Perhaps, it is just a coincidence. But it is a telling one never-theless. The sealed office, where the now infamous Student’s Islamic Movement of India was born, wears an air of neglect and antiquity. However, the board announcing the organization has not been obliterated completely. Part of the name is still visible, just as the part of the disparate organization is still functioning in spurts, despite most of its leadership being either incarcerated or on the run. However, the half-hidden board is significant for another reason. In its half-concealed, mutilated visage, it seems to reflect a disease which is crippling the Muslim community of India even more than it is debilitating the nation. Because every time a person blows himself up in some part of the country, apart from killing the innocents around the venue, he scars forever what he hopes to represent.
Some call it Jihad, while others label it as revenge killing. Then of course, there is always the comfortable bogey of the foreign hand. Isn’t it wonderful that by making itself so notorious, Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence has made it convenient for us to dump all our problems at its doorsteps? However, in our enthusiasm to blame our neighbours we forget to look inwards. And when we sometimes do look inwards, we quickly skim the surface lest the underlying grime stain our well-manicured fingertips. Like any other community in the world, there have been criminals among the Muslims, but now, there are terrorists. A phenomenon that is both scary and dangerous because it is only the beginning. But how did terrorism acquire a religion? Isn’t terror a faith by itself? How did Jihad become such a dirty word? And where are all these young, probably promising but without hope, people coming from? Is it possible that these are only the skeletons left behind by us, who have now acquired flesh and blood?
Of course, there are no easy answers. There are only half-beginnings and half-endings. The full story has not been written as yet. In 1978, S.Naseemuddin ( name changed on request) had just turned 20 and had just entered the portals of the famous Aligarh Muslim University. He carried with him not only a burden of history (the Partition, the riots, the family’s struggle, communal violence) but also a promise of the future. And they both alternately sneaked into his present forcing him into a collective thinking mode. Like many of his friends, he could not think only of his own career, his own future. To him, these issues were inextricably linked to the future of this community and his religion. Brought up on the regular diet (or diatribe) of angry poets and ideologues, he cherished a sense of dissatisfaction, hovering on frustration. It was both simplistic and difficult to dismiss his frustrations as the enthusiasm and insecurity of the youth. It was much easier to join a student’s movement with a noble purpose.
“I joined SIMI because there wasn’t much else to do. We wanted to reform youngsters, make them better Muslims and by extension better human beings. I felt that we knew more about James Bond and bell-bottoms then we did about our own culture and religion,” says Naseemuddin, who now works in the same university. “We had a lot of passion within us but didn’t know what to do with that.” Hockey sticks were the instrument of terror in those days. So young, bearded SIMI enthusiasts started wielding the stick on those who did not agree with their idea of an upright life. But that was many years ago. Today, the instruments of terror have changed. Instead of hockey sticks, passionate youngsters, often with professionals’ degrees are using deadly explosives. And with terrifying results. After each incident, a few names are bandied about as perpetrators, a few links are found, a few arrests are made and a long list of instructions are published for the safety of innocent civilians. One can understand Palestinians doing it. Poor people, they feel they have no choice. If Israelis are going to kill them in any case they might as well kill themselves and take a few Israelis with them. One can even try and understand fidayeens in Kashmir. After all, some of them do have serious grievances. Moreover, those are not our boys. Those are foreigners exported to Kashmir by Pakistan with the single point agenda of fomenting trouble. But bomb blasts in Mumbai? Suicide killers in Gujarat?
The twin blasts that rocked India’s financial capital recently once again brought to fore the uncomfortable questions. Are Indian Muslims really so angry? And if they are what is the reason for that? Discrimination? Communal violence? Denial of justice? But what is new in all this. Aren’t they used to discrimination in jobs? Aren’t they used to riots which have taken place with religious regularity in India since the Partition? And what about justice, even poor Sikhs are waiting for justics for the riots of 1984. One college-going Muslim girl, Nafisa, says with refreshing innocence., “I feel that Muslims are a little too ‘junooni” (passionate). They believe that they can solve their problems by terrorising other or by doing drastic things, but they don’t realise how much they are harming their own community. Because of the actions of a handful of people, the Muslims world-wide are suffering.”
