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.

52 thoughts on “On state-sponsored greybeards”

  1. Nitin,
    Sorry for putting it bluntly: your idea is Utopian in today’s world. Just look at what Paki Islam has done to Kashmiriyat. Moreover, Congress and BJP and their politics are driving Indian Muslims more and more into the hardline Wahabbi School of Islam.

    I recently wrote about the modern Indian Islamist terrorist. The latest Islamist terror in UK and Aus. and the Indian connection is so chillingly real.

  2. RS,

    Bluntness is welcome.

    Indeed, what I propose seeks to address the challenges you mentioned—Pakistani imports have crippled Kashmiriyat, and the Wahhabi import is making inroads elsewhere. Presenting and strengthening a more tolerant, Indian alternative will go a long way.

    It’s utopian to the extent that the domestic political environment will militate against it.

  3. Nitin
    How do you propose the Indian Government go about doing this ?
    Indian muslim students with scholarships go for higher religious studies in Qom or Najaf (for shia) and the International Islamic University in Madinah for instance.
    They will often have additional legitimacy than Indian madrassas being located in the ‘heartland’.In contrast the number of foreign students in Darul Uloom Deoband has dried up due to difficulty in visas amongst other reasons.
    Muslims from the West either prefer to study in Saudi Arabia ,Syria ,Egypt ,Iran and even Pakistan.
    Darul Uloom Karachi – the preeminent Deobandi institution in Karachi has far more foreign students than the Indian one. There is a Imam Khomeini Centre in Srinagar for example and many institutions funded by Saudi patrons scattered throughout India .

  4. History Lover;

    We need a 180 degrees change in direction: The emphasis should be to encourage scholars and teachers to lecture at universities abroad; and open up Indian schools to students from other countries.

    In fact, I don’t see why theological courses must be restricted to JMI, AMU or the other Jamias. Moving the subject to mainstream universities will open it up to a wider academic pool.

    That much for the general approach. I won’t pretent to know the answer to the exact how. With so much state involvement in education, and so much religious involvement in education, I’m sure it’s possible to find ways to carry this out.

  5. Nitin

    Many Western universities have departments of religious studies that offer university degrees in Islamic studies. Indian Universities organized on similar lines like Jamia Millia or say AMU follow the same pattern .
    In fact AMU has a Dept of Theology and a separate Dept of Islamic studies.
    The methodology of studies they follow is the anthropological and the historical.They do not teach Islam; rather, they teach about it.This is a rather subtle distinction . Thus the nature of students in say a typical madrassa would be different from that of say a University. In a madrassa ,the student would be expected to follow the various rituals .The madrassa would typically be associated with a particular school of thought -Deobandi,Barelwi,Ahl-Hadith,Shia etc..
    Thus a student who wants to seek knowledge to become more pious would goto a madrassa rather than going to University.
    Ofcourse the distinction is rather blurred in institutions in many muslim countries like say Al-Azhar or even the International Islamic Universities in Islamabad and Malaysia.

  6. Nitin:

    Good post.

    To start with, we need our fellow Indians to understand and appreciate the uniqueness of Islam as it is practiced in India. A possible option can be opening up Islam-related courses and programs in Universities other than JMI, AMU etc. as you mention in your comment.

    I believe that only Indian Muslims have the capability to show the way to other Muslims in this 21st century.

  7. Very well written Nitin, but like history lover I am interested in the “tougher to answer” how part of it. I think he has brought out a pertinent difference between university and madarassa/mutt education of a religion.
    Mohib, read the post which you had linked. While at it this post in the “related links section caught my eye. I am quoting from it

    For decades LTTE (Tamil tigers who are Hindu) have killed thousands in the Buddhist majority island nation.

    LTTE as Hindu terrorists? Thats a very novel way of categorizing them. So much for the understanding.

  8. Nitin, I have mangled the A HREF tags. Please correct it if you find time!

    Done —Ed

  9. History_Lover, Mohib – While opening up courses seems a long term grand option if you truly believe Indian muslims can show the way in 21st century why is it that we are not seeing a sustained repudiation of the other versions (wahabbi types) from Indian Muslims. Either its happening silently and we are not hearing it at all or it is not happening at all and the public discourse has been hijacked by default – which one is it ?

  10. Yossarin,

    why is it that we are not seeing a sustained repudiation of the other versions (wahabbi types) from Indian Muslims

    The answer to this question is central to Sam Harris’s thesis: that moderates cannot take on the extremist interpretations because it is the prevailing interpretations weigh in their favour. But my reading of Harris leaves me convinced that it does not sufficiently consider the interpretation/Islamic tradition of India and South East Asia. Muslims in these parts have evolved a more tolerant tradition simply because they have lived in a heterogenous religious environment. I suppose the classic example of this is Kashmiriyat. Unfortunately, Kashmir is also the example of what can happen if the imported strands of the religion remain unchecked.

