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In Search of a Model Muslim State

Published April 5, 2009

By Dr. Parvez Ahmed

During his recent visit to Turkey, President Obama spoke about the promise of a new era in Turkish-U.S. relationship that can serve as a “model partnership” between the West and the Muslim world. America’s quest to find a “model” Muslim partner is not new. In January 2008, then U.S. President George W. Bush during his visit to Dubai described the United Arab Emirates (UAE) as a “model Muslim state.” UAE’s economic progress and moderate political views made it a cause célèbre. But now many are predicting Dubai’s demise as the global economic crisis strangles easy credit, which was critical in fueling its growth.

The euphoric crowning of UAE in 2008 and the hasty predictions of its demise a year later, both miss an important point. Beneath the glittering gold lies an underbelly that the rulers in the region are fighting to hide with the government planning to impose a fine for “carrying misleading news that harms the national economy.”

Dubai is one of seven emirates that make up UAE, which today stands seventh in GDP per capita in the world. It ranks third highest among Muslim majority nations (only behind neighboring Qatar and Kuwait). A fairy story has been unfolding in the desert. In my visits to the region, I was awestruck by the sheer audacity of their dreams.

Dubai’s rise as an economic powerhouse is not unprecedented in the region. Following the rapid raise of oil prices in the seventies, Saudi Arabia too had stunning economic growth. And yet it did not transform the country into a “model Muslim state.” Like Saudi Arabia then, Dubai today is unable and unwilling to grant its citizens and residents socio-political freedoms that must go hand-in-hand with economic success to propel a country’s rise into a model state.

UAE is home to the largest number of foreign-born residents in the world. A few of these residents enjoy great luxuries but most live a life of hopeless servitude. Unlike legal immigrants in most countries, the foreign-workers in UAE and the neighboring states will never gain equal rights in a country where they work, live and perhaps die.

Johann Hari (Huffington Post contributor) writing for the British newspaper, The Independent presents a heart-tugging expose of the many shattered dreams in the desert as a global recession converts Dubai (and perhaps the region) from being “Under Construction” to now teetering “Under Collapse.”

A 2008 ABC News report describes working conditions in Dubai (could be said for the other countries in the region as well) as follows, “You are working in a system where you are not really free to leave your job. You actually need employers’ consent to change jobs. You’re working in a system where your passport is withheld. And really, if you displease your employer, you are going to find yourself on a plane right back to Sri Lanka or Bangladesh or India. Most of the workers live in labor camps an hour outside the city …. The men putting up the world’s finest buildings live six to eight, sometimes 12, to a room.”

Johann Hari further reports that, “This is all supposed to be illegal. Employers are meant to pay on time, never take your passport, give you breaks in the heat – but I met nobody who said it happens. Not one. These men are conned into coming and trapped into staying, with the complicity of the Dubai authorities.”

In an oped to the Britain’s The Independent, Sultan Sooud Al Qassemi, a Dubai-based journalist, reacted by calling writers like Johann Hari, who are exposing the evil of slave-like labor practices, as “Dubai-bashers.” He then went to recount the social shortcomings of British society. Such defensive and evasive responses to real problems in Muslim societies may give the satisfaction of poking someone back in the eye after they have exposed one of our shortcomings, but they will never solve our problems. Two wrongs do not make a right. The proper attitude idea ought to be to provide solutions to human misery whether they are in Britain or in Dubai. Evading them by pointing a finger at someone else’s problems is not a model Muslim behavior.

For the moment, setting aside the debate about separation of mosque and state, a “model Muslim state” at the bare minimum must embody Islam’s normative ethics. At the foundation of any state lies its attitudes towards those (workers) who help build the state. This idea of justice is beautifully expressed in the Quran, “Give just measure and weight, nor withhold from the people the things that are their due.” (7:85) In addition verses 42:38, and 3:159, instructs that governance is best when based on “mutual consultation,” or shura, which must be infused with three essential elements — equal rights for all citizens, majority rule for public policy and the upholding of justice and human dignity.

Prophet Muhammad said, “Your servants are your brethren upon whom God has given you authority. So, if someone has their brethren under control, they should feed them with the like of what they eat and clothe them with the like of what they wear. You should not overburden them with what they cannot bear, and if you do so, help them in their hard job.”

Dignity of labor is well established in the Quran. “Serve God, and make not any partners with Him in His divinity. Do good to parents, kinsfolk, orphans, those in need, neighbors who are near, neighbors who are strangers, the companion by your side, the way-farer (you meet) and those whom your right hands possess (your workers): for Allah loves not the arrogant, the vainglorious.” (4:36-37). In addition the Quran emphasizes justice, “Woe to those that deal in fraud. Those who, when they have to receive by measure, exact full measure. But when they have to give by measure or weight, give less than due. Do they not think that they will be called to account?”(83:1-6).

UAE like many of its neighbors have indeed made giant strides in transforming the region’s commerce and culture. U.S. exports to UAE are expected to surpass those to Israel and Saudi Arabia. Perhaps this economic growth is precursor to other freedoms, particularly those pertaining to democracy and worker rights. But if history is any guide, the translation of economic success into socio-political freedoms will not be automatic or organic. It will require an effort by all who benefit from the status quo to look beyond their immediate comforts and aspire to doing well while doing good. There is no reason why economic well being should come at the expense of common sense decency and values?

A model Muslim state will uphold those values that the faithful most desire to see reflected in state policies. John Esposito and Dalia Mogahed analyzing a recent worldwide survey by Gallup write, “Muslims across the world want neither secularism nor theocracy. They want freedom, rights and democratization.” A model Muslim state will not only dazzle the world with commerce but also exhibit moral leadership in addressing common concerns like environmental stewardship and bridging the growing economic disparity between the haves and the have-nots.

Turkey perhaps stands a chance of achieving leadership that, in the words of President Obama, is “respectful,” “secure,” and “prosperous.” And yet, it too is not bereft of shortcomings such as its draconian ban on public expression of faith in outlawing headscarves and yarmulkes from universities and other state institutions. States like UAE, Saudi Arabia and Qatar have achieved economic success but little of anything else. In any case, American President’s should not try too hard to sell “a model Muslim state.” The world will know one, when they see one.

Dr. Parvez AhmedAuthor Dr. Parvez Ahmed is Associate Professor of Finance at the Coggin College of Business, University of North Florida.

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