Jahiliyya Versus Jihad


While the flames around the seafront Taj Mahal Hotel’s Italianate dome have died down, and crews of cleaners have washed away the blood on the concourse of the Victoria Terminus train station, the stutter of Kalashnikovs has been replaced by the chatter of strategy analysts. Every surveillance camera grab and every shred of paper left behind by the terrorists who shattered the peace of our city last week is being scanned closely for clues.

The theories that many commentators have expounded, to account for last week’s terrorist attack on Mumbai, are as flat and two-dimensional as the television screen on which these have been expressed. The 26-29 November attack, in which nearly 200 people were massacred and more than 400 were injured, has already pressed pause on the fragile peace process initiated between India and Pakistan. In Mumbai, an unprecedented if informal alliance of intelligence agencies from India, the USA, the UK and Israel has been convened to sift through the evidence, which points to the involvement of highly motivated terror agencies in Pakistan. Some commentators in the western hemisphere, dusting off the faded picture-books of colonial ethnography, have described the attack as yet another episode in the supposedly centuries-old strife between Hindus and Muslims, each side depicted as volatile, animated by murder-lust and the memory of clan feuds. Others, with a somewhat better claim to reason, explain the attack as an outcome of the simmering antagonism that has held India and Pakistan apart for the last 61 years. And yet others see the attack, in generic terms, as the latest outrage perpetrated by the forces of global jihad.

In actuality, the terrorist attack against Mumbai must be seen as a four-dimensional game. It was staged at the intersection among four distinct yet interrelated scenarios of cultural politics in South Asia. The first and best known of these scenarios is that of global jihad: its ability to gauge and channel the anger and resentment of Muslims across the planet against a ‘West’ that is seen to incarnate neo-colonial oppression, and also, specifically, the appeal it holds out to young Muslims who have experienced inequity and injustice in South Asia. But we must also consider, as a second vital scenario, the startling rise of Hindu religious extremism within India during the last two decades: in these years, Hindu majoritarian elements with strongly fascist leanings have repeatedly challenged the rule of law and the inclusive, multi-religious and multi-ethnic charter of the Indian Republic. They have consistently assaulted the Muslim and Christian minorities, as well as liberal Hindus, using provocations that range from mob censorship and rioting to pogroms and full-blown ethnic cleansing.

A third scenario is that produced by the deep-seated antagonism that Islamic extremists in Pakistan – like their Hindu majoritarian rivals in India – feel towards the Indian Republic’s charter of ecumenical acceptance. To these radicals, multi-religious India’s continued existence is a challenge to Pakistan’s claim to be the natural and only homeland for South Asian Muslims. And fourthly, we must acquaint ourselves with the visceral rage that retrograde tendencies, both of the Hindu nativist and the Islamic militant variety, feel against Mumbai’s cosmopolitan and internationalist ethos, with its blend of Indian, Asian and Western perspectives and populations. It is true that Mumbai offers terrorists numerous targets of a military nature: among them, a nuclear reactor, a naval dockyard, an air force base, a cantonment, two railway hubs, and two airports. But more than any of these, it is Mumbai’s richly hybrid, receptive, inventive and unabashedly transnational culture that has made this metropolis a natural target for fanatics committed to various brands of spurious purity, over the last two decades.

Last week’s attack is the eighth terrorist strike that Mumbai has suffered since 1993. With each attack, the sight-lens of the terrorist is amplified to include more of the panorama that gives Mumbai its unique identity: the city’s massive, multi-route railway system, which services several million commuters daily; its grand hotels, each embodying a dialogue among cultures; its vibrant centers of enterprise in finance, banking and industry; and above all, its open-armed approach to the religious imagination, which welcomes the Hassidic Jew and the Sufi, the Jesuit and the Buddhist, the Brahmin and the atheist with equal enthusiasm. The killings at the Chabad-Lubovitch Centre in South Mumbai, during last week’s attack, were especially despicable: Jews have lived in peace in India, as a community integral to Indian society, for 2500 years. Only twice in these 2500 years have they suffered attack: once, in the early 16th century in Kerala, at the hands of Portuguese settlers; and last week, at the hands of jihadists.

