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Indian Press ( 3 Nov 2020, NewAgeIslam.Com)

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Indian Press on Mahathir and the ‘Crisis of Islam’: New Age Islam's Selection, 3 November 2020


By New Age Islam Edit Desk

3 November 2020

 •Defending The Indefensible: Mahathir And The ‘Crisis Of Islam’

By Makarand R Paranjape

• The Killings In France Must Be Condemned By Muslims Without Equivocation

By Zakia Soman

• Beheadings In France

By A Surya Prakash

• Chinar: Eternal Sentinel Of A Unique Culture

By Sharika

• French Tradition Of Secularism Is Based On The Strict Separation Between Church And State

By Prafull Goradia

• Turmoil In Helmand

By Sanchita Bhattacharya

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Defending the Indefensible: Mahathir and the ‘Crisis of Islam’

By Makarand R Paranjape

03rd November 2020

 

Dr Mahathir bin Mohamad

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It seems Dr Mahathir bin Mohamad is disgusted. Using his official Twitter handle, he claimed on October 30, “I am indeed disgusted with attempts to misrepresent and take out of context what I wrote on my blog yesterday.” But what kind of misunderstood context or misrepresentation of meaning would justify this egregiously irresponsible contention: “Muslims have a right to be angry and kill millions of French people for the massacres of the past”?

His remark, which was widely circulated on social media, tweeted and posted to millions of his followers, sparked an understandable worldwide outrage. While the offending statement was taken down on both Twitter and Facebook, none of Mahathir’s explanations could erase, occlude or divert from the horror of his indictment of French people and provocation to Muslims to “kill millions” of them.

The 95-year politician is somewhat of a living legend in Malaysia, which he twice led as prime minister, holding this most important office for a total of nearly 25 years. Malaysia itself is a multicultural and multi-religious constitutional monarchy. Though ethnic Malays are supposedly just over 50% of the total population of about 32 million, reliable figures are not easy to obtain. The term Malay is often conflated with Muslim and Bhumiputra (son of the soil). Though other groups, including ethnic Chinese (20%) and Indians (7%) make up some 40% of the population, Islam dominates the religious and cultural landscape of Malaysia as the Malays do its political leadership. Those who remember Malaysia of earlier decades aver that it is increasingly Arabised, Islamised, even radicalised.

As a consequence, was Mahathir trying to score political points at the age of 95? Even so, his remark was bound to be more embarrassing and damaging to his reputation than conducive to garnering support among his followers in Malaysia or among most Muslims in the rest of the world. The only ones who would take heart or find encouragement from his call to kill innocent French men and women would be Islamic radicals, jihadist terrorists and violent fanatics. The question, then, was why was Mahathir intentionally or unintentionally playing to this highly dangerous and dreaded gallery?

No matter what the excesses of French colonialism in Northern Africa or elsewhere, no matter what the crimes, going back even further in time, perpetrated during the Crusades by their ancestors, the call to kill them in retaliation cannot be morally justified. How can we be punished for the misdeeds of our forefathers? By that token, what of massacres and genocides of Islamic conquerors?

Let me name only two, closer home. Consider how Timur treated the citizens of Isfahan when they repulsed his tax collectors. He massacred between 1 to 2 lakh of its residents. One eyewitness recorded over 28 gigantic towers made with piles of some 1,500 decapitated heads each. Timur’s capture and sacking of Delhi in 1398 was even more horrific. Lakhs were killed and enslaved, with untold loot falling into the conqueror’s hands.

Less than 350 years later, Nadir Shah, after capturing Delhi, slaughtered an estimated 20,000-30,000 men, women and children in just six hours on 22 March 1739. In addition, another 10,000 women and children were reported by a Dutch Delhi dweller to have been taken as slaves. The obvious question to Mahathir is whether it would be justified to call for a reciprocal massacre in this day and age? Or are we, much more simply, to deny that horrors by Islamic armies ever happened?

Instead of condemning in unequivocal and unambiguous terms the ghastly beheadings carried out by Islamic militants in France, Mahathir chose to blame the French instead. This is not just typical whitewashing or apologetics, but much more dangerous distortion and indefensible polemics. Especially when it comes from a supposedly responsible ex-head of government.

