Reasserting Islamic Identity

Sanjay Kapoor

Salman Rushdie, who has been on the run ever since the Iranian religious leader, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, passed a fatwa against him for defaming the Prophet, Muhammad, in his book, The Satanic Verses, has been reflecting on the growing radicalisation of Islam. He reminisces about how, when he was growing up, the world’s great Muslim cities were all very cosmopolitan. He is correct in this observation, which many of those who are baying for his blood would readily share.

While Rushdie’s experience of Islamic intolerance has a lot to do with his own conduct and the manner in which he put his hand in the beehive and demanded from the bees that they do not sting him, anyone can bear testimony to the fact that Muslim communities have become extremely radicalised ever since ideology collapsed with the fall of the Berlin Wall. 

Anyone who lived through the 1970s and ’80s in preponderantly Muslim cities like Karachi and Lahore would testify they were more progressive and modern than any city in India. My close friend in Lucknow, Zafar Rizvi, who often visited Karachi, where he had relatives, would give the impression of having returned from Europe. He would talk about Karachi’s wealthy society, its culture and emancipated women.

“They smoke and drink and wear sexy clothes,” he would intone to our adolescent imaginations. In comparison, Lucknow’s famed high life was confined to sepia tinted images in old albums. The scars of Partition, so visible in other cities of northern India, were non-existent in this deeply secular city of nawabs. Festivals such as Holi, Diwali and Eid were occasions to witness secularism as Hindus and Muslims stepped out to embrace one another and partake in the other community’s cheer. Perhaps it had something to do with Lucknow’s former Shia rule or the fact that both communities fought together against the British during the1857 revolt.

Other cities of north India, in contrast, did not evidence similar bonhomie between the communities. The grand idea of “socialist and secular government” to heal the wounds of Partition might not have taken off due to the compulsions of electoral politics and the manner in which political parties resorted to riots to consolidate their support bases, yet there was communal harmony in the big cities well into the late 1980s. 

In the great cities of the Muslim world -— Baghdad, Damascus, Basra, Kabul, which were nearly all under the sway of socialist ideology — people experienced great social freedom. Women were encouraged to study, take up jobs and work towards actualising their potential. In Lahore, Karachi, Tehran and Maghreb, the hard and intolerable face of Islam, so prominent now, was not really visible.

The Islamic revolution in Iran, followed by the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, shook the world of Islamic believers. The Western powers did not take kindly to either event. The happenings in Iran were perceived as a threat to Western hegemony and control over the oil industry 

The Islamic revolution in Iran, followed by the Soviet invasion of Afghanisation, shook the world of Islamic believers. The Western powers did not take kindly to either event. The happenings in Iran were perceived as a threat to Western hegemony and control over the oil industry. And the invasion of Afghanistan posed a different kind of geo-strategic threat.

To counter the happenings in both countries, the West pandered to and promoted Sunni fundamentalists to fight off the challenge of atheist control in Afghanistan and the threat of the Islamic revolution spreading to the West-friendly oil kingdoms in the Gulf.

In short, the West used its enormous resources and persuasive skills to shoehorn the character and nature of these societies to suit itself. It mattered little that these societies were being pushed into practising a version of Islam that was regressive and antithetical to everything the Western democracies stood for.

 The war on terror after 9/11 has given an even greater edge to Islamic radicalism. The Muslim world now sees rage against the West as an assertion of Islamic identity. This reassertion of Islamic identity has given the Western powers and Israel a handle to dismantle secular progressive regimes in the name of the “Arab Spring”.

Iraq and Libya have crumbled under this planned onslaught. Syria is fighting a bloody battle to keep the Al-Qaeda and Salafis from turning it into a hardcore Islamic state. So, if the men with long beards who use the internet, social media, and Twitter to spread their narrow version of Islam seem to be winning, who is to blame?

Does anyone really bother, Mr Rushdie?

This story is from the print issue of Hardnews: OCTOBER 2012

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