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How India can counter Pakistan's radical Islam

By Yogi Sikand
March 15, 2011 16:04 IST
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The menacing threat that radical self-styled defenders of Islam today pose to the Pakistani State is, undeniably, a logical culmination of the very ideological basis of that State, says Yogi Sikand 

Recently, I had the chance to attend a lively seminar in New Delhi on the contemporary situation in Pakistan, organised by the Pakistan Studies Centre of the Jamia Millia Islamia. Half a dozen Pakistani scholars, all well-known in their respective fields, were among the speakers. If what they said is indeed true, the Pakistani State seems to be now faced with a genie that it had helped create but is now all set to devour it up -- the ghoul of terror in the name of Islam. Other than lamenting the sordid state of affairs of their country as it continues to disintegrate in the face of Islamist radicalism, the Pakistani participants, as 'good' academics, had little to offer by way of concrete and realistic solutions to the problem.

The menacing threat that radical self-styled defenders of Islam today pose to the Pakistani State is, undeniably, a logical culmination of the very ideological basis of that State. It is obvious that Islamist radicalism in Pakistan does pose a major threat to India, and this needs no explanation. We have seen what groups like the Lashkar-e-Tayiba that are sponsored by the Pakistani State are capable of doing, even deep inside Indian territory.

Such groups in fact consider war with India as nothing less than an Islamic duty binding on all Muslims. The Lashkar, for instance, insists that Muslims are bound by Islam to wage war, or what it considers to be jihad, against India in order to, as it puts it, 'absorb India into Greater Pakistan by dint of jihad', because, it argues, India was once ruled by Muslims and should thus be brought back into what it calls Dar-ul-Islam or 'the abode of Islam'.

It goes so far as to claim that Prophet Mohammed had himself prophesised that two groups among his ummah or followers would be saved from the smells of the fire of hell: those who accompanied Jesus in his second coming, and those who fought in the Ghazwat-ul-Hind, which the Lashkar translates as jihad against India. Based on this claim, which is deeply contested by other Muslims, the Lashkar argues that what it calls jihad against India is a religious duty and promises that those who engage in this jihad would be saved from hell.

For groups like the Lashkar, this is a cosmic battle that allows no compromises at all and must be pursued until India is destroyed.

What can be done by us here in India to counter such radicalism in the name of Islam? Given that the denial to the Kashmiris of their right to self-determination, and the killings of vast numbers of Kashmiris by the Indian forces are a major issue that Islamist radicals in Pakistan constantly invoke to justify their anti-Indian crusade, it is obvious that a just solution to the Kashmir question that satisfies the people of Jammu and Kashmir is one thing that India can no longer evade. This will go a long way in countering anti-Indian sentiments in Pakistan and in undermining the appeal of Pakistani radical Islamists.

Of course, this is easier said than done, and one can expect Hindu chauvinists in India, counterparts of the Pakistani Islamist radicals, of both the 'soft' Congress variety and the 'hard' RSS sort, to viscerally oppose this suggestion.

Another issue that is constantly harped on by Pakistani radical Islamists, and which is also one of the major sources of anti-Indianism in Pakistan, are the woeful conditions of the Indian Muslims as a whole. It ought to be clear that if the State continues to be indifferent to the economic and educational marginalisation of Indian Muslims, if the agencies of the State continue to reflect, as they certainly do, an anti-Muslim bias, if Muslims fail to get justice from the courts and continue to be targeted by the police and Hindutva forces, anti-Indianism in Pakistan will continue to flourish.

Conversely, if the Indian Muslims are seen to be treated well, and if the Indian State lives up to its much-trumpeted commitment to social justice, secularism and democracy (which, of course, is perhaps simply too utopian to expect), anti-Indian sentiments in Pakistan, which radical Islamists constantly cash in on, will see a corresponding decline.

