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Faith and Hope: Conversation with Ziauddin Sardar

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From the Spring 2015 issue "The Unknown"

A Conversation with Ziauddin Sardar 

Born in Pakistan, educated in London, a student of physics and communications, after five years of research and study in Jeddah, a global authority on the haj—the most solemn pilgrimage of Islam—Ziauddin Sardar has spent much of his ensuing life thinking about the future, and especially his religion, in which he believes deeply. This is a future where Islam has a role, but alongside other religions in a multi-polar world. It is also a world where Shariah is an 8th century Islamic law adapted for the 21st century, and where jihad has no place at all. Dr. Sardar deeply hopes people of all faiths will come to understand each other and where conflicts based on religion, culture, or ethnicity have no place. Dubbed one of Britain’s top 100 public intellectuals, he is one of a handful of individuals who have thought deeply about the nature of the faith and how best to promote better, deeper and more peaceful understanding today. Currently, he is the director at the Centre for Postnormal Policy and Futures Studies at the East-West University in Chicago.

From his base in London, he talked by telephone with World Policy Journal editor & publisher David A. Andelman and managing editor Yaffa Fredrick. 

WORLD POLICY JOURNAL: Peering into “The Unknown,” you’ve coined the term “Islamic Futures.” Can you explain what this phrase means—what the future of Islam more broadly looks like to you?

ZIAUDDIN SARDAR: I am interested especially in what the Islamic future looks like.  And I emphasize a few points about the future itself. First of all, the future is broader—there’s not the future, but futures. So there are alternative futures that can happen in the next 10, 15, 20, 30 years, however far we are looking. So the first point I emphasize is the plurality. The second is that I don’t believe the future is a single given. I mean, the trends are not destined. The trends that were embedded do not suggest that we can’t actually change our destinies. In that sense, we can also shape our own future. So the idea of Islamic futures is that communities must take responsibility for thinking about the future. What would be a viable, dynamic future for Muslim society based on justice and equity, and the basic principles of Islam, what would that future look like? To develop some sort of vision for the future, and then work for that future.

WPJ: For the past 2,000 years, the world, or at least the West, has lived, and some would say thrived, in what has been known as the Christian era. Are we now on the cusp of a new global Islamic era?

SARDAR: No, absolutely not. What I am saying for the Islamic future is that societies have a responsibility to explore their own futures, to shape the future according to their beliefs and requirements, which are actually different, for developing societies, than for those societies that are industrialized. And then work toward shaping those futures, so it’s a way of empowering them. That’s not a way of saying that there will be a new Islamic era. In fact, I don’t believe there’s going to be a new era of any kind that would resemble the eras of the past. The term I have coined—“postnormal times”—emphasizes several issues. First, it focuses on the fact that contemporary times have been unprecedented. We have experienced accelerated change that we have not experienced in the past. The second attribute is connectivity. We are more interconnected in the contemporary world than we have ever been in our history. And the third point is space. Almost every aspect of our life is globalized. So when you take these three elements—accelerated change, space, and connectivity—you have a whole new phenomenon.

Now seeing that in contemporary times all our problems are complex problems, they cannot be isolated by conventional or scientific methods where you take a problem in a laboratory and work on it. All our social, culture and political problems are complex. So when you have complex problems that are interconnected, then there is a possibility of positive feedback, and when you have positive feedback things multiply in dramatic proportion and reach the edge of chaos—characterized by complexities, contradictions, and chaotic behavior. There are several examples of that. The Arab Spring is an obvious example. The Arab Spring started in a small fashion but multiplied very quickly. And the speed of the Arab Spring was just as phenomenal as the emergence of the Arab Spring  itself, or what happened in Kiev. The Western governments promoted demonstrations in Kiev to introduce more democracy into the country and persuade it to look toward NATO and Europe. Things multiplied very quickly, becoming chaotic and out of control, and generated other dimensions, creating the Ukraine problem that we have today.

