ARTICLES FROM THE SUNDAY GUARDIAN
Copyright. All rights reserved. Ram Jethmalani. 2019.
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Peoples' movements against autocratic governments, that came to be called the Arab Spring, started taking place in the Muslim world beginning with Egypt in December 2010. The world hoped that they would truly be what spring brings, a new life, freshness of ideas, and hope. Hope for the winds of democracy, secularism and modernity to stamp out the violence, jihadi fanaticism and intolerance for the rest of the world. Unfortunately, the political space that the "spring" provided was hijacked by those same extremist, jihadi elements.
Instead of springtime, we are seeing a bloodbath, horrific violence, ethnic cleansing engulfing Syria, and now Iraq and the Levant, and threats to target other parts of the world where Muslims reside. The situation in Iraq and surrounding areas seems to have come a full circle, returning to the 7th century battle of Karbala, when Shias and Sunnis butchered each other. Sooner and later, repercussions ranging from destabilisation to disintegration will happen in the Muslim world. And ripples of a different kind are already being felt in countries like India with sizeable Muslim populations, both Shia and Sunni.
The background to the latest crisis is full of contradictions. The Americans decided to support the ISIS in their battle with Syrian President Bashar Assad, because he was an ally of the Russians. But when the ISIS suddenly expanded and took control of parts of Syria and large swaths of Iraq, boastfully beheading innocent American hostages with barbaric savagery, it became the old story of bloody inventions returning to plague the inventor. And now, the ISIS have spread to Iraq, taken over the Mosul oilfield, and the Mosul bank, helped themselves to all the gold, and American arms and armaments. Another genie from the bottle has been released, swearing vengeance against the US. The US believes that it is now time to hit the ISIS.
The Muslim world in the Middle East seems to be following the craziest pattern of geopolitical alignment of the last millennium. There seem to be moves from Washington to support Saudi Arabia and Qatar to give weapons and cash to rebel groups to fight the ISIS in Syria, or even provide direct support and "non-lethal" aid to rebel groups to take on the extremists. This is hardly wise; déjà vu of the old Afghan adventure and the creation of the Taliban.
Former foes find themselves on the same side, even if for the short term. Shia militias, formerly fighting the US, are now with them against the IS. Iran and the United States, previous antagonists, have developed a commonality of interest against the ISIS, even if temporarily. Sunni Saudi Arabia and Shia Iran, whose long rivalry shaped the sectarian divide and proxy wars of the Middle East, find themselves together, both opposed to ISIS. Turkey, which earlier supported the ISIS, finds that the ISIS has now become a threat to them and wants a more effective operation against it.
Someone called Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, leader of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, or ISIL/ISIS, declared the establishment of Caliphate in June 2014, and anointed himself as Caliph of the Islamic State (IS), the new name for ISIL. The pomposity of this action, even with its sinister potential, has certainly caused some chuckles of amusement. But even more ludicrous was the declaration by Al Qaeda leader Ayman al Zawahiri, that it has established a new branch the Qaedat al-Jihad to wage jihad in India, to revive its caliphate and impose Sharia on the Indian subcontinent, including India, Myanmar and Bangladesh. Almost like a multinational corporation setting up a regional office in South Asia. Zawahiri said the group, which would report to Mullah Omar, will defend the "vulnerable in the Indian subcontinent, in Burma, Bangladesh, Assam, Gujarat, Ahmedabad, and Kashmir..." and "your brothers in Qaedat al-Jihad did not forget you and that they are doing what they can to rescue you from injustice, oppression, persecution, and suffering".
Fortunately, Muslim scholars and religious leaders across the Sunni Islamic spectrum have rejected the caliphate declared by the Islamic State group, and its violent creed, even calling Baghdadi, "deviant", and the declaration "void" according to Islamic law. But it is a fact that Islamic State has given its agents and allied organisations the specific responsibility of intensifying their indoctrination machinery through their networks, and targeting members of India's Muslim community.
