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The Moslem World: Prospects of democratization

At a time of great religious polarization and violence that is sweeping across the globe, and persistent campaigns of terror in may countries, it is useful to recall the often greater tragedies of the past, and to realize that the great waves of hatred and violence that have arisen intermittently throughout history have, eventually and inevitably, died out. This is necessary, lest we make the mistake of believing that the evil we confront today is immutable, that we are trapped in an irreducible conflict between irrevocably hostile ideologies and peoples, or to borrow a phrase that is so often used in our times, that we are engaged in a ‘clash of civilizations’.

The possibility of coexistence must first be accepted if the conditions for peaceful coexistence are to be created. There is an increasing tendency, today, to speak of the ‘Muslim world’ as an intransigent and violent monolith confronting the modern world, or as a homogeneous ideology of hatred that spawns terrorism. Needless to say, both ideas are wrong, though violence in the name of Islam is, today, a grave danger to many countries and peoples across the world.

Many of these countries and peoples are themselves Muslim, and, in the atmosphere of growing antagonisms and the stereotyping of the ‘other’, it is useful to note that the ideology of extremist Islamism is, in fact, being defeated in many places, and this is happening precisely because it is a weak and erroneous idea. It prevails only where the enveloping context is oppressive and does not allow questioning and criticism in an open discourse (though it may also occur on the marginalized fringes of a free society). In structurally free societies, it is only where such discourse has been suppressed by terrorism that, once again, extremist Islamism begins to appear to have prevailed. It is important to remind ourselves, however, that appearances are not reality; that compliance under extreme duress does not mean that an idea has been embraced. That is why the so-called ‘mujahiddeen’ in the Indian State of Jammu & Kashmir (J&K) have to kill so many of their own ‘Muslim brothers and sisters’, whose ‘rights’ they claim to be fighting to protect – nearly 90 per cent of all civilian fatalities inflicted by the terrorists in the State are Muslims. This is consistent with what had happened in Punjab as well, where the population was relatively more evenly distributed between Hindus and Sikhs – 65 per cent of the civilian victims of the ‘Khalistani’ terrorists, who claimed to be fighting for ‘Sikh rights’, were themselves Sikhs. Unsurprisingly, today, with the threat of Sikh fundamentalist terror gone, the ideology of Khalistan finds no advocates among the Sikhs in India, though a handful of non-resident Indians continue to rant about the ‘oppression of Sikhs’ in ‘Hindu India’. The fact is, intolerant belief systems constantly find it necessary to impose censorship through violence, because they are ideologies of ignorance and darkness, and would simply shrivel up and die in the light of an open discourse.

It is, again, in India that extremist Islam has met with its most resounding defeats, despite an enormous and sustained campaign of terrorism, vast financial resources from a wide range of state sponsors, and continuous support and encouragement from Pakistan. It is interesting that, in the Pakistan sponsored sub-conventional war in J&K, Pakistan has succeeded in sending in jehadis from more than 18 different countries to fight and die in the State, but they have failed entirely in getting Indian Muslims from other parts of the country involved in what they have sought to project as a jehad to protect Muslims against the ‘unbelievers’.

India’s success in contesting the movements of extremist Islamism is based largely on the tolerant, pluralistic Islam that has been embraced by the overwhelming majority of Muslims here, and the relationship of stable accommodation with other Faiths that Islam has entered into within the context of a democratic, open and secular constitutional polity. It is useful to note that India is the rare exception in a world of intolerance, where every Faith that has been encountered has been embraced, and has evolved a modus vivendi with other belief systems. It is here that communities fleeing religious persecution through the ages have found secure and permanent safe haven. And it is perhaps the only country in the world whose people have never exhibited any animosity or discrimination against the Jewish people.

Nevertheless, it is necessary to note that moderate Islam is, today, under siege in India – and the threat comes from more than one direction. The most significant threat, of course, is of terrorism itself. The moderates of the Faith cannot directly confront the extremists once the latter begin to push their ideas through campaigns of terrorism. The moderate voice is often stifled with the first shot of the extremists’ gun. While moderates can be expected to raise their voices against extremism, and have often done so, this is possible only under conditions where the risks are manageable. It is, consequently, necessary for both state and society to protect moderate Islam in India today, just as extraordinary measures were adopted to protect the voice of moderation in Punjab at the height of the terror in that State. This, indeed, yields a principle that must be applied across the world, if Muslim states are to move towards democracy.