Let us make no mistake: Mahathir did not retract his statement, let alone atone for it. Instead, he said he had been quoted out of context. He even called French President Emmanuel Macron uncivilised in a tweet on October 29: “Macron is not showing that he is civilised. He is very primitive in blaming the religion of Islam and Muslims for the killing of the insulting school teacher. It is not in keeping with the teachings of Islam.” But what did Macron say to spark such outrage on part of the nonagenarian veteran? Macron, vowing to come down hard on Islamic radicalism, had called Islam a religion “in crisis”.

The irony of Mahathir’s abhorrent call to violence was, perhaps, lost in the controversy—it is precisely remarks such as his which indicate that at least some actors and aspects of Islam are in crisis. If they were not, then how would one explain the former Malaysian PM’s denial of facts, defence of the indefensible and justification of violence by call to counter-violence? Indeed, no religion is perfect, nor is any religion entirely devoid of positive precepts and practices. Great religions survive and propagate themselves not merely through fear, intimidation or threats, but also through genuine self-criticism and self-correction.

A leader of Mahathir’s stature should have showcased to the world this interrogative and reformative aspect of Islam, rather than its bullying, belligerent or self-righteous visage. Instead, he seems to have slipped, falling into a trap of his own making, in condemning the French nation instead of those who killed innocent men and women in the name of Islam, even though the victims had nothing to do with the Charlie Hebdo cartoons.

Sorry, Dr Mahathir, it is we who are disgusted. We thought of you not just as Malaysia’s strongman, but as a statesman of world stature. You proved us wrong. Your tweet/Facebook post was taken down for the right reasons. No matter how you wish to spin it, your endorsement of Muslims’ “right to be angry and kill millions of French people” cannot be countenanced under any pretext or context. An unconditional apology is still awaited and would be appreciated not just by France but by the free and civilised world.

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Makarand R Paranjape is Director, Indian Institute of Advanced Study, Shimla. Views are personal

https://www.newindianexpress.com/opinions/2020/nov/03/defending-theindefensible-mahathir-and-the-crisis-of-islam-2218600.html

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The Killings In France Must Be Condemned By Muslims Without Equivocation

By Zakia Soman

November 3, 2020

 

 

The brutal beheading of a teacher and knifing of three more persons over Prophet Muhammad’s cartoons in France are acts of terrorism and must be condemned unequivocally. The killings have evoked horror and outrage the world over. The French president has understandably reacted sharply, saying that his government will do everything necessary to uphold the ideals of liberty and freedom of expression which are at the heart of the modern French republic.

Some people may disagree with President Emmanuel Macron saying Islam is in crisis. But it can hardly be denied that reform is long overdue in Islam and in Muslim societies. As in the case of other religions, Islam too has multiple versions. The biggest price for extremist political Islam is paid by Muslims themselves. A cursory look at the strife torn countries in our neighbourhood and in West Asia makes this amply clear.

Historically, all religions have evolved and reformed with changing times. This has led to discarding of problematic ideas such as apostasy, blasphemy and violence in the name of God. The history of Christianity is as much marked by the Crusades as by Renaissance and industrial revolution. Hindus no more uphold practices like Sati and widow ostracisation.

Scholars have highlighted that Islam encourages Muslims to evolve and adapt with changing context and developments. They tell us that justice, kindness, compassion, peace and wisdom are intrinsic to Islam. But these voices are marginalised in the cacophony of politicians and conservative clerics out to guard their narrow interests.

Prime Minister Imran Khan has attacked Macron for fuelling Islamophobia. Leaders of Turkey and Malaysia have criticised the French president for his views defending free speech. Such posturing gives out the signal that killing in the name of Islam is OK. It further spreads the Islamophobia Imran is concerned about.

Concepts such as blasphemy and apostasy being punishable by death are deeply problematic not just in multi-cultural societies but in Muslim majority societies as well. Laws ostensibly based on these are often used against political dissidents and to wipe out critical thinking in some Muslim countries.

There need to be frank conversations in Muslim societies on democracy, religious freedom, human rights, women’s equality, peaceful coexistence and other such relevant issues. The Arab Spring of 2011 was against dictatorship, injustice and misgoverance in the Muslim world. Unfortunately, moderate voices remain a minority in Muslim societies.