If the willingness of the Indian State and its agencies to resolve the Kashmir issue in a manner acceptable to the people of the state and to address the manifold grievances of Indian Muslims seems unlikely, there is little hope to counter the appeal of anti-Indian radical Islamists in Pakistan, who will continue to project India as an enemy of Islam and Muslims.

It is, of course, unlikely that the Indian State would do anything of this sort. Where, then, should one look?

I see some hope in the possibility of Indian civil society actors working in tandem with Pakistani civil society groups on issues of common concern, acting as a pressure group to force their respective governments to move in the direction of improving relations between the two countries. As far as the issue of countering radical Islamism in Pakistan is concerned, of course there is little that Indian civil society groups can do, but even that little can prove to be extremely meaningful in the long run.

I have long thought of what I regard as a very useful experiment in this regard:  Indian Muslim leaders could be mobilised to dialogue with their Pakistani counterparts, to convince them that their continued India-bashing bodes ill for Indian Muslims, because this inevitably strengthens the hands of Hindu chauvinists in India, and for the image of the religion that they claim to champion.

Many Pakistani Islamic groups have strong bonds with their Indian counterparts. The roots of the Deobandi, Barelvi, Ahl-e Hadith and Jamaat-e Islami movements in Pakistan, the dominant Pakistani Sunni sectarian formations, all lie in India, and they acknowledge their ideological links with their counterparts in India. The most popular Muslim televangelist in Pakistan, Zakir Naik, is an Indian. Indian ulema continue to be widely respected in Pakistan. Since anti-Indianism in Pakistan is a threat to the security of Muslims in India, it is possible that Indian Muslim religious organisations that are widely respected in Pakistan could, if approached sensitively, be encouraged to play a major role in dialoguing with their Pakistani counterparts to promote better relations between India and Pakistan.

This possibility, however, has not been given the attention that it deserves. At least the Indian State has never evinced any interest in promoting such efforts.

Faced with the challenge of Hindutva chauvinism and the targeting of Muslims by the State in the name of countering terrorism -- which has come to take the form of a veritable witch-hunt of Muslims -- several Indian Muslim religious groups have, in recent years, made efforts to promote inter-faith dialogue between Muslims and Hindus, arguing for communal harmony and peace based on an expansive interpretation of Islam that is accommodative of religious and communal differences. Important Indian madrasas have issued fatwas denouncing terrorism in the name of religion, including Islam, and have stridently insisted that suicide bombings have no sanction in Islam.

This being the case, it is vital that Pakistanis be made more familiar with these alternate readings of Islam that stand quite in contrast, in several respects, from those of mullah-led groups and radical Islamists in Pakistan. Admittedly, at the practical level, this is no easy task, and as to how these alternate voices of Islam that insist, contrary to Pakistani traditionalist mullahs and Islamist groups, that peace, compassion and inter-communal dialogue and harmony are integral to the Islamic vision, can be popularised in Pakistan is something that needs to be worked out.

One could think of several possible initiatives: conferences and workshops, bringing peace activists, including Indian and Pakistani ulema, together, exchange of literature and so on. The fact of the matter, however, is that this has not even been tried out.

This task gains particular salience given the fact that ulema and other scholars who publicly articulate progressive and inclusive understandings of Islam that challenge the ideology of Islamist radicals are such a rarity in Pakistan today. There are several reasons for this, and I will identify only two. The first is sheer fear -- of being declared an apostate, a heretic, an agent of this or the other 'enemy of Islam', and even of being killed for daring to critique, even if by using counter Islamic arguments, dominant discourses about Islam, particularly on issues such as jihad, inter-community relations and women.

There have been several instances of outspoken Pakistani intellectuals who have tried to articulate such counter-Islamic discourses being persecuted for their views. Salman Taseer, the late governor of the Punjab, was the most recent of these, but there have been scores of others. The late Fazlur Rahman, one of the few internationally-known Islamic scholars Pakistan has produced, articulated a brilliant Islamic modernist discourse that held great potential for reshaping Muslim perspectives on a wide range of issues of contemporary concern, but he was forced by mullah and Islamist opponents to flee the country.

