We gratefully acknowledge and thank the author, Akbar S. Ahmed for permission to reproduce these excerpts from his book 'Living Islam.'

(i)  The 'Problem' of Muslim Minorities
(ii) The inexplicable fear of Muslim minorities
(iii) The burden of the immigrant

For more articles by this same distinguished author on this web site please see:

Sufism: The Muslim Universal Way
Reflections on Muslim Family Issues
Islam in the Age of the Western Media
Muslims in the West

In the last chapter we focussed on countries where Islam is the dominant religion. In Turkey, Iran and Pakistan - and in the Arab countries - about 90 to 95 per cent of the people claim to be Muslims. Many of these countries use the word 'Islamic' in their self-description; thus the Islamic Republic of Iran and the Islamic Republic of Pakistan, where the Shari'ah is the law of the land. We will now look at Muslims in countries where the majority population is not Muslim. The important point to keep before us is the wide range of the Muslim experience as minorities. In one place they are comfortable and adjusted, in another resentful and deprived; Stornoway in the Outer Hebrides is an example of the former, Samarkand, under the Soviets, of the latter. We shall look at both in this chapter. In discussing the problem of Muslim minorities in my book, Postmodernism and Islam: Predicament and Promise (1992), I mentioned Kashmir, Palestine and the Central Asian republics of the Soviet Union. But events now make the third example redundant. Over the last few years we have seen the Soviet Union disintegrate and the former Soviet republics in Central Asia emerge as independent states. We can no longer talk of the Muslim republics as a minority within a non-Muslim majority. But because their problems derive from their former situations as a minority we shall discuss them below. 

The 'Problem' of Muslim Minorities

It is not difficult to see why Muslims who live as a minority in non-Muslim countries like India or Israel are seen by them as a problem. The reasons are relatively simple. Wherever Muslims live as minorities they increasingly face problems of discrimination. These are partly due to historical and political factors, partly due to the media, which have confirmed for many that Muslims are violent, unreliable and prone to anarchy. There is another reason. Most non-Muslim countries in which Muslims live have an image of themselves as plural, tolerant, secular and modern societies. Muslims somehow challenge this image. They provoke the worst aspects of the state. In the main, instead of solving the problems of the Muslims in a manner that would be mutually beneficial, the state tends to ignore or minimize them. In the former state of Yugoslavia the Serbs went one step further with their Muslim minority. They systematically killed them and drove them from their homes in Bosnia. The world called it 'ethnic cleansing' and did nothing. Bosnia was added to the list of recent Muslim losses. What offends Muslims living in a country as the minority community? What is the Muslim 'problem'? There are two or three things that Muslims are most sensitive about. The most important is religion. Muslims would like to be able to visit their mosques and say their prayers peacefully without interruption, without being beaten up, without being picked up for interrogation. They would also like privacy in their homes where they can lead their lives as Muslims. They would like dignity and honour for their families - in particular, for the elderly, the women and the children. They don't like police or paramilitary forces to burst into their homes and humiliate their families. They would like some control over their lives, some perpetuation of their own customs and values, the construction and maintenance of mosques which are the focus of social and cultural life, the capacity to read the Qur'an and the chance to live as Muslims and by Muslim traditions. These include family laws, inheritance, religious holidays and religious festivals. When these are threatened, Muslims are threatened; confusion and anger ensue. 

It is not difficult for non-Muslim rulers to concede these facilities to Muslims; when they have been conceded, Muslims have lived harmoniously. History confirms this. It is the modern state that creates the problem. Because the modern state is so centralized and because it often lacks imagination in dealing with its minorities, Muslims are constantly under pressure. Merely wishing for the minimum, Muslims are seen as people who demand separation and indeed secession. 

There is a cultural problem also for Muslims living as a minority. Non-Muslim tourists visiting Muslim holy places cause offence by eating there and loitering, playing loud music on their radios. Islamic culture, adab, is directly challenged. In some cases there is a direct physical threat to these holy places, such as the demolition of Babar's mosque in Ayodhya, India. The inevitable religious clashes cost lives. There is also the more sinister danger of actual history being changed and Muslim culture being depicted in official textbooks as barbaric and worthless (as has happened in Spain). A discussion of Muslims as a minority is important for several reasons. First, the populations we are discussing are large. Indeed, Muslims who live as a minority constitute about a quarter of the total number of Muslims. The problem is serious because it is ongoing and does not involve only one or two countries - it is global. A list of countries in which Muslims live as a minority includes the USA, India, Russia, the UK, France, Germany, Israel and Singapore. In India alone there are said to be anywhere around 110 million Muslims. No religion in the world has so many people trapped in an alien environment as the Muslims. Neither Christians nor Jews, nor Hindus, none of the major world religions have such large numbers in so many countries dominated by people of other religions. 

