Across the past few weeks, I have had the pleasure of reading numerous works centered around the middle east and Islam. On one hand, the scholarly books of Reza Aslan was illuminating and profoundly enlightening about the complex dynamics of the Muslim world and the richness of its history and culture. On the other hand, reading the works of Jean Sasson and Alexandra Symeonidou painted a picture about what the middle eastern landscape looks like for women today. In reading these works, I realized that we in India neither understand the middle east nor Islam nor Muslims nor for that matter radicalization in any religion and somewhere this ignorance has hurt our ability to confront fanatical movements.
To begin with, the conservative right wing has gone out of its way to paint Islam as an inherently violent religion committed to the notion of oppression and totalitarian rule. But that largely operates on the assumption that there is a homogeneous Muslim population and a single version of Islam. Nothing could be further from the truth. Like any other sociological phenomenon, Islam too has evolved continuously, influenced by historic and geo political factors which is why see Indonesia, Saudi Arabia, Turkey and Iran being so culturally different from each other, despite having strong Muslim Populations. Leave aside the classification of Sunnis and Shias, but even within the Sunnis there are various schools of thought that have evolved many of which are moderate and oriented towards tolerance like the Wahabi ideology.
Secondly what the right wing conservatives are most guilty of is the condescending tone employed to speak of Islam and Muslims. Religion, as Reza Aslan puts it, is the story of faith. If 1.57 billion people around the world find inspiration in the life of Prophet Muhammed, it is not just a story of faith, but it is an inspiring story of faith. A man who remained monogamous for close to two decades, who challenged the traditional Tribe of Mecca that had oppressed the weak with predatory economic policies and who held his own against a decadent value system, is a historical character worthy of the honour and faith he commands. His own approach to his wives was exemplary in its feminist essence and the political movement he commandeered is nothing short of genius!
Yet, the right wing conservatives remain fixated on things like his marriage to a 9 year (which is not true as he was bethroted to her at the age of 9 and married her at the age of puberty) and ignoring in the process, the political nature of this marriages and the social context of those times. The plight of women within Muslim Society today is premised upon Hadiths (as opposed to the actual Quran itself which legislates very little) which is believed to be a highly doctored and manipulated source of law, perpetrated by arab tribes converted to Islam keen to retain certain practices from Pre Islamic Society.
My own experiences of dealing with womens rights issues within the Muslim community revealed to me the profound ignorance and deficient intellect of the religious elite in understanding the Intellectual Character of the Quran and its interpretation. Ironically, characters like Salahuddin or Ibn Rushd (one of the greatest philosophers known to mankind) remain unknown to the vast majority of the Muslims in India. Therefore, a call for reform within the Muslim community must operate on a premise of respect and veneration of the roots of Islam. It must acknowledge the incompatibility of the Quran with the thoughts and actions prescribed by the decadent institutions of Ulema, which remain an affront to the many humanistic features of the holy book.
Lastly, it is not Islam that has led to the destabilisation of the middle east, for it that were to be the case, many other muslim nations including Malaysia ought to have collapsed. Briefly said, Islamic society evolved one of the earliest experiments in secular democracy. It is worthy to note that the position of the Caliph was a secular position earned through popular mandate. Inability to remain true to the democratic process of appointing the Caliph, led to the sunni and shia division that we see today. The Middle Eastern geo political crises we see today, are therefore the result of despotic dictators and the absence of integrity on the part of the world powers in addressing the aspirations of the people therein.
Starting with British support support to the Saudi Royal Family and therefore the support to Wahab, the founder of the Wahabi school of thought within Islam (which inspires both Al Qaeda and ISIL) for defeating Turkey in the first world war, to the American support for the corrupt Shah in Iran, the actions of the civilized world have never been sincere towards the people of the middle east. The resulting actions of colonial powers have had a profoundly destabilizing effect in the region. Even today, Russia extends its support to Bashar Al Assad, while there are credible reports to suggest not only that he has lost popular support within the population, but the extremists fighting in the region were released by him from various prisons during the Arab Spring revolution, so as to paint the revolution as extremist and oriented towards radicalization. ISIL, perhaps remains the result of this strategy.
So why know all this? India for better or for worse has been an important stake holder in the Arab World and in Islam. Not only did the Sufi movement find momentum here, but Al Afghan whose works inspired cultural revivalism in Egypt during the 1800s was a product of Indian Islamic Education. Radicalisation of religion both within Islam and outside of it, is a problem we continue to grapple with. Geo political happenings within the middle east affects us at every level, not only in terms of our oil interests but also in terms of the safety of Indians in the region. Yet, our intelligence, internal security and foreign policy have been consistently short sighted, ignorant and therefore ineffective in participating and facilitating the evolution of Islam and emancipation of Muslim Populations everywhere.
India must participate in the future of Islam and the Muslim Population. It must extend support to reformist movements within the religion and the community and facilitate the amplification of their voices. Somewhere, the world powers have lost sight of the ground realities and complex dynamics that govern the middle east and Islamic Societies.
India, with its strong ties to Islam and the Muslim Community, can inject critical perspectives in the thinking of the international community. But more importantly, we must educate ourselves and our children about the rich history and the sociological forces that have governed Islam and its entry into India. For awareness is the foundation for empathy and empathy is the foundation for cooperation. Cases like the Dadri lynching will aggravate the trust deficit between our communities and we must settle for nothing short of swift justice in such cases. Be it the constitution or the Quran (which explicitly states that there can be no compulsion in matters of religion), there is no room in a civilised society to indulge in such forms of violence. Ignorance is not bliss and the sooner we learn this, the better it is!
By Ashok G.V.