The complex web of geo-politics involving the West and dictators in the Muslim world has further contributed to the lack of reform. America remains the closet ally of Saudi Arabia which patronises Wahhabi Islam ideology, adhered to by Osama bin Laden and other extremists! Quite a few Western countries including France, have had a history of violent exploitation during colonisation of different countries.

Earlier, Macron had referred to the war against Algerian freedom fighters as a crime against humanity. Today Algerians and other north Africans are integrated as French citizens. French secularism has no room for religion in public. France does not allow any symbols of religion in public, be they Jewish or Sikh or of any other faith. It may not be an over statement to say that for the French liberty and freedom of expression are perhaps as important as Islam is to Muslims.

India has rightly condemned the killings and expressed support to the French people. There have been protests by some Muslims in Mumbai and other places over the cartoons. Muslims have a right to be offended by the cartoons. They have a right to peacefully protest and register their displeasure. But beheading and killing is not acceptable. Indian Muslims must condemn the killings in France with the same rigour with which they demand equality and justice as Indian citizens.

I believe that most ordinary Muslims don’t approve of the killings. Today, most countries have devised civic norms and inclusive systems of coexistence based on shared values, such as upholding human rights emanating from the UN Charter. Values of pluralism, inclusiveness, equality and religious freedom are enshrined in our Constitution. Indian Muslims are best placed to bring in social reform and lead the change.  But this can be possible only if we shun the politics of religious polarisation and communal hate.

https://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/blogs/toi-edit-page/the-killings-in-france-must-be-condemned-by-muslims-without-equivocation/

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Beheadings in France

By A Surya Prakash

03 November 2020

As Indians, we need to stand by France and wage a united war against terrorism while upholding our secular and democratic values

The decision of the French President Emmanuel Macron to defend freedom of speech in his country, following the barbaric beheading of a school teacher and some others by radicalised Muslims, has led to violent protests across Islamic nations. The perpetrators of these violent acts in France, it is believed, were seeking to avenge the caricaturing of Prophet Mohammed in a French magazine. So it has become a blasphemy versus free speech issue in a nation that rests on the foundation of liberty, equality and fraternity.

Most of the protesters in the Islamic world are justifying the beheadings and baying for the blood of the French President. The biggest culprit is the former Malaysian Prime Minister, Mahathir Bin Mohamad, who said that Muslims have the right “to be angry and to kill millions of French people for the massacres of the past”. This is an open encouragement to bloodshed and must easily be the most outrageous and irresponsible statement made by a person who has held an important public office in a big nation. It is surprising that Twitter has only deleted Mohamad’s tweet and restrained itself from taking more severe action.

While all this is on in the Islamic world, how should citizens of India respond to the developments in France? Several Indian cities have seen angry protests by Muslim citizens against the caricaturing of the Prophet. There is legitimacy for these protests so long as they are peaceful and non-violent and do not cause any disturbance to the normal run of life. That is why the conduct of Farhan Zuberi, a student leader from Aligarh Muslim University (AMU), who has justified the beheadings in France and held out an open threat to behead anyone speaking against Islam, deserves to be condemned.

India, given its democratic credentials, has taken the right stand against this kind of violence. The Foreign Ministry condemned the beheading of the school teacher in Paris and said there can be no justification for terrorism “for any reason or under any circumstances”. For once, the Ministry put aside its weakness for prevarication and “strongly deplored” the personal attack on the French President and said it is a violation of the most basic standards of international discourse. Prime Minister Narendra Modi has also taken a firm stand. In a tweet, he strongly condemned the terrorist attacks, including the heinous attack in Nice inside a church. “India stands with France in the fight against terrorism”, he tweeted.

This is where all Indians have to draw the line. They cannot behave like the citizens in the Islamic States where everything revolves around religion and the space for public discourse is severely constricted.

