By Swapan Dasgupta
24 August 2014
The world, or at least that part that retains a measure of human sensitivities, has been both shocked and angered by the video circulating on the web of the decapitation of American journalist James Foley by a proud soldier of the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Shams (ISIS).
The outrage has been most profound in Britain on the realisation that the executioner was in all probability an individual who is nominally British — in that he travels on a British passport and speaks in what has been identified as a distinctive East London accent. There are also indications that at least 25 per cent of the ISIS jihadists are probably Muslim imports from Europe, mainly Britain.
Even the US which has been slowly extricating itself from overseas involvements reacted strongly by sending bombers to pound ISIS positions in Iraq. Speaking at a Pentagon media briefing last week, US Defence Secretary Chuck Hagel suggested that ISIS “is as sophisticated and well-funded as any group that we have seen. They’re beyond just a terrorist group. They marry ideology, a sophistication of strategic and tactical military prowess. They are tremendously well funded…beyond anything that we’ve seen. So we must prepare for everything. And the only way you do that is that you take a cold, steely, hard look at it…and get ready.”
Maybe it needed the tragic death of an American citizen for the Obama administration to realise that ISIS is much more than just another army headed by a warlord, exploiting Sunni anger in Iraq and the power vacuum created by the West-inspired destabilisation of the Assad regime in Syria. The tragic fate of the Yazidis — with whom Indians share a civilizational link — was largely ignored by hard-nosed apparatchiks who determine the affairs of state. After all, as British historian Tom Holland lamented, their murderous ethnic cleansing had no consequences for military and political strategies. “In cultural terms”, Holland wrote movingly, “it is as though a rainforest is being levelled to provide for cattle ranching. Not just a crime against humanity, it is a crime against civilisation.”
It is not that we in India did any better. I was recently told of the frustrating experience of an Indian writer (with impeccable academic qualifications) who chronicles the history of ancient cultures. When he heard of the ISIS assault on the Yazidis, including forced conversions and captivity for slavery, he wrote an article on the pagan brotherhood that links Yezidi and Indian traditions. Most of our ‘national’ press refused to print it, presumably on the ground that it would unsettle a fragile secular consensus that depends so much on denial and expedient silence.
Our editorial class was guilty of the same perversity that made the redoubtable ‘secularist’ crusader Teesta Setalvad compare the depredations of ISIS with the Hindu worship of Kali and the deification of the Sudarshan chakra. Her message was quite calculated: Hindus can’t protest against ISIS because they are as guilty of glorifying murderous practices. She was attempting to draw a moral equivalence between Hindu traditions and Islamic extremism.
Setalvad — one of the iconic figures of professional secularism — may have apologised and withdrawn her offensive tweet subsequently but the intervention provided a valuable insight into why the likes of ISIS gain from ‘liberal’ squeamishness.
For the past two decades, for example, under the guise of ‘multiculturalism’ the British Government tolerated the dissemination of hateful and murderous theological messages from community mosques. The term ‘Londonistan’ may be an exaggeration but there are large areas of urban Britain where rebellious Muslim youth swagger about fantasising the virtues of Sharia rule. It is this swagger and the sustained vilification of the West and Israel that created the foundations of the love affair with ISIS. Britain is paying the price of its own permissiveness.
The threat posed by the so-called Islamic Caliphate should not be minimised by India. ISIS flags have made their appearance in Srinagar and it is more than likely that a clutch of impressionable Muslim youth — mainly Indians working in West Asia — have joined the transnational Jihadi brigade fighting in and around Mosul. For the moment their numbers may be insignificant but the larger ideological challenge posed to Indian nationalism is real. There is an ideological line that link so-called mass movements such as Jamiat-e-Islami and Muslim Brotherhood to the armed struggle of the likes of Hamas and ISIS. A section of the ‘liberal’ world chose to overlook Hamas’ determination to eliminate all Jews from Israel and now they are confronted with the systematic butchery of all non-Muslims from Iraq and, maybe, Syria. It is an open question whether Indian workers who were left stranded in Iraq after the ISIS’s summer offensive have survived to tell the tale.
The liberal capacity to be self-delusional is infinite. Last month we witnessed an attempt to prevent any modification of India’s Palestine policy on the ground that Mahatma Gandhi had once said something critical of the early Zionist movement. If it comes to the crunch, will the country now see the spectacle of ‘useful idiots’ plough through the Mahatma’s Collected Works to resurrect his pronouncements favouring the revival of the Ottoman Caliphate?
They will find lots of misplaced wisdom. In 1919-20, Gandhi made a colossal blunder by hitching Indian nationalism to a retrograde cause. This time, when the opportunity presents itself, we must ensure that there is no ambivalence. Indian nationalism and the Caliphate’s brotherhood cannot be reconciled.