Opening of the University of Oxford Middle East Centre

Oxford, 26 May 2015


It is an honor to be invited to speak to you today as we mark the opening of this bold and daring building. Zaha Hadid has described the design as a “suspended bridge” with a “series of plateaus and territories” - In many ways symbolic of the relationship between the Middle East and Europe which has seen its own plateaus and territorial disputes.

But though the bridge may be suspended, let us not allow our hopes and dialogue to be so. The symbolic bridge between the Arab world and Oxford is after all a long one, with the university’s first Chair of Arabic established as early as 1636 by none other than the Archbishop of Canterbury. Perhaps today it is appropriate to wonder what Albert Hourani would have made of the tumultuous events currently gripping the Middle East.

At Oxford University you understand the importance of words. Words frame a discussion, allowing for a wide range of positions, though, nevertheless setting boundaries for a discourse. These boundaries become the “box” which contains our analysis and critique. 

In any diagnosis of the current situation and the global malaise which we are all living through, the first step is to critically examine the words which we use to diagnose. Can we in today’s world really continue to speak of West and East? Are they geographical distinctions or states of mind? Is the East to be the West’s perpetual mirror image? As Jalaladdin Rumi said “I am neither of the West nor the East.”

The same applies when we talk about Islam. On a daily basis we hear about ‘moderate’ or liberal’ Muslims. I often ask myself am I a moderate, a liberal, a conservative? When I try to translate these terms into Arabic there is not even a meaningful translation: Hal ana Muslima liberali ya? Hal ana Muslima Mu’tadila? Hal ana Muslima Muhafitha?

I wonder if you have already defined me? So I ask who is contriving these labels and their definitions. And for what purposes?

Let me mention another word which is currently very popular. The word ‘medieval’ is appearing more and more to describe the actions of radicals. But why do we insinuate that somehow those who are perpetuating certain acts of violence do not belong to our age? That somehow they are not ‘modern’? 

It is a naïve refusal to accept our collective responsibility. ISIS is as modern as Guantanamo and Abu Ghraib. They are all products of our age. Global media, both Western and Arab, often claim that Islam does not believe in freedom of expression and is stuck in medieval times. But how could Islam, a religion based on eternal and universal principles, which revolutionized the social system at the time of the Prophet, not believe in freedom of expression?

Whose freedom? Whose expression? When we stand for freedom we must stand for everyone’s freedom and when we stand for the right to express oneself we must stand for this same right for all, even when the ideas being expressed don’t fit inside the box.

Why is it that world leaders gathered to march in defense of Charlie Hebdo, while the Chapel Hill murders were shrugged off as a parking dispute? At the same time we are confronted with double standards. Why is it that apologies are offered when Europeans are mistakenly killed by drones but only silence follows when innocent Yemeni and Pakistani children and civilians are killed by the same drones?

Why do Muslim lives seem to matter less than the lives of others? If they matter at all! I believe this dehumanization is cultivated through a process of Muslim-phobia. I differentiate this from Islamophobia, of which I will speak of later. Muslim-phobia is a fear of Muslims, not necessarily Islam. There is an intellectual curiosity in Europe, for example, about Islam. A respect for the vast and rich architectural, philosophical and historical traditions. This curiosity and respect is evident in the work of great educational institutions like Oxford.

Paradoxically, parallel to this interest in Islamic civilization, there is a fear of real, living Muslims. For example, a Muslim is first and foremost identified as a Muslim, rather than simply a human being. Whether they are Pakistani, Malaysian, Senegalese, or even British born, their multiple identities are levelled under a constructed monolith of Islam. Let me remind you, however, that Islam has never been monolithical, but has from the start been a vast container for diverse cultures and practices. 

The homogenization of Muslims into a fearful and unknowable ‘Other’, separate from the beauty and nobility of Islam and its civilization, is at the root of Muslim-phobia. Islam lives in the hearts of Muslims from diverse ethnic groups and cultures, that definitely effect their practices. It is not only found in scriptures, literature, art, philosophy, or history.

Islam has been used from all sides. The radical militants put forth a version of Islam devoid of its spiritual content and subtlety of interpretation, nothing more than a violent political slogan. The neo Orientalists and libertarians, alike, defame Islam, and the Prophet, in particular. Still others from within Muslim countries are actively cultivating an Islamophobia from within by creating a fear and suspicion of all things Islamic.

