The Politics of Religion

Bridging the great divide

When Osama bin Laden and his band of terrorists lambaste the US and Israel as enemies one and two, their words find a resonance among a majority of Muslims worldwide, Including India. The reason is simple. Despite the heavy-duty pronouncements of the US claiming to be the champion of democracy. Human rights and civil liberty, Muslims find it difficult to overlook its double standards. As Wasey says. “Throughout the civilized history, the US has always patronized authoritarian regimes. The so-called champion of democracy has always supported rulers who suppress democracy in their own countries.”

Moreover, in the US-led war against terrorism, most Muslims see the historic clash between Christianity and Islam: which is why, they argue, that the US has given a religion to terrorists. “Of all the innocent civilians killed in the last century, the majority were killed by the developed world or what can also be called the Christian world. How come nobody ever called the perpetrators of those acts Christian terrorists? All through the Inquisitions in Europe, Christians killed Jews, how come that does not qualify as Christian terrorism” asks Sabiha Sultana. But is anger against the US enough justification for a violent outburst? Dr Asghar feels that everything has a cumulative effect. According to him, the entire Muslim world is going through a process of international churning. The leadership is getting older and more authoritarian while the population is getting younger and better educated. And the world is becoming smaller by the day.

“Today, youngsters are reading not only about their own history but also the history of the developed world,” he says. “More and more young people are now questioning the double standards of the developed world. People like Osama bin Laden have been the creation of the US. They were freedom fighters as long as they were fighting the Russians in Afghanistan. But the moment they turned their fire against the US, they became Islamic terrorists.”

The violent vocabulary of the US is also contributing to the simmering rage, and it is having a trickle-down effect in India. The Sangh Parivar now talks of Islamic terrorists and how the madarsas are breeding grounds for terrorists. In fact, a certain section has even gone to town demanding the shut-down of madarsas. “When the US says that these Talibans came from the madarsas, everybody accepted it as gospel,” says Wasey. “Nobody questioned the fact as to how these poor, impoverished students of madarsas got equipped with arms and how did they learn to use them. How did these talibs who knew nothing but to read the Quran learn to fight a professionally trained army (the Russian Army)? You think they defeated Russians clutching their rosary beads? The spectre of Islamic terrorism which is haunting the US is its own creation and now the chickens are coming home to roost.”

Anxious about just this kind of backlash, the US State Department recently organized a study trip for 21 Muslim youth from India, Pakistan and Bangladesh to enable them to understand the US government and the American people better, In the month-long-trip, 12 girls and nine boys travelled to New York, Washington and Philadelphia meeting American-Muslim clergy, college students, city mayors and also former president Bill Clinton. The trip was only partly successful in its intent. While the students came back starry-eyed about the Great American Dream, they were equally unforgiving about the American government, particularly President Bush. “I know American people are very nice and a little naïve about the rest of the world, but President Bush is anti-Islam,” said one student.

Sure enough, Muslims world-wide have grievances against the US and at times, with their own governments, other also have complaints against the second largest religion in the world. One of the recurrent criticisms of Islam has been that it makes no distinction between religion and politics. That one flows comfortably into another and back. Consequently, the modern, largely western, concepts of democracy and secularism are alien to Islam. The criticism is not without foundation, but it misses the basic premise of the religion. When Islam came it did not merely seek to save the soul humanity, but rather put in place a system of governance for the society. It was not merely seeking to abolish idol-worship, but also evolve a code of conduct by which people could lead a day-to-day life.

The society that the early Islamists found themselves in was not only primitive, but debauched and cruel. Moreover, it was surrounded by equally cruel societies in its neighbourhood. The rulers were despotic, though some may be popular. Women were commodified and had absolutely no safeguards or rights. In such a scenario, religion or harvesting of souls was not enough. It was felt that religion can only survive in a civil society. So, Islamic took no chances. Everything, right from governance to business transactions to conjugal duties were laid down in great detail. Hence, there were no lines to distinguish religion from politics and this is the reason why for conservative Muslims it is difficult to perceive a separation between the two. Throughout the Islamic history, Muslims have looked upon their leaders not only as political bosses but spiritual guides as well. Because the idea of Islam was to create a society of the faithful, it did not give a thought to nation-states.

Over the years, Muslim scholars have grappled with the issues of nationhood, politics and religion. They have tried to interpret the Quranic injunctions in manners which would conform to the modern times. Writing about his conflict, Former Iranian President Hashmi Rafsanjani said, “The important point here is that Islam which developed 1,400 years ago on the Arabian Peninsula-in a settlement where people were fundamentally nomads – was a legal code specific to that society. And even that code was promulgated slowly over a period of seven to eight years. Now the legal cod, which was executed in those days for that particular nation, aspires to become the code for a world in which humanity has plunged the depths of the earth….. How can Islam (without adaptation) over all these contingencies?”

Though academic enquiries of this nature have been sporadic, most people have found their own ways of balancing the religion with the modern. Unfortunately, one terrorist attack is all it takes to push these people in the shadows.


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