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Keepers of the faith: Indian Muslims have a unique role to play in resolving global Islam’s crisis


As the Trump era unfolds, disruption of the old order is the flavour of the day. Nowhere is such disruption more profound than in the world of Islam where radical theology has been making strides for some time. There have been various explanations of the phenomenon, from Huntington’s notion of clash of civilisations to theories around today’s churning within Islam being a precursor to reformation within the faith.

Current perceptions arising from the Trump administration’s travel ban against seven Muslim-majority countries (now stayed by a court order) has brought to the fore the paradox of US liberal values pitted against extreme nationalism. The problems of Islam worldwide remain highly diffused with no clarity on the direction the faith wishes to follow. The one common thing is the general negativity with which followers of the faith appear to be universally viewed.

India has almost 180 million Muslims, the world’s largest minority segment. How should common people view Islam? Its conundrum is getting more complex by the day making it difficult for people to comprehend what exactly they are up against. It is equally important for Indian Muslims to realise their unique position.

Among the important issues remain the development differential between the Western Christian world and the core centre of Islam, the Middle East; as also the socio-political systems revolving around the conservatism of Islam’s values and the lack of modernism in political thought.

Muslims around the world have to realise that the sectarian divide within Islam can only lead it to doom. The Shia versus Sunni conflict is forcing both groups to withdraw deeper within the folds of conservative thinking to protect their beliefs.

The crisis within the Sunni sect is profound due to the rise of obscurantist sub sects. The Shia linkage with Iran involves them in an apparently eternal conflict with the US and its allies ever since the Iranian Revolution of 1979.

Geopolitics mixed with faith based conflict has settled into the Middle East. The Saudis fear dilution of their control as keepers of the faith. This fear arises from two causes: first, their reduction in US perceptions of strategic importance due to the changing profiles and narratives of worldwide energy resources, demand and technology; second, due to the perceived rise in Iranian ambitions leading to its potentially greater domination of the Levant, presence of the Hezbollah, the likely victory of Bashar Assad in Syria and the Iraqi Shia domination of Northern Iraq.

All the above is a complex handful. As if that is not enough, there is Europe and its problem with migration, both old and new. The older Muslim migrants are facing a generational problem which is preventing the integration of their young. At the same time many of them are being misled by Islamic State (IS) propaganda to rise against the West. On a different count Erdogan’s Turkey is in the midst of a counter revolution, almost reversing the secular and benign Islam promoted by Kemal Ataturk a century ago.

Islam therefore appears highly unsettled and we have not even begun to describe the problems of Central and South Asia. Afghanistan promises to be in the throes of internal conflict for much longer as the Taliban is unlikely to relent and the US presence may just increase once Trump is a little more settled. Jammu & Kashmir, a conflict with more political than ideological or faith based differences, has slowly drifted.

The separatist camp has no qualms about using faith as a weapon. Pakistan remains the hub of radical Islam both as a counterweight to Shia Iran and the promoter of faith based conflict in Kashmir. Its strategic importance continues to draw US and Chinese support.

Bangladesh remains high strung about the violence within, said to be IS influenced yet having extremely local overtones in a society sharply divided over culture-led nationalism against radical Islam.

Where do Indian Muslims stand, and how should they perceive the situation in the Islamic world? They must understand that they enjoy the benefits and rights of full scale democracy which few of their co-religionists are fortunate to possess or experience across the world. Even as Islam struggles to balance itself in the Middle East and other regions, Indian Muslims are already balanced and must therefore project this to the Islamic world. They have rejected radicalism to a great extent, although no one can deny the fact that efforts to turn their minds have not yet diminished.

The educated and evolved Indian Muslim community must come out to engage with conservative Muslims whose fears may still be alive. Living in many isolated areas in smaller towns and cities there are a large number who are still poverty-stricken and unsure of themselves. As Islam witnesses turf and sectarian battles elsewhere, Indian Muslims must shun them, battle poverty and enhance their social empowerment. They should avoid becoming pawns in the larger games of other nations.

The decision of their parents, to remain in India and be Indian should be deeply respected. It is the duty of the Indian Muslim clergy to protect their community from negative influence and project their will to be model followers of the Islamic faith; eventually virtual role models for the reformation which is bound to come within Islam.

Syed Ata Hasnain