This is an issue which both interests and puzzles me. Admittedly, Islamophbia from within is constructed in order to solidify the existing grip on power, yet it taps into a deeper anxiety about the role Islam should play in public life. This is a complex and subtle debate, and one which cannot be resolved over the course of a speech.

The youth of my region are eager to construct their own modernity, and this modernity contains Islam. For many, a just society is represented in the Islamic ideal of balance between the ascetic and worldly needs of humanity. The problem arises when the Quranic ideal is distorted and perverted, when examples from the life of the Prophet are taken out of context, when we overlook the eternal message of Islam and try to reproduce historical models. 

Over the past five years, the Middle East and North Africa has witnessed inspiring events. The world has been amazed at the energy and vision of youth who courageously heralded in change, with some commentators even remarking that Europe had a lot to learn about democracy from Arab youth. What stood out and was most moving was the spirit of resistance, the spirit of persistence, the human spirit, which planted the seeds of freedom in the first place. 

But I ask you, what happens when this seed is crushed underfoot? As a poet once asked “What happens to a dream deferred?” 

We are witnessing exactly what happens when dreams are not only deferred but suppressed. Such noble dreams cannot be quashed. They may be deferred. Unfortunately, they may also be distorted. These dreams might find another, more aggressive channel of expression. This is the price we are paying today for our lack of courage when it mattered. Every act has a consequence but so does every inaction. 

Activism can quickly change to militancy when there is no recourse to democratic change. The Arab spring was about replacing autocratic leaders who nurtured the pre-existing colonial systems of injustice. Yet, these systems are not so easy to dismantle, as recent events in the region so clearly demonstrate. It is clear that colonization leaves behind deep material, political, cultural and psychological scars, and gaping wounds. Debate is needed. Violent repression is not. Could this be a reason why we, as Muslims, have lost confidence in our ability to apply the universal and eternal Islamic values to our living traditions? 

So again we return to that which is eternal and universal. Intellectuals can serve as an “unsuspended” bridge in helping develop policies and practises that manifest these universal, eternal values in our changing societies. 

Public intellectuals and academics need to step up and challenge the discourses of both Muslim-phobia and Islamophobia, and set the tone of a counter argument. It is not enough to remain dispassionately in our campuses, as if somehow we are detached and not involved. Academia should serve society, not only observe it and comment upon it. 

If universities and intellectuals remain passive they will become redundant. People turn more and more to the Internet for information about Muslims and Islam. Yet information remains on the shelves of academic journals, inaccessible to average citizens.

We need to connect the academic study of Islam with the public who is seeking information. We need to consider the needs of young Muslims looking to their traditions for tools to build a new modernity. We should not only look back to history for the glory that was Islam but to the future and to the glory that is Islam. We should be inspired not only by historical values, but by eternal ones. And what are Islamic values, and ethics?

In the Qatar Faculty of Islamic Studies, particularly in the Centre for Islamic Legislation and Ethics, we are taking the lead in applying Islamic principles and ethics to the pluralistic, just societies our youth envision. As Muslims we need to be present in public discourse not only in our societies but in global society. We need to demonstrate that Islam is a rich, living moral tradition that can offer solutions to universal challenges.

We live in a world of multi religious and multi ethnic realities and we have the tools, within Islam, to embrace this diversity. As we become more global are we really becoming more pluralistic? It seems that instead of finding common ground in universal values, each one is claiming the Truth for his own particular group. And yet these universal values are the cure for today’s ills. 

This is the essence not just of Islam but of all revealed religions. This is why we are all so moved by Gandhi’s reply when he was asked if he was a Hindu. He replied, “Yes I am, I am also a Muslim, a Christian, a Buddhist, and a Jew.” 

Yet values can be meaningless if they do not manifest in the betterment of human beings. 

There is so much wrong with the world today that one can easily fall into despair about the predicament of humanity. Yet we are capable of aiming for perfection. In the 21st century, to say this might sound well, medieval. But if there is one lesson that all faiths have taught us, it is this: perfection can be reached. But as the Quran informs us we cannot reach perfection without changing ourselves. 

So to return to Langston Hughes’ question what happens to a dream deferred?

I answer:

It refuses to die.

It grows and grows.

It reaches for perfection. It transforms dreamers into doers, and in the process it transforms the world.