Medium is the Message

By Aijaz Zaka Syed – Dubai

Syedna Ali, the last of the great Muslim Caliphs, is noted for both his courage and timeless wisdom. In fact, there’s a whole collection of his thoughts titled Nahjal Balagha (Pinnacle of Eloquence).

There’s a line from Nahjal Balagha that my father used to quote: “Pay attention to WHAT is being said, rather than WHO is saying it.” Put simply, it means it’s the message that matters, not the medium.

These days as the world increasingly debates about Islam and its followers I often find myself revisiting this piece of wisdom.

On the one hand, we have these spectacular acts of extremist violence around the world — the most recent ones being the Delhi terror strikes and Marriott tragedy in Islamabad – ostensibly orchestrated by Muslims. On the other, there are people like us who insist whenever something like this happens that this has nothing to do with Islam and the perpetrators of these shameful acts cannot be Muslims.

So who should the world believe? More importantly, who really represents Islam? Us or Them? As a matter of principle, I agree with Syedna Ali that one should pay attention to the Message, not the Messenger. But does that really happen?

It is all very well for us to say Islam represents and stands for peace – in Arabic it literally means peace – and mercy. It is okay for us to claim the Prophet was sent as the Messenger of peace and harbinger of hope to the whole mankind. We can go on claiming the Quran preaches universal brotherhood and that it’s the first charter of human rights. But do we really believe in and practise what we preach?

Whenever we make these claims, the world does not question them; it looks at us, the so-called believers. And it does not like what it sees. In fact, it tells itself, “okay, if this is what Islam is all about, we’re better off without it!”

We can shout from the rooftops Islam is a religion of peace. But the world looks at us, its followers, who are far from peaceful and hardly the walking example of this great faith. Islam celebrates life and all the beautiful things God has gifted us by way of this amazing planet of ours. And here we are celebrating a death cult, inventing ever new ways of blowing ourselves up.

Look at the carnage in Islamabad. More than sixty people died in the attack on the Marriott Hotel last week, the third in the last couple of years. Most of the victims included families, which had gathered at the hotel to break their fast, and security personnel at the gate. Almost all of them were Muslims. And they had nothing to do with US President George Bush’s war on terror or the current and previous leadership of Pakistan, if that was the driving force behind the attack.

I have been a fierce critic of this war and all that it has visited on the world in the name of democracy and freedom. And I have added my voice, for what it’s worth, whenever possible to the growing global outrage over the continuing atrocities from Iraq to Afghanistan to Pakistan.

All those attacks on innocent civilians can turn ordinary folk like you and me into ruthless terrorists. I wouldn’t be surprised if those who blew up the Marriott with a truckload of explosives came from the northwest of Pakistan. You know the drill — cause and effect…action and reaction etc.

But even if you understand why these things are happening and why some desperate men are resorting to desperate measures taking their own lives and those of others, are these actions in anyway justifiable? Since some of us have been victims of these appalling crimes, are we justified to pass them on to others?

Perhaps those responsible for these attacks have suffered too much to care about morality and ethical justification of the whole business. If you’ve lost everyone and everything you love, you don’t really care what happens and who suffers because of your actions. Would you be really surprised if a parent or sibling of children killed in the continuing US air strikes in Pakistan and Afghanistan had blown up the Marriott? But does that justify or in any way lessen the seriousness of these actions?

More to the point, what message does this send to the world? We may go on protesting this has nothing to do with the bombers’ faith. But like it or not, the world judges us by who we are.

This is not limited to the current ideological and political conflict. There is a huge gulf between what Islam preaches and what its followers practise in almost all walks of life. Islam demands equality of all human beings before God. But you see most companies in the Middle East pay and reward their employees on the basis of their colour, rather than their competence.

The Prophet told us every one of us is responsible for those working for us. ‘You must pay your worker before his sweat is dried’, he warned us.

I am reminded of his words every time I see and read of the exploitation of construction workers and the abominable conditions in which some companies keep these foot soldiers of humanity in the UAE and elsewhere in the Gulf.

Or how would you explain the frequent cases of abuse of housemaids originating from our part of the world? Last year, the Human Rights Watch chastised the Middle East countries for failing to check the abuse of maids.

While the countries like the UAE have taken effective steps to deal with the issue, situation in many other countries in the region remains disturbing.

Again, I know this has nothing to do with employers’ faith. For most victims happen to be Muslim too coming as they do from countries like Indonesia.

But the world looks at the issue as something that routinely happens in the Arab and Muslim world. I know this ain’t fair but that’s how the world works, folks.

No matter what we say in our defence or that of Islam, ultimately we are judged by our actions, not by our words. For medium is as important as the message. And many of us by way of our actions bring nothing but disgrace to our faith. So if Islam is still the fastest growing religion today, it’s not because of us but in spite of us.

-Aijaz Zaka Syed is Opinion Editor of Khaleej Times. He contributed this article to Contact him at:

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