Present-day Pakistan's only well-known Islamic scholar, Javed Ghamidi, founder of the Al-Mawrid movement, was forced into exile after he received death threats, and recently one of his followers, a brilliant scholar from the North-West Frontier, was gunned down by suspected Taliban. The very real danger to their lives thus forces progressive Islamic scholars to keep shut, and this enables the traditionalists and the radicals to continue to monopolise public Islamic discourse in Pakistan.

A second reason for this state of affairs, as a Pakistani friend mentioned in a conversation in New Delhi just a fortnight ago, is that the Pakistani elite, including the 'modern' educated intelligentsia, who might seem to be most in need of an enlightened Islamic discourse, have generally taken little or no interest in Islamic scholarship themselves. For them, so says my friend, religion is some sort of taken-for-granted identity or else mere mumbo-jumbo superstition and a sign of backwardness, and hence something fit to be left to the mullahs to monopolise.

On a visit to Lahore, considered to be Pakistan's intellectual capital, some years ago, I did a quick survey of the bookshops in the Urdu Bazaar and on the Mall Road, where the five or six bookshops that sell English books in the whole of the city are located. The shops in the Urdu Bazaar specialised, among other things, in books that articulated either a very conservative version of Islam (such as that of the madrasa-trained mullahs) or else a very radical version of it (such as that of the Jamaat-e Islami and the Lashkar). I could find almost nothing that articulated a rethinking of Islam in the contemporary context, arguing for peace and inter-communal harmony from within an Islamic framework.

And as for the few shops -- all on the posh Mall Road -- that also stocked books in English, I was surprised, and, at the same time, shocked, to find that almost all the books on Islam in English on sale had been penned by Indian Muslim authors and had been published by Muslim publishing houses in Delhi. This is an indication of the utter intellectual poverty of the Pakistani elite, even on the issue of Islam, which is projected as so central to their identity.

Given this context, it is useful to explore the possibilities of familiarising Pakistanis with progressive Islamic discourses being articulated by a number of Indian Muslim scholars, some well-known, others not so. One can cite a number of such Indian Muslim scholars -- Asghar Ali Engineer in Mumbai, Maulana Wahiduddin Khan, Rashid Shaz, and Sultan Shahin in Delhi, and a host of Indian Muslim women activists who are now developing a discourse of 'Islamic feminism' that critiques the claims of both traditionalist mullahs and radical Islamists.

In addition, there are a number of traditionalist Indian mullahs and even some ideologues of the Islamist Jamaat-e Islami, who, although they may not be 'progressive', as we understand the term, on all issues, do take a firm stand, using Islamic arguments, for peace and communal harmony. How, we need to consider, can their writings and views be made accessible to civil society groups and intellectuals in Pakistan, who can use these arguments to challenge the discourses of Pakistani radical Islamists?

This needs to be done in a much organised manner. It could take the form of encouraging and arranging for these Indian Muslim writers to publish in Pakistani newspapers and journals, and arranging for their books to be simultaneously published in Pakistan as well.

It could also take the form of such scholars making an incisive study of the discourses of Pakistani radical Islamists and critiquing them, using counter-Islamic arguments.

Of course, such efforts will not suffice to counter the appeal of radical Islamism, which is not simply a religious or theological problem, but has deep-rooted political and economic roots, global as well as local and regional, including the fact, as in many other parts of the world, of it being a vehicle of protest against both real as well as perceived injustice.

While it is true that unless these underlying causes are addressed, radical Islamism in Pakistan cannot be countered, it does not mean that the sort of civil-society initiatives that we in India promote to do our bit are of no use whatsoever, for that would be to surrender to despair and hopelessness.

That said, countering radical Islamism in Pakistan cannot succeed without a similarly consistent struggle against its mirror-image, Hindutva chauvinism, in India as well.

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Yogi Sikand