Author : Manoj Joshi

Originally Published 2015-01-12 00:00:00 Published on Jan 12, 2015
The terrorists may be an extreme minority, but they have successfully coerced the majority?or, to be more accurate, enthralled them?into sympathy for them. They have successfully also intimidated a large number of writers, artists, journalists, film-makers, many of whom live in exile.
The problem is not Islam, but a civil war within the faith

In the last couple of days, terrorists have killed a dozen people in Paris, 2,000 in Nigeria, bomb blasts killed over 30 in Yemen and 7 people died in a bomb blast in Rawalpindi. In terms of geography, the incidents were widely distributed across the globe, as they were in the ethnicity of the victims. But there is one thing in common with all of the acts of violence—they were done in the name of Islam.

A lazy person's analysis would argue that there is something inherent in the faith that persuades its adherents to such acts of violence. But a closer analysis would suggest that this is no clash of civilisations pitting Islam against the rest, but a civil war within Islam, a battle for its soul. Most of the victims in the incidents cited above were probably Muslims, but obviously there was something different in the way they professed their faith that persuaded their more radical co-religionists to murder them. This is the story of the Islamic State militants of Syria whose major thrust is the ruthless and, indeed, mindless killing of other Muslims.

In these circumstances the worst option for us would be to vilify Islam, the faith, instead of trying to understand why a violent minority has managed to get so much traction across the Islamic world. The Islamists have successfully intimidated a large number of intellectuals-- writers, artists, journalists, film-makers, many of who have fled their homelands and now live in exile. Within the borders of Muslim countries, they have used blasphemy laws to imprison and often kill minorities and have ensured that no rational discussion of religion is possible. The terrorists may be an extreme minority, but they have successfully coerced the majority-- or, to be more accurate, enthralled them.

The battle did not begin with the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979, or even Nine Eleven. It has been going on since the beginning of the industrial revolution which transformed the global power balance away from the great Muslim empires led by the Ottomans and the Mughals, in favour of the Christian west.

But where Christianity itself evolved and modernized, within the citadel of Islam emerged a powerful school led by Muhammad Abdl ibn al-Wahhab, born in 1703, who wanted to return Islam to its original "pure" form, and for whom bidaa or religious innovation was as big an enemy as shirk or polytheism.

Modern Islamism and the direct challenge to western modernism has come from Egypt and the writings of Egypt Hassan al Banna and Sayyid Qutb. Their progeny exist in the subcontinent as the Jamaat-e-Islami. While the Indian one is quiescent, the Pakistani and Bangladeshi Jamaat are active in politics and attracts followers who are educated and deeply committed to the project of spreading Islam across the world. They believe that modernization as understood by the west is bankrupt and morally degraded. On the other hand, Islam offers the possibility of a global society, free from the uncertainties of man-made laws and divisions of race, language and colour.

In their view, what is needed was a world order whose guiding philosophy is based on Islam. The Jamaat and Brotherhood type Islamists accept that the fight can be peaceful and gradual, but many militant offshoots of Islam the al Qaeda, the Jamaat-ud Dawa, the Taliban, Hamas, the Boko Haram, the Islamic State or its rival, the Jabhat al Nusrah and others feel there is no other way but one of violence.

Many of us, schooled in the ways of the globalized world, often think that the ideas of an al Banna or Qutb are crackpot doctrines and need not to be taken too seriously. However, they are what provide the jihadists and radicals their raison de etre, and whether we like it or not, they spring from Islam, at least that interpretation of Islam that these radicals adhere to.

Many of these ideas and movements have taken shape in countries which were ruled by pro-western regimes whose repression bred alienation. Many felt the brunt of Cold War politics, especially, the twists and turns of American policy. Even today, the US links with Saudi Arabia underwrite the shenanigans of a family that claims to be the guardians of Islam. But it was the US overthrow of Mossadegh in Iran in 1953 which has ensured the rise of the mullahs in Iran. It was the wanton American war on Iraq in 2003 which has resulted in the denouement of the Islamic State in 2014.