For the moment, it can be said that the violent outbursts of the AMU student leader are an aberration. It is not the rule. All those who value democracy speak a different language. That is why the statement of one hundred Indian personalities, who “unequivocally and unconditionally” condemned the recent killings in France by fanatics in the name of faith, is important. The signatories to this statement, who included actor Naseeruddin Shah, former Indian Police Service Officer, Julio Ribeiro and lyricist Hussain Haidri, said: “We are deeply disturbed by the convoluted logic of some self-appointed guardians of Indian Muslims in rationalising cold-blooded murder and deplore the outrageous remarks of some heads of state.” The signatories attacked whataboutery and condemned attempts to rationalise crimes by comparing them with other similar crimes. They said this was irrational and absurd. “No god, gods, goddesses, prophets or saints may be invoked to justify the killing and/or terrorising of fellow human beings.”

India is the world’s largest, secular, liberal, democratic republic and all of us who care for the free air we breathe must unite against individuals who defend such brutality.

As citizens of the most democratic and diverse nation in the world, our future lies in the preservation of the core values in our Constitution and our democratic way of life. Secular, liberal democracies cannot survive, let alone flourish, if any section of the population offers justification for violence in order to assert the correctness of its stand. This applies to all Indian citizens and, in the present context, especially to citizens who are adherents of Islam. No citizen of India can take lessons from Islamic nations which have no respect for plurality and equality. We are different. In fact, we are unique, and we must assert our uniqueness and the exalted status that our Constitution has given us.

Co-existence within a plural society demands a high degree of tolerance. Our Constitution makers recognised this and it is here that our constitutional arrangement is slightly different from that of France. Our “freedom of expression” is subject to “reasonable restrictions.” We cannot use it to disturb, among other things, “public order, decency, morality” or resort to “defamation or incitement to an offence.” This is further reinforced by provisions in the Indian Penal Code, such as Section 153 A, 295 and 295 A, which prohibit any activity which promotes enmity between different groups or amounts to “deliberate and malicious acts intended to outrage the religious feelings of any class by insulting its religion or the religious beliefs”. Therefore, we are distinct and we should completely stay clear of the violence that is being promoted by the Islamic nations against France.

As the campaign for a separate Muslim nation started building up in the 1940s, Dr BR Ambedkar, after much deliberation, came to the conclusion that the creation of Pakistan was inevitable. In his book, Thoughts on Pakistan, he said, “The allegiance of a Muslim does not rest on his domicile in the country which is his, but on the faith to which he belongs. To the Muslim Ubi Bene Ibi Patria is unthinkable. Wherever there is the rule of Islam, there is his own country. In other words, Islam can never allow a true Muslim to adopt India as his motherland and regard a Hindu as his kith and kin.” Dr Ambedkar said this 75 years ago and in a certain context — when Muslims in India said that they constituted a separate nation — and established Pakistan. About 35 million Muslims stayed back in India after Pakistan was born because they believed that life in a liberal, democratic environment was far better than in an Islamic State. In these Muslim families, the third generation is growing up with the protection and safeguards offered by India’s Constitution.

These citizens, like all others belonging to other faiths, who have grown up under this secular, democratic umbrella, can see that Pakistan is a failed State that is weighed down by its own failures and has cross-border terrorism as a single-point national agenda. The issues that prompted the creation of Pakistan are no longer relevant. That being the case, they need to prove Dr Ambedkar wrong. The times have changed and peaceful co-existence offers all of us the best chance. As Indians, we all need to stand by France and all other democracies and wage a united war against terrorism and against all those who are opposed to secular, democratic values.

A Surya Prakash is an author specialising in democracy studies. Views expressed are personal

https://www.dailypioneer.com/2020/columnists/beheadings-in-france.html

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Chinar: Eternal Sentinel of a Unique Culture

By Sharika

November 2, 2020,

This grand old feature of the Kashmir landscape, continues to enthrall and inspire poets, writers, painters and philosophers

Sitting in my room, as I look out beyond the door that opens on to a balcony, I see a row of green plants neatly planted in their brown earthen pots. All the plants are several feet tall now, their stems clambering over the railing, their leaves getting entangled with branches of other plants – and their roots desperately trying to find space to spread. Observing these plants, I am reminded of a time years ago when, on a trip to Kashmir, we brought back a delicate Chinar sapling. We managed to transport it safely to our house in Gurgaon, and tended it lovingly. However, despite the daily care and attention, it shrivelled up and dried in the heat, causing us much disappointment.