However, Professor Akhtarul Wasey, director of Zakir Husain Institute of Islamic Studies, Jamia Milia Islamia University, has an interesting explanation for the ager. He says, “Today, Muslims are becoming more aggressive because they are becoming more nationalistic. They know that India is not only their ‘ janam Bhoomi’ (motherland) but also their ‘karam bhoomi’ (country of habitat). They have no option but to live and die here.” According to Wasey, earlier after each communal riot one would hear of some Muslim families migrating to Pakistan or some other country. However, after the Gujarat carnage. If at all there was a movement it took place within the country. While a few Muslims moved to Andhra Pradesh. A few returned to their native villages in Uttar Pradesh and Bihar. “An increasing number of Muslims are demanding equal rights and equal opportunities. In the absence of which they are turning aggressive. They are developing an attitude that if you don’t let us live with dignity we won’t let you live either.” he says. “Since organised violence is a luxury not available to the minorities they have to resort to sporadic violence.”
His words may have a dangerous ring to them but they may be partly true. Denial of justice is another valid reason. In the last decade, media, especially, the electronic media brought communal violence into everyone’s living room. Earlier, the print media used to follow the unsaid code of not mentioning the religion of the rioting parties. So a riot always remined localised and the images of the victims or the perpetrators never reached the common people. However, since the demolition of the Babri Masjid, people have had access to visuals of various communal riots. In fact, in the case of Surat, private videos were shot for limited circulation showing women getting raped and killed during the riots. It is no surprise that some of the videos went beyond limited circulation.
The anger thus generated has been fanned by vested interests on both sides of the border. One recent newspaper report said that people from such terrorist outfits as Lashkar-e-Taiyyaba among others, scout for young recruits form among the riot-victims. Little wonder, those arrested for the recent blasts in Mumbai claim to represent an outfit called the Gujarat Muslim Revenge Force allegedly backed by Jaish-e-Muhammad and Lashkar-e-Taiyyaba. This explains the recent violence as revenge killings, which is as much a law-and-order situation as a social problem that the administration must look into. After all, violence only breeds violence. If the recent bomb blasts were in response to the Gujarat carnage; then that was a result of the Godhra massacre, which was caused by the prevailing communal situation in the state. And the cycle goes on. Wasey says, “A terrorist is not only the person who inflicts physical injury, those who resort to verbal violence should also be called terrorists because verbal violence injures a large number of people. Injuries hurt and sometimes a person is hurt enough to hit back.”
It goes without saying that in the last decade a systematic communal polarisation has taken place in India. Thoughts which were considered too dangerous to be voiced even in private now crowd the airwaves. In the early Nineties, when the Babri Masjid-Ram Janambhoomi agitation was at its peak violent speeches by various BJP, VHP and RSS leaders were recorded and distributed almost surreptitiously with most of the orators later denying having ever made those speeches. At least, there was some consciousness of verbal violence in those days. But in the last five years, even that seems to have disappeared. The shouting brigade of the Sangh Parivar routinely goes on television to heap abuses and allegations upon Muslims and Christians, depending upon their mood and the issue of the day. Obviously, the tolerance levels on both sides have been going down. In the past, probably the police (or the notorious PAC) colluded with the rioters but at least the government of the day ensured that it appeared non-partisan. But in Gujarat, the state government simply didn’t care. Whether it colluded with the rioters or not is a different story, what is troubling is the fact that it doesn’t even bother to correct this perception in the eyes of the minority community. Obviously, to them, it does not matter what the community thinks or feels. It does not require brilliance to understand what this callousness can lead to.
In an interview to a daily newspaper last year, former director general of police, Maharashtra and Punjab, Julio Ribiero said, “If people who have seen their mothers and sisters getting raped and burnt before their eyes have no hope of getting justice. They will all turn into terrorists. Why are we talking about the ISI and Pakistan when we are doing their job for them by creating terrorists?”
Terrorism bred on past violence is only one manifestation of what is happening today. The other is what most people dismiss as the distortion of Jihad The distortion, nevertheless, has the potential of causing serious damage, because even if it attracts only a handful of people these handfuls can further deepen the fault-lines between the two communities in India, giving credence to Samuel Huntington’s theory of clash of civilisations.
