ISSN: 1391 - 0531
Sunday March 9, 2008
Vol. 42 - No 41

The Deobandi courage: Will extremists listen?

Soon after the failure of the Sepoy muting in 1857 it was clear that the freedom would be a long haul. The British had taken over India's reins in their own hand from the East India Company. A group of radical Muslims did not reconcile to the development of living under a foreign rule. They founded at Deoband, near Saharanpur, a small Arabic school, Arabic maktab, to keep the spirit of defiance against the British alive.

A few years later, the school was converted into an institution of higher learning, Dar-ul Uloom which is now housed in a stately building. The ethos of higher learning did not in any way deviate them from their original path: ousting the raj while imparting Muslims the finest religious education. Embedded to the Indian soil, the Deobandis, as they came to be known, were opposed to the two-nation theory and joined hands with the Congress to oppose partition. They were for a united India.

However, the majority of Muslims rejected them and supported, instead, the demand for the formation of Pakistan based on religion. Maulana Fazlur Rehman, head of the defeated Majlis-e-Amal (MMA) in Pakistan, is a top leader of Deobandis, even in India. He has won the seat of Bannu in the National Assembly and this assures him his role.

Once I asked him whether his hold over the Deobandis in India was intact, he smiled in assent. Yet his record in the NWFP has been far from good. The government he planted in the state banned music and ransacked DVD shops. He was suspected to be a supporter of the Taliban. Naturally, his reaction to the Deobandis' call that terrorism was unislamic is being awaited.

I believe that the fatwa they gave against terrorism was after consultations with him. Why should he be hesitant to stand by the side of the Deobandi? His association would make all the difference and strengthen them, his alma mater, the Dar-ul Uloom, in their endeavour to disseminate that the Islamic world should "reject all forms of terrorism."

Darul-Uloom in Deoband: Its fatwa throws down the gauntlet on extremists

At a gathering of some 5000 clerics from different Islamic schools of thought which met a few days ago at Deoband, the declaration (or fatwa) given out was:"Terrorism is completely wrong and un-thoughtful act whoever commits it, irrespective of his association to whatever religious community and class. Terrorism negates completely the teachings of Islam as it is the faith of love and peace and any terrorist activity which targets innocent people directly contradicts Islam's concept of peace."

There was no dissenting voice. The gathering included clerics from the more moderate Barelvi sect, the Islamic school of Nadwatul and the Sufi order of chistis of Ajmer Sharif.

Bashir-ud-din, the grand mufti of Kashmir, supported the declaration. This must have created a piquant situation for the Jaish-e-Mohammad which is operating in Kashmir and which avows its loyalty to the Deobandis. The Jaish-e-Mohammad is not bothered over the call to give up terrorism because this is what keeps the flock together. What action does the Dar-ul Uloom take against those terrorist who do not obey the call will be watched with great interest.

The fatwa by the clerics at Deoband has thrown down the gauntlet. It is up to the Taliban or other terrorist groups to pick it up. But how do they please their ideological masters, the al Qaeda, is their problem. The Deoband fatwa says that targeting innocent people directly contradicts Islam's concept of peace. Most of the people killed by the al Qaeda were innocent Muslims. Did the al-Qaeda ever show remorse?

True, America is most to blame for their birth their progress and their post 9/11 activities. But they are working in the name of Islam, and whether they admit or not, they are harming Pakistan, a Muslim state. The Taliban are very much like the Indian Naxalites who are fired up by another ideology. It is extreme left in place of extreme right. For the advancement of Naxalites, the government is to blame because its negligence of the poor is their strength.

Still I am unable to make out how the killing of innocents improve things for the Taliban and the Naxalites? I do not want to raise the debate that wrong methods will never lead to right ends. Yet the fact remains that both justify violence because the system does not deliver. Will the guns do?

Scholars and religious heads at Deoband have kept quiet for a long time, without speaking against acts of terrorism by individuals or groups when they know that Muslim are being equated with terrorist.

The Deobandis have a point that Indian Muslims, particularly, those associated with madrasas, live under the fear of being picked up by the police. This is wrong but the authorities get a reason to do so. It is an unending exercise. In the same way, the Naxalites are indulging in a futile exercise, however sincere they are. Their killings deter people, not influence them. There is no doubt that the Naxalites can be a force if they join the mainstream. This will strengthen the Parliamentary system which is benefiting the upper half.

The Taliban too could be a real force if they were to abandon violence and fundamentalism. By and large, Muslims in India have acquitted themselves well despite the demolition of the Babri masjid and the planned killing in Gujarat. Not a single Muslim responded to the Taliban's call to participate in the jihad in Afghanistan. None of them went to Kashmir from the rest of the country when the fighting against the state in the valley was at its peak.

These things show that Muslims in India are in no way less than Hindus in knowing and defending the country's interest. Once Abul Kalam Azad, a tall Muslim leader who participated in the freedom struggle, said that he was proud to have inherited Islam's glorious traditions of the last 1300 years and he was equally proud that he was an essential part of the indivisible unity of Indian nationhood. He wanted the Indians to inculcate in their lives both the culture of the Quran and that of the Gita. He said that the ability of the Hindus and the Muslims to live together was essential to the primary principles of humanity within us.

His was not a lone voice. The concept of pluralism came to be accepted in India because of persons like him. By destroying values, both the Taliban and the Naxalites do not give people a chance to rise above their prejudice and parochialism. Azad's advice can retrieve them if they were to realize that human life could not be sacrificed at the altar of bigotry or extremism.

(The writer is a veteran Indian journalist and diplomat. He was also one-time member of Rajya Sabha, India’s upper house)

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