That incident represents a fond but foolish effort to have a little bit of Kashmir on our balcony! Which takes me to one of my favourite subjects – trees. I love trees of all types – and the Chinar is my favourite. I have always been fascinated by this tree. On our visits to Kashmir long ago, I would instinctively stand and stare at the Chinar trees growing on the sides of roads, along the ‘bund’, on the grounds of public buildings and in gardens and parks.

At the very outset, one cannot but notice the imposing grandeur of the Chinar. Its huge trunk, thick branches, impressive height and spreading canopy are rivalled by few other species. The Chinar towers over other trees like a king, its august presence evoking awe and respect. Many a delightful picnic have I enjoyed with my extended family, in the benevolent shade of giant Chinar trees in the Mughal Gardens of Srinagar. Wandering around the garden looking for the perfect spot, settling down on a ‘duree’ for a chitchat, enjoying a mouth-watering lunch of ‘matchh’ and ‘rogani roti’ washed down with cups of ‘kahwa’, then lying down in the cool shade to take a nap – how priceless are these pleasures! It gives me goosebumps to think that those trees of decades ago are still standing there, like dear old friends waiting for my return.

The Chinar is considered sacred by large groups of people in Kashmir. It was said to be particularly revered by preachers who came to India from Persia in medieval times. Later, it became the favourite tree of the Mughals, who planted hundreds of Chinar trees all over Kashmir. According to conservationists, about 25000 Chinar trees have been lost in the last quarter century. Alarmingly, their numbers are steadily declining, as this beautiful symbol of Kashmir fights a daily battle with floods, climate change and infrastructure development. Occasionally, it is reported in the media that so many Chinar trees died, or collapsed due to some natural disaster or these were chopped down to make space for some construction project. Every time I hear of a Chinar tree dying or being lost to development, I feel as if a piece of my heart has gone with it.

I consider the Chinar a perfect combination of grace, beauty, utility and longevity. A full-grown tree thriving in healthy conditions can live for more than hundred years. While its broad trunk conveys an impression of strength and sturdiness, its serrate leaves are a specimen of delicate beauty. The lovely shape of the Chinar leaf has found its way into every craft of Kashmir, from wood carving to papier mache, and embroidered shawls to ‘namdaahs’. I remember how, as a child I would collect Chinar leaves and preserve them between the pages of my books. Chinar leaves of every size, from the smallest pale-green to the largest deep-green, found their way into my fond collection. It gives me immense pride to think that in India, this beautiful tree thrives only in Kashmir and thus gives our state a unique identity.

There is something about the thick foliage, deep shade and rustling leaves of a Chinar tree that imbues the atmosphere with a distinct spirituality. Due to this quality perhaps, Chinar trees are found around both Muslim shrines and Hindu temples in Kashmir. It is generally believed that the oldest Chinar tree of Asia stands in Chattergam in Budgam district of Kashmir. At almost 15 metres tall, this tree is considered the largest Chinar tree in the world. Local legend says that the tree was planted in 1374 by Sufi saint Syed Abul Qasim Shah Hamdani.

While the Chinar dressed all in green is a classic beauty, the same tree in autumn is a huge tourist attraction. Groves of Chinars, in their yellow, orange, rust and crimson outfits, give the impression of a forest on fire. In winter, the tree shorn of its leaves and standing clean in its bare branches, may be devoid of its finery but not its majesty. Kings are known by their stature, not by their clothes! The Chinar is a rare gem found only in the Paradise that is Kashmir.

I have never lived in Kashmir or visited it in autumn or winter. The varying beauty of Chinar trees in different seasons has been described to me by my parents, both of whom lived in Kashmir before I was born. At the top of my wish list is to spend one whole year in Kashmir, so that I can observe the changing light and shade of the seasons and admire my homeland in each of its kaleidoscopic colours.

The Chinar makes a significant contribution to the great natural beauty of Kashmir. This grand old tree has bravely withstood the ravages of time and continues to enthrall and inspire poets, writers, painters and philosophers. This wonderful feature of Kashmir must be nurtured at any cost if we wish to preserve our unique culture.

