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Keynote address by M J Akbar, Minister of State for External Affairs at 'Islam in a Modern Secular State' Conference in Bishkek (September 28, 2017)

September 28, 2017

Respected President of the Kyrgyz Republic H.E Almazbek Atambayev,
Distinguished Ministers and delegation members,
Participants of the conference,
Ladies and Gentlemen,


  • Let me begin with an intriguing question in the spirit of objective inquiry: Has Islam ever been in the forefront of modernity? Only clarity in a question can lead to honesty in the answer, and if we are not ready to be honest then this great conference in a beautiful city will be nothing more than another jamboree of chatter that reinforces complacency rather than offering a way forward through a complex but excitingly creative 21st century. Its first two decades are over; and Muslim communities are still, largely, wandering through a haze of uncertainty, as they grapple with, on the one side, internal doctrinaires who have laced regressive thinking with the opium of romance, and on the other, an external pseudo-intellectual assault that stereotypes all Muslims into images of violence and gender oppression through selective use of popular imagery.
  • This external assault is framed along binaries heavy with prejudice, for instance: ‘Islam and the West’. The linkage is obviously biased and false. Islam is a faith. West is a geography. How do you compare the two – unless you have turned the terms into silent metaphors where West is replacementof modernity and Islam implicitly equivalent to medievalism and the dark ages, which is nonsense. We must therefore thank our hosts for choosing a theme that is confident and introspective; which seeks solutions to problems for the benefit of the community; which asks Muslims to rise from self-induced dreams and return to the vanguard of modernity. The world is in the midst of a revolution of ideas, science, literature, culture that will make the 21st century into the golden age of individual freedom and collective achievement: but of what use will it be to us if the revolution sweeps through the streets outside our homes, but we remain trapped in the past because we refused to open doors?
  • ​Modern. Secular. State. Each term has been constantly redefined by human advance, and each advance has been momentous.
  • ​The unprecedented change in the nature of the state is the best example. Between the 17thand 20th centuries, every single empire that shaped the geopolitics of the last millennium has withered, collapsed: Chinese, India, Japanese, Persian, Ottoman, Austro-Hungarian, Tsarist, and all the European conglomerates that reinvented empire into the more pernicious form of brutal colonization. The British Empire was born in India and lies buried there. Neo-colonial successors across Africa and Asia are in poor health as well. This vacuum has been filled by the rise of nation states, a dramatic expression of popular will that sought boundaries on the strength of democratic virtues rather than armed power of the elites. We are in the age of the nation state.
  • ​Secularism is informed with the same spirit of harmonious co-existence, or unity in diversity (as we define it in India), but has adopted variables in different cultures at different times. The Holy Quran has defined it cogently: La qum deen o qum wail yadeen. No religion promotes war for the sake of war; war is valid only as self-defence. In Europe, secularism evolved into a bridgehead of an anti-faith movement that flowered with Voltaire and fellow ideologues, and reached an apogee with Karl Marx and his followers. The first separated Church from the State; the second eliminated religion altogether. 6.​Our Indian philosophy believes in the co-existence of all faiths rather than the elimination of faith. Every morning in India begins with the pre-dawn azaan, followed by the bells of the Hanuman temple, the sonorous recitation of the Granth Sahibs and on Sundays, the peals of the Church bell.
  • This, however, is the moment to address a pernicious and extremely dangerous phenomenon that has arisen among some Muslim communities: the doctrine of faith supremacy, with its barbaric overtones of terrorist violence, ethnic cleansing and as a collateral disease, gender oppression. Let us be clear. There are no ifs and buts to justify this horrific danger. Long before the terrorists who spread havoc in the name of faith supremacy damage any imagined or manufactured enemy, they are grievously wounding the very essence of Islam, which is, as its name itself, a mission of peace. Islam is a brotherhood, not a nationhood; it is a humanitarian philosophy, not a tool of self-destructive fantasists.
  • ​The big challenge today is the conflict between faith supremacists and those who believe in faith equality. Faith equality is one of the four fundamental pillars of my definition of modernity.
  • ​Modernity is an attractive thought. But what precisely are its constituent parts? Today, I would place freedom at the top of its priorities. Freedom is not just a political right; it is an individual and cultural right. It is the right to live without fear of suppression by the state or oppression by vested interests. Seventy years ago my country changed history by ending the era of colonialism; after 1947, the death of colonialism became a question of when, not why. Three years later, in 1950, India offered the emerging world a greater gift: our Constitution, infused with freedom as a living right, a right to dress and live as you please. All rights come with obligations.
  • Modernity is not simply the right to wear a bikini; it is the right to wear whatever you want. Mind you – what the woman wants; not what some regressive husband wants.
  • An equally important principle of modernity is the acquisition of knowledge. From its earliest days, Islam spread through regional battlefields, but its true consolidation came only when Muslim communities sought and reached the forefront of knowledge. Every human being has Aql; the difference is the conversion of Aqlinto Ilm. Islam was and is a Religion of the Book, but it is also a vigorous part of the universal civilization of many books. For me, the compelling image is the Rahl, which exists in every home, and the compelling message is Iqra! READ! Abbasid Baghdad had more booksthan Europe put together. The greatest library in the Muslim world, in Bukhara, was destroyed only in 1918.

  • ​Where did Muslim societies begin to fade, and Europe to revive? This happened when Muslim empires lost the future by being indifferent to printing. Just aspaper had transformed communication from parchment, printing offered a totallynew world. It offered knowledge to the masses. For the first time, knowledge was on the way to being democratised. This was the true meaning of the printing miracle. Gutenberg’s press came only a few years after the fall of Constantinople, and the process was slow – but it changed the tides of history. The first press in Istanbul came only in the 18th century – nearly 300 years too late.
  • Today, our most urgent responsibility is democratisation of secular knowledge. If we fail in this, we fail our children. We snatch the 21st century out of their grasp.
  • ​The third pillar of modernity is gender equality. This is non-negotiable. Women must be in the vanguard of cultural advance and economic growth. Some regressiveschools manipulate the law to suppress women. We have to stand up and fight them.Reform is absolutely critical. It is not surprising that violence is the preferred option of barbarians.
  • ​Finally, we must understand why faith-based terrorists are anti-modern. They challenge the nation state, which is the principal building block of the architecture of contemporary stability. They believe in faith based space, not nations. They are a danger to Kyrgyzstan as much as to Iraq or Mali or Somalia or India.
  • ​Governments who offer sanctuary to this evil are sending an invitation to suicide. They are as guilty as terrorists.
  • ​Terrorists target human anxiety and coexistence. They use fear, induced by havoc, to build walls of fear in societies that live by civilisational values of harmony across differences of faith and ethnicity. Terrorists offer despotism as an alternative. ​I am certain terrorists will lose the war they have begun, but the war is far from over. It is a war that must be fought not just on the ground, but also in the mind.
  • I commend this conference and congratulate H.E President Atambayevfor his wisdom, foresight and commitment in holding it. This is his remarkable contribution to our common journey towards peace and mutual prosperity.
Thank you.

 

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