‘Islamic bomb’ scare, again!

“Persuading Pakistan to rein in its nuclear weapons program should be an international priority.

“The major world powers spent two years negotiating an agreement to restrain the nuclear ambitions of Iran, which doesn’t have a single nuclear weapon. Yet there has been no comparable investment of effort in Pakistan.”

The New York Times Editorial Board

HERE AGAIN is an ‘Islamic bomb’ alert! And the scaremongers this time aren’t some Islamophobic American politicians, but the editorial board of America’s greatest newspaper.

We just saw that American and European governments get struck by amnesia when someone asks about Israel’s formidable nuclear arsenal of 200 or more nukes, but they did not rest until quarantining Iran’s peaceful nuclear program.

The same way they and the “free press” in the West have been scaring the Westerners about Pakistan’s ‘Islamic bomb’ for four decades. They have been doing so ever since Pakistan’s Zulfikar Ali Bhutto regime felt compelled to begin exploring a bomb after India had detonated its first nukes in 1974. Three years earlier, the Indira Gandhi government in New Delhi had invaded and dismembered old Pakistan. Pakistanis – not just politicians and generals, but everyday workers and shoppers – were scared to death of India getting nuclear bombs, besides having conventional military forces that were three times bigger than Pakistan’s. To allay the widespread panic, one evening Z.A. Bhutto went before TV cameras to assure his nation that he would do all he could to counter Indian nukes.

“We shall eat grass,” he paraphrased an earlier comment in his innately colorful language, “and make the bomb, and fight India for a thousand years.”

The phrase “eat grass” was meant to show how hard it would be for impoverished Pakistanis to spare their meagre resources to build a nuclear deterrent against the India, but that after India had once broken up their old country, people in what was left of Pakistan had no choice but pursue the bomb.

Yet the Times editorial board is mum about India’s nuclear weapons stockpile, and wants Pakistan to unilaterally disarm!

It reminds me of the late Pakistani statesman Mahmud Ali, who had been angered by Henry Kissinger’s brutal pressure on Z.A. Bhutto to dismantle Pakistan’s nascent nuclear program. In his August 1976 meeting with Bhutto in Lahore, the U.S. secretary of state even warned that the Pakistani prime minister would “make a horrible example of yourself,” if he defied the American instruction. (The quote is from Benazir Bhutto’s autobiography, Daughter of Destiny). Ten months later Gen. Ziaul Haq overthrew the enormously popular Pakistani prime minister and hanged him in 1979, despite intense international pressure to spare the life of the democratically elected prime minister.

Meanwhile, about two months after the fateful Kissinger-Bhutto meeting, Mahmud Ali, a former minister in the Z.A. Bhutto Cabinet, had told me on the phone from Islamabad about Bhutto’s decision to brush aside “the enormous American pressure to terminate our nuclear program.”

“See,” added my political mentor, “Christians can have the bombs. Jews can have them. The Hindus can have them, too. And Russian and Chinese Communists also can. No problem. If only a poor Muslim country tries to have a couple of them to defend itself against a mortal enemy … skies would be coming down.”


Bringing Indian Muslims out from cold

THE INSTALLATION of India’s Narendra Modi government has triggered concerns among many Indian Muslims.

Prime Minister Modi of the Hindu nationalist Bharatya Janata Party (BJP) has included in his Cabinet some of the well-known Muslim baiters such as Indresh Kumar and Sadhvi Rithambara. He has given top administrative posts to bureaucrats accused of involvement in anti-Muslim riots. He also has kept mum on the right-wing Hindu demand for a nationwide ban on calls for dawn prayers from mosques over microphones.

A Muslim friend from my native Assam state says these developments “contradict your writings” during and after two recent trips through India, in which I anticipated a diminution of Hindu-Muslim tensions. Did I get it wrong?

Politicians are mostly products of their times. John F. Kennedy emerged at the onset of the “Roaring Sixties,” a liberal social explosion that shook America and Europe. Religion was pretty much contained in the private sphere of American life. Kennedy was a Catholic. The Democratic senator’s candidacy for president unsettled many Americans who feared that, if he were elected president, his public policy would reflect papal dictates.

On Sept. 20, 1960, in Texas, Kennedy assured Americans: “I believe in a president whose religious views are his own private affair. Whatever issue would come before me as president … I would make my decision … in accordance with what my conscience tells me to be the national interest, and without regard to outside religious pressures or dictates.” Kennedy echoed that theme many times on the campaign trail.

