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Islam and Pluralism ( 30 Oct 2011, NewAgeIslam.Com)

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A Threat to Multilayered Secular Cultures

By Madanjeet Singh

Thousands of young people attended Salman Ahmad's Sufi Junoon concert in 2008, ignoring the threat of the chairman of the United Jihad Council (UJC), Syed Salahuddin to kill Salman Ahmad if he came to Srinagar and performed during the inauguration of the Institute of Kashmir Studies, established by the South Asia Foundation.

Wahabbism, with enormous Saudi petrodollars at its disposal, has wrought havoc worldwide. The writer travels back to Kashmir, Kerala, Lahore, and Indonesia of some decades ago to get a measure of the tragic and vicious effects — and hopes resilient, multilayered secular cultures will be able to fight back. 

I am happy that finally someone has had the courage to frankly articulate the suppressed hopes and fears of mainstream Muslims in India. Addressing a public meeting of the Sufi Maha Panchayat at Moradabad, Maulana Syed Mohammad Ashraf Kachochavi declared: “Hamey Wahabiyon ki na Immanat kabool hai, na kayadat Kabul (We reject both the belief and politics of the Wahabis”). The gathering attended by thousands of Shia and Sunni Muslims applauded as he said: “lf anyone knocks on your door with the message of extremism, hand him over to the nearest police station.”

Politics is the bane of all religions. But unlike other faiths, the Wahabis have enormous petrodollars at their disposal, funded by the so-called Saudi charities that have wrought havoc worldwide. Personally for me, who have known diverse cultures from the north to the southern tip of India, it is not hearsay but a veritable reality. My ancestors hailed from Kashmir; I lived in the state of Travancore and went to school in Trivandrum; then I joined the Hindu University in Benares; and finally graduated from the Government College in Lahore. Excerpts from the story (to be published by Penguin India titled, Cultures & Vultures) are presented here to give a glimpse of the politics and violence with which the Wahhabi vultures are tearing apart Kashmir's syncretic Sufi-Bhakti-Rishi culture, Kerala's unique matrilineal society, Pakistan's Sufi Islam, and Indonesia's indigenous kebatinan culture.

In Kashmir

Inspired by Mahatma Gandhi's comment, “In the darkness engulfing the subcontinent the only ray of light came from Kashmir,” I put up a Peace Campaign exhibition of my photographs in Delhi that was inaugurated on November 10, 1948 by Sheikh Abdullah. It prompted him to invite me to Srinagar to participate in the National Cultural Front (NCF) he had established to ward off the tribal Kabaili invaders from Pakistan.

On arrival at Srinagar, I met Khawaja Ahmad Abbas, the veteran journalist, at the airport and he drove me to the riverside guesthouse where the NCF group was staying. The group comprised a number of well-known writers. They had joined hands with visual artists including Raza, a Muslim from Bombay, and Anand, a Hindu, and Amar Singh, a Sikh, both from Amritsar. Then there was Sheila Bhatia, an active member of the Indian People's Theatre Association from Lahore, who inspired Kashmiri women from all the communities with her folk songs and plays.

But no group or individual was as effective in promoting secular culture at the grassroots as the ‘coolie poet,' Aasi. I was amazed to see him standing in the middle of Srinagar's Lal Chowk surrounded by crowds listening to the oral poetry of this illiterate labourer. He was a devotee of the Kashmir's patron Sufi saint, Hazrat Nuruddin Nurani, known as Nund Rishi like the legendary Hindu sages. Aasi was a true interpolator of Kashmir's Sufi-Bhakti-Rishi culture that Pakistan's ISI has been destroying since the 1965 Operation Gibraltar by infiltrating Wahhabi terrorists to inflict “a thousand cuts” and incite a rebellion in Kashmir.

Among the ferocious vultures was the chairman of the United Jihad Council, Syed Salahuddin, who in 2008 threatened to kill Salman Ahmad if his Sufi concert Junoon came to perform during the inauguration of the Institute of Kashmir Studies, established by the South Asia Foundation. Salman ignored the threat and called on the Jihadis to “join Junoon in a musical jihad” instead of fear mongering and threatening to boycott the concert. The Sufi culture triumphed as thousands of young people flocked to hear Junoon, a memorable event widely covered by the Indian as well as international media. But the Pakistani jihadi gangsters have not given up their Wahhabi agenda invoking over a 100 suras (verses) in the Quran that call on Muslims to kill or maim infidels. Funded by the ISI, they continue to impose the 7th century Shariah law of the Arabian Desert on the 21st century culture of the civilised people living in the beautiful fertile valley of Kashmir.


Shortly after my father Dodger Singh, a professor at the Hindu University in Benares, took up a job offered to him by the Maharaja of Travancore, my mother Sumitra Kaur was on the lookout for a maidservant. One day, standing in the porch of our villa, she spotted two Malayali women walking barefoot. They were simply dressed, wearing traditional mundus and blouses. Attracted by my mother's Punjabi salwar-kamiz and dupatta-covered head, they approached her curiously as my sister interpreted; women in Punjab were discouraged from learning English. They had recently returned from the United States, having graduated from Harvard University. Indeed they were looking for a job but not the kind my mother had in mind. She felt so small and ashamed. Later she told her husband that the Punjabi adage, ‘one can identify a person's status and level of education by looking at the shoes,' was totally invalid in Travancore. Even the Maharaja came barefoot to open the ceramic factory that my father built.