Jihad in India
In 1803, Shah Aziz, son of Shah Waliullah, a leading Muslim cleric, claiming an Asian-Turkish ancestry, issued a fatwa saying that unbelievers has seized power in India and hence the country can no longer be considered Dar-ul-Islam or the House of Islam. He was referring to the loss of the Mughal (or Muslim) power on the throne of Delhi as the British had reduced the Mughal monarch to a puppet. Taking a cue from him, his disciple, Sayyid Barelvi declared a Jihad against the British in India and set off to garner support for his cause from various countries.
Muslim invaders over the years, starting from Muhammed bin Qasim in 711 AD, Mahmud of Ghaznavi in 1026 to Babur in 1526 used the call of Jihad from time to time to mobilise support or to fire up their men. While Qasim’s mission was definitely carrying forth the banner of Islam, Babur’s interest lay in founding an empire. Though he did call his 1527 war against Rana Sanga near Khanwa a Jihad, ironically, Sanga had such Muslim commanders as Hasan Khan of Mewat at Mahmud Khan of the crushed Lodhi dynasty on his side (In the entire history of invasions in India, there has seldom been a pure Hindu or a pure Muslim side). Whether Babur genuinely believed that God would help his fledgling army against the formidable enemy is not important, what is significant is that he invoked the name of God to fire up his despondent troops who were sure of a defeat. Calling the battle, a holy war, he urged his men to fight till death, because the warriors for God don’t flee the battle-field; they fight to win or die trying. The result of his fiery call for Jihad was that his 12,000 men managed to defeat Sanga’s 80,000. Following his victory Babur gave himself the title of a warrior of God. But it did not mean that he imposed an Islamic rule over India, in fact, to win over his Hindu populace he banned cow slaughter in his kingdom. Mughals, with the exception of Aurangzeb, were known for their liberalism. They prided themselves on being builders and not destroyers.
Obviously, religion is a great source of strength and when you fight for God then you fight till the end. Over the years, various people have exhorted the young in the name of God, and rarely have such calls gone waste. Even though India was hardly an Islamic state during the Mughal reign, the so-called Muslim clergy (technically, there is no such thing as clergy in Islam) perceived it as one. The Mughal Empire was likened to the Ottoman Empire of Turkey (which was an Islamic state) and it didn’t hurt the rulers of the day to accept the ‘compliment’ quietly. Hence, when the British brought the Mughal rule to an end, the clergy felt that the loss was as much religious as political. And Jihad was proclaimed against the foreign rule. In the minds of few, even after Independence the struggle continues as Indian remains Darul-Harb (House of Strife).
In September 2003, at an Islamic lecture in the department of theology at Aligarh Muslim University, one orator, exhorting young students to emulate not just the lifestyle of the prophet but also his character, said that the Muslims are a struggling race. Harking back to the Independence and the Partition of the country he said that though Muslims got a house to stay, they did not get the keys. The inference is clear. In 1803, the British usurped the power from the Muslims. In 1947, the power should have come back to the Muslims; hence, the allusion to struggle.
Struggle has been a recurring theme in Islamic history. Though most people call this a Jihad to improve ones quality of life (in purely religious terms, not economic). In public speeches or private exhortations, the distinction is seldom made. In 1909, Urdu poet Iqbal wrote a poem Shikwa, steeped in revolutionary Zeal. In the poem he complains to God for abandoning the Muslim. He wrote that, “There are people of other faiths, some of them transgressors/ Some are humble; drunk with the spirit of arrogance are other/Some endowed with brain/Hundreds are others there who even despair of your name/ your blessings are showered on homes of unbelievers, strangers all/ Only on the poor Muslim, your wrath like lightening falls. Iqbal goes further in this poem, pleading with God to make the task of the Muslims easier.
Mushkilen Ummaten Marhoom Ki Aasaan Kar De! Moor-e-Bemaya Ko Hum-Doshe-Suleiman Kar De! Jins-e-Nayab-e-Mohabbat Ko Phir Arzaan Kar Se! Hind Ke Dair-NasheenonKo Musalmaan Kar De!
