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Missing: Moderate Muslims

Courtesy, the South Asia Intelligence Review of the South Asia Terrorism Portal. First published in The Pioneer.

Outlook, Dec. 24, 2003

It is because secular institutions are failing to provide governance, transparency and justice that fanaticism and the ghetto mentality are resurfacing in irrational but powerful ideological guise. And this is not happening in Islamic communities alone.

At a time of great religious polarization and violence that is sweeping across the world - and a persistent campaign of terror in the name of extremist political 'Islamism' - while there is no room for complacency, it is useful to note that the ideology of extremist Islam 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. In structurally free societies, it is only where such discourse has been suppressed by terrorism that, once again, extremist Islam 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 terrorists in 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. Sixty-five per cent of the civilian victims of the 'Khalistani' terrorists were themselves Sikhs. Unsurprisingly, today, with the threat of 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 would simply shrivel up and die under the sunlight of open discourse.

It is in India that extremist Islam has met with its most resounding defeat 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 Islam is based largely on the tolerant and 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.

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 terror in that state.

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 their 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' and Iftar parties to dinner 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 this country 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 all other Muslim countries put together. 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.