* * *

Mumbai, December 1992-January 1993: I remember riding up and down the north-south needle of the metropolis on trains that were nearly empty. On one side were bare roads and a silent sea, on the other side were blazing shanties and timber warehouses, inhabited or owned by Muslims who had been attacked and driven from their homes by goon squads affiliated to the Hindu majoritarian formation. The violence continued for weeks, watched by politicians who seemed to have turned to stone. By the time it abated, not only Muslims but also migrant workers from the northern states of Uttar Pradesh and Bihar, and the southern states of Karnataka and Andhra Pradesh, had been forced to flee. Torn hand-me-down suitcases, a parrot abandoned in flight and squawking in his cage, charred birth certificates – these relics remained to tell of slaughter and exodus. And the lists of the dying and the dead in the city’s hospitals.

A decade later, the violence was re-enacted in Gujarat, this time perfected to the pitch of organisational exactitude and supported by the Hindu-majoritarian government of the state: Muslims were murdered and raped, their homes and shrines destroyed, the very proof of their existence covered over with asphalt. The survivors were herded into refugee camps, where they remain today, without amenities or even the right to vote, which has been snatched from them on Kafkaesque bureaucratic grounds. “You can’t vote here because you are not registered in this district; you can only vote from the districts where you lived earlier,” says the helpful officer. “But of course you can’t return there, can you, because the majoritarians don’t want you back.”

From these experiences, a new and angry young Indian Muslim was born: one who could not understand why the country of his birth had allowed such grievous injustice to be visited upon his people. And whether, after all, the Ummah was not a better alternative: the global ecumene of Muslims, cutting across national and racial identities. This sense of a natural alliance with Muslims suffering injustice and oppression elsewhere has driven some young Indian Muslims into the arms of India-hating Islamic extremists in Pakistan: extremists who have created para-states for themselves, in defiance of Pakistan’s fragile democratic government. These para-states, as we know, are built and managed by an alliance of actors ranging from fire-breathing Wahhabi preachers and Pakhtoon clan leaders to handlers and operatives from the ISI, Inter-Services Intelligence. The syndrome of hatred for India, that citadel of Jahiliyya or paganism, is cultivated in training camps situated in the grey zones of Pakistan-occupied Kashmir and the Afghanistan-Pakistan border. That India is now closely allied with the USA and its geopolitical interests only convinces the trainee terrorist that India must be destroyed.

And this Muslim is not the white-robed, long-bearded, Koran-reading madrassa student who is usually identified as the bearer of jihad; I have met many madrassa students in Mumbai, and they are training to be good Muslims and good Indian citizens. Like the great majority of Indian Muslims, most madrassa students are committed to peace and harmony against all the odds stacked against them. No, the kind of young man I have sketched here is more likely to have a master’s degree in engineering or management, be versatile in the use of media technology, at home in English, fully conversant with international politics, and able to ally himself with Pakistani, Afghan, Sudanese, Somali, Bangladeshi and Arab militants. Indeed, this is the face of global jihad in South Asia.

Global jihad is a modernist interpretation of the teachings of Islam, which many traditional Muslim teachers would denounce as a distortion. In the doctrines of Sayyid Qutb and Maulana Maududi, men who were enraged by Western colonialism but influenced by the strategies of Bolshevism and Fascism, many young Muslims now seem to find an answer to their perplexities. Here is a path through the anxieties of the contemporary world. It renders life simple and clear; so what if its austere singularity calls for the destruction of diversity? It fills the individual with a sense of messianic purpose; so what if it involves the death of innocent people, offerings at the altar of apocalyptic necessity? It inspires the individual with the hope of glory in the afterlife; so what if it costs him his life in the here and now? The tragedy of all such millenarian beliefs is that they beget a cycle of violence that takes the world, not to Paradise, but to Inferno.

RANJIT HOSKOTE is a cultural theorist, poet and curator based in Mumbai. He can be contacted at ranjit.hoskote@gmail.com.