Joo-e-Khoon Mee-Chakad Azz Hasrat-e-Daireen-e-Maa! Mee Tabad Naal-aye Ba Nashtarkada Seenaye Maa.
Lighten the burden of the people who you blessed once, raise the poor down-trodden ant and make it Solomon’s peer, make abundant that rare commodity love, convert to Islam India’s millions who still worship in the temples, Long have we suffered, see how grief’s blood flows down the drain, from a heart pierced by the scalpel, hear this cry of pain.
Fortunately, Iqbal was a poet. His talent gave him an avenue to vent his frustrations. The less fortunate ones heard his passionate pleas and grappled with means to bring about the change. In the pre-and post-independence India, many among the Muslims have been inspired by the idea of making sacrifices in the name of their religion. Glory of Islam seems a realisable dream. For them, Iqbal was only one of the links in the long chain of people, mainly religious, who spoke of the great Islamic revolution. Though Iqbal laid a lot of emphasis on churning within the community, other simply dreamt of an all-encompassing kingdom of God. One of the notable theologists and writers, who influenced a lot of contemporary Muslim thought in the 20th century, was Maulana Sayyid Abul A’la Maududi. Like his contemporary in Egypt, Sayyid Qutb, the founder of the Muslim Brotherhood (both Osama bin Laden and Dr Ayman al-Zawahiri are former members of this organisation), Maududi believed in the university of Islam. He propounded the idea of Jihad, both the peaceful and the violent one if need be.
Though Maududi later moved to Pakistan, his books still sell in India and are quite popular among young, particularly, religiously changed Muslims. Maududi believed, and consequently his readers among the young activists believe, that God had promised the Prophet that Islam would sweep across the world if only its adherents remain true to faith. A former president of the Moradabad chapter of Jamaat-e-Islami whose nephew is a member of SIMI, says that the goal of any true Muslim’s life should be sarfaroshi or sacrifice in the name of God. Obviously, such high-pitch talk is bound to influence impressionable minds.
Dr S.M. Asghar of the department of theology, AMU, rubbishes the suggestion of a Jihad mentality in India. “Nobody thinks like this. This is just another of those attempts to brand all Muslims as traitors in India,” he says. “To begin with, what is happening today is not Jihad. People don’t even know what it means and the conditions under which it can be waged.”
Ironically, his colleague and an active member of the Tabligh-e-Jammat (an organisation for the propagation of Islam) admits that glory of Islam means ensuring that everyone sees light one day. “We don’t believe in the practices of Jamaat-e-Islami or SIMI. We only believe in teaching the Muslims to practice Islam in nits purest form as preached by the Prophet. We believe that the Muslims, by the example of their uprightness can motivate other people to embrace Islam. After all, God is one and everyone has his or her own way of reaching God. We only want to help others realise the true path by setting an example.” he says.
If this be so, them how is it any different from Jamaat-e-Islami or SIMI? He hesitates before answering, “They have always believed in coercion. With SIMI being more aggressive than its mentor.” Today SIMI has become an acronym for terrorist violence in India. Everyone, even its cofounders find it convenient to lump the organisation with all sorts of allegations.
Jammat-e-Islami, which fathered SIMI, attended its functions and gave fiery speeches to the young and the restless Muslim youth, today is mothering another student’s body called Student’s Islamic Organisation. A former president of the Jamaat says, “We parted company with SIMI because the organisation was becoming too big for its own good. It had started deviating from its original constitution.”
But even in those early days, SIMI was a highly confused organisation. Its leaders gave charged speeches, spoke of big things such as changing the world, bringing about an Islamic revolution, sacrificing the self in the name of God and so on, but nobody knew how to convert words into action. When words don’t translate into action there is bound to be frustration. Says Naseemuddin, “In the beginning we only wanted to stem the growing influence of the western culture. But even in those days, some enthusiastic youngsters took the idea of reformation a little too seriously. They started harassing students to wear certain kind of clothes, particularly girls. They also started disrupting cultural events as they termed them anti-Islamic.” This led to clashes between SIMI and the anti-SIMI and soon enough there was a serious backlash against this moral policing. But that was then when SIMI was still a student’s movement.
