ON NURTURING A MODERN MUSLIM IDENTITY:
The Institutions of the Aga Khan Development Network

by Eboo Patel

A few days after the beginning of the bombing in Afghanistan, the Taliban organized a field trip for a handful of Western journalists to see the devastation. I was in Oxford at the time, and watched on Britain’s Channel Four News as the convoy of white news correspondents passed a group of Afghan kids fixing a bicycle on the side of the road. One of the kids, who couldn’t have been more than twelve, took a break from his work, stepped towards the convoy, flashed a menacing look and offered an insulting finger. Then he stepped back, smiled and waved.

With only this tidbit of evidence, we can extrapolate the story in several different directions. Perhaps this kid was frustrated by what he saw as yet another wave of foreign intruders in his land. Maybe he was just a scowly pre-adolescent.

I cannot help but think of him as an impressionable young Muslim. And as I watched him, I found myself wondering what he would consider an authentic Muslim identity as he grew up. Would he use his face to condemn other ways of being, believing and belonging, and his hands to attempt to destroy them? Or would his face be open to and welcoming of modern pluralism and his hands be able to contribute to it? The path he chooses has everything to do with the religious education he gets.

New York Times Foreign Affairs columnist Thomas Friedman has written that World War III will be fought against religious totalitarianism. Religious totalitarianism is not just the belief that one religion is right, but also that there is only one correct interpretation of that religion and everyone should practice it or else. Violence is only one arm of this system. Friedman argues that the real battleground is religious education, where the ideology of religious totalitarianism is nurtured. Fifteen of the nineteen September 11 hijackers had Saudi passports. It’s not too much a stretch to see them as products of an education system which wrapped an anti-modern ideology in Islamic rhetoric and injected it into impressionable young men.

For people who have been reading the media on the contemporary state of the Muslim world, this will be a familiar story. The New York Times, The International Herald Tribune, The New Yorker and other publications which pride themselves on being in the know have pointed out the influence of religious totalitarians. In an article in the Sunday New York Times in winter 2001, a Malaysian lawyer and writer said: “The Saudis have used the prestige attendant on the fact that they are the guardians of the two holy centers, Mecca and Medina, and their enormous wealth, to propagate their own interpretation of the Koran. An underlying tenet of the Wahhabi approach is this pan-Islamic sense that demands that converted people should be leached of their culture.”

This is the same line that V. S. Naipaul has been pushing for two decades: Islam is a culture-crushing force. It will replace your language, your buildings, your clothes and your prayers. Furthermore, in its most militant and virulent form, Islam will take your sons and turn them into human bombs. And you should be thankful for it.

Is this true? Yes and no. First of all, Islam in and of itself does nothing. It is a word which stands for a deep and complex idea—submission to the will of God. People who call themselves Muslims seek to interpret this idea of submission to the will of God in concrete ways in particular places and times. Muslims do things.

The problem is that we live in a time when the Muslim totalitarians are dominating. Why? Because they are building powerful institutions that propagate their interpretation of Islam—just as the Christian totalitarians in America have powerful institutions; and the Jewish totalitarians in Israel have powerful institutions; and the Hindu totalitarians in India have powerful institutions.

What do I mean by institutions? Lobbying groups that pass policies, political organizations that get people elected, television and radio and magazines and publishing houses which articulate ideas, schools and universities, youth organizations and women’s groups, bodies which raise and distribute money.

Al Qaida is a network of institutions: Schools and mosques which teach eight year olds a certain ideology; organizations which lead them to Afghanistan; training camps which make them soldiers; manuals which offer advice on the prayers to whisper while engaging in violence. The religious identity—which is to say, the ways of being, believing and belonging in relation with the transcendent—of too many young Muslims is being shaped by these institutions.

Perhaps the best way to understand the influence of institutions upon identity is to consider a food analogy. Many of my students come from small towns around the Midwest. Several became vegetarians when they moved to Chicago. When they return home, they find it difficult to refrain from eating meat. The reason is simple: In Chicago, the institutions of vegetarianism abound. There are several excellent vegetarian restaurants, many grocery stores have large sections of vegetarian items, vegetarian cookbooks are readily available in bookstores and communities of vegetarians are not hard to find. Such institutions are a rarity in Rantool and Kankakee, and therefore a vegetarian identity is difficult to maintain in those areas.