  11. Yossarin ,
    The offence fierce polemics between different sects are scattered across Urdu media – books,pamphlets, madrassa journals etc.
    Recall Deobandi Alim Maulana Madani’s work Islam aur Muttahida Quamiyat
    Islam and the hardline Deobandi polemics on Maulana Maududi whose Jamaat Islami was mocked as Maudidiyat – a religion separate from Islam.
    May be you can’t access them because you can’t read Urdu – a byproduct of the marginalization of Urdu soon after Independence .
    However the terrorists dont read them either as DIY Islam seems to appeal to Nafs -ego .

  12. Sriram, History Lover,

    There is always a difference between theology and the critical study of religion. In the context of Islam though, the former often comes in the way of the latter, especially in modern times. Critical study of religion cannot occur without tolerance for academic freedom. The greater the tolerance the greater the understanding of (and comfort with) that religion.

    Therefore, it becomes all the more important to address the theology—both in the madrassas as well as in the Theology departments of universities. The intellectual space that the department of religious studies needs can only come when prevailing theology allows/accomodates it. It’s a necessary but not sufficient condition.

  13. Nitin, the necessary precondition for the intellectual/academic room you talk about is a watering down on the tempers. The media plays a big role in this. Sweeping accounts of excesses by the Islamic fundamentalists under the carpet doesnt help anyone. Today if some fringe Hindu organization ransacks an artist for depicting Hinduism in bad light, the condescending tone of reportage makes one distance oneself from such organizations (even if one found merit in such acts that is). Contrast that with the reportage adopted when reporting similar acts by Muslims. Today it is avant garde for Hindus to criticize their religion. Thats not the case with Muslims. Should a Muslim criticize Islam he is heckled with media playing the “he should not have offended their sensibilities” line or “Islam is a religion of peace” line. My 2 cents.

  14. Nitin wrote:

    … it is in India’s interests to promote the Indian interpretation of Islamic values not just at home, but more importantly, abroad.

    This is a dangerous proposition, particularly in the Indian context. Who is the promoter? The State or one of its agencies, I presume. You are suggesting that the State has an interest here, and therefore, the State should promote the version of Islam that serves its interest. The Indian State is already mired in religion, with its peculiar version of secularism that professes strict neutrality towards religions. Promoting a “Indian” interpretation of Islam, whatever it is and whether it is feasible or not, would not only violate the strict neutrality principle, but also draw the State further into the religious quagmire. It is a dangerously slippery slope that I am afraid will land India in theocracy.

  15. Exporting Indian Islam definitely seems like a Utopian idea because the priority must be to prevent it from going the way of Indonesian Islam: radicalization under the baneful influence of Arab funding.

  16. Nitin,

    Your proposal – {Quote} Presenting and strengthening a more tolerant, Indian alternative will go a long way {Unquote} is a bit flawed. Some thoughts.

    – The Indian variety of islam is the creator of wahabbism. The kind which now flourishes in Saudi Arabia and is the ideology of taliban.

    The Indian variety of islam created the islamic movement for pakistan, which ultimately led to the liquidation of nearly 20,00,000 hindus in lands now called Pak {pure} – istan. {the exact figure of the killed remains uncertain}.

    Propounding the Indian variety of islam would also be a bit problematic now as all the chief suspects of the failed terror attack are Indian muslim doctors.

  17. Sriram I dont think the media sweeps indian muslim issues under the carpet.
    Does not the media highlight sundry fatwas issued from here and there ?

  18. A bit OT: while we’re at it, can we have theology departments in our universities for Hinduism (and other Indian religions) also beyound interpretations of communists like Ms. Thapar at JNU (such as Rama Cult is from South!)? It’s a shame UGC doesn’t like religious studies in higher education, other than few specific Islamic ones, in a very religious nation.

  19. Yossarin:

    May be you are just hanging out with the wrong crowd.

    I can say with some credibility that Wahhabism as propagated by the ruling Saudi elite of royalty and clergy has very limited influence among Indian Muslims. While growing up as a kid I remember Wahhabis not being considered Muslims at all (which is obviously taking it to the other extreme). Barelvis who constitute a majority of Indian Muslim population are dead against Wahhabism and their ideology. I remember a conversation with an influential tablighi jamaat member that Salafi (another strain of Wahhabism) is the biggest threat to Islam.