Prof. A.P. Sharma, former head of the department of political science, AMU, who saw the emergence and subsequently the downfall of SIMI in Aligarh says, “In those days, SIMI was not considered a dangerous organisation. In any case, Marxist student unions were always more popular. SIMI often used to invite me to speak during their various functions. Unfortunately, I never accepted its invitations because it was a bit too dogmatic for my liking. But it was not against any religion. In fact, it did a lot of good as it instituted various scholarship for poor students.”
However, things started deteriorating by the late-Eighties. Saeed Khan, former president of the Bombay chapter of SIMI, says, “In 1989, a few top SIMI leaders came under the influence of some extremist elements. Though most of us were opposed to their ideas, we couldn’t do much to stop this infiltration.” Following the demolition of the Babri Masjid things spiralled out of control. The mafia and the foreign militants started approaching SIMI members and were even invited to their annual convention in Mumbai. Despite resistance, there were voices within the organisation to declare a Jihad. Gradually, by mid-Nineties, the moderates started leaving the organisation. Gujarat provided just the necessary spark to translate verbal fire into a physical one.
Yet, it would be unfair to blame extremist elements within one organisation. People making volatile speeches from the convenient distance of a podium should share the blame in misleading youngsters who understand their religion only through readymade interpretation given by semi-literate mullahs. When in the name of teaching Islam a religious leader says- “For years our enemy has tried to subjugate us, failing which it tried to deny our very existence and finally it tried to wipe us out. But we did not let him succeed. And we will never allow him to succeed”- what does he mean? Words can be potent and are capable of inflicting great injury.
The Crisis Within
Today, the state of the Muslims across the globe can be likened to that of the Jews throughout the human history. For centuries the children of Abraham suffered persecution waiting for God to fulfil his covenant of the Promised Land. They welcomed each humiliation as a purifying fire and strived hard to keep themselves on the path of righteousness. Muslims also believe that they would conquer the world one day as long as they don’t stray from the path preached by the Prophet as theirs the true religion. Hence, the biggest role model remains the Prophet and His is the life to be emulated.
Most Muslims are convinced about the superiority of their religion. They believe that Islam is the first religion of the world starting with Adam. Their line-up of prophets includes Abraham, Moses, Jesus Christ and finally Mohammed. They concede that Jews and Christians are also people of the Book but they rue the fact that neither of them accept Mohammad as a prophet. Nasir Sheikh, software personnel. Says, “Yes, I believe that my religion is superior to other religions. It is the most complete amongst the monotheistic religions. The holy Quran explicitly states that the people of the books (referring to the Bible, Torah, Psalms and the Quran) have no need to fear. It also says that the message, which began with Moses and Jesus, has now been completed. We all worship the same Goad (the God of Abraham) but in Islam, God and his apostle have perfected our religion for us.”
But even the most perfect of all creations have to live with imperfections around. Over the years, Islam has responded positively to various regional and cultural influences. Then, of course, there has been a completely selfless cult of Sufism which re-emphasised the concept of universal brotherhood. (In fact, it would be an interesting study to see who won more people for Islam-the sword or the selfless devotion of the Sufis?) These primary factors have ensured that today Islam is the fastest growing religion of the world However, it is also true that it is increasingly becoming the most misunderstood, and consequently, the most maligned religion of the world.
Like many religious books, Quarn is not always explicit in its writ. A lot of verses have the potential of being interpreted in different ways. And these slight variations can wreak havoc. Besides, the Quarn was revealed to the Prophet over a period of time and hence its various injunctions were responsive to prevailing social conditions. This meant that all verses had their context. It is true that Islam is a religion of peace, but it is also true that it legitimises violence (defensive violence, see box) under certain circumstances. Threat perception is something that differs from person to person. If one person assumes the authority to define threat for a group of people then it is a sure recipe for disaster.
