The creeping Saudi tendril
When Cairo’s Tahrir Square erupted against President Mohammed Morsi’s attempts to usurp all powers, the divide was clearly visible. On one side were the Islamists, represented by the Muslim Brotherhood and Salafis, and on the other were the secularists, animated by Muslim liberals, Coptic Christians and many of those keen to protect the secular ethos of the Gamal Abdel Nasser era. Women provided the spine to this opposition to Morsi as they feared losing their rights once the sharia laws began to sideline existing ones.
The fury of the Egyptians, who had worked to oust President Hosni Mubarak and bring in democracy in their country, forced Morsi to order a referendum on the new constitution.
During this agitation against the Muslim Brotherhood-dominated government, the protesters at Tahrir and the liberal media realised, to their horror, that they had been abandoned by the West. All the excitement visible during the heady days of the “Arab Spring” in Western news outlets had evaporated.
Ahram Online, a respected Egyptian news website, claims that those occupying Tahrir and demanding respect for secularism, pluralism and women’s rights were dubbed Mubarak supporters by Western journalists. Such suggestions outraged the website commentator, but the dark truth is that secularism has no protectors. In neighbouring Syria, where thousands have been killed in an externally orchestrated civil war, the fight tragically is between the old secular and plural order led by President Bashar al-Assad and the West, and Saudi-backed Islamists.
Although Assad’s regime may be undemocratic and also brutally tough against dissent, his government ensured that Syrian society remained extremely westernised with women allowed to actualise their potential. In the last two years of war, it is the women who have suffered the most. During my last visit to Damascus, I saw more women in hijab than I had seen in the past. If TV images are any indication, Syrian women are now indistinct from those living in other Islamic societies.
One by one, all the secular societies of the Muslim world have come under pressure from the clergy. “Cities are being taken over by the villages,” claimed an Egyptian intellectual.
In Lucknow, I saw girls covering their heads in Arab style and men sporting long beards.... And I thought Lucknow was safe from this contagion!
The waves of Islamisation backed by the Saudi sponsors are sweeping South Asia also. In Pakistan, which was created on the basis of religion, the rise of religious radicalism is reshaping a society that was based on moderate Islam. The majoritarian interpretation of Islam is ratcheting tensions between Sunnis and Shias and other sects. Hindus, Christians and Parsis are slowly looking for refuge in societies where they can be safe.
In Bangladesh, too, the Islamists sustained by funding from the Gulf are enlarging their influence. A Bangladeshi woman activist visited some villages after a gap of a year and discovered to her horror that the attire of the women had altered. Nearly all of them had cast aside their traditional dhotis and were wearing salwar-kameez.
Expectedly, they also had their heads covered. When she asked why they had changed their clothes, one woman replied innocently that they were paid to do it.
In India, too, it is possible to see the same forces baring their nefarious agenda. During my recent trip to Lucknow, I saw girls covering their heads in Arab style and men sporting long beards and wearing short pyjamas and long kurtas. And I thought Lucknow was safe from this contagion!
Even though the political class, due to its own compulsions, may not really pay attention to what is taking place on the ground, this cultural invasion riding on Saudi money could threaten the secular ethos of the country and also contribute to feeding a stereotype in the minds of the majority Hindus.
If secular forces are not sustained by the Indian State, then the real and imagined fears of the majority community could look for inspiration from the likes of Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi. As a perceptive Arab ambassador warned me the other day, the “happenings in Syria and Pakistan are not so far from India as (we) think. And there are powers that would try to test a few dangerous theses in India, too!