Role models are important. They help us aspire to be better than we are and give us concrete examples of success. Role models possess those qualities which help us achieve our goals.
Of course, the operative word here is success.
There are successful scientists, doctors, businessmen and politicians. But to some, negative role models such as Osama Bin Laden, Mullah Omar or their local variants may have greater appeal than members of mainstream society.
That the Islamic world has not been able to throw up vigorous contemporary role models may lie at the heart of the problem. Sure, aspiring politicians may look towards Ataturk, Jinnah or other nationalists for inspiration. However, their appeal is jaded and historical, not in tune with today's iPod generation. The jihadists and other radicals are far more likely to appeal to the young.
At a practical level, there are hardly any instances of world class scientists, doctors or the like produced by the Islamic world. When Dr. Abdus Salam, the Pakistani physicist received the Nobel Prize for Physics in 1979, he was the exception that proves the rule.
And, being a member of a 'deviant' Islamic sect, Dr. Salam's status as a Muslim will be disputed by many traditional bearded 'scholars.' (That's another story for another day.)
Islamic scholars will hark back to the glory days of Islamic history when Muslims led the advancement of thought in most any field, including medicine, mathematics, physics and their derivatives. History provides context but is not sufficiently strong to shape the next generation. Especially today's digital generation which requires everything to be 'here and now.'
There are two major flaws with my argument. Firstly, I have restricted role models by religious persuasion. Secondly, not all role models must have achieved greatness on the international stage. Local, even parochial, role models are sufficient for most of us.
Nelson Mandela, Martin Luther King Jr. and Bishop Desmond Tutu are not excluded from being role models simply because they are non-Muslims. Far from it, as role models for humanity these three are among the finest examples we can emulate.
However, the reality is that for most young in today's Muslim world the ability to 'connect and relate' with a role model increases exponentially if the individual is a Muslim. Perhaps this is an unfortunate by product of 9/11 or academic debates being anchored around Huntington's 'clash of civilizations' thesis – who knows.
Additionally, publicity within the Islamic world naturally gravitates towards 'indigenous' leaders. Just as the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) has a natural bias towards reporting British news, the national media of Muslim nations has a domestic and subsequently 'Islamic' bias in its reporting.
Undoubtedly, 'local' role models play as significant (if not more) a role as national models. Who can argue that a parent, teacher or some other relative did not help shape their worldly outlook?
A doctor looks to the specialist in her ward for leadership by example, a scientist to the lead scientist at her institute and so on.
However, a purely 'local' approach is fraught with the danger that a truly gifted individual remains 'undiscovered' – a loss to all of humanity. The approach implies functioning filtering systems to ensure that the individual is 'pushed up' to the next level of achievement. Much is left to chance.
Hence, individuals must have larger greatness to emulate. Ideally, these people must have visible achievements, readily seen by all. Bangladeshi 2006 Nobel Peace Prize winner Mohammad Yunus, famed for his community banking concepts and Pakistani philanthropist Abdus Sattar Edhi and the Edhi Foundation come immediately to my mind.
Abdus Salam Road in Geneva, Switzerland
Let's hope that the next century holds more heroes for Muslims – and Osama doesn't count! And that these Muslim heroes are recognized beyond Islam's borders too. That US authorities confiscated 79 year old Maulana Edhi's passport and interrogated him for nine hours at New York's JFK airport in 2008, considering him a potential terrorist threat,' only underscores to Muslims the unfortunate (but real) notion that there is a clear distinction between Muslim and non-Muslim role models in the world today.