The two women, a Hindu and her Muslim friend, told Ranjeeta that even though they were not Christians, the Anglican missionaries had offered them the scholarships. They gave my sister the address of the missionary school in case she wanted to apply for a scholarship to study abroad.

Today a Wahhabi outfit euphemistically named Popular Front of India (PFI) is teaching Shariah law in the madrasas where boys and girls are segregated. Muslim girls are obliged to wear ‘Islamic clothes,' including the Hijab. In Kasargod, a PFI stronghold, Rayana Khasi, a journalist was threatened for wearing jeans. Uniformed Muslim youngsters are marching in ‘Freedom Parades,' like the danda-wielding fascists of the Hindu Right.

The undertow of Wahhabi intolerance and violence was highlighted on July 4, 2010, when Muslim fanatics brutally attacked T.J. Joseph, a Newman College lecturer in the town of Thodupuzha. They chopped off the palm of his hand for the ‘crime' of framing a question for an examination of his students based on a text written by the filmmaker Kunhi Mohammed. The college authorities, threatened by the rioting fanatics, cowered and dismissed Mr. Joseph. They agreed to reconsider their action only if “the Muslim community made an appeal to reinstate him, or the court issued an order to that effect.”


Faiz Ahmed Faiz, my senior at Lahore's Government College, visited Paris in 1983, a few months before he died. I had invited a number of my Indian and Pakistani Urdu-speaking friends to a reception in his honour. He was sitting next to me and noticed tears rolling down my cheeks as he recited his poignant compositions. As he was leaving, the great poet put his hand on my knee and said: “India's Partition was a British plot to divide and rule the subcontinent that succeeded in Pakistan because of the nexus between the military dictators and the jihadists.”

Faiz was obviously alluding to General Zia-ul-Haq after he grabbed power in a 1977 coup and then set out to break the Sufi link that united Pakistan with India's traditional secular and pluralist culture by enforcing Wahhabi Islam funded by Saudi Arabia. The Sufi shrines were destroyed or closed and all forms of cultural activity categorised as blasphemous, including figurative painting, singing, dancing, and music.

It was only when I visited Lahore in search of my roots in 1996 that I realised the havoc caused by Wahhabi politics. There was no trace of my grandfather's sprawling joint family house in which I was born. And when I went to see the New Hostel of the Government College, I was stunned to see black graffiti scribbled on the walls in Urdu: “Jews, Hindus, Sikhs, Christians and Ahmadiyas are enemies of Islam.” The warden reluctantly led me to the cubicle in which I had lived for about four years. I found that the door had been smashed open and inside there was only a dirty carpet spread on the floor. Equally shocking was to find later that there were no students in the common dining room on the first floor. Instead a number of militants with Kalashnikov rifles hung on their shoulders were joking and laughing as they swallowed the food cooked for the college alumni. It was a far cry from the glamorous boarding house in which I had once lived in the ‘Paris of the Orient.'


I married Dhyanawati, called Kiki, daughter of the Indonesian ambassador in Sweden in 1963 while I was posted as a first secretary at the Indian Embassy in Stockholm. I was greatly impressed by the unique multi-layered syncretic culture of Indonesia with the largest Muslim population in the world. It was amazing to see during a previous visit to Bali common people performing the Mahabharata and Ramayana by the roadside and the marvellous wayang kulit puppet shows depicting the Indian epics.

Shortly after our marriage, Kiki and I arrived in New Delhi and I joined the UN division in the Ministry of External Affairs. We attended many diplomatic receptions and I was glad that as an ambassador's daughter, Kiki enabled me to get acquainted with several senior foreign diplomats. But I was disconcerted to find that the Saudi Ambassador invariably made a beeline to my wife, took her aside, and brainwashed her about Wahhabi Islam. He insisted that she must pray five times a day. Later I learned that his attempt to pressurise my wife was not an isolated case. He was working under instructions from his government.

Since then, in a matter of four decades, the Saudis have spent millions of petrodollars to build hundreds of Wahhabi mosques and thousands of madrasas and largely succeeded in effacing Indonesia's syncretic culture.

I also learned to my dismay that, inspired by the destruction of the Bamiyan Buddha idols by Taliban vandals in Afghanistan, Wahhabi extremists in Java made several attempts to damage the 8th-9th century Buddhist temple of Borobodur, a world heritage site. The terrorists who carried out the 2002 bombings in Bali were also Wahhabi fanatics who killed more than 200 tourists in a suicide bomb explosion in a bar.

Hopefully, the resilient multi-layered syncretic culture of Indonesia will be able to prevent the Wahabis from turning this picturesque secular country into another Pakistan where rose petals are being showered on the killer of the liberal Punjab governor Salman Taseer, and the judge who sentenced the assassin to death has since fled the country in fear for his life.

Madanjeet Singh is a UNESCO Goodwill Ambassador and founder of the South Asia Foundation.

Source: The Hindu, New Delhi