The resource base of the moderates, moreover, is relatively limited, as compared to the vast and unconditional resources the extremists are able to secure from an array of powerfully motivated foreign sponsors. The result is the increasing orbit of subversive activities and well-funded campaigns for the mobilization of support for the extremist cause, and the relative absence of a coherent moderate response. In this, the role of the media also tends to be negative – though largely inadvertently so; since its primary focus is on ‘news’ and on the sensational, it yields far more column space and airtime to covering the activities of extremists than it could ever credibly commit to airing the message of the moderates. This is natural and cannot be expected to change, but it places moderates at a distinctive disadvantage, even as it assures a steady supply of the ‘oxygen of publicity’ that keeps the extremists alive.

Another and more insidious danger comes from the Indian state itself, as it seeks progressively to engage Islamist extremists and their state sponsors in negotiations. This reflects a grave miscalculation on at least two counts: first, the extremist ideology is not amenable to reasonable accommodation; second, and more significantly, when the state and its agencies engage the extremists in a dialogue and increasingly define their policies in terms of their assessments of extremist reaction and response, they inevitably marginalize the moderates. Today, moderate Islam has no voice in world opinion precisely because the world is eager only to engage with those who are killing in the name of Islam. If Islamist extremism is to be defeated, the world and the Indian state must not only speak to the moderates, and to the moderates alone, but they must also protect and empower them.

Regrettably, India’s political leadership is progressively losing its moorings on the communal question. Inviting ‘Muslim intellectuals’ to dinner and iftar (the breaking of the fast during Ramadan) parties appears to exhaust the range of political initiatives in this direction today, across the entire ideological spectrum. This can hardly help break through the ideological logjam, because these ‘intellectuals’ are themselves confounded by what is happening. Worse, the ‘secular’ lobby tends to be enormously patronizing, and has no real ingress into, and little understanding of, Muslim culture, which has largely been reduced to a politically correct parody of itself in their imaginings. This is no less than offensive to the Muslims, just as similar and reductionist stereotypes were offensive to the Sikhs during the era of terrorism in Punjab. The loss of Urdu as a living and vibrant cross-cultural language and intellectual movement has done irreparable harm in this context. If bridges are to be built, real knowledge and understanding of the culture is required, both among non-Muslims and among Muslims themselves, with each confronting and coming to terms with the realities of their own mixed histories and transgressions. The culture of denial that dominates a hypocritical ‘interfaith’ discourse in India and much of the world will have to be rejected if any forward movement is to be secured in the relationship between communities.

The intellectual and cultural accomplishments of Indian Muslims are far greater than the sum of those of most other Muslim countries, and Indian Islam is unique in its accommodation, as it lives in peace within a multicultural, multi-religious and multi-lingual society. The Indian Muslim has repeatedly made his aspirations clear to the nation and its leadership: he wants to be Indian and Muslim. Thousands of Muslims don the Indian uniform in all of the country’s fighting forces, and have repeatedly distinguished themselves for their courage, dedication and patriotism. Muslims in India do not want the special concessions and treatments that opportunistic political leaders constantly emphasize and project; they want a real equality within a non-discriminatory social and political context. Eventually, the people want governance, they want transparency and they want justice – and Muslim aspirations are no different. It is because secular institutions are failing to provide these that fanaticism and the ghetto mentality are resurfacing in irrational but powerful ideological guise – and this is not happening in Islamic communities alone.

Perhaps the most consistent failure, across the world, in this regard is the failure to acknowledge and confront the ideological dimension of the rise of extremist Islamism. The seeds of the violence we are witnessing today were planted in ideas that found expression in the early 1900s. For the better part of a century, they made steady progress, and since the middle of the last century, riding on the sudden affluence of the Arab world as a result of the oil boom, began to find liberal support and sponsorship. Literally billions of dollars have, over the past half-century or more, been steadily pumped across the world into the promotion of a narrow and inflexible interpretation of Islam. This process of the ‘hardening’ of Islam has continued, uncontested, for decades, before it was noticed by the host societies, and before it began to express itself in political extremism and violence. By the time these physical manifestations begin to occur, the process has already advanced to a stage where it is difficult to negate. It advances most rapidly, moreover, among the poorest and marginalized elements and geographical areas of a given host society – areas, by definition, where the influence of the State is relatively limited. It preys on the void in the scope and quality of governance, on the failure of outreach and educational programmes, and crucially, on cultural, ethical and ideological vacuums.

This has seldom been noticed or remarked upon. While billions of dollars have been pushed into the ideological mobilization of fundamentalist ‘Wahabi’ and extremist Islamism, there has been no comparable liberal democratic response. The presumed superiority of the liberal democratic ideology has been conceived of as being – in the expression of the American Declaration of the Rights of Man – ‘self evident’, and hence in no urgent need of vigorous propagation or defence. But no ideas are ‘self evident’, and none so contrary to reason that they cannot, with the right inducement and environment, prevail among large bodies of men. Those who advocate liberal democracy appear to have forgotten the fundamental idea of a ‘free marketplace of ideas’, where reason and unreason are in constant disputation, and where the best advocacy – or demagoguery – often prevails over the best ideas.