So the point I am making is that of course in “postnormal times” things are complex and with that complexity and connectivity, you have to pay attention to things before you actually can do anything about these problems. The idea of a new era, that is going to be similar to other eras in history, is now obviously dangerously obsolete. The phenomenal diversity of the globe, the very fact that we are connected, points to a new dimension of life, a new dimension of thought of ideas in modern times. What we are actually seeing is that we are moving toward a new paradigm, which may bring east and west together; it may bring north and south together. Everybody has to participate, even if not as equal partners, to shape the whole new paradigm, which is beyond the ethnic, religious kind of ideological paradigms that we have been dealing with.

WPJ: Well it seems to suggest a pluralism.

SARDAR: Certainly, the emphasis is on pluralism, in the sense that we, as Muslim society, are not used to dealing with the kind of diversity and pluralism that exists today.

WPJ: Much of contemporary Islam seems to eschew that in favor of a much more unitary concept. Communism as a religion certainly did. Many other religions suggest that theirs is the right way.

SARDAR: What postnormal times actually suggest is that religions in general have to more or less transcend their one basic assumption—that they have the right religion. All religions believe that they are the truth. This particular assumption is not really valid in postnormal times. So we have to transcend that—not that we should give up the absolute nature of our religion, but absolute only for us and our community, and not for anyone else. As for other people, they have their own absolutes that are equally valid. So, to collaborate, to create a more just and harmonious world we have to accommodate the absolutes of other societies. Islam has to do that as much as Western societies, Chinese society. This applies to everyone equally. 

This brings me back to the point that we are not really accustomed to dealing with plurality. We assume that we are right, because we have the truth, whether truth comes from religion, or ideology, or capitalism, or markets, or whatever the source of that truth. That particular notion now is becoming dangerously obsolete in postnormal times. We have to try to transcend that notion. That notion generates many of the contradictions that we see in the world today. We need to overcome these contradictions because contradictions are logically opposite—we cannot resolve them. The only way to deal with them is to transcend them and create a new synthesis that takes us forward.

WPJ: That does seem to suggest that Islam particularly but also other religions have to rid themselves of the past, because the past has been largely unitary. But isn’t that a fundamental tenet of Islam, that Mohammad is the prophet and there is one god?

SARDAR: There is nothing wrong with the fundamental tenets of Islam, just as there is nothing wrong with the fundamental tenets of Judaism or Christianity or Hinduism. The problem arises when you assume that your fundamental tenets are the absolute truth that everyone else must also subscribe to. That’s when the problem arises, and this doesn’t apply only to religion but to all ideologies. We need to rebuild the basic assumptions. 

In the contemporary world we can see the rise of Muslim extremism in Nigeria, in Pakistan, in Syria, and in Iraq. So the problem with Islam at the moment is essentially how do we deal with other religions. And not just other religions, but other people as well. That is the basic problem that Islam must come to grips with. I emphasize that this is not just a problem with Islam—I think this is a more universal problem, but it is affecting Islam more than any other religion at this moment in time.

The question then is, how does Islam cope with ‘otherness’? And by otherness I mean others, gender, sexuality, other religions, other ideologies, the whole concept of otherness. How does Islam deal with that? Now this has nothing to do with the fact that Muslims believe in one god, that Mohammad is the prophet of God, or the Quran is the word of God. These are fundamental beliefs, and there is absolutely nothing wrong with them. And I subscribe to them as my own beliefs, so I am a subscribing Muslim. But I think the bigger problem is the notion of the Shariah. What is Islamic law? And Shariah is not just law—it is also ethics and morality. What we have is an Islamic law that was developed in the 8th, 9th centuries. It was relevant to that time; it is now being applied to the 21st century, and it is quite out of sync with the legal demands of the 21st century. It cannot deal with the plurality, the diversity, the global nature, the complexity of these postnormal times. In itself, Shariah would not be a problem because you can reformulate the Shariah, which I think is a major challenge in Muslim societies, that we need to rethink what Shariah is. By rethinking what Shariah is, we are reshaping what it means to be a Muslim in the contemporary world. But most Muslims think the Shariah is divine, and it cannot be changed. That’s where the real problem is located. The truth is that Shariah was formed as an idea in the 8th and 9th centuries and is a human construction. It has nothing to do with divinity. It is an interpretation that was taken in the early years of Islam, and that interpretation is no longer valid in the contemporary world.

