Demystifying Jihad

The News, April 13, 2006
Demystifying jihad
By M.B. Naqvi
Book Review of : Jihad, Hindutva and the Taliban: South Asia at the Crossroads
By: Iftikhar H. Malik Published by: Oxford University Press

Distinguished academician Iftikhar H. Malik has portrayed the politics of South Asia early in the new century. He finds three main forces at work: jihad, Hindutva and the Taliban. The book is really addressed to Western scholars and media. He wants to convince the informed and academic Western opinion about where South Asia is going and that it is not engaged in an unending jihad against the West, or Christianity.

Basically, the topicality of jihad and Taliban in the West is what informs the book. What the author does is to juxtapose it with India's Hindutva and other ethno-nationalisms of the region to show the universality of fascistic ideas in the region that is causing so much trouble in the Middle East, Palestine, Israel, Lebanon, Afghanistan and Iraq. And the author's main interlocutors are Western opinion makers and Western academia.

Malik delves deep into the Islamic lore and literature. He has delineated the jihadists' and Taliban mind well. He gives the reasons why the phenomenon is becoming popular in Indonesia and Bangladesh, not to mention Pakistan.

What goes on in the subcontinent is the main subject matter and studies of Islam and Hindutva are its heart. Technically, he covers the Buddhist nationalist ideology of the Sinhalese in Sri Lanka, Nepal's Khas Hindutva ethno-nationalism and of course the various Islamic movements in Pakistan and Bangladesh.

The author can be accused of being more concerned with the ideological antecedents and the pedigree of various categories of Islamic activists of today from the viewpoint of Western opinion. He seems to miss the fact that Islamic movements from Indonesia to Morocco formulate specific Islamic agendas in the light of specific local history and circumstances. These use Islamic rhetoric and know that ordinary Muslims are excitable and that Islamic terminology, especially of jihad, would motivate the people into doing what the leaders want them to do. What the West perceives is a suicide bomber, Taliban, the street fighters in Baghdad and terrorists elsewhere. Common Western notion is that "Muslims are troublesome and they always get excited over minor matters such as a cartoon or some blasphemic sentences in a book. These Muslims become ready to kill or get killed. Western symbols like embassies are their favourite targets." This raw reality is what confronts the West, or even a Pakistani or an Indian? There have been fine thinkers in Islam who have given various opinions on jihad: when it is legitimate and when it is not. While the corpus of facts about diversities of beliefs among Muslims and the varying interpretations of relevant categories are massive and finely nuanced, what an ordinary Western reporter or electronic media outlet notices is nondescript Muslims setting fire to an embassy or burning down a Church (in Pakistan) or the like. Current reality of the jihadists, Taliban or the suicide bombers has become a daily occurrence. Few care about how he has evolved.

Malik's section on Hindutva is excellent. It describes the rise of Hindutva ideology and the decline of Nehruvian concepts of secular and composite Indian nationalism, democracy and socialism. Without saying so the author seems to regret this or the rise of Hindu ethno-nationalism. In the context, the term ethnic denotes more than racial traits and includes all linguistic, regional, cultural or historical commonalities for identification of one lot of people from another, giving them identity. Without questioning the veracity of his description it is possible to say, he doesn't link Hindutva directly to the original Hindu reaction to the arrival of the West in the eighteenth century.

The treatment of the Congress in comparison with that of the BJP is perfunctory. The description of the Indian Left is also inadequate. He gives more attention to the BJP- Congress wrangling and pays less attention to economic conditions of the people, the social realities? The rise of caste factor has been inadequately dealt with.

His treatment of the Indian Muslims is also inadequate. True the author acknowledges the long history of awesome Islamic learning at subcontinent's main seminaries at Deoband, Lucknow and various other places. The fact that Indian Islamic scholarship in the evolution of the regional politics produces jihadists in Pakistan and Bangladesh but not in India remains unexplained. The Indian Islam today requires to be studied further.

The Bangladesh treatment is superficial. The Islamic movements in Bangladesh are extraordinarily strong. There is a grand clash of ideas now taking place in Bangladesh. The conflict is between a Muslim Bangla Nationalism of the BNP with the Bengali Nationalism of the Awami League, on one side, and Islamists, on the other. Finding out of the different schools or parties among the Islamists awaits fuller description.

The book takes in all of South Asia and covers Nepal and Sri Lanka more or less pro forma. Other than banal description there is little profound on the currents in Sri Lanka. Even less is to be found on Nepal. Only the Khas Hindutva ideology has been mentioned, the Maoists have been barely mentioned without any details of what sustains them and why. Surely there is more to Bhutanese politics and ideas than what appears in this book.

The book is largely about Pakistan and India. The attempt is to show-case Muslims to Western scholars and informed readers as basically reasonable people with an intellectual background who are motivated by noble ideas. It negates the idea that jihad is a permanent warfare against infidels, including Christians. What is true is that the Muslims have far too many different schools of thought and that author's historical scholarship about Islam has been impressive. But how does it relate to the awful reality of Iraq's resistance, gradually morphing into sectarian warfare. True, the scholars need to know the origins. The author's purpose is to make the West understand the complex reality of jihad; it is not mindless violence. Intellectual history of the 10 centuries long evolution of Taliban and jihadi may be useful. But it is less relevant than what the great Western powers are now doing to determine their actions.

Close attention needs to be paid to the chances of Islamic political parties succeeding through Islamic rhetoric in various countries and unleash more violence based on the excitability of ordinary Muslims. The aim of Islamic activity in Pakistan, Bangladesh or Indonesia, not to mention Egypt and Algeria, is to capture power-pure politics using Islam as propaganda. Muslim intellectuals in these countries know this-or so one supposes.

In a Pakistan-centric book, Malik has not failed to count the challenges the unhappy country faces. But his suggested ways of ending Army's stranglehold on power is more like a Cheshire cat's smile. But he does identify the agent of this great change: civil society comprising reformed NGOs. Political parties are given no role.

There is some explanation of the role that the US and UK governments are playing in the Islamic world, particularly the Middle East. The Muslim anger at what these powers have done in Afghanistan, Iraq an what they may yet do in Iran has been noted. This is standard Western liberal critique of American politicies and naturally relies on world public opinion to becoming a countervailing force to US imperial designs.


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