By Sadanand Dhume
July 23, 2015
On Monday, Prime Minister David Cameron delivered a remarkable speech in Birmingham outlining a stepped up government campaign against Islamist extremism. India could learn a thing or two from him on how to address a sensitive subject without either flinching from the truth or carelessly tarring an entire community.
To be sure, Britain’s problems with Islamism (the drive to order all aspects of the state and society by Sharia law) do not exactly mirror India’s. Nor are the two countries’ experiences with terrorism, Islamism’s most violent and visible manifestation, identical. Nonetheless, in the age of Lashkar-e-Taiba and the Islamic State, all pluralistic democracies face a challenge from an ideology that Cameron characterises as “hostile to basic liberal values such as democracy, freedom and sexual equality”.
This raises important questions. Which principles of confronting Islamism are equally applicable to London and Lucknow, Paris and Patna, Boston and Bangalore? How might you apply Cameron’s observations – a broad distillation of sensible centre-right discourse in the West – to an Indian context?
To begin with, the distinction between the ideology of Islamism and the faith of Islam cannot be made often enough. Bluntly put, Islamism is an exclusivist dogma that threatens non-Muslims, heterodox Muslims and secular Muslims alike. Islam is one of the world’s major faiths, practised by 1.6 billion people, most of whom are moderate. In India, the Left refuses to acknowledge the Islamist threat. The Right often fails to distinguish between Islamists and ordinary Muslims less interested in resurrecting a Caliphate than in simply getting on with their daily lives.
It follows that legitimate concerns about Islamism should not become an excuse to condone the excesses of the Hindu far Right. A politician or public intellectual ought to be able to condemn both West Bengal’s craven expulsion of dissident writer Taslima Nasreen and the poisonous ravings of Pravin Togadia of the Vishva Hindu Parishad. In Birmingham, Cameron likened Islamist extremists to his country’s “despicable far right”. In India, unfortunately, the line between the responsible Right and the despicable Right is often blurry.
This is not to suggest a mindless equivalence. Every faith may have its share of extremists, but you have to be either blind or a member of the CPM politburo to ignore that the Islamic world is especially in turmoil today. Neither Cameron nor Barack Obama nor François Hollande need fret about their Hindu or Buddhist or Jewish compatriots boarding a plane to blow themselves up on a distant battlefield in search of paradise.
This brings us to another simple principle: Ideas matter. In both the West and India, apologists for Islamist extremism attempt to explain it away by blaming colonialism or Western foreign policy or poverty. But they can’t explain why formerly colonised Burmese and Cambodians aren’t strapping on suicide vests. Or why Islamist terrorists first tried to destroy New York’s World Trade Centre in 1993 – long before George W Bush invaded Iraq. Or why so many prominent terrorists, from multimillionaire Osama bin Laden to German-educated 9/11 ringleader Mohammed Atta, weren’t exactly underprivileged.
Closer to home, Indian Mujahideen’s Mohammed Mansoor Peerbhoy worked as a computer programmer for Yahoo. The group’s founder, Riyaz Bhatkal, studied civil engineering. Before his arrest last year, Islamic State cheerleader Mehdi Masroor Biswas, known to his bloodthirsty fans on Twitter as @ShamiWitness, held a well-paid job with ITC in Bangalore.
Beyond the obvious counterterrorism component what might a deeper Indian response to Islamism look like? For starters, people need to start paying more attention to ideology than to individual acts of terror. It’s no coincidence that Jamaat-e-Islami – along with Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood one of the world’s two main conveyor belts of Sunni extremism – birthed the Students Islamic Movement of India, which in turn spawned Indian Mujahideen.
These groups may differ in tactics. But they are bound by a shared belief that Islam is not merely a religion, but a complete way of life spanning everything from marriage to banking to politics. Many modern Islamists have grudgingly come to terms with democracy as a means to an end, but they ultimately agree that God’s law (Sharia) is superior to man’s law (legislation).
Viewed against this backdrop, India’s failure to reform Muslim personal law in the 1950s at the same time that it undertook a sweeping modernisation of Hindu laws governing marriage, inheritance and adoption, must count among the republic’s most consequential blunders. Western democracies can defend themselves by drawing a clear line in the sand between democratic liberalism and the medieval practices enshrined in Sharia. In India, the state itself ensures that Muslims follow Sharia in civil matters.
Historical blunders notwithstanding, the media can do a lot more to even the playing field between extremist and moderate voices. Thanks in part to television; the likes of the rabble-rousing Akbaruddin Owaisi and the fundamentalist preacher Zakir Naik wield a megaphone in India’s public square. Few people have even heard of the insightful anti-extremist scholar Sultan Shahin, Founding Editor, New Age Islam, or of Tufail Ahmad, who doggedly tracks contemporary Islamist thinking in the Indian subcontinent.
In sum, what Cameron calls “the struggle of our generation” isn’t confined to a Britain roiled by home-grown Islamist extremism. It’s a global phenomenon whose lessons apply as much to India as to any other democracy.
Sadanand Dhume is a resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington, DC