But as Susan Sontag said in her acceptance speech for the Jerusalem Prize, “Whatever is happening, there is always something else going on.” We should rightfully be concerned about the influence the Muslim totalitarians are having upon Muslim religious identity, but we should also be aware of alternative efforts. I speak here of the progressive institution—building efforts of the Aga Khan Development Network, founded and led by Prince Karim al-Husseini Aga Khan IV. The Aga Khan is the spiritual leader of the world’s 15 million Ismaili Muslims, a Shia community that believes that Allah provided the world the Prophet, the Qur’an and the continuous guidance of a living and present spiritual leader called the Imam. As an Ismaili, the Aga Khan is my spiritual leader. He is also recognized as one of the most significant Muslim leaders in the world. He and Prince Hassan of Jordan were the two Muslim representatives to the World Faiths Development Dialogue, a group co-founded by the President of the World Bank and the Archbishop of Canterbury. He has given commencement addresses at Brown University and M.I.T., and been awarded honors from dozens of countries and universities around the world.

But the Aga Khan’s most important legacy may be the thing he is known least for in the West: building institutions that will nurture a progressive Muslim identity. The programs of these institutions are focused on Central and South Asia, Africa and the Middle East. Though largely funded by the Aga Khan and the Ismaili community, the programs of the Aga Khan Development Network are non-sectarian.

In areas of Pakistan where militant madrassas turned out the likes of the Taliban, Aga Khan schools give both boys and girls a broad and liberal education. They take pride in their Muslim heritage, learning that Muslims made significant advances in mathematics, optics, urban development, geography and navigation; that Islam inspired the poetry of Rumi and the science of Avicenna and the philosophy of al-Hallaj. They learn that Muslim states in the past such as the Fatimid Empire protected minorities such as Christians and Jews, and that pluralism is one of the glorious creations of Allah. They learn that jihad means trying to be a better person, which means being more generous and honest and kind.

The Aga Khan University (AKU) is the most ambitious Ismaili educational project since the creation of Al-Azhar University in Fatimid Cairo in the tenth century. AKU started with a medical school that focused on training nurses. Not only did this greatly improve the medical capacity in Pakistan, but it opened unprecedented professional opportunities for Pakistani women. In addition to a medical school, Aga Khan University now has a school of education that trains teachers, again largely women. Two of my fellow doctoral students at the Oxford University Department of Educational Studies, Anjum and Razia, are faculty members in the School of Education at Aga Khan University. They were sponsored by AKU to get their doctorates at Oxford, and will return as senior faculty members. Both are women, both are Pakistani and Muslim, neither are Ismailis.

While Muslim totalitarians discourage or outlaw many Muslim artistic traditions, the Aga Khan Trust for Culture (AKTC) recognizes the central role that culture plays in human and social development. In fall 2000, the AKTC sponsored a performance of Tajiki musicians doing interpretations of Rumi’s work in Paris. This performance took place during the same time that much of the world viewed Central Asia as a convenient place to put military bases rather than a land with a rich heritage inspired by Islam. And in contrast to the Muslim totalitarians who are funding architectural projects which impose Middle Eastern architectural forms on Asia and Africa, the Aga Khan Award for Architecture recognizes architects who use the Islamic heritage in creative ways to improve the built environment in a culturally appropriate and respectful manner.

I think it was Edmund Burke who said that evil triumphs when good people do nothing. He could have added that the bad folks win when the good folks fail to build institutions which nurture their vision. The attitudes and actions which the Muslim totalitarians call Islam is unrecognizable to me. The institutions which nurtured my Muslim identity taught me something very different; simply, that Islam is about the oneness of God, the unity of humankind and the responsibility of humans to realize the original intention of the Creator in creation.

Which vision of Islam will that Afghan kid that I saw on Britain’s news be exposed to? Will he live in a neighborhood which allows women the opportunity to learn to read and write, or forces them into the shadows? Will the mosques he goes to have Muslim preachers that define jihad as a holy war against non-Muslims or as an internal struggle to realize his higher self? Will cultural organizations expose him to the great poets and architects and musicians whose art was inspired by Islam or will he understand Islam as a narrow and austere religion which eschews beauty? Will schools encourage him to apply Allah’s greatest gift—a creative and independent mind—or will his teachers demand that he blindly follow their commands? Will he be surrounded by hospitals and relief organizations where he learns that the Muslim ethic is to heal and help or the guerrilla armies of warlords that teach brutality. Will his government seek to unite the tribes of Afghanistan and work together with the international community or pit Pashtun against Uzbek and choose the path of isolation?

That twelve-year-old kid is powerful. All twelve-year-old kids are powerful. And, in the final analysis, all the work that we do is for them. The great Chicago poet Gwendolyn Brooks knew how powerful kids were. I will leave you with a few lines from her poem “Boy Breaking Glass”: “I shall create!/ If not a note, a hole / If not an overture, a desecration.”

This article was first presented at the Interfaith Education for a Global Society Conference organized by CrossCurrents, the Temple of Understanding and Auburn Seminary in New York City, January 2002.

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Source: Cross Currents, Summer 2003, Vol. 53,  No 2.