Six decades later liberalism wasn’t “roaring” anymore in America and, in fact, had become a dirty word in American politics. Another Democratic presidential candidate was being attacked by a surging Christian right and other conservatives for allegedly not being a good enough Christian. Propaganda about his perceived religious deficiency threatened to undermine his candidacy. Obama launched a full-throated defense of his Christian credentials.

Early in his life, he said, “I let Jesus Christ into my life.” Christian values would be “a moral center of my administration.” He would introduce “faith-based” social programs because “religion strengthens America.” Obama reiterated the theme on the stump.

Narendra Modi, too, is a man of his time. Gone are the days when Indian political and social elites widely believed in the robust secularism of their Fabian socialist Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru. Most were still under the ultra-secularist cultural influence of the just-departed British colonialists, which had little relevance to native cultural values. Today India is going through an unprecedented Hindu religious revival. Hindu social and political organizations, once marginalized, have gained the passionate support of a wide swath of the Hindu mainstream. Modi has been part of this religious wave. He and his BJP rode its crest to come to power in New Delhi.

Throughout history, religious and ideological upheavals have, unfortunately, spawned extremism and hostility toward those who don’t belong to the movements. We saw that in the wake of the French, Russian and Iranian revolutions; the Protestant Reformation; and Puritan surge in New England; and several Islamic revivals. India’s Hindu nationalist movement is no exception. Its rise has heightened anti-Muslim and anti-Christian hostility among its ideologues and activists and, more tragically, large numbers of everyday Hindus.

Yet I still don’t share some Indian Muslims’ concerns that the Modi government would go on an anti-Muslim witchhunt. I doubt that the regime would try to abolish Muslims’ separate family laws. I don’t think it would build a temple to the Hindu deity Ram on the site of the historic Babri Mosque, which was demolished by Hindu extremists. Nor do I see it scrapping Article 370 of the Indian constitution, which guarantees wide autonomy to the Muslim-majority Jammu and Kashmir state. These have been on the BJP agenda and make Muslims shiver.

Muslims are close to 15 percent of the Indian population of 1.2 billion, advancing educationally and economically and more assertive of their rights than ever in the history of independent India. I believe Modi and his inner circle know that new attacks on their cherished institutions and culture would trigger a political and societal earthquake, which would threaten the exciting economic development programs for which they won the elections. Many in the top tier of the BJP, some of whom I interviewed, are highly educated, and want to see India as a modern, advancing society. They know that new interfaith convulsions would make it appear to the world as a backward nation, steeped in religious hatred and prejudices.

I noticed the dawning of this realization among some BJP leaders after the 2002 anti-Muslim pogrom in Gujarat. Hindu nationalists in that state had started bone-chilling anti-Muslim rioting in which more than 1,000 souls perished, most of them Muslims. Modi, then chief minister of Gujarat, is widely believed to have instigated the slaughter, even though the Indian Supreme Court cleared him of any legal responsibility for it. The new thinking in the BJP is reflected in the fact that none of the states the party has ruled since 2002 have seen an anti-Muslim riot.

It’s impractical, however, to expect the BJP government to heal the entrenched Hindu nationalist chauvinism overnight. The appointment of some of the chauvinists to high government positions seems to show that predicament.

A more formidable challenge to improving Hindu-Muslim relations in India is the widespread social ostracization of Muslims. Muslims have a hard time landing a government job, getting admission to schools or moving into a Hindu neighborhood. I know Muslim businessmen and journalists in New Delhi who failed to rent an apartment or buy a house in upscale mostly Hindu residential areas and are living in Muslim ghettos.

One of them, a medicine distributor, said, “One [Hindu] landlord settled on the rent and date I could move in, but when I was signing the contract, he saw my [Muslim] name and said, ‘Come tomorrow. Let me talk it over with my family.’ That tomorrow he told me that the family had decided to bring in a relative, instead.”

Modi or the BJP can’t eradicate such widespread social prejudices in an election cycle or a decade. They have, however, a golden opportunity to begin the process through legislation, education and pro-minority social and economic programs. A progressive party government would face strong right-wing Hindu resistance to such projects.

* Mustafa Malik, host of this blog, is an international affairs commentator in Washington. He’s on research trip through his native Indian subcontinent.


Struggle for Bangladesh’s cultural soul

SYLHET, Bangladesh: Is modernity finally putting brakes on the Islamization campaign in Bangladesh? Is it eroding the nation’s ethnic culture? These questions keep haunting me during trips to Bangladesh. A visit yesterday to  Shahjalal University of Science and Technology in Sylhet lent the two questions special poignancy.

