Although the smoldering fires from the Mumbai attacks illuminate hateful violence, the spread of Islam in India came at the benevolent, inclusive hands of Sufi Muslims instead of the oppressive scimitar of the Mughal rulers. Personalities such as Moinuddin Chishti, a 13th century Sufi master, personified this version of Islam by demonstrating selfless charity and proactively engaging Hindu neighbors, especially the “untouchables” and downtrodden members of society. This humanistic, open-minded model of Islam is the predominant ideology of a majority of Indian and Pakistani Muslims. Unfortunately, a strain of narrow minded and oppressive literalism also exists, exemplified by 17th century Mughal emperor Aurengzeb, whose zealous devotion to his faith left a bitter, resentful legacy of tyranny and separatism.
In the aftermath of the Mumbai tragedy, Indian Muslims have been marching overtime on the streets to side with religious plurality, demonstrate solidarity with fellow Indian citizens and vocally denounce the attacks. At the rallies, such as the 5,000 march by Indian Muslims in Mumbai last week, Indian Muslims held placards that read “Our Country’s Enemies are Our Enemies,” “Killers of Innocents are Enemies of Islam,” and a few believe “Pakistan Be Declared Terrorist State.”
As observers of Indian politics know, such declarations are an important act of self-defense in a country where communal tensions between the country’s 140 million Muslims and 900 million Hindus periodically flare. Muslims, more often than not, are the targets of these attacks. While international attention has focused on Pakistan, where the attackers hailed from, it’s important we don’t paper over the inequities faced by Muslims in India, which spawned home-grown version of al-Qaeda in recent years, and where resentment is growing.
The discrimination can be subtle. Zahir Jan Mohammed, an eye-witness to the 2002 Gujarat pogrom/riots and a director at Amnesty International, explains that to succeed in India, Muslim Indians often felt they had to prove they were “Indian” – now they must also prove they are not “Muslim terrorists or Pakistani sympathizers.”
“Indian Muslims who want to break into the upper echelons of Indian society need to abdicate their allegiance to their faith and proclaim their faith towards India as their belief system…it implies the notion that Muslim Indians are less Indian or perhaps ‘suspect’ because they really have allegiances elsewhere,” Mohammed said.
More overt discrimination was uncovered by the 2006 Rajinder Sachar Committee, formed by Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh to investigate and solve the social, economic and educational problems of Indian Muslims for the purpose of including them in the mainstream population.
It concluded that Muslims, who comprise 11 percent of the population, account for 40 percent of the prison population, face rampant discrimination in housing, receive substantially lower bank loans, receive less than 5 percent government jobs, suffer from higher rates of illiteracy, and are burdened with significantly inferior infrastructure.
In addition, the rise of radical, terrorist Hindu movements, such as the Bajrang Dal, RSS and Vishwa Hindu Parishad – each involved in directly or indirectly inciting anti Muslim violence – strokes the flames of religious intolerance and separatism.
Recently, the Indian investigative journal Tehelka uncovered proof of government complicity in the slaughter of 2,000 Muslim civilians by Hindu right-wing mobs in the state of Gujarat over several months in 2002.
As Stephen Cohen, a Brookings scholar and expert on South Asia, told us, “There has been a growth of unrest among India’s Muslim Population, largely as a reaction to Barbri [Mosque demolition by Hindu nationalists in 1992] and Godra [Event that inspired the Gujrat riots that killed nearly 2,000 Muslims] …everyone fears the growth of a linkage between Al Qaeda and Indian Muslims, but again the worst is not yet evident.”
Indeed, such government-sponsored discrimination could potentially help recruitment of disenchanted Muslims into the folds of India’s indigenous militant Islamic groups of SIMI [Students Islamic Movement of India] and Indian Mujahideen, who may be involved in the Mumbai attacks.
Both groups find ideological and religious nourishment for their radicalism in an extremist, literalist strain of Deobandi Islam, which reduces the world to a binary demarcation of “Dar-al-Islam” [The House of Islam”] and “Dar-al-Harb”[The House of War, or those lands deemed unIslamic.] However, it is imperative to note the vast majority of Muslims who adhere to Deobani orthodoxy are neither militant, violent nor supporters of terrorism. The radical interpretation of this ideology, as supported by the Taliban and to an extent al-Qaeda, rationalizes and justifies its political ambitions through such simplistic, unscholarly analysis of an Islam that is stripped from its spirituality and historical precedence.
Adherents of this group, which represents but a minutiae of South Asian Muslims, claimed responsibility for the 2008 Ahmedabad and New Delhi blasts that killed scores of innocent civilians. The nationalist, political struggle for Kashmir, which then flourished into a full fledged, ideological militant jihad, allowed Pakistani terrorist groups like Jaish-e-Muhammad and Lashkar-e-Taiba to implant cells in India amongst Muslim Indian student youth to assist with recruitment, logistics, intelligence and training. As Adrian Levy, author of Deception: Pakistan, United States, and the Secret Trade in Nuclear Weapons, explains, “The Student Mujihadeen groups from India seem to have middle class membership, with academic and professional backgrounds, computer literate, with money, and have come under the influence of Islamist groups.”
The intolerance and belligerence of these groups find their ideological partner in the violent, Hindu nationalist groups who feel compelled to “purify” India by removing its “unclean” minorities. In these moments of chaos and fear, collective anger could ignite catastrophic, reactionary sentiments, and poison the well of a historically tolerant and multicultural citizenry.
So, whilst we need to focus on the cause of extremism in Pakistan – a pressing problem that threatens to overwhelm both the Pakistani and Afghan governments -we must use the events of this month to remedy India’s inequities towards its minorities and pacify the rhetoric of bigotry espoused by the country’s religious zealots.
And so we return to the story of India’s beloved Sufi mystic, Moinuddeen Chishti, and his mazaar [shrine] in Ajmer, Sharif, where thousands of lovers from all walks of life congregate to this day for blessings and prayers. The gamut of India’s diverse citizens, whether he be Muslim, Hindu, Sikh, or Christian, all share in the daily langer, which is freely distributed food cooked in a large, communal pot. It is both ironic and hopeful that this existing spiritual tradition of tolerance and inclusivity resonates more powerfully than bomb blasts in lighting the future for Hindu and Muslim relations in India.
An abridged version of this piece ran in Washington Post Global.
Ahmed Rashid is a Pakistani journalist and best-selling author of “Taliban” and “Descent Into Chaos: The United States and the Failure of Nation Building in Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Central Asia.”
Wajahat Ali is a Muslim American of Pakistani descent. He is a playwright, essayist, humorist and Attorney at Law, whose work, “The Domestic Crusaders” is the first major play about Muslim Americans living in a post 9-11 America. His blog is at http://goatmilk.wordpress.com/