Once you can persuade Muslims that Shariah is not divine, most of the problems will be resolved. And Shariah has been reformulated in contemporary times. For example, in Morocco, they have totally reformulated the personal aspect of Shariah relating to marriage, human relationships, and gender issues. The new Shariah they have developed in Morocco is derived from the Quran and the teachings of the prophet, but is a new interpretation. 

If similar exercises were undertaken in other parts of the world, we could move forward. But the problem is that Muslims have an almost blind attachment to Shariah, and it is this blind emotional attachment that is causing the problem. And in the name of Shariah you can do virtually anything. You can persuade young people to go and fight for jihadists with Shariah. You can perform atrocities of unimaginable proportions. You can isolate women from society. You can prevent them from driving, as they do in Saudi Arabia. You can do all kind of basically nasty and ignorant things in the name of Shariah because it is so much out of sync with contemporary times. 

WPJ: It sounds as though a critical element is the role of Islamic leaders and how they can influence how Islamic populations at large think about Shariah. So what do you see as the future of Islamic leaders? Do you see them moving toward a more progressive idea of the Shariah being a more living and breathing set of laws? Is there a trend toward a more pluralistic opening? It certainly doesn’t seem to be the case in places like Saudi Arabia for instance.

SARDAR: It’s not. I would say this is the case in most of the Middle East.  More progressive work is being done on the periphery of Islam. In Turkey, in Indonesia, a little bit in Malaysia, Morocco; not in the conventional center, which is the Middle East. 

WPJ: That’s also where most of the young Islamic youths in the West are taking their leadership from—the Middle East countries.

SARDAR: That is absolutely right. To get back to the idea of Muslim leaders,  the Shariah provides Muslim leaders with power and authority. So in the name of Shariah they can get the masses to do almost anything, and the first thing they do is to get themselves revered. Because of the Shariah, most young people revere Muslim leaders. These leaders may be knowledgeable or ignorant—in fact, in most cases they tend to be ignorant, so we are in a Catch-22. One way to reform and reformulate Shariah is to persuade Muslim leaders to open up the debate and move forward. But if they do that, then they undermine their own authority. So we are in a basic contradiction. Though this is very specific to Muslim societies, contradictions like that are not uncommon in many societies. They are a part of what I call postnormal times.

WPJ: But Shariah is a set of laws, and those are very clear, they’re factual, and not very emotional in most respects, but it does seem to be an emotional overlay of Islam that is really the driving force today, so much so that a mere sketch of the prophet can send millions into the street. How can we even see a rational future in a world where such a religion would drive and lead the world?

SARDAR: First of all, we should not see Islam or Muslim society in isolation. Both are part of the global world, part of the global culture, part of globalization, and this planet we live on. But they are part of us, just as the West is part of the East, and the two cannot exist in isolation. There is a great deal of West in Eastern countries, and there is certainly a good deal of East in Western countries. Similarly you cannot necessarily keep Islam and Muslim societies in isolation. So I think it is our collective responsibility to promote rational thought, to engage with others, whoever the others may be—whether they are Muslims or not. And unless we can do that, we are not going to have collective solutions. The solutions to most of our problems have to be collective. We are so interlinked; we are so connected that we cannot have isolated solutions. It is a general need that we should promote rational and objective thought, but at the same time we should also appreciate that identity matters to people, and therefore we need to find space, intellectual and cultural space, where multiple identities can thrive and people can feel confident with their multiple identities. If you have a situation where a woman walking in the streets of Paris wearing a Gucci scarf is regarded as the height of civilization, and another woman who happens to be Muslim walking wearing a scarf in the same street is seen as a threat to civilization, then you are not going to go very far.