The NATO Summit at Wales last week resulted in the formation of a ten-country international coalition against the ISIS, with US, UK, Germany, France, Italy, Denmark, Poland, Turkey and Canada as well as non-NATO member Australia. It is learnt that more than 40 countries, including India have agreed to be a part of the coalition. I have always believed that only an international coalition that includes all secular democracies, can combat jihadi terrorism. I request my readers to revisit my piece of 26 October in this same paper, Global coalition can defeat terror, where I argued that if terrorism today has become a global network, funded, aided and abetted by some governments, it stands to reason that any antidote to be effective must be nothing short of global. That global terrorism can only be defeated only by a global coalition.
The bloodthirsty savages of the IS and Al Qaeda are splitting the world once again through the vicious Dar ul Islam and Dar ul Harb divide. This is the very antithesis of civilisation, democracy, secularism and international peace, something which civilised societies and great leaders in history have fought and died for. This ideology can only hasten the Armageddon, the final battle between good and evil, which forms part of both the Islamic and Christian faiths. And it is not difficult to make an informed and intelligent forecast about which side the advantages lie with. As far as Hindu belief is concerned, perhaps the Armageddon might mark the end of Kal yuga, and the beginning of Satya yuga, which should bring great relief to a weary world. The repercussions of the Iraqi Shia-Sunni conflict on India's Shia community in UP are hardly surprising. The Shias are concerned about the safety of their most revered shrines in Najaf and Karbala. They have offered a bounty of Rs 5 crore on the head of Al Baghdadi, the self appointed Caliph. Anjuman-e-Haideri, a Shia group, gave a call to Shia youth to proceed to Iraq to fight against IS. Worrisome also are reports from some Indian states that Sunni youth are joining IS forces in Iraq to fight for their "cause" against Shias.
But what is most encouraging and does India proud is that over 80 Indian Muslims, including activists, intellectuals, community and religious leaders, scholars and academics, representing many organisations from across India released a joint statement at a press conference held simultaneously in New Delhi and Mumbai in August 2014, condemning the brutal atrocities of ISIS on minorities and denouncing persecution and violence in the name of Islam. "Indian Muslims are shocked and pained by the brutality and atrocities being perpetrated by the ISIS against Christians, Shias, Kurds, Yazidis and other minorities in the regions now under their control," they said, adding, "we strongly condemn such barbarism which is against the teachings of Islam." While the ISIS must be held fully responsible for its unconscionable acts, the United States, Saudi Arabia, UAE, Kuwait etc., cannot escape their share of the blame in fuelling the flames, they further said, while urging the United Nations to intervene.
I have great admiration and appreciation for India's secular Muslim intellectuals, most importantly, because they have said something that has never been explicitly expressed before, and which needs to be repeated continuously. They requested "Muslim religious leaders in India and elsewhere to add their voice to that of Muslim organisations and individuals who have already denounced al-Baghdadi and his ISIS for distorting Islam's message for peace and for their barbaric conduct".
I would like to add that our enlightened Muslim scholars must not allow the fanatical murderous jihadis to intimidate them in their pernicious interpretations of the Holy Quran. The language of any religious text is determined by the historical age, and the social and political circumstances during which it was written, and its interpretation necessarily reflects the level of intellectual consciousness of the interpreter. The human mind and intellect, and the ideas that emerge from them, are a dynamic and continuously evolving stream, responding closely to the changes that continuously happen in the world around us. Every religion has its central core of beliefs, and some dispensable add-ons, that must keep evolving in keeping with the thinking of the time and the consciousness level of the interpreter. Any interpretation that is believed as unalterable for all time to come, can only reflect the unalterable bigotry and foolishness of the interpreters.
Let Muslim religious leaders explain to their fold that the medieval, and literal interpretations of just a few verses of the Koran, that keep being cited by terrorists to justify beheading and decapitation must be interpreted metaphorically in the contextual and historical perspective. It is perverse interpretations cited by jihadi terrorists that have denigrated Islam internationally. Let it be emphasised in every madrassa, mosque and mehfil, that the real essence of the Koran lies in the many verses that deal with peace, humanity and religious co-existence. True Islam must return to its believers, if the Armageddon is to be averted.