The second reason is that the sharpest and most brutal political confrontation is taking place in these societies. We learn of the most compelling stories of injustice and brutality as Muslims struggle for self-dignity and identity. The images that are shown on television and the reports in the press confirm for us the plight of the Muslims. 

Thirdly, because of the notion of the ummah, because of the manner of the suppression of these groups, Muslims in neighbouring countries are deeply concerned. The struggle of the Kashmiris in South Asia and the Palestinians in the Middle East draws in large Muslim populations outside the national borders. The geo-political situation remains tense; indeed it can escalate to war at any time. It is well to recall that the major powers in both areas have gone to war three or four times because of these Muslim minorities. Finally, some Islamic ideas place Muslims and the non-Muslim majority on a confrontation course. The Islamic ideas are notions of the ummah, which transcends national borders, and the idea of jihad, struggle, the need to fight for a just and correct order. On the other hand, these non-Muslim nations need to respond to security requirements and geopolitical strategy. The Muslim minority is often caught in the crossfire. 

There are agonizing dilemmas facing Muslims living as a minority in certain areas. In a different time, in a previous age, Muslims persecuted by the majority could do one of two things: they could pack up and leave, that is, exercise the right to adopt hijra, or they could fight for their rights, that is jihad. Today, because of the power, the highly centralized security and administrative structures and the strongly manned borders of state, neither option is really feasible. Besides, it would be difficult to exercise the option of hijra. As recent history shows us, migrant communities do not settle down easily and merge; they take a long time to do so. Any influx of large numbers of refugees causes all kinds of social and political problems to the host community, however welcoming they may have been at first. 

This leaves the option of jihad. That too is difficult in our age. A small deprived minority cannot easily take on the power of the state, but it can try. The attempt to assert independence, to fight for one's dignity and culture, explains what is going on in Kashmir and Palestine. Communication between the government and these groups appears to have broken down. For Muslims the state is represented by the brute force of soldier and policeman. The women in the area live in dread of their honour and dignity being violated; young males are in the constant fear of being picked up for interrogation and torture at any time on any flimsy pretext. For the elders there appears to be no real alternative but to give free rein to the youth in their attempt to break loose and create their own response to the world, whatever the costs. It is a dreadful choice, full of pain and disruption. But when dialogue breaks down it appears to be the only one open for the time being. 

An important aspect of these movements is their direct involvement with the geo-politics of the region. The Kashmir movement is seen in India as entirely a creation of Pakistan. This perception is simplistic and disregards numerous factors: the notion of the ummah which generates sympathy for Muslims wherever they are in trouble (although the Kashmiri cause has great sympathy in Pakistan, so does the Palestinian one); the strong feelings of injustice in Pakistan regarding the legality of the state of Kashmir and the manner it was incorporated into India; the many Kashmiris who have settled in Pakistan; the failure of the central government over the last decades to integrate these areas into the larger body of the nation. All these factors militate against integration. There are also certain Muslims who out of enthusiasm or ignorance or even mischief would make demands which not only clash with the state but suggest its disintegration. These create problems for everyone concerned. For instance Dr Kalim Siddiqui's call for a Muslim parliament created all kinds of doubts in Britain in the early 1990s. Did Muslims want to create their own country in Britain? Did they want independence? Were their threats of forcing an Islamic order on to Britain to be taken seriously? Such questions obviously cause resentment and anger in the majority. This reaction, when fed into the existing stereotypes about the minority, creates a sense of contempt and revulsion against it. Muslims appear to be largely unaware of this aspect of their relationship with the majority. 

The inexplicable fear of Muslim minorities

I find it surprising, even intriguing, that there is such a pronounced fear of Muslim minorities, whether in India or in Israel. In India it is even reflected in its attitude towards Pakistan. India, a country far larger in size, its armies and air force always maintaining a ratio of four or five to one, and now with a sophisticated nuclear programme, lives in strange psychological fear of Pakistan, the smaller, poorer, lesser-armed country. 

Similarly, the Israeli notion of the Arab threat is exaggerated. Here is a modernized nation possessing one of the most sophisticated defence services of the world, including a wide range of nuclear weapons. It is supported by the USA, which, when there is war against the Arabs, enters the fray with an almost unlimited supply of the most up-to-date weapons. Israel faces poorly equipped armies often manned by demoralized soldiers. Arab leaders are usually politically divided whatever their rhetoric of wiping Israel off the face of the earth. Yet Israeli leaders sound like David facing Goliath. It must be, I imagine, the atavistic fear of Muslim warriors in the past. Nothing else could explain the neurosis of such powerful countries contemplating their weaker Muslim neighbours. These are deep and complex psychological fears, but they need to be confronted if they are to be laid to rest. 