  20. Rational Fool,

    That’s why I framed the issue as one of a dilemma. Normatively, I completely agree with you. The state’s involvement in religion is the result of many of our woes. Yet, the principle is very important, even if it remains an unachievable ideal, as a way of organising our society.

    In practice though—in a country that subsidises pilgrimages, funds religious institutions and even runs some places of worship—devoting funds to the promotion of an ‘ideology’ should not be so hard to do.

  21. Nitin,

    Chandra wrote:

    A bit OT: while we’re at it, can we have theology departments in our universities for Hinduism (and other Indian religions) also beyound interpretations of communists like Ms. Thapar at JNU (such as Rama Cult is from South!)? It’s a shame UGC doesn’t like religious studies in higher education, other than few specific Islamic ones, in a very religious nation.

    Just a sampling of the scenery that awaits downhill!

  22. Rational Fool

    Touché!

    But then, I suppose that the making of such a demand validates its content. Universities should have departments teaching Hindu theology and Hinduism studies too.

  23. >>> A possible option can be opening up Islam-related courses and programs in Universities other than JMI, AMU etc. as you mention in your comment.

    Mohib,

    What about similar courses on Hinduism in JMI,AMU and other madrassas. Tauba tauba, yeh secular nahi hai.. 😀

    Hey, why not courses on Islam in IITs and IIMs.. 🙂

    Or why not courses in Hinduism in universities other than JMI, AMU and associated madrassas 🙂

  24. Its all right to teach islam in non-islamic educational institutes, but its a crime in this country to teach Hinduism in Hindu institutions !!

  25. >>> LTTE as Hindu terrorists? Thats a very novel way of categorizing them. So much for the understanding

    Sriram, another misunderstanding spread by muslims in India (to promote secularism by showing Hinduism in bad light by any means possible etc).
    Prabhakaran is an atheist or more recently, a Christian. LTTE is hardly Hindu. Not surprising, after all, the url of Mohib says “indianmuslims.in” ..

  26. Shadows,

    Don’t be ridiculous (comments #24, #25). It is the state that is secular; religious institutions by definition cannot be secular. It’s another story if your argument is—like Rational Fool’s—that the state must get out of all religious institutions, and stop funding universities and educational instutions etc that have a religious character. But to suggest that institution of one religion must also offer theology of another is absurd.

    And no personal attacks please.

  27. >>> I remember a conversation with an influential tablighi jamaat member that Salafi (another strain of Wahhabism) is the biggest threat to Islam

    Oh no, he is not enough muslim. I am more muslim than him. he is more muslim than him. wahabi is another sect, hanif is another sect, barelvis are better…

    Is there any end to the number of ways you interpret the koran, to justify just about anything

  28. shadows, LTTE cadre could be Hindus. But thats beside the point. The identity which they assume when doing acts of terror is Tamilian or more specifically SriLankan Tamil.

    history_lover, I guess you have not understood what I meant by media reportage. Probably I should expand the term further to mean public discourse and more specifically the big fights and we the peoples. The blame for wrongdoings of Hindu fundamentalists is placed at Hinduism’s doorsteps. Caste1 burns members of Caste2 – Hinduism is bad, it promotes caste system. But in the case of Islam, the buck stops with that individual or group. Islamic group bombs a train, the group is not even bad – they are disillusioned because of state apathy and various other socio-economic causes. But Islam is a religion of peace.

  29. The Rational Fool,

    “Just a sampling of the scenery that awaits downhill!”

    There is nothing “going downhill” about studying Hinduism! What is your problem with universities studying religion? This is classic Indian intelligentsia (apparently secular – or is that rational?) – we don’t want to study about Indian society, just tell us what the west does and we’ll do it (and btw, the west has theology departments in state and private schools such as Oxford, Harvard, and Rice and they seem to be doing just fine). So we have departments such as linguistics in JNU and Delhi Univ. modeled after western Indology departments promoting same imperial bias of Indian history and religion.

    No one is talking about propagating religion. I guess you don’t have any problems with existing extremely-biased linguistics know-it-alls trashing religion, especially singling out Hinduism. If there was slippery slope, it’s already here and only practicing Hindus are on the other end of the slope taking a beating.

  30. Shadows,

    Thanks. There is a case for teaching both theology and religious studies in our universities; that includes all religions. Many of the best universities in the world have theology and religious studies departments. It’s not ridiculous at all.

  31. Chandra,

    I think you misread Rational Fool. What I see him arguing is that you can’t promote Indian Islam (abroad) without leading to calls by adherents of other religions to demand similar treatment too.

  32. Nitin learning religion in universities requires a dispassionate mind – both of the teacher and the learner. But I see people either with religion-x is always right, by nook or crook let me justify it attitude or religion-y is always wrong, so let me decry it always attitude.