WPJ: We are interested in the future, in terms of Islam and its role, but also in terms of where the world is going. But in the past there have been long stretches of history where there was sort of a weltanschauung—a world view that leaders followed that provided a map as to what direction civilization should be leaning. But now it seems like we are ping-pong balls bouncing from one crisis to the next, sometimes driven by emotion, sometimes by religion, and sometimes by a desire for more power or land or possessions. So how do you see us returning in some fashion to a more coherent worldview, either under Islam, another religion, or simply on our own?

SARDAR: The first thing I want to point out is that we can’t be under anything. The world certainly cannot be under Islam; it certainly cannot be under Christianity, or under secularism, or under anything. We have the dynamic of modern civilization—India as a modern civilization, we have the West as a civilization, Latin America will also emerge in the next 10 to 15 years. In this kind of multi-polar world of plurality we have learned to appreciate different points of view and not feel threatened by them. Only by being confident in ourselves, in our own world view, having the means to relate to others on their own terms within their own conceptual framework can we produce the kind of pluralistic worldview that we actually need.

Now I want to go back to my idea about postnormal times. We are going from crisis to crisis because almost all the problems we face—financial problems, political problems that we seem to be facing year after year, all are complex and interconnected problems. Unless we understand the complexity of the situation, we are not going to resolve them one way or another. Simply by throwing money at them does not solve the problem. We have to step back and see what is actually happening, where trends are leading us in this chaotic, postnormal world. And how do we understand the direction of these trends.

Normally we have tried to solve the problems of the future in one dimensional terms. We think there is only one future. But, in fact, there are at the very least three futures. First, there is a future that will emerge in the next five to 10 years embedded in the trends that define today’s world. For example, we know that there will be an iPhone 7 or 8 or 9; we know that computers will become more powerful; we may even have quantum computing; we know genetics will reshape the human body, so we will be healthier. This is a present where certain aspects of  the future will emerge. This is what we normally take as the future. In fact, it is not really a future. It is what I would call an extended present. Beyond that there is the familiar future, the future that we see in science fiction, that we see in advertising. In the familiar future, we have robots, so that is a kind of familiar future. But there is also an unthought future that we never think about—not because it is unthinkable, but because our basic designs and assumptions prevent us from thinking about it. And that’s the future of a multipolar world, of multi-civilizations, the future where diversity and pluralism are seen not as a problem. We’ve actually never thought about them at all because our assumptions never allow us to think about them.

If I am a narrow-minded Muslim, and I think that I have the absolute truth, then I am not going to worry about plurality that lies out there. Similarly if I believe that the free market is the answer to everything, then I am not going to think about problems of inequality, distribution of wealth, marginalization of people, those who may be disenfranchised and the alienated youth who may join jihadist movements. All that’s part of our “unthought,” and that’s what we need to do—move from the extended present and the familiar futures to the unthought arena. And start thinking about how are we going to cope with some of these complex problems that we are going to face in 10 to 15 years down the line.

WPJ: Do you see any particular countries emerging as leaders in such a future world? Perhaps countries we might not think of as leaders now. Or will some leaders now begin to fade? We see Germany as the economic engine of Europe, the United States as the one superpower, a country in the Middle East, say Saudi Arabia, as the wealthiest. Do you see any countries globally or regionally as the driving forces in the future?

SARDAR: There are two obvious countries that will become the driving force—China and India. But beyond that I think the other three countries, Brazil, Turkey, and Indonesia, will become driving forces. In fact, to some extent this is already happening.

WPJ: China and India are certainly the largest two countries, but in terms of their abilities to shape the global civilization, the global conversation, do they have that capability?