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Sharika is a free-lance writer, editor and translator based in New Gurgaon.

https://www.greaterkashmir.com/news/opinion/chinar-eternal-sentinel-of-a-unique-culture/

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French Tradition Of Secularism Is Based On The Strict Separation Between Church And State

By Prafull Goradia

November 2, 2020

France is once again in the news after the gruesome murder of Samuel Paty, a French middle-school teacher, on October 16 in Conflans-Sainte-Honorine, a suburb of Paris. Paty was beheaded in what is apparently an act of Islamist terrorism. French President Emmanuel Macron has paid tribute to Paty, calling him a “quiet hero” and said he was targeted because he “embodied the Republic”, taught pupils “to become citizens” and “fought for freedom and reason”.

This brings us to the nature of the French Republic. Former French President Jacques Chirac (now deceased) during his tenure commissioned an expert enquiry into what precisely secularism in practice should be. Bernard Stasi presented his report in December 2003, based on which a fresh secular law was passed by the French National Assembly in March 2004. It brought up to date the law of 1905.

The new Act defined three essential principles: Freedom of conscience, equality in law for spiritual and religious belief, and neutrality of political power. In other words, there are in any modern state, three sets of relations: (a) religion and the individual; (b) the state and the individual, and; (c) the state and religion. In (b) the state views the individual as a citizen and not as a member of a religious group. The implication of (c) is that religion and state function in two separate areas of human activity. Donald Smith, a scholar from the University of Calgary, has compared the above relations as three sides of a triangle. And the integrity of (a) and (b) is largely determined by the third relationship, which separates them. Therefore, for any state to function as a secular state, there must be a wall of separation between state and church.

The French law attempted to implement these principles. It had not abolished the wearing of either Jewish skull caps or Muslim headscarves. All it ordained was that the students attending government schools or employees working in government offices must not display religious symbols of a conspicuous nature, which would include even a large cross. There is no restriction on wearing any form of dress or display of any religious symbols in the country at large. The state, however, has to maintain absolute neutrality between one religion and another. The French insistence on the absolute separation of church and state goes back to 1905 — in December that year, a Republican law was passed by the country’s National Assembly. Article 1 assures the liberty of conscience. It guaranteed the free exercise of religious beliefs. The only restrictions were decreed in the interest of public order. Article 2 states that the Republic does not recognise either salaries paid or subsidies granted to any religious group.

The Stasi Report stated that Islam is believed to be incompatible with secularism. This was a provocation in the report and the subsequent passing of the legislation. As far as private employers of schools are concerned, the law is that the will of the institution would prevail and not any idiosyncrasy of the employee. The intention behind the stipulation is to ensure that there is no discrimination against members of any religion, so that an employer does not avoid the appointment of a scarf-wearing woman or a skull-cap wearing man. These provisions ensure not only the neutrality of political authority but also the freedom of conscience and belief as well as equality before the law. The Stasi Report also emphasised secularism as a cornerstone of democracy.

The rise of Christianity led to the problem of church and state. The Bible recognised a basic duality — the temporal and the spiritual. This is best expressed in the well-known phrase: “Render therefore unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s; and unto God the things that are God’s.” In the US, an attempt was made at the complete separation between church and state. The American constitution contains no reference to God. Article VI says that no religious test shall ever be required as a qualification to any office. The first amendment to the Constitution adopted in 1791 explicitly said: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion”.

India never had a centralised institution to regulate religion nor did it ever interfere in the running of the state. Islam, on the other hand, does not separate the temporal from the spiritual. The ultimate evidence of this was that the Caliph, or the representative of Prophet Mohammed, was the spiritual head and the temporal chief rolled into one.

France did not fully separate church and state until the passage of its 1905 law. Today, secularism is a core concept in the French constitution, Article 1 of which formally states that France is a secular republic. This, however, does not prevent the state from playing an active role in the appointment of Catholic diocesan bishops. Thus, the French president is the only head of state who still appoints some Catholic bishops.

Former President Nicolas Sarkozy differed from this French constitutional tradition and saw France’s main religions as making positive contributions to society. He visited the Pope in December 2007 and publicly acknowledged France’s Christian roots. Pope Benedict XVI commented that it is important to become more aware of the irreplaceable role of religion for the formation of conscience and the contribution it can bring to the creation of a basic ethical consensus within society.

