In the past few days, terrorists have killed 17 people in Paris and 2,000 in Nigeria, while more than 30 have died in bomb blasts in Yemen and seven in Rawalpindi. In terms of geography, the incidents were as widely distributed across the globe, as they were in the ethnicity of the victims. But there is one thing in common in all 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 Muslim, 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 Iraq and 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 writers, artists, journalists, film-makers, many of whom live in exile.
Within the borders of Muslim countries, they have used blasphemy laws to coerce
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.
The battle is not something that began after the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979, or even 9/11. 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 modernised, 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 Hassan al Banna and Sayyid Qutub.
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 attract followers who are educated and deeply committed to the project of spreading Islam across the world.
They believe that modernisation, as understood by the West, is bankrupt and morally degraded. On the other hand, Islam offers a universal option, free from 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—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.
minorities and make any rational discussion of religion impossible.
Many of us, schooled in the ways of the globalised world, often think that the doctrines of an al Banna or Qutb are crackpot doctrines and need not to be taken too seriously.
However, they are what provide the jehadists and radicals their raison de etre, and whether we like it or not, they spring from Islam, at least the interpretation of Islam that these radicals adhere to.
Many of these ideas and movements have taken shape in countries which were ruled by prowestern 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 guardian of Islam.
Another set of victims were from the colonial empires of the Europeans. 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.
Even as the world must together fight the Islamic radicals, whether in the realm of ideas or in the battlefield, it is also clear Muslims alone can break the thralldom of anti-modernity and violence that is espoused in the name of their faith.
A word of caution
On New Year’s Day, Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al Sisi made a powerful counter-attack 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 the “corpus of texts and ideas that we have sacralised over the years, to the point that departing from them has become almost impossible, is antagonising the entire world.”
Pointing to the mindless violence of Islamists, he sarcastically noted that it was not possible that “1.6 billion [Muslim] 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 the old mindset and reflect on it from a more “enlightened perspective”.
“We are in need of a religious revolution,” he added, “and the entire world is waiting for your [the ulema’s] next move” because the Muslim world was otherwise destroying itself.
The role of racism
The Islamist challenge to Europe, especially countries like the 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 a 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 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 jehad 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 from the UK, 270 from Germany and so on.
Just around the time of Egypt’s Muhammad Abdl ibn al-Wahhab, 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 one enforced by society. However, their world view was conservative and has been a factor for their backwardness.
On the other hand, it was this conservatism that led the Deobandis to oppose Partition. It was the modernisers who called for Pakistan, and thereafter cynically used the religion to maintain their rule in the country.
Unlike the Muslim experience in Pakistan where the state meddled with religious ideas, or Europe, where Muslims are often alienated migrants, in India, the government 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.
In Pakistan, the gates of radicalism are wide open and there are few signs yet that the society will be able to prevent the further growth of radicalism.
Mail Today January 11, 2015