Another neglected aspect of democratic societies across the world – and India has been no exception in this – which has contributed significantly to the ideological growth of extremist Islamism, has been the tyranny of political correctness that has inhibited all critical debate on the seamier side of the histories of all religions. There is, consequently, a refusal, within secular systems, to confront the objective nature of religious communities and institutions, and their past and present transgressions; and a persistent proclivity to maintain the fiction that ‘all religions are equal’ and that their inherent message is the same. Religious fundamentalists, on the other hand, suffer from no such inhibitions, and are unabashed and altogether unrelenting in their attacks on other Faiths and on secular society. Simply put, the ‘ideologies of hate’ have been passionately advocated and propagated through an elaborate and well funded institutional mechanism, included the currently much-mentioned madrassah system in some countries, and have consequently prevailed, particularly among marginalized segments of the community, or have preyed on existing conflicts and grievances to gave them the guise of ‘religious’ confrontations. The ideologies of liberal democracy and of freedom, on the other hand, have, ostrich-like, refused to confront the reality of religious polarization, or to provide ideological and institutional alternatives that could prevent the rampaging march of extremism.

A clear recognition of these failures would constitute the first step towards their reversal. Thereafter, it will be necessary to generate the resources and institutional mechanisms to initiate the ideological response to Islamist extremism, both within the Islamic world and in liberal societies. It is useful to emphasize, within this context, that there is a strong need to objectively challenge the ‘root causes’ perspective that has widely been used by terrorists and their front organisations, as well as by a wide spectrum of ‘liberal democratic’ commentators, who link all manifestations of terrorism to ‘historical wrongs’ and ‘legitimate grievances’ of ‘disempowered people’. This remains a very strong strain in commentaries in the democratic world, in international institutions, as well as in the ‘Islamic world’. It has long been a source of enormous political legitimacy for those who employ terrorism, as well as for those who proclaim a distance from terrorist groups, but who stand to gain significantly from their activities.

Beyond this, the ideology of political and extremist Islam, and the justifications of the terrorist jehad, must be put under objective scrutiny. Islamism, indeed, Islam itself, must be brought under critical focus, even as it seeks to criticize other Faiths and ideologies. Such a critique, moreover, must find echoes within the Islamic discourse, with a systematic encouragement of Muslim scholarship that challenges the rising dogmatism and stridency of Islamist commentary. It must be recognized that there is a numerically powerful, but currently politically weak moderate community within Islam, whose voice has been silenced by the Islamists’ guns and bombs. This community must be empowered, and must be convinced that the true ideological struggle, today, is not necessarily between Islam and other Faiths (though it may find its primary articulation as such) but between ‘open’ and ‘closed’ systems. The ideology of extremist political Islam cannot survive critical discourse within the context of an open society – and this is clearly demonstrated by the failure of political and extremist Islam in India, despite the fact that it is home to the second largest Muslim population in the world and has been systematically targeted through a sustained campaign of Islamist subversion by its neighbour, for several decades. It is only within authoritarian and ‘closed’ systems, where all critical debate is suppressed, and where the vested interests of ruling minorities, including the possibilities of their very survival, are directly linked with the promotion of irrational and emotive ideologies and values, that fanaticism thrives and democratic values are rejected. The delegitimisation of ‘closed’ authoritarianism systems, and the progressive dilution of the free world’s links and support to states under such systems, must be a primary global objective if we are to strike at the roots of terrorism.

India – and its long rivalry with Pakistan – is also witness to the extent to which the ‘free’ Western world has had a preference for ‘closed’ authoritarian systems in the Third World, rather than a consistent commitment to genuine democracy. This is not unique to the subcontinent, but has been the character of Western foreign relations in many parts of the world. It is in these authoritarian ghettos that extremist Islam has principally gathered force to strike, first, against the relatively weaker systems within the liberal democratic fold, and now against the United States and other Western powers as well.

The lesson, then, both at the levels of intra-state and of global management, is that we must be consistent in our beliefs and our conduct. Sectarian and collusive politics has given rise to religious strife within states; unprincipled alliances between powerful democracies and authoritarian fundamentalist states have created the monstrosity of contemporary Islamist terrorism. The Muslim world is not only a victim of its own tyrants; it is, equally, a victim of our unwillingness to relinquish the advantages of our own intercourse with these tyrants, and of our deceitful alliances with them.

(Speech on the First Annual Jerusalem Summit, October 12-14, 2003)





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