SARDAR: I think they will develop that capability as time goes on. Once you acquire power, then you are forced to undertake certain things. A good example is Russia. Once it acquired power after the fall of the Berlin Wall, its first impulse was to flex its muscles. Now that’s not a very good example of exercising power, but I think that in India and China, we would hope they would exercise their power in much more sensible ways. I would say it would be wrong of us to put all of our eggs on a single country or a single leadership or ideology. I think the very fact that the world is becoming more diverse and more pluralistic requires us to engage with more pluralistic worldviews, with pluralistic leadership. But this is what we are lacking. Leaders tend to talk about their own constituency; they don’t take a look at the world around them. A good example is our own [British] prime minister who thinks we exist in isolation from Europe. They are so deeply interconnected that the very idea that Britain could leave Europe is dumbfounding in a sense. They are very deeply interconnected, not just in terms of a common market, but in terms of our history as well.

WPJ: Yet neither country you’ve identified, India nor China, is either Islamic or even has an enormous Islamic population. Moreover, neither of these countries has been attacked directly by Islam the way, for lack of a better term, Christian nations of the West have been attacked. How do you explain that? And do you believe that as they grow in power and reach globally they will become the targets of attacks in the future?

SARDAR: I think its wrong to see that extremists have attacked Christian societies or Christian countries. The battle we are seeing is internal to Islam, if you look at, for example, the Taliban in Pakistan, who are they really attacking? They are attacking other Pakistanis, because they want their notion of Shariah to dominate that society. If you look at Boko Haram in Nigeria, who are they attacking? They are attacking other Nigerians because they want their notion of Shariah to dominate. Even IS is attacking cities in Iraq, and most of the people they killed were Muslims. So the battle is essentially, to begin with, within Islam. Now, it has been made worse by Western interventions—in Iraq, Syria, and Afghanistan—but this battle will always take place, because when you are in times of uncertainty, when change is accelerating, identity becomes very problematic. Those who cannot cope with their identities, who rely on a single notion of truth, become alienated. They feel like they need to do something to defend their little bit of territory. Though it looks like a huge phenomenon at the moment, I see it as more or less superfluous. You cannot build a state, you cannot build a society you cannot develop a culture on the basis of fanatic slogans. 

Not everybody is capable of running a country or running a state. You see that in Pakistan. Wherever you introduce democracy, things become more complex, and that is because democracy is a pluralistic enterprise. Where you have dictatorship, there you have stability. Syria was stable. Iraq was stable under Saddam Hussein, but the moment you open it up to a democratic enterprise, then you have all different interests and contradictions come to the fore. And it becomes much more unmanageable. We need to learn how to cope with all that plurality, with dissent, how to adjust to complexity. That’s a lesson we haven’t learned, a lesson that Muslims have particularly not learned. 

WPJ: Returning to our theme, what types of things looking toward the future do you think we can’t predict? What remains unknowable?

SARDAR: I think there is a great deal that is unknown. And the biggest unknown is how we are going to cope with the increasing complexity, the interconnectedness, and the chaotic nature of the world.  The biggest unknown is how to deal with postnormal times when we need a totally new paradigm. The old knowledge system, the academic disciplines, they are becoming superfluous. If you look at conventional economics, it is falling apart. Development studies is irrelevant. Conventional structures cannot cope with the complexity, the interconnectedness, and the chaotic nature of the world. We need an interdisciplinary approach, integrated knowledge. But the biggest unknown is how we move towards a more integrated notion of knowledge that combines objectivity with certain ideas of value, a knowledge that combines pluralistic thought, knowledge that allows people to have their absolutes and be comfortable, yet be able to cope with absolutes of other societies and other cultures. That I think is the biggest unknown.

That is essentially the human enterprise. In a real sense we need to learn to be human again. We have basically lost the essence of what humanity is, and that is very predominant in Muslim culture. But I think this is quite a universal phenomenon. We need to relearn to be human in a pluralistic world.

WPJ: It seems to be what the prophet originally said, that we need to learn how to live together and be human?

SARDAR: Absolutely, you see that the assumption of history so far has been that there is only one way to be human. Now we need to learn that there are different ways to be human, they are equally valid, and we need to respect and engage with all of them. That’s the biggest unknown.

WPJ: That is very well put. Dr. Sardar, thank you so much



[Cartoon courtesy of Jeff Danziger]



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