A law was passed on April 11, 2011, with strong support from political parties as well as from Sarkozy, which made it illegal to conceal one’s face in public spaces, affecting a few thousand women in France wearing the niqab and the burqa. Scholar Olivier Roy has argued that the burkini bans and secularist policies of France provoked religious violence, to which Gilles Kepel responded that Britain has no such policies and suffered a greater number of attacks in 2017 than France.

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By Prafull Goradiawas a Rajya Sabha MP from the BJP

https://indianexpress.com/article/opinion/columns/france-attacks-muslims-islam-emmanuel-macron-nice-attack-islam-6912889/

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Turmoil in Helmand

By Sanchita Bhattacharya

2 November 2020

Several parts of Nawa and Nad Ali Districts of Helmand Province were cleared of the Taliban in the ongoing operation by Afghan Security Forces (SFs), the Ministry of Defense said on October 28, 2020. The operation was launched on October 26, in these two districts as well as in Lashkargah city, the capital of Helmand, to retake the areas that had fallen to the Taliban two weeks ago, a statement by Ministry of Defense read, adding, “More than 100 Taliban fighters were killed and wounded in the operation.”

Earlier, on October 19, Khalil-ur-Rahman, the Helmand Police Chief, stated, “There is the issue of public benefit. The enemy has damaged it. Therefore, we don’t want to harm civilians and we move forward slowly.”

The Taliban attack started on October 10, 2020, in various places of Helmand Province, in a bid to capture Lashkargah, the provincial capital. The militants overran security checkpoints, while a number of Districts including Nad Ali and Nawa also came under attack. Following the Taliban’s push on Lashkargah and the seizure of security checkpoints, the US launched air attacks against the group’s fighters in support of the Afghan SFs. The U.S. Forces-Afghanistan (USFOR-A), Spokesman Colonel Sonny Leggett tweeted on October 12, “Over the past two days USFOR-A has conducted several targeted strikes in Helmand to defend ANDSF forces under attack by Taliban fighters, consistent with the U.S.-Taliban agreement. USFOR-A has & will continue to provide support in defense of the ANDSF under attack by the Taliban”. Within 24 hours of the attack, the Afghan National Security Defence and Security Forces (ANDSF) claimed to have neutralised around 126 terrorists and injured another over 100. Later, on October 18, Colonel Leggett, added on Twitter that “the entire world has witnessed the Taliban’s offensive operations in Helmand – attacks which injured and displaced thousands of innocent Afghan civilians.”

Taliban ‘spokesman’ Mohammad Naeem, however, asserted that the group’s fighters were recapturing districts that were previously under their control but were retaken by Afghan SFs a few months ago. The Taliban controls most of Helmand Province and in recent years has conducted several attacks to capture Lashkargah, but its fighters have been repeatedly pushed back by Afghan SFs.

10 years ago, more than 15,000 Afghan, US, British, Canadian, and Estonian troops made one of the biggest pushes of the war to dislodge the Taliban from the town of Marjah, then the Taliban’s last big stronghold in Helmand. Taliban launched a major offensive following the departure of most of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) troops at the end of 2014 and by summer 2016, the Taliban controlled or contested 12 of Helmand’s 14 districts. Report also suggests that the Taliban has gained control of roughly 80 per cent of Helmand, mainly the rural areas, while the district centers are still under government control.

Unfortunately, as the fighting intensified and the security situation around Lashkargah deteriorated, tens of thousands of people fled to Kabul city. Afghan authorities estimate that 35,000 people (some 5,000 families) have been displaced by the current fighting. The United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) in Afghanistan, however, disclosed that assessment teams were still verifying these figures, with 5,000 people confirmed so far. On October 19, OCHA stated, “Yesterday [October 18], around 300 families or approximately 2,100 people from Nawa-e-Barakzaiy have been newly displaced within Nawa District.” Meanwhile, as reported on October 22, the State Ministry on Disaster Management said that it has allocated 20 million of Afghan currency to address the needs of those affected by the fighting in Helmand. “This (funds) should be distributed among those affected from the war,” said Ghulam Bahauddin Jailani, State Minister on Natural Disaster Management.

Pakistan’s blatant involvement in the escalating violence is an inescapable reality. As reported on October 16, Haqqani Network ‘chief’ Sirajuddin Haqqani is believed to have reached Helmand from Quetta (Balochistan) in Pakistan. Haqqani was sent to Afghanistan on the directions of Pakistan's Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) for multiple objectives.

