On state-sponsored greybeards

Radical Islam and the dilemma of the secular state

In an article on the debate (in Britain) over the setting up of a national or transnational body of Islamic scholars to issue authoritative interpretations of religious law, The Economist argues

if governments look to this or any clerical body to provide them with absolute clarity on what Muslims should believe and do, they won’t get it: there are just too many interpretations.

It also points out that “many of the Muslims who are drawn to jihadist violence, or to strident forms of political Islam, are indifferent to, or ignorant of, the nuances of theology…(and) in many cases, they have a general aversion to the idea of elaborate theology”.

The article captures a dilemma that secular states face from radical political Islam: keeping the state out of religion is of profound importance (however imperfect this might be in practice). At the same time, it is necessary to tackle the radical Islam that presents unique challenges for secular states with a Muslim component in their populations. Ideally moderate Muslims must confront the extremists. Yet, as Sam Harris holds in the ‘End of Faith‘, moderates cannot do so without running the risk of being (rightly, according to him) labeled as deviants. How then can the state strengthen the moderates?

Unlike Britain and the West, India does not need to import scholars or schools of theology. This blog has previously argued (see Should India export its religious values?) that it is in India’s interests to promote the Indian interpretation of Islamic values not just at home, but more importantly, abroad. This may be too much to expect from the current government, whose only response to radicalisation is its policy of creating community-based entitlements through reservations, curbing free expression in the name of preventing religious offence and tolerating intolerance.

Regardless of historical and contemporary religious conflicts, it is unarguable that Indian Islam has export potential, not least because it offers the world a more hopeful narrative than its Middle Eastern variety. Moreover, states like Saudi Arabia, Pakistan and Iran use Islam to cloak their quest for geopolitical power (see It’s the State, stupid!). That makes it incumbent upon India to join the battle for the Muslim mind.

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