Should India export its Islamic values?

The dilemma of a secular state

Saudi Arabian publications have a major share of the Islamic section in the book shop in Kuala Lumpur’s international airport. Several other books are local publications. But there is, in addition, a small number of written by eminent Indian Muslim scholars on a variety of subjects — ranging from Islamic philosophy and jurisprudence to science and society. It is quite likely that the global influence of Indian Islam is not very different from its representation in KLIA’s bookshelves. Should the Indian government promote India’s interpretation of the religion in the Islamic world?

In a secular state like India, there is little role for the state in matters of faith and religion. That said, the rise of a radical, intolerant version of Islam is not in India’s interests either. Even if the strength of India’s Islamic values and largely amicable inter-religious relations remain successful in keeping radical Islam to the margin, it is by no means certain that this will be the case among the Islamic countries in the region. Saudi Arabia, Pakistan and Iran have no self-imposed restrictions on promoting their own Islamic values and indeed see this as an instrument of their foreign policy. It is unlikely that India can address these exertions of soft-power by promoting the virtues of secularism to the Islamic world. It could, however, follow along the lines of Saudi Arabia and Pakistan and promote its own Islamic tradition in various parts of the world.

Such a move would sit uncomfortably with India’s own secular credentials, especially it were to be carried out by a government body or an organ of state. It is less contentious, however, for the Indian government to assist its Islamic universities, charitable trusts and NGOs to raise their profile in the Muslim world, for example through scholarships, exchange programmes, tourism and yes, books.

So far, India has tried to engage the Islamic world politically, with mixed results — primarily because many Islamic countries do not always share India’s enthusiasm for secularism, but also because their leaders do not share its enthusiasm for democracy. It may be time to shift gears and begin to engage the Islamic world on a broader and a lower level. For India, increasing its representation on the bookshelves of the Kuala Lumpurs of the world is more important than seeking representation at the high-tables of the OIC. Indian foreign policy must change to reflect this reality.

11 thoughts on “Should India export its Islamic values?”

  1. Pingback: publications
  2. The only reason Saudi Arabian books dominate the bookshelves is because they’ve been spending billions of petro-dollars since the 1970s to spread their Wahhabi version of Islam. Is India willing to do the same?

  3. I dont know how Sufi-ism fits in with Islam exactly, but I believe that it does have a decent amount of respectability in the Islamic world (unlike, let us say, the Ismailis because of Hashasin lineage). And it is very much Indian in its levels of tolerance. It is therefore in India’s interests that Sufi-ism becomes the dominant sect (if you can call it that) of Islam in India. And it would be a relatively easy brand to export.

    We probably would not have to spend the billions because the silent majority of moderate muslims the world over would readily provide a market to something that is going to give their religion a better name.

    All in all a good thought Nitin.

  4. That is actually something that many people think is a good idea. I for one certainly feel an influence of Sufi Islam on the world would soothe many of the sore spots that have come up. The “state” effort so to speak would be minimal, and increasing state support and involvement in islamic universities in India would also result in decreasing “outside” interference.

    good blog.

  5. Moderate Muslims should be the vanguard of change, not India.

    Perception is important, and it’s known that a secular, and very “Hindu”, country like India is selling version Islam to the faithful, it won’t be taken all that seriously, in fact, it could backfire completely. The US is not having much luck in this area, as well.

    India should lend its support behind the scenes.

  6. I agree with Niraj (#4). Government has no business to promote or repress faith, as long as the people of one faith do not infringe upon the rights of others.

    At the same time, its up to moderate Muslims (and you may replace “Muslim” with any other religion) to sit up and be heard, so that the fundies in the religion remain on (or are relegated to) the fringe.

  7. Niket,

    That’s right. But the question is, should the Government give the moderate Muslims a shot in the arm?

  8. If you mean giving moderate Muslims (or moderates of any other religion, for that matter) the freedom to practise and export their faith freely, to provide security, to negotiate with other governments who would want to prevent free access of these materials to their citizens, then by all means yes. If you mean things like funding such an effort or promoting it through the state machinery, I would say no… lets really keep the state and religion separate.

    Indirect ways as in promoting cultural influences of Islam on India and vise versa, or the role of Sufiism in shaping the culture, traditions and history of a region: yes. But then, that doesn’t really fall under the realms of promoting religious values.

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