The Islamist challenge to Europe, especially countries like UK, France and Netherlands, comes from the consequences of its colonial past. But economic needs and policies led to the rise of Muslim populations in Sweden, Norway, Switzerland and Germany as well. These migrants have come as workers and in many instances, have been stratified as less-privileged and less educated underclass. The fault for this lies as much with them as their host countries whose people tend to be insular and arrogant towards the recent migrants. Layered upon alienation and deprivation are religious beliefs, relayed by mullahs, distrusting modernity and rejecting concepts of gender equality. This class has been enormously attracted by the doctrines of jihad and anti-westernism. While the distance from the Afghan conflict prevented many from going there, the European jihadists have travelled to Syria via Turkey and Jordan in significant numbers. It is estimated that there are some 250 fighters each from Australia and Belgium, 700 from France, 400 UK, 270 Germany and so on.

This is where the difference between other places where large numbers of Muslims live—India, Indonesia, or Malaysia—is so striking and, indeed, proof that the problem is not so much with Islam, but with an assertive and violent minority which has left its silent majority bewildered.

South Asia poses another kind of challenge, considering that it comprises of 40 per cent of the world's Muslim population. Just around the time of al-Wahhab, an Indian theologian, Shah Waliullah was laying the foundations of a religious revival movement in Delhi. He believed that the Muslim downfall in India had come because they had strayed from the pure faith. Subsequently his ideas led to the growth of the seminary in Deoband. However, unlike the Wahhabists, the Deobandis operated in an environment where Muslims were a minority and where the dominant power were the Christian British. So, their emphasis was more on personal change, rather than could be forced on society as was done in Saudi Arabia. The Deobandi world view is conservative and has been a factor in the Muslim backwardness in India. On the other hand, it was this conservativism that led the Deobandis to oppose partition.

It was the modernisers who called for Pakistan, and thereafter cynically used the mullahs and religion to maintain their rule in the country. This process led to an increasing influence of religion in state politics. Another fillip was given to the religious mix by the US-led jihad against the Soviets in Afghanistan which resulted in even Deobandi organisations which earlier focused on religious piety and conservatism beginning to espouse violent change.

Unlike the Muslim experience in Pakistan where the state meddled with religious ideas, or Europe where the Muslims are alienated migrants, India took the road of letting Muslims undertake change at their own pace and within the ambit of their own religion and traditions. The results are for all to see, even while a large mass of Muslims remain conservative and poor, those who want change are provided the space they need to undertake it. Despite a huge Muslim population, no Indians figure in the list of fighters in Syria, just as there were none in Guantanamo.

Clearly, the political project of Islamism—that of rejecting western modernity and seeking to, instead, transform the world into an Islamic Caliphate— will obviously not succeed. The world will resist any jihad or violence in the name of the faith. But a lot of blood, largely Muslim, will be shed. Change has to come from within and courageous voices from Muslims themselves acknowledge this.

On New Year's Day 2015 President Abdel Fattah al Sisi of Egypt made a powerful counterattack on Islamist radicalism. Speaking to the ulema and religious scholars at Cairo's world famous theological centre, the Al Azhar University al Sisi said that he was mortified by the fact that "what we hold most sacred should cause the entire umma to be a source of anxiety, danger, killing and destruction for the rest of the world."

He bluntly spoke of the theological issue of bidaa when he noted that "corpus of texts and ideas that we have sacralized over the years, to the point that departing from them has become almost impossible, is antagonizing the entire world."Pointing to the mindless violence of Islamists, he sarcastically noted that it was not possible that "1.6 billion people should want to kill the rest of the world's inhabitants—that is 7 billion—so that they themselves may live . " He went on to tell his audience that there was need to get out of old mindset and reflect on it from a more enlightened perspective. Adding that "we are in need of a religious revolution" and the "entire world is waiting for your next move" because the Muslim world was otherwise destroying itself.

(An earlier version of this article appeared in Mail Today)

(The writer is a Distinguished Fellow at Observer Research Foundation, Delhi)

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Manoj Joshi

Manoj Joshi

Manoj Joshi is a Distinguished Fellow at the ORF. He has been a journalist specialising on national and international politics and is a commentator and ...

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