Moreover, Islam lays down a stringent list of do’s and don’ts which defines an Islamic ways of life. Modernisation, inspired by Westernisation, certainly does not fit in But then, as of now, there is no other ready-made definition of modernisation. Pakistan aspired to be a modern Muslim state. But even the champions of that idea had no clue what the term meant. Which is why with each passing year the country’s laws became more and more regressive. Perhaps, modernisation means secular education and pursuit of science and technology. But is it possible to limit modernisation to only these subjects? Moreover, who would decide what level of modernity is acceptable for the entire community? Aren’t these region and culture specific choices? For mullahs or the so-called authoritative interpreters of Islam, modernism is in direct conflict with their religion as all the trappings of modernity resemble the western way of life. And conservative Muslims, of the Wahhabi school of thought or with the Taliban disposition aspire to an ancient life. Most Muslims today have evolved their own working definition of modernism which coexists with the Islamic way of life. As far as they are concerned there is no conflict between leading a contemporary life and practising their religion.
However, there has always been a minority, even as early as the 11th century that feared outside influences to such an extent that it resorted to violence to repulse them. From time to time, they would give a call for Jihad against various Muslim rulers alleging deviation from the path of the Prophet. Contrary to the common perception that conservative Muslims are hostile towards the people from other religions, these Jihadis have largely besieged the Muslims. Today the so-called Jihadis blame the modern, progressive Muslims for what they call the failure of Islam to conquer the world. After all, didn’t God promise the Prophet, that devotion to faith would bring glory and deviations would result in abject failure?
They ask that if Muslims are the chosen people then why God isn’t helping them in fulfilling His wishes. Why are the non-believers succeeding in crushing them? And why are they among the most back-ward and impoverished lot? Obviously, the answer to these questions lies in the way Muslims have allowed themselves to get influenced by the western values. Hence, the neo-interpreters of Jihad prescribe a rigid, ultra-conservative form of Islam which leaves no room for dissent, discussion, or dispute. Even as Muslims are convinced of their superiority, they are acutely aware of their powerlessness. Hence, with each present defeat or failure they hark back to past glory.
When Sayyid Ahmed Khan, the founder of the Aligarh Muslim University, tried to inculcate modern thinking among the Muslims, he faced a harsh backlash from certain sections. Organisations, such as the Tabligh-e-Jamaat, were the offspring of this backlash as they wanted to cleanse the Muslims of all unwanted foreign influences. Modernity, as understood by most people, was anathema to them.
The crisis most Muslims the world over face today is two-fold. One, coping with the worldwide religious profiling that they are being subjected to following the September 11 attack on the world Trade Centre. Two, the fear of loss of identity in the face of powerful outside (often western) influences. Indian Muslims are not insular. Whatever happens anywhere in the world has an impact in India as well. Until the US popularised the term, nobody in India had heard of something called Islamic terrorism. Terrorists were simply terrorists; they had no religion as India has been a victim of domestic violence for many years. Even now such groups as people’s War Group, ULFA, MCC are active in India. With some of them collaborating with terrorists’ outfits outside the country. However, since 9/11 each incident is identified with the religion of the perpetrator of terror. Sheikh asks, “If the person who planted the bombs in Mumbai had a name like Venkat Rao instead of Sayyad Mohammad would anybody have identified him as a Hindu terrorist?”
However, the important question that need to be answered today is that, if the Jihadi mentality is so old, if there have always been a few ultra-conservative elements among the Muslims all along, if a certain section has always believed that a great injustice has been done to the Muslims then why are these discontent voices finding a violent outburst only now? It is obvious that the blame lies elsewhere. As Wasey says. “Muslims in India today have ceased to be social animals; they have become more of political animals. The only time they are called upon to perform is during the election when their vote still amounts to something.”
The increasing communal polarisation is creating a volatile situation. Even as the majority of the Muslims are going out of their way to demonstrate their nationalism (during the Indo-Pak match in the last World Cup Cricket most Muslim households in the Muslim majority area of Mumbai flew Indian flags on their roofs and once India won the match they descended on the streets to celebrate in order to send the message to their Hindu brethren that they were not supporting Pakistan), there are many discontent youngsters who are feeling marginalised.
The state has to understand that the attitude of labelling one brand of communalism as nationalism and the other as terrorism is only going to yield dangerous dividends. “And soon, rational people like me will get isolated.” Warns Wasey.
The real meaning of Jihad
Islamic organisations are at pains to explain the real essence of their religion
Bridging the great divide