My friend Haroon writes, in despair:

I think there is a Muslim world, there is meant to be an ummah, and that means we belong to each other. Not politically, but in a deeper, more profound sense. Which means we are responsible for each other.

And we will, especially where the ummah is made up of minorities, be blamed for each other’s actions. It is a terrible fact that right now the Middle East is split between an Iranian regime conducting a murderous war in Syria, killing even more than ISIS; ISIS itself; al-Qaeda; Hezbollah, and the entirely unjustifiable Saudi war on Yemen. What do all these actors have in common? They believe themselves to be Islamic. They call themselves Islamic. They claim to uphold God’s word and God’s values.

And what do they do?

Indiscriminately torture. Murder. Starve. Each and every one of them. For shame.

The Prophet Muhammad, peace be upon him, said a time would come to pass when Muslims would abandon Islam in droves, and the worst of people would be the most outwardly religious, and you have to wonder. Are we there yet?

And how much worse can it get?

I am not interested in people who demonize all of Islam; the vast majority of the world’s Muslims reject this violence. Wholeheartedly. I am instead interested in why so many millions can accomplish so little.

I am also not interested in platitudes like “Islam is the solution”–as if every problem is religious; Islam is not the solution to a broken bone, nor is there one Islam, or one solution, to most of the world’s pressing challenges–or paeans to our golden age. It is nice that a thousand years ago we were advanced for our time, but what does that mean when we have young people who believe blowing themselves up and killing innocents around them is not just sanctioned by God. But cheered by Him?

Something more is called for. Not marches against terrorism; those are mere symbolic gestures. Something bigger is called for. Something grander and greater. Initiatives that seek to build institutions out of our common sentiments. Educational enterprises that seek to create leaders, build networks out of them, and amplify their voices and ideas until they drown out the ugliness around them. For the love of God stop building mosques. Build leaders.

Throughout history, there have been only two actors: the Chief acting unilaterally downwards, and the People acting en masse upwards. I hate to be cynical here but the Chiefs in the Islamic world have a vested interest in the status quo, and the People will not mobilize unless they have an animating ideal. We thought for a time that Freedom was sufficient an ideal for this, but the Arab Spring sputtered and died, and we now have such low expectations that the re-election of Rouhani is seen as some kind of victory when in fact all it does is preserve a status quo. Until the people of Islam themselves rise, nothing will change. I think the only possible solution is to remember that every Islamic people had a pre-Islamic cultural heritage. Perhaps an appeal to that heritage is what can overwhelm the cookie cutter Islam in a Box culture that is exported from Saudi on the authority of their possession of the Holy Sites. If people in Iran, in Syria, in Palestine, in Xinjiang, in Myanmar, in Yemen, in Nigeria, in Somalia, in the Congo, in Darfur… were to reclaim their identity – then we would see true change.

We have 10,000 years of history to draw on. Ten millenia of civilization, built upon fifty millenia of exploration and settlement. Every nation today (with the exception of China) is only a few centuries old at most. What endures is language, culture, writing, art. That is what each of us can do – reclaim our identities from the faceless and sterile vision of Islam that the hirabists proffer, and replace it with something truly alive.

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