Date: 2/25/2002


History as present continuous

Sandhya Jain


26th February 2002

American journalist Daniel Pearl's carefully planned and ruthlessly executed murder by men who felt no compunctions about filming the gory episode, is a grim reminder that both the ideology and the ideologues behind the twin towers tragedy in New York are still alive and kicking. In our part of the world, the same forces pulverised the majestic Bamiyan Buddhas and persecuted Hindus and Sikhs in Kabul, and continue to sponsor the ethnic cleansing of Kashmiri Hindus and the unabated brutalities towards Hindus in Bangladesh.

America rallied completely behind President Bush and enabled him to mount a response that saw the exit of Afghanistan's hated Taliban, and may yet see Osama bin Laden and Mulla Omar brought to justice on US soil. In India, by contrast, public discourse is so perverted that even after the daring assault on Parliament on December 13, our political parties have appreciated nothing more than the enhanced security for politicians!

Worse, for several months now we have been subjected to daily haranguing from Leftist historians, whose slanted books are finally on their way out of the schoolroom, against presenting the Islamic invasion of India in an unflattering light. Rather than admit the distortions in their books, the historians indulge in sanctimonious drivel about composite culture (whatever that means) and berate those who uphold India's pre-Islamic past a glorious epoch of spiritual and material progress. Marxists are particularly hostile towards those who aver that the medieval era was an age of atrocities against native Indians. They do not answer eminent Western scholars such as Andre Wink and Cynthia Talbot who repudiate RS Sharma's portrayal of the pre-Islamic period as India's "dark age" (which presumably ended only when the golden glow of Islam touched Sind). Muslim intellectuals have also jumped into the fray, criticising the "desire to depict Muslim rule as barbaric", even though the new textbooks have not seen the light of day! There are admonitions against "stereotyping" Islam as red in tooth and claw.

Apologists for Islam would do well to introspect over how it got "stereotyped" as a violent faith despite decades of state-sponsored doctoring of Indian history. As a schoolgirl, I remember chanting the myth of Akbar being a nation-builder (the next legendary 'great' after him being, of course, Jawaharlal Nehru), and the Hindi films I saw perpetuated the charade of the great monarch as "maa-badaulat." Nothing good is said about native heroes, and attempts to cut valourous communities like the Jats, Sikhs and Marathas to size persist unabashedly. Despite this asymmetrical representation, the story of Islam as a religion of peace has had few takers. The memory of History has now returned to haunt the Left-secularists and Muslim apologists. They would do well to ponder if there is something in the fundamentals of the faith that is responsible for this negative imagery, as Ibn Warraq has suggested.

In the wake of Sheikh Omar's revelations in Karachi that top fundamentalists had quit Afghanistan prior to the American bombing, it is obvious that highly driven, organised, and richly funded terrorist groups are fully intact in many parts of the world. Omar's disclosures make it clear that the United States is a top target of Islamic fundamentalists. Britain and the western world have consented to the American course of action against Islamic fundamentalism precisely because they also expect to be targeted; India, of course, is its longest-suffering victim. In the face of this reality, it is difficult to sustain the argument that the bin Ladens and Omars are aberrations and do not represent the 'true' spirit of Islam.

I have resisted the temptation to interpret the Koran, as this is open to the charge of misinterpretation, if not deliberate falsification. In the wake of the events of September 11, a whole industry of western academics and Islamic theologians has sprouted to prove the 'peaceful' nature of Islam. So even though my mailbox has been flooded with verses 'proving' the violent nature of Islam, I have not bothered to read any of them.

Still, like western writers, I have also tried to understand the faith by taking a look at the early Muslim community which lived close to the Prophet, and witnessed and experienced his creation of the new community, and the compilation of the holy book and other sayings and acts of the Messenger. But here itself reason falters and the mind staggers when confronted with the treatment meted out to members of the Prophet's own family. I think Muslims can no longer evade a close scrutiny of some aspects of their traditions, just as other religions have examined (and reformed) themselves when in crisis.

As an outsider, one can comment on external aspects of the faith and its encounter with other civilisations and cultures. Here, one can hardly evade the historical truth of Muslim violence against civilian populations of other religions from the very origin of Islam in the seventh century. Beginning with the Jews, the introduction of Islam has been a bloody affair, from North Africa to India. Alas for the secularists, in India the scale of the genocide and bloodshed was richly documented by Muslim court historians, chroniclers, and even autobiographies of the rulers. What is more, the Islamic past does not remain there, but spills over as present continuous. Most religious violence in the world today is rooted in the Muslim world. This is aggravated by the fact that contemporary Islam continues to breed holy warriors (ghazis, jihadis) who do not recognise national boundaries and cheerfully wander from conflict to conflict fighting the enemies of Islam -Bosnia, Chechnya, Afghanistan, Kashmir.

Scholars believe the problem lies in the origin of Islam as, unlike other faiths, it was simultaneously a political and religious movement. Unlike Judaism or Christianity, Islam never had a religious history separate from its political history. Hinduism has no known beginning, but has always distinguished between the authority of the king and the sage. The early separation of the religious and political realms gave Hinduism its unique, unprecedented tradition of tolerance, and made India the natural haven for the persecuted throughout the centuries. As an aside, I may state that I feel sad that some of the communities that took refuge in India and thrived and prospered here, have not been grateful, and have tried to read lessons in liberalism to Hindus fed up with militancy and fundamentalism.

Anyway, the existence of a religious community without political power enabled Judaism and Christianity to adjust to the Enlightenment concept of separation of church and state. The idea of a secular civil society grew, and these two monotheistic Middle Eastern faiths could survive without the support of a theocratic state. The reverse is true of Islam-political and military power is what advances and sustains the religion, and jihad is intrinsic to the faith. America, Russia, Europe, Israel and India, all recognise that a military and economic confrontation with militant Islam is inevitable. The diplomatic challenge is to contain the conflict to manageable theatres of war. The economic challenge is to prevent a recurrence of the oil blackmail of the nineteen seventies, which has been accomplished with Russian cooperation. But the real contest is intellectual. In this arena, the civilised world has taken a beating as well-funded academics, journalists, Leftists and liberals holler for tolerance of a creed that seems fundamentally incapable of co-existence with other faiths.