The population of what is now Bangladesh is nearly 90 percent Muslim. They were in the vanguard of the Pakistan movement. By the 1940s they had been fed up with the economic and cultural suppression by the dominant Hindu elites. They pulsated with the pan-Islamic fervor and  joined other Muslim communities in the Indian subcontinent in a campaign to carve out the Muslim state of Pakistan. Ironically, a veteran of the Pakistan movement was  Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, who would later lead the struggle to dismember Pakistan to create independent Bangladesh.

In fact Muslims in Bangladesh, which used to be called East Bengal and later East Pakistan, began to feel their Bengali ethnic pull soon after they had helped create Pakistan. Beginning in 1952, just five years after the birth of Pakistan, a movement to make Bengali an official language in Pakistan dramatized that ethnic resurgence. It was fueled by the repression of Bengalis in East Pakistan by non-Bengali political and military elites of West Pakistan. In 1971 that struggle culminated in East Pakistan breaking away from Pakistan’s western provinces.

But then, almost immediately after Bangladeshis severed their ties with their fellow Muslims in (West) Pakistan, their Islamic spirit began to revive again, almost with a vengeance. During several visits to Bangladesh I almost dazed from the sights of mosques and Islamic schools proliferating and prayer congregations overflowing mosques buildings. More and more Bangladeshi Muslim women began covering up their heads in colleges, government offices and market places. More and more Bangladeshi men wore Islamic clothing.

“It’s incredible,” Hamidul Huq Chowdhury, publisher of the Bangladesh Observer newspaper (where I once worked), exclaimed during my 1991 visit to his home in Dhaka, the Bangladeshi capital. He said the Islamic upsurge in post-independence Bangladesh, “is stronger and more widespread” than it was during the Pakistan movement.

Today Bangladeshi society appears to be undergoing a third cultural twist. Islam and modernity seem to be squaring off for the domination of Bangladeshi culture. Jannatul Ferdous Shikha, a demographic researcher I met yesterday at Shahjalal University, said Bangladesh was “Islamizing and modernizing” simultaneously. She didn’t wear a headscarf and expressed strong secularist views. She predicted that “secularism will overcome the backwardness and bigotry” of Bangladeshi Islamists. Shikha praised a “growing secular movement,” which she said was widening and deepening in Bangladesh.

“But it’s true,” said the political scientist, “that people [Bangladeshi Muslims] are acquiring religious habits. They follow whatever the “huzurs” [Muslim clerics] say. I don’t know why.” She said the Muslims showing enthusiasm for Islam don’t read Islamic scripture. “Many of them don’t pray, but are crazy about Islam, whatever they think it is.”

Some of the other professors and students I met on Shahjalal University campus pointed out that Bangladesh had been making notable progress economically and educationally.

During the last four decades the country’s capita GDP increased 10-fold to $2,000, and literacy rate tripled to 66 percent. Significantly, the modernizing trend has defied the equally dramatic increase in political and bureaucratic corruption and the endemic political violence and instability.

A Transparency International survey for a four-year period has found Bangladesh to be the world’s most corrupt country. My refusal to bribe Bangladeshi officials has made me face difficulties in reclaiming some of my farmlands and shares in fisheries from usurpers. I have learned from several reliable sources that magistrates in this Bangladeshi town take bribes for favorable judgments in criminal cases.

Yet I have been impressed by sights of the rapid improvements in Bangladesh’s roads and highways, and the mushrooming of schools, colleges, businesses and industries. Shaheena Sultana, assistant registrar at the university, said the economic progress and modernization was a “bigger story” than Islamization.

The physical and social spectacles in Bangladesh are sparkling with symbols of modernity and globalization. Roads and streets – once shared by bicycles, bullock carts, goats and cows and occasional passenger buses – are now often clogged by cars, trucks, and streams of buses. Cell phones, including smartphones, are used almost universally throughout the country. An ever-growing number of Bangladeshis wear blue jeans and slacks, dropping the native male skirt called “lungi.” Most urban dwellers can speak English or  understand necessary English terms.