  33. Hi all,

    This is not a post not even remotely about Hinduism.

    Can’t see why we cannot have a discussion about offering the world an Indian interpretation of Islam, without bringing Hinduism into the picture. Especially, since the increasing radicalisation of the world’s Muslims that is the problem we’re trying to address.

  34. >>> Many of the best universities in the world have theology and religious studies departments. It’s not ridiculous at all.

    Nitin true. But all faiths are covered by such departments, arent they?
    Will AMU, JMI, etc(AMU gets UGC grants, AFAIK) cover Hinduism?

    Also, how many departments of Hindu studies are there in India ? I searched google for “university department of hindu studies hinduism” (without quotes). Most of the results I get are for universities abroad, not India. (If anyone gets other results using other search terms, please post). And we all know how Hinduism is distorted in those departments by “South Asian” and leftist teachers, dont we?

    It is quite ridiculous in the context of India. The secularism and the hypocrisy associated, and not actually the idea of theology departments in universities.

    >>> Can’t see why we cannot have a discussion about offering the world an Indian interpretation of Islam, without bringing Hinduism into the picture.

    It is strange that we try to offer an Indian interpretation of Islam, when we dont even offer Hinduism to ourselves.. or to the world in place of the “Dark Hindutva” kind of stuff peddled by desi historians.

    Also, as Pankaj pointed out earlier, Indian Islam is no less fanatic. Indian muslims were involved in Mumbai train blasts, Ghatkopar bus blasts, and now Glasgow airport. There have been quite a few Indian members of al-Qaeda.

  35. >>> Many of the best universities in the world have theology and religious studies departments. It’s not ridiculous at all.

    Nitin,

    Sorry to post again, I missed out this part earlier.

    I wonder how many universities in India provide *both* islamic and Hinduism studies. This is what makes it strange.. I am pretty sure that the sum total of Hindu and Sanskrit courses would be *much* less than islamic studies in India.

    If its decided to teach islam in Indian universities, then Hinduism and other religions should also be included. But that is a strict no-no as per secularism. This is what makes the whole thing ridiculous.

    >> without bringing Hinduism into the picture.
    Hinduism comes into the picture. If islam is taught in Indian universities, then Christians would demand the same for Christianity. Then Hindus would demand Hinduism be taught in universities. Then muslims would oppose that because its not secular, and this will become another bone of contention.

  36. Nitin,

    I didn’t get that at all from Rational Fool – only because he used my OT as an example for slippery slope, which had nothing to do with your interpretation of him.

    In any case, as far as the “how”, it’s fairly standard operating procedure among universities for this – ie exchanging ideas, profs, and students all over the world. Even if other Islamic nations were interested – one has to go west to go east, and I am sure at least west will be open, to get any academic traction, I hardly think our RBI and UGC, which doesn’t even allow science profs to travel for sabbatical, will promote religious sabbatical. But then the two organizations are slaves to politicians.

  37. I have an antipathy towards Islam which can only be compared to the antipathy that Islam has towards infidels like me. No version of Islam — Indian, Martian, or Betelguesian — is acceptable to me because in every version the core idea is that Islam is perfect and unchangeable and infidels are horrible evil creatures who must be eradicated or subjugated.

    I am also very vehement in my insistence that the government must not even utter the word religion — leave alone dabble in any way either to promote or suppress it. A person’s religion must be his private affair and if the observance of a person’s religion conflicts with any civil laws, then the government has to step in and use force if needed to suppress it.

    So, for example, you can pray to whatever imaginary deity you bloody well please in the privacy of your own home but if you pray over a loudspeaker and I hear it, the government must stop that.

    Organized monotheistic religions have done too much harm for so long that it is criminal not to oppose them with all the resources one has at one’s disposal. Claiming that “Indian Islam” (whatever that is) is a better alternative to “Wahhabism” and that the former should be promoted to check the excesses of the latter is deluded at best. Islam is Islam. One has to read the Koran and the Traditions to realise that anything other than the total eradication of the meme is meaningless and may even lead to even worse excesses.

    Smallpox is smallpox. It has to be eradicated in its entirety. In an age of global travel, you cannot say that it is alright to have some regions of the world where smallpox can be tolerated.

    Or take malaria. If possible it is better to aim to eradicate the mosquito than to use the strategy of engineering sickle-cell anemia in the entire global population and thus gain a degree of immunity from the malarial parasite.

  38. Is there any reason for you to believe that “Indian Islam” is not going to blow us up? Weren’t they the followers of “Indian Islam” that slaughtered the infidels during partition and even before that? Wasn’t it “Indian Islam” in Pakistan and Bangladesh that wiped out the Hindu populations in those regions?

