By Aijaz Zaka Syed
The other day I was looking for a good visual to go with an article about media perceptions and stereotyping of Muslims. Finally, failing to find what I was looking for from my usual sources, I did what everyone does these days â€“ turn to the all-knowing, omniscient St Google. And a million images instantly leaped at me in response to my single search word: â€˜Muslimsâ€™
Being a journalist as well as a student of media Iâ€™ve never had any illusions about the generally rose-tinted image of Muslims in public perception and media discourse. Nevertheless, what I encountered did come as a startling, stunning revelation.
Ninety percent of the images that Google search came up with were those of terror attacks, suicide bombings or some such glorious adventures involving Muslimsâ€¦Muslims wielding fearsome weapons; Muslims wearing masks and issuing wild threats or bearded believers angrily protesting in European capitals.
There were more disturbing images that warned of Muslims taking over Europe or changing the demographic profile of Christian, Caucasian nations with their â€˜child producing factoriesâ€™ or the so-called â€˜love jihadâ€™ to ensnare pure white Christian girls or innocent, impressionable Hindu women in India.
I do not know how many Muslims are familiar with this perception but if I were an objective, neutral non-Muslim individual, I wouldnâ€™t carry home a very positive and trusting image of the community, nor would I befriend or invite a Muslim into my house. No, Sir.
Of course, this is a wildly exaggerated, distorted and misinformed perception of our reality. The mediaâ€™s glazed eye sees what it chooses to see. I do not know how this whole business of search engines works and what factors determine Googleâ€™s or for that matter any other search engineâ€™s criteria. Why is it that these search engines only throw up negative stuff about a particular community?
Thereâ€™s no denying the fact that these acts of extremist lunacy are indeed increasingly committed in the name of Islam and Muslims. But these desperate men and their desperate actions represent only a very tiny, insignificant fringe of a faith with 1.6 billion followers and a proud, rich civilisation that has contributed to and influenced almost all major civilisations in the west and east.
Wouldnâ€™t you say there is more to Islam and Muslims than these myriad images of masked terrorists and mind-numbing scenes of carnage?
What about the generous Arab hospitality and grand civilization that gave birth to a thousand tales of Scheherazade? What about the ethereal beauty of Taj Mahal, the ultimate epitome of love, and the majesty of Alhambra Palace and Cordoba? What about the colossal contribution of Muslim scientists, philosophers, inventors, poets and artists to collective global heritage? What about the mystic and richness of poets and philosophers like Rumi and Saadi? Why do these not figure in these cleverly defined searches?
One explanation could be the fact that, thanks to its essentially ephemeral nature, it is the latest news, trends and interests that drive the world of the â€˜webâ€™. And whether we like it or not, this appears to be our reality right now no matter how insignificant it is in its representation. And if the world seems to have a poor opinion about us, there appear to be enough reasons to do so.
From one end of the Islamic world to the other, nothing else except acts of terror, violence and intolerance seem to hog the media limelight. A Boko Haram attack in Africa finds instant echoes from Iraq to Pakistan to Afghanistan. In the last few weeks, hundreds of killings in Nigeria have been attributed to these new saviours of the faith.
As if Pakistan needed to add more glory to its name, a Hindu temple was burnt down last week in Sindh following reports of alleged blasphemy. This is not the first time that Hindus and Christians have had such blasphemy charges thrown at them in Pakistan though. The blasphemy law has not only become a convenient tool for a witch-hunt against minority communities but is also used to settle scores. Many innocent lives have been lost or wrecked in the name of defending the faith.
How did we end up here and where are we headed? How did we allow a tiny fringe to become so powerful that it now pretends to speak on our behalf? Religious scholars, intellectuals and ordinary believers have endlessly condemned and rejected the utterly brazen acts and atrocities in the strongest terms possible.
We declare from the pulpit and shout from the rooftops that we are innocent of these abominations. Not in our name, we scream in anguish. But who cares? Who takes us seriously? As far as the world is concerned, itâ€™s business as usual. It is as sceptical and weary of our denunciations and condemnations as it is of the lot that claims to speak on our behalf. Because none of these exhortations and edicts seem to have any effect.
Perhaps never in their long history have Muslims faced a crisis of such nature and proportions. Muslim historians see the Mongol wave of death and destruction in the 13th century as the greatest catastrophe to have struck the world of Islam.
The wave of Tartaric terror swept away the entire Islamic East within a couple of years. Millions perished and mighty centres of Muslim power and civilisation were totally ravaged. (This was sort of recompensed a little when the conquerors surrendered themselves to the liberating power of the faith. In Iqbalâ€™s words, â€œpaasban mil gaye Kaabe ko sanam khane se.â€ (The Kaaba has found defenders of faith in the temple.)
What the world of Islam faces today is a challenge infinitely more serious. Because the threat is from within. The enemy within is far deadlier than any threat that we may have faced so far. Because it lives, breathes and breeds in our midst â€“ like a cancerous growth â€“ and strikes from within.
I know we have been over this before ad nauseam but Muslims cannot hope to tackle this scourge unless its real sources and causes are identified and eliminated. Where are these fountains of hatred and who is fuelling them?
Who are these forces that are out to destroy our world, trying to distort the teachings of a faith that came as hope and salvation for the whole of mankind into a cynical cult of death? Who is poisoning young, impressionable minds? These are questions that have to be confronted effectively and forcefully by everyone who cares for the faith and humanity at large.
Our religious and political elites and scholars are content with issuing perfunctory calls against extremist violence while doing little to check the springs, sources and factors that feed, fuel and spawn the menace. Instead of speaking truth to power, they are busy propitiating and perpetuating it, ignoring worst excesses and abuses.
The Quranic injunction of â€˜amar bil maroof wa nahi anil munkirâ€™ â€“ enjoining virtue and forbidding evil â€“ has been abandoned by our leading scholars and leadership. The distinction between right and wrong and good and evil is getting increasingly blurred on their watch. We see this happen across the Muslim world.
The world of Islam presents the sorry spectacle of a divided and unhappy house with everyone plotting and working against each other. How can this divided lot take on the clear and present danger staring them in the face? Where are our voices of sanity and reason?
Extremism is only one of the many threats facing Muslims and is merely a symptom. The malaise lies deeper. No amount of pious denunciation and ponderous pontification from the pulpit and grand conferences can deal with it, unless they are backed by the courage of conviction and honesty of intentions and actions.
We are past the time of cosmetic solutions and luxury of pointless, intellectual adventurism. Only real and meaningful actions can take on the challenge. Above all, oppression and tyranny can never tackle obscurantism and extremism. Only true justice and truth can deal with injustice and falsehood.
The writer is a Middle East based writer and editor of â€˜Caravanâ€™, an online news magazine.