In fact English is replacing Bengali in the business and industrial culture of Bangladesh. On my way to Shahjalal University, I could hardly see an all-Bengali store sign. Those signs bore wholly or partly English names, usually written in the Bengali script: Holy City Grammar School and College, Modern Hair Dressers, Shourobh [Bengali word for fragrance] Stationery Store, Shopto Dinga [seven-canoe] Foreign Furniture, Derai [name of a place] Bedding House, Baraka [Arabic word for blessing] Arabic Learning Center, Messrs Ilyas [man’s name] and Sons, and so on.

On some of those signs, the English script is appended to the Bengali one.

What a paradigm shift! Who could have imagined during the Bengali language movement in East Pakistan in the 1950s that Bengali Muslims would one day trade their cherished native language and concepts for foreign ones?

The twin movements of Islamization and modernization, which are at loggerheads themselves, are clearly corroding Bengali ethnic values and cultural idiom in Bangladesh. I’m wondering whether Islam or modernity is going to be the final winner.

Or modernized Islam?

  • Mustafa Malik, who hosts the blog ‘Beyond Freedom,’ is traveling in Bangladesh and India.







Modi winning India vote, losing agenda

Pollsters in India are predicting a big win for the Hindu nationalist Bharatya Janata Party (BJP) in the country’s three-phase general elections that began on Monday. The ruling Congress party, they say, is headed for a free fall.

Entrenched, as it is, in the traditionalist and fundamentalist Hindu base, the BJP has made inroads into progressive-Hindu and even Muslim voters, who had always hated it. The party and its earlier incarnations campaigned to turn secular India into a Hindu theocracy (Hindu rashtra). They demanded that Muslim and Christian cultures be absorbed into a Hinduized national mainstream. They spearheaded bloody anti-Muslim riots.

One of the events that earned the BJP most odium from many Indians and much of the world was the destruction of an historic Muslim shrine, the Babri Mosque, in 1992. The BJP and other Hindu nationalist groups, whose activists razed it to the ground, claim that the 16th century mosque was built on the birthplace of the Hindu god Ram. They wanted to build a Ram temple on ruins of the mosque.

Another was the horrifying anti-Muslim riots in Gujarat state in 2002. More than 1,000 Muslims were hacked, shot and burned to death by Hindu mobs. Narendra Modi, who is now the BJP candidate for prime minister, was – and remains – the head of the Gujarat government. He’s widely believed to have provoked and then ignored the slaughter of Muslims.

“Even today,” said my nephew Abdun Nur, “my blood boils when I hear the name Narendra Modi.” I was visiting him at his home in the Purahuria village in my native Indian state of Assam.

So what has made the progressive Hindus and even many Muslims vote for Modi and the BJP?

One, the top slogan in the Modi campaign this season was “development.” The country hungers for it and the BJP governments at the center and in the states have impressive records of putting through many economic development programs. The Congress government of Prime Minister Manmohan Sing, on the other hand, is being blamed for the high inflation (an average of 10.9% through 2013) afflicting the nation. Congress is also blemished by a string of high-profile corruption cases against its politicians. Modi and the BJP leadership in general are untainted by the vice.

Throughout the election campaign, Modi and his party have kept mum on its past anti-Muslim agenda. They realize that Indian society is moving past the era of religious animosity and is throbbing with progressive thinking. The other day I was shocked to notice that the bulletin board of Calcutta University’s history department was splashing six pictures and an admiring profile of Mohammad Ali Jinnah, the founder of Pakistan, India’s archenemy.

Under the headline “Repositioning Jinnah,” the white text against dark background highlighted some of Jinnah’s statements promoting secularism in Pakistan, harmony between Muslims and Hindus, equality between the sexes, and so forth. Analyzing his political career, the anonymous author wrote that Jinnah “tried his best to reach a settlement between the Hindus and the Muslims. But all his efforts proved futile. Every time he tried to bring the two communities together, success eluded him.” The narrative suggested that the secular Muslim statesman was compelled to create a separate Muslim state because of the failure of his cherished mission to preserve Muslim rights in an undivided India, although it didn’t say it quite in those words.

Arun Bandopadhyay, who teaches modern Indian history at the university, explained to me that “Jinnah is being reevaluated here as he has been elsewhere.” He said he is more concerned about “ethnic separatism” than religious conflicts. India and Pakistan could split further along ethnic lines in the “next 20, 50 years,” he added.

Indians are engaged in a lively debate about the BJP’s silence on its Hindu nationalist agenda. Many believe it was just an election ploy, intended to lure Muslim voters away from the secular Congress party, their traditional political home.

