nations who are becoming the economic powers of the future.
Similarly, Obama should reach out to Malaysia, another Southeast Asian Muslim country with a moderate religious outlook. Malaysia will be particularly helpful in helping the United States to learn from the lessons of Islamic finance. Malaysia pioneered the idea of Islamic investment, which rejects the principal of interest that has been the cornerstone of Western finance – and will possibly be its death knell. As the world reels from the collapse of the interest-based lending system, Islamic alternatives will become increasingly popular. While on Pilgrimage, I met many bankers and investment advisors who were speaking passionately about the future of Islamic finance. The Washington Post and Reuters have run recent articles about how Islamic funds have prospered during the mortgage crisis as they avoided investing in tainted securities that are threatening to ignite a global depression.
The Malaysians have been leaders in this now $700 billion dollar industry, and their adherence to a dual system, allowing Islamic banks to operate seamlessly alongside the traditional Western system, has many lessons for Americans seeking to find alternatives to the current financial malaise. President Obama should sponsor a conference on Islamic lending, bringing together Islamic finance experts from Malaysia, Dubai and the Persian Gulf states to work with Wall Street and develop new ways for American investors to prosper. One does not have to be a Muslim to realize that something is terribly wrong with modern finance, and Obama has an opportunity to raise the voices of those who offer us possible alternatives to the dying system embraced by Wall Street.
The Hajj represents the best of Islam
The Hajj is a chaotic event, with millions of people who speak different languages and have different cultural traditions thrown together in relatively close quarters. And yet I was heartened to see how gracious and patient people were with each other, merchants from Ghana helping elderly villagers from India perform rituals that transcended the differences between them. This was the Islam that I loved, the religion of peace and human cooperation that is almost never depicted in the media. The people that had come to Mecca, many who had saved their entire lives for this one journey, shared a common love for God and humanity, the strong having empathy for the weak. It would be hard for any observer to imagine that the same religion that inspired millions of human beings to meet in the wilderness and embrace each other with love could also be used as the rallying cry for murder and madness. The fundamental disconnect between Al-Qaeda's cruelty and the joyous heart of Islam was nowhere more evident than in the countless acts of kindness and generosity that I witnessed in Mecca.
President Barack Hussein Obama has the chance to ally with that Islam of joy and peace for the good of the United States and the world. Let's hope he takes it.