Muslim governments have rarely exhibited this tension with regard to minorities. Minorities have always been part of many Muslim countries and on the whole they have been left alone, indeed often participating in the state by holding the highest positions. The problem is therefore not only of the minority but of the majority. If the majority is a little bit more tolerant and imaginative it will be able to deal with the minorities more fairly and more kindly, and Muslims in return would respond more positively. Power is both corrupting and dangerous when it is unchallenged and concentrated in the hands of the majority as it is in Israel and India. The non-Muslim voices of tolerance and compassion are easily drowned. 

In the selection of officers for defence and the civil services and in the distribution of economic permits and sanctions, the state tends to encourage the oppression of the minorities. It also does so by suggesting a certain kind of Muslim as a 'good' Muslim in the media. The definition is centred on someone who is prepared to abandon Muslim customs and indeed faith. He or she thus becomes a good or moderate Muslim. In contrast anyone wishing to assert their culture and identity is seen as a fanatic or a I fundamentalist - in the terms of the state, a troublemaker, a separatist, a communal creature. 

The resources of the state are infinite, the energy of the security forces and their strength is inexhaustible. In comparison the protesting individual has limited resources and lives at the centre of a web spun by the state. The fact that Muslim groups have fought so long for their rights simply underlines the desperation of their position. Imagination and wisdom demand that the state responds to them with understanding and tolerance. Using more force, more torture and more suppression implies not only the failure of the state but a serious misreading of the situation. 

The burden of the immigrant

But the position is more complex than a straightforward clash between majority and minority. What is not so well known in this context is that Muslim groups fleeing to neighbouring Muslim countries have also had a difficult time. The Muslims of India who migrated to Pakistan found a great deal of succour and support in the early days. In recent years, however, a confrontation has developed between them and the local majority based on ethnic and economic factors. Refugees from India were seen as monopolizing better jobs. Notions of cultural superiority, language differences and ideological arguments about identity all widened the gap between the minority and the majority. The result was that in the last decades we have seen these very minorities in direct conflict with the majority population - although both are Muslim. So while Sindhis battled it out with refugees from India in the Sind province - of Pakistan the Jordanian government fought it out with the Palestinians using tanks and heavy weapons to dislodge them. It was a cruel, paradoxical and even unexpected development. But it showed how deeply interconnected countries and problems were, how impossible it was to view the problem of the minorities in isolation. 

By the time of the Gulf War in 1991 we saw how the role of the Palestinians affected and divided Arab opinion. Because of their support for Saddam Hussain - which seemed to have developed only because of his vocal support for them - they were victimized and bounded out of countries that had once allowed them employment. The ideological and emotional support for their cause was clearly subordinated to the antipathy they were arousing by their political position. 

The Afghan refugees arriving in Pakistan provide another example. Although they were welcomed when they arrived in the late 1970s, most Pakistanis soon began to view them with unease and then open resentment. Stories of kidnapping, drug-smuggling and robbery were publicly linked to them, and Pakistanis began asking their guests when they would return. Similarly, the Muslim minorities appeared to be out of step with the majority in Britain. During the Gulf War the Muslim conference in Bradford which claimed to speak for all Muslims in the country unanimously supported Saddam against Britain. British Muslims were concerned about the bloodshed and damage that would be inflicted on the Iraqi people. They were right to be concerned. But it also convinced many in Britain that here was a potential fifth column, a minority which in the middle of a war situation was prepared to side with the enemy. The leaders of the Muslim minority were out of tune with the times. The racial harassment that followed was only to be expected. It would have been far worse if the war had continued and large numbers of British soldiers had died. Coffins coming home would have triggered racial violence on an unprecedented level. Fortunately for the British Muslims, the war ended quickly. As there was no hand-to-hand fighting or set-piece military engagements, British casualties were at a minimum. But the British majority had been made aware that the Muslim community had voted against them. Henceforth a question mark would hang over the loyalty of the British Muslims. 

Living Islam, From Samarkand to Stornoway, by Akbar S. Ahmed, Published by BBC Books Limited, Woodlands, 80 Wood Lane, London, U.K. W12 0TT©1993. This book accompanied the BBC television series "Living Islam" which was first broadcast in 1993.