Thoughts on Youth & Islamic Leadership

The following notes were initially prepared for the Regional Conference on Islamic Leadership entitled, Islamic Leadership in the Changing ASEAN: Fostering Peace and Development in Manila 26-29 April 2010 Unfortunately I was unable to travel due to unforeseen circumstances. My focus in this short presentation centers around three elements from among the conference objectives.

There are three key words in our re-formulation of conference issues — changing, building, and motivating.

Firstly, we must resort to a proper worldview of Islam in confronting RAPID CHANGE in the contemporary world. Change is a fact which all of our young people live with and even welcome. As our young people appear to be moving away from us and into their secret lives, about which we have no knowledge and precious little understanding, we become defensive and even more judgmental.

Judgment of the elders loses its credibility when conditions of daily life continue to evolve in entirely novel and unpredictable ways. Why is this so? It is so because the very nature of the technologies that have brought about our global village is such that they will NOT stop progressing on their own accord.

If the knowledge is there to be had, the scientists and engineers WILL have it. Bioethics committees will not stop it. Political conservatism will not stop it. Imams, preachers, and rabbis ranting and raving from their pulpits will not stop it. Muslims or politicians who try to impede this knowledge in any way will be swept aside, like so much flotsam in the path of a tsunami.

All our youth know this. To the extent that we elders complain and try to stop technological progress, or blame it on those “anti-religious secular westerners”, our youth will turn against us.

This is already happening in a very big way among Muslim youth. Thousands of young Malaysians now participate in nightly “clubbing”, which includes high-volume drug use. 80% of births out-of-wedlock are from Malay girls (government statistic published in the Star newspaper last year). 90% of the world supply of heroin originates in the poppy fields of Muslim Afghanistan. And so on.

Our Muslim leadership models of the future must center upon adapting to rapid change. It seems that, while Muslims have an incomparable heritage of Revealed Knowledge and ethical awareness, their ability to cope with sudden political, social, or technological change has been crippled for the past thousand years, especially since the fall of Muslim Granada in Spain in 1492.

There are various reasons for the subsequent decline of the Muslims in human leadership roles. For example, massive colonization by the West was made possible by the development of superior ocean-going ships, the West’s burgeoning weapons technologies (using the Chinese-discovery of gunpowder), the Protestant Christian embrace of interest banking systems, and other external developments.

What we must do now, however, is examine fearlessly the INTERNAL reasons for our losing the momentum of the progress of human knowledge that has passed into the western world. This is the FIRST CHALLENGE for the Muslims in today’s conference.

How may we actually BUILD a leadership capable of appropriating all types of knowledge, including western knowledge, even though we may see that same western world floundering and declining into moral and spiritual oblivion? We can suggest several possibilities for actually building leadership models, in order to fulfill the SECOND CHALLENGE implied in our conference objectives.

Obviously, we NEED the knowledge, especially the scientific knowledge, developed exclusively in the West while we Muslims were groggily seeking self-satisfaction in a secular educational system, which somehow fails to incorporate properly the understanding and teachings of Qur’an and Sunnah. A non-comprehensive education renders some of our youth, let us face it, unemployable in the modern world. This pool of unemployable, yet Islamically dedicated youth, is the fertile ground for “false jihads”, that is, jihads self-proclaimed by those in a position to gain politically by them, or perhaps only to indulge their irrational hatred of the West.

We need a model of leadership that allows our young Muslim pioneers to study in the West without, however, succumbing to western modes of political and economic thinking. The problem is that perhaps as many as 50% of non-western Muslims who arrive in the USA, Europe, Australia, or New Zealand in order to study, seem to lose almost everything of their religious and cultural values. How do we take knowledge, “even in China”, without becoming hopelessly Chinese ourselves?

We need to pay more attention to the “default culture” that actually dominates our young people’s lives, whenever their village or birth cultures become too weak to be relevant anymore. This “default culture” is the secular value system that inevitably follows rapid technological change, wherever it may be.

The Americans were simply the first to go through this culture-shift, and can only be blamed for failing to solve the problem. This is why the pseudo-religion of “Hate America” is pathetically inept. Whoever adopts the conveniences and comforts of modern technology must learn for themselves how to resist this “default culture” that undermines the values they were born into.

The THIRD CHALLENGE I would like to suggest today, is to design motivation training for our youth. We must learn how to motivate them, while keeping them undefiled in their beliefs and attitudes. As they intensify their commitment to salvage the best of human knowledge from the western world, we can even motivate them by means of western motivation principles.

But we must be more careful. Too many “motivation trainers” who come to ASEAN and take our money have, however, absolutely no understanding of the value-base of everything we do and believe. And yet we pay them, and we follow them, without even recognizing the incompatibility of their methods with our Islamic values.

One of the most serious problems all across ASEAN is also a problem which even the westerners have not solved. This is the problem of the perilously widening GENERATION GAP, in which young people no longer turn to their elders for any serious guidance. Change is so rapid that we elders may have very little idea of the dilemmas and stresses that our young people face. How, then, can we advise them?

How do we know their struggle to resist the biological ripeness to marry, which occurs hormonally around ages 19 or 20, simply in order to complete college studies? The evidence suggests that virginity among men and women is becoming rarer upon college campuses, and even among brides and grooms on their wedding days.

Parents are too often inadvertently forced into choosing whether they want their children to marry as virgins while still students (which rarely occurs among Asian students), or do they want them to sacrifice their virginity in order to graduate first? It is proving very difficult to change the “graduate first” mentality, although statistics invariably demonstrate that married students’ marks go up, not down.

And yet, we must emphasize that this is not a question of changing values. Westerners have already made the mistake of relativizing their value judgments, according to what they call “situational ethics”. What is right or wrong to them depends upon the specific situation rather than any universal values.

Our challenge today is how to apply Revealed Knowledge to the constantly accelerating changes in the daily lives of all of us. To begin with, we must realize that the days of our cultural guides merely waving their hands in the air, with a body language of “I know it all, and you must sit there and listen to me” – are over. We elder teachers and parents must admit in all humility that we ourselves no longer know exactly how to stop the onslaught of value-free technology among our cherished young families. And we must project our willingness to struggle TOGETHER WITH OUR YOUTH to preserve our spiritual integrity in the midst of all this change.

All the historical evidence we possess indicates that civilizations that allow their family values to become corrupt will soon fall. And all the historical evidence we posses indicates that, without our traditional and revealed religions and their wise guidance, we CANNOT PERPETUATE HUMAN CIVILIZATION ON OUR OWN.

Liberal humanists may use their highly educated minds to rationalize anything. We desperately need Divine Guidance to teach us the proper limits of such rationalization. For example, Americans and Europeans are now busy rationalizing their rejection of community-sanctioned marriage, along with what they call “institutionalized religion”, in order to speed the progress of technology. Ask any pair of young backpackers in downtown Kuala Lumpur, or, say, Yogyakarta, Indonesia, and you will be hard-pressed to find even ONE of these couples, traveling and sleeping together, who are married.

It is our leadership role in ASEAN traditional cultures to revive proper knowledge in forms that we can apply to our needs as family-based, knowledge-based cultures, in the desperate hope that it may still not be too late to rescue human civilization as a whole. And may the Allah protect us and aid us in this noble endeavor, AMIN.

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