First, to assess the situation in Helmand after the coordinated Taliban attack and ensure safe passage to Pakistani terrorists involved in the attack. Another major reason for sending Haqqani is to contact Taliban leaders and negotiate with them about the representation of Pakistan's interests in the peace process. Sirajuddin Haqqani is also scheduled to meet Taliban ‘commander’ Mullah Yaqoub in Helmand. Interestingly, all heads of Commissions of Taliban are presently camping in Helmand itself. Haqqani is scheduled to meet a number of top Taliban ‘commanders’, take them into confidence, and influence them to represent Pakistan's interests during the ongoing peace talks in Doha (Qatar). The most important objective, though, was to motivate Pakistani cadres deployed within terrorist outfits in Afghanistan not to move to Pakistan and to keep fighting from their respective Afghan bases until the Financial Action Task Force (FATF) proceedings are completed, to ensure that Pakistan doesn't get blacklisted.

The propaganda machine of the Taliban, meanwhile, is busy portraying the Haqqani Network as a ‘reformer’. A new documentary tracing the life of Jalaluddin Haqqani (who died in 2018), the founder of the Network, depicts him as a “great reformer”, who fought heroically over four decades, first against the Soviets and then against the Americans. Taliban ‘spokesman’ Zabihullah Mujahid said the film aimed to “introduce” Haqqani as an “icon”. However, in reality, the documentary seeks to rebrand the Haqqani Network, and present it as united with the broader Taliban movement.

Indeed, on October 27, Afghan Chief of Army Staff Yasin Zia stated, “They (the Taliban) have not cut ties with al-Qaeda. They have relations with other terrorist groups in the region and with Pakistanis, they clearly are working shoulder-to-shoulder in Helmand.” Earlier, as reported on October 18, the Governor of Helmand, Yasir Khan had stated, “There is the presence of Jaish-e-Mohammad [JeM], Lashkar-e-Taiba [LeT], al-Qaeda... They are collaborating with the Taliban now and in the past too.” Taliban have provided safe places to stay for foreign fighters from these three terrorist groups. In return, these foreign fighters provide training in bomb-making to Taliban fighters. Interestingly, local sources in Pakistan have revealed that hospitals, especially in Quetta, Karachi, and Peshawar, have been filled with Taliban and JeM militants injured during gunfights with Afghan and US security forces since the Taliban offensive of October 10.

It is clear that the Taliban as well as Pakistan are in aggressive mode and are expected to increase violence in Afghanistan. The release of Taliban prisoners and subsequent return to the battlefield by some of them and the infiltration of rising numbers of Pakistani cadres into Afghan terrorist formations, have added to the ongoing violence.

Pakistan’s stakes in the narcotics trade of Afghanistan add to the greater significance of Helmand, which is one of the main poppy-growing areas in Afghanistan. Opium poppies and heroin are among the main sources of income for the Taliban, which controls 80 per cent of the drug production areas in Afghanistan. Pakistan acts as a facilitator in transporting the drugs out of Afghanistan, in processing, and in further distribution to other countries. The drug consignments, in connivance with Pakistan’s authorities, are smuggled through the Pakistan-Afghanistan border, and thereafter, head for Pakistan’s air and seaports and to further destinations in China, South and Southeast Asia, Africa and Europe.

Apart from its determination to retain and extend territorial control, the Taliban assault in Helmand seeks to exert added pressure on Kabul to accept the Taliban’s demands during ongoing negotiations in Doha. Moreover, Pakistan wants to ensure that the terrorist groups supporting its cause make deep inroads into Afghanistan so that, if the Taliban returns to political power, Islamabad will retain its ‘strategic depth’ to ensure that the regime serves Islamabad’s interests in the long run.

Clearly, with the progressive withdrawal of Western forces, circumstances in Afghanistan are developing towards a continuous escalation of violence, and the negotiations in Doha are little more than a charade that provides the Taliban with an unacceptable degree of international legitimacy, even as its violence worsens dramatically.

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Sanchita Bhattacharya is a Research Fellow, Institute for Conflict Management

Source: South Asia Intelligence Review

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