    Realism may be that you propose a half-way house hoping that the final destination will be different. I think that once you embark upon the path that Islam proposes, the slope is slippery. No region of the world which has ever had any contact with Islam has escaped the final destination. There is no going back. Turkey is a prime example. Kamal Ataturk tried and failed.

    Realism is the hope that one will pull out in time. But even if one fails only occasionally, given sufficient attempts, the probability of pregnancy approach certainty.

    I don’t wish it on humanity, but I think humanity will only wake up when the first couple of nuclear bombs go off. My suspicion is that India will be the staging ground. Mumbai seems like a likely test site. Like the Kandahar hijacking was the beta test for Sept 11th. When the bomb does go off in Mumbai, the Western world will not wake up of course. They will wake up when the bomb goes off in LA or SF.

    I hope to settle down in Sydney or in NZ. I think they are low value targets. Mumbai is very very dangerous. Delhi not that much.

  39. Shadows
    Why single out AMU or JMI ?

    The UGC funded Banaras Hindu University has a Sanskrit Vidya Dharma Vijnan Faculty .
    Banasthali Vidyapeeth has a Department of Sanskrit, Philosophy and Vedic Studies .
    You can look for details on thier official websites.

  40. Atanu: your black-and-white view of Islam is exactly an example of the intolerance you claim Islam is predicated on. Your view – as outlined – is border-line fascist. Also too dramatic and to convince this reader.

  41. libertarian, allow me to quote myself (since you appear to have missed that bit from me):

    I have an antipathy towards Islam which can only be compared to the antipathy that Islam has towards infidels like me.

  42. Atanu: I hope you won’t claim your issue is just Islam itself and not the people who practice the religion. That’s a cop-out. Is your issue a theological one with Koran and the Traditions or is it a practical one with the interpretations and practice of aforementioned texts by the adherents of the religion? If it is the former, it would seem your ideas of eradicating it are seriously out of proportion for the “harm” they have caused you. If it’s the latter, it’s a conversation I cannot have.

    Also, Christianity and Judaism are “organized monotheistic religions”. Since they (presumably also) “have done too much harm for so long” why not sharpen the knives for them too while you are at it with Islam?

  43. To libertarian:

    Islam as an abstraction is arguably an abomination. But if it were merely an abstraction which has no bearing on my life, say like the philosophy of some aliens living 40 million light-years away, I would not care how malignant it was. As it happens, Islam is more than an abstract evil; its effects are manifested by those who follow its dictates faithfully.

    I have no problem with people practicing their faith — however deluded they may be. But if they step on my toes in their following of their faith, I will do my best to defend my life and liberty.

    Yes, all the three Abrahamic religions are odious to me. But Judaism does not have a billion adherents and besides the few million that exist are willing to live and let live. The practice of Christianity used to be fairly horrific but now most of its followers are sensible enough to just ignore it for the most part. Most Christians are also willing to live and let live. If the fringe in either of those two get out of line, the mainstream does take care of the loonies. I think it is not even a close contest when you compare the three monotheistic faiths.

    But Islamic fringes weild sufficient power that everyone falls in line with their demands. Cartoons? Sure, off with the heads and not a peep out of the mainstream. The mainstream would not dare.

    YMMV.

  44. Atanu: But Islamic fringes wield sufficient power that everyone falls in line with their demands.
    The main thrust of this thread is how that can be addressed and what part India can play in it. You have staked out an extreme (ideological) position – and the gap between your position and any “solution” is too far to be bridged. I dare claim that your position is not representative of most Indians – or may be it’s my woolly-headed belief that most Indians are centrist/moderate. I also claim that the problem is addressable given the precedent of Christianity successfully (if uneasily) adjusting to new political realities (as you pointed out). If those assumptions are correct, India is easily the best place to address the issue. Great powers solve giant problems. No other great power has both the incentive and the capability of solving this issue.

  45. Libertarian,

    “I also claim that the problem is addressable given the precedent of Christianity successfully (if uneasily) adjusting to new political realities (as you pointed out).”

    I will say “uneasily” is understatement.

    /*Warning general rant*/

    Since Indians, irrespective of political persuasion, are indifferent to study of history, they forget to realize that present liberal and secular west is a product of one of most violent period in human history. Renainassance and history on both sides of it is marked by inquisition, catholic-protestant struggle and a bloody wars between European Kings and Church for exercise temporal and spritual power, not to mention crusades.

    The problem now is even if one were to accept that much of bloodshed as a price for Muslim reform, now the world has nukes.

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