he West and Islam are at loggerheads with each other. This is unfortunate because both are fundamentally egalitarian ideologies. The French Revolution of 1789 was anchored on the slogan “Liberty, Equality, Fraternity.” Yet, the French people enslaved large parts of North Africa in the nineteenth century–after the French Revolution– and perpetuated a number of atrocities on those people. They applied “Liberty, Equality, Fraternity” to the French people and not to the African people. Similarly, Abraham Lincoln abolished slavery in the United States. Yet, the US today has been aggressively promoting the interests of its multinational corporations leading to wealth for the West and poverty for the East. It introduced the Patents Acts in the World Trade Organization. Previously India was free to copy and make a product invented by an American MNC as long as the Indian copier did not use the same process to make the product as used by the American inventor. Before the introduction of the Patents Act in the WTO, an Indian pharma could make the Pfizer vaccine for Covid-19 as long as it used a different process than used by Pfizer to make the vaccine. To give another example, it is reported that the cost of production of Windows software by Microsoft is only one US dollar whereas Microsoft is selling it at about ten dollars per piece. Indian software companies cannot copy the Windows software due the Patents Act. This kind of profiteering is leading to poverty in developing countries and richness in Western countries.
We find the same anomaly in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights adopted by the United Nations in 1948 at the behest of the developed countries. Article 31 says “Everyone has the right to freedom of movement and residence within the borders of each state.” Question is this: Why should the freedom of movement be restricted within “each state” when the rights enshrined in the Declaration are “universal?” Why the Declaration does not implement “Equality” and “Fraternity” between all humanity? Similarly, Article 21 (2) says “Everyone has the right of equal access to public service in his country.” Question is this: Why access to services only in “his country” if we are a common humanity? Why should public services of humanity not be shared across all peoples? In this way, the West has established democracy and equality within its own countries but espoused inequality and exploitation vis-à-vis the developing countries.
Indeed, there are exceptions to this rule. Winston Churchill had gone to the US to meet President Roosevelt during the Second World War seeking American assistance. Roosevelt had put the condition that England would have to give freedom to her colonies as a quid pro quo for American support. That was a great contribution of the US to the welfare of the people of world. The US had also granted food aid under PL-480 law when India was facing a severe drought in the sixties. However, these exceptions do not obviate the larger exploitative tendency of the West.
The situation gets flipped in Islam. Equality between countries is accepted. Ayat 17:60 of the Quran says, “And [remember, O Muhammad], when we told you, Indeed, your Lord has encompassed the people.” This Ayat applies to whole humanity. There is no division between the people that have been “encompassed.” The Lord encompasses the Arabic, American, European, Pagan, Atheists, and all other peoples. The basic tenor of the Quran is global. The Quran brings Allah’s message to the whole humanity; not to a section of it. In my reading, Allah does not even tolerate any distinction even between believers and non-believers in the Prophet. A person may believe in Allah and in another Prophet, not Prophet Muhammad. The Quran accepts the Jews and Christians as people of the book even though they do not honour Prophet Muhammad. Unfortunately, Islam has transformed itself into an exploitative society despite this universalism.
Furthermore, Prophet Muhammad lived a very simple life. The first two Imams–Abu Bakr and Oman—also lived simple lives. However, the third Imam Othman transformed the situation entirely. Leslie Hazelton, author of “After the Prophet”, says that Othman “built palaces in Medina with enclosed gardens, marble columns, and imported food and chefs. He began to give away vast private state to his relatives some with thousands of horses and as many slaves.” In this way, the egalitarian ideology of the Quran was transformed into a deep social inequality within the Islamic countries and this continues to this day. The palaces of Saudi Arabia smack of unparalleled luxury while even Muslim people of Nigeria are starving. In Pakistan two million people are living today as bonded labour—this within an Islamic country. A number of reports tell of “slave wives” being “wed” by Saudi Royals. So, Islam with an egalitarian ideology has been transformed into an internally unequal and exploitative society. It must be noted and honoured though that Islam has not made military war against other countries like France or economic wars against other countries like the US.
Here again we have exceptions to the rule. Iraq made war against Kuwait. The Rohingyas are considered to have made war against the State of Myanmar. A number of Islamic organizations are openly advocating Jehad against other countries. A difference from France and US, however, is that these wars are being made for religious objectives, not for economic exploitation. We have in front of us a strange spectacle. Two ideologies that are both egalitarian as well as universal, have both espoused inequality in different ways. The West has tried to secure equality within the countries but exploited other people. Islam, on the other hand, has tried to secure equality between countries but exploited its own peoples. The way forward is for both the West and Islam to reform themselves. Only then we will have peace and welfare as declared by the French Revolution and the Quran.
As an endnote, we in India must remind ourselves that we basically suffer from the same ills as Islam. The caste system still prevails in large parts of the country although we have expunged it from our Constitution. Economic inequality between the rich and the poor has been increasing at a regular pace since the Independence. It has increased exponentially under the present NDA government that is ideologically driven by Hindu texts. Thus, like Muslims, Hindus must also reform themselves to espouse internal equality.
The writer is a former Professor of Economics at IIM Bangalore. Views are personal.