Among them my friend Kamaluddin Ahmed, retired principal of Karimganj College in Assam. He said the BJP would “surely try to revive its anti-Muslim agenda,” should it come to power in New Delhi. One of the items on that agenda is, as mentioned, building a Ram temple on the Babri Mosque site. Another is banning Muslims’ “family laws,” which govern their inheritance, marriage, divorce, and other events. A third is amending the Indian constitution to abolish the wide autonomy it allows the Muslim-majority state of Jammu and Kashmir. And so on.

Yet many among this group and others say that the Hindu nationalists just can’t implement those Muslim baiting programs without triggering India-wide Hindu-Muslim riots and tearing up Hindu society itself. They point out that most Hindus, especially their younger generation, want to forget about the decades-long nightmare of interfaith bloodletting and animosity.

Muslims, though 13 percent of the Indian population, are going through a “resurgence,” to use Kamaluddin Ahmed’s words. That also has put a damper on right-wing Hindu aggressiveness toward Muslims. During the last three decades Indian Muslims have made significant economic, educational and occupational advances. That has enhanced their assertiveness and resolve to defend their cultural space. I’ve heard many anecdotes of Muslim youths fighting back against Hindu physical or verbal attacks, which they used to endure meekly. And those attacks have become infrequent now.

As important, the BJP itself appears to be evolving. The Gujarat riots were a wake-up call to Modi and his party. The scenes of the ghastly slaughter of Muslim children, women and men badly tarnished Modi’s and Hindu nationalists’ image at home and abroad. The Obama administration banned Modi from visiting the United States, and he became an international pariah of sorts.

Desperate to shed this blackened image, the Gujarat chief minister (and probably the next prime minister) and the BJP have stopped most of their anti-Muslim activism. The state and local governments run by the party have introduced jobs, educational and other programs that benefit Muslims. The party has been on guard against any Hindu-Muslims clashes in jurisdictions under its rule.

Soumen Purkayasthhya, the BJP’s outreach coordinator in New Delhi, challenged me to show “a single [anti-Muslim] riot in any of the six states” that came under BJP rule after the 2009 elections.

The BJP badly needs an image makeover because of many Indians’ yearning for peace and social harmony, and some of the party activists I interviewed in different parts of India are calling for it. Peace and stability have been a pressing concern of India’s business and industrial community, a vital segment of the BJP’s support base.

Hindus and Muslims in India will have their separate communal spaces, as they always did. From that angle, the Hindu nationalists seminal mission to blot out the Muslim social and cultural niches has all but failed. There may be occasional tensions and violence between Hindus and Muslims. But I see the two communities striving for better mutual relations, more than spawning hatred between them. The task is staring at the face of Modi and the BJP.

• Mustafa Malik, who hosts the blog Beyond Freedom, is traveling in his native Indian subcontinent.

Is Hindu nationalism mellowing?

NEW DELHI – India’s Hindu nationalists gloated as Nancy Powell, the U.S. ambassador to New Delhi, went to meet Norendra Modi, the prime ministerial candidate of their Bharatya Janata Party.  Indian media described the meeting as America’s “cave-in” and “about face” to the chief minister of Gujarat state. 

Nine years ago Modi was banned from visiting the United States for his widely reported complicity in the anti-Muslim riots in Gujarat.  More than 1, 000 Muslims there were beaten, hacked and burned to death by Hindu rioters.

Asked about the Modi-Powell meeting, an American diplomat in the Indian capital told me, on condition of anonymity, that Modi’s political positions have been “evolving,” warranting the new American gesture. I would normally have dismissed his comment as pure diplomatic hogwash, but I see a large grain of truth in it.

Of course the United States had to mend fences with the man who, polls show, could become the next prime minister of India.  But then Modi and the BJP also are trying hard to shed their image as Hindu fanatics, reinforced by their alleged connivance at the Gujarat riot and the destruction of the historic Muslim shrine, the Babri Mosque.

For the last half-dozen years, the BJP has been trying seriously – its critics say “shamelessly” – to court Muslims. And many Muslims are reciprocating.  On Feb. 22, I found it hard to believe my eyes as I watched on TV a sprinkling of Muslim caps in Modi’s rally in Silchar town in my native Assam state.  During a 2007 visit to Silchar I saw Muslims fuming over his widely believed abetment to the Gujarat massacre.  A Muslim tailor in Silchar told me that he wanted some “young man with a [suicide] belt” to do away with him.  

So what’s changing many Muslim minds about the BJP? Indian Muslims are “more self-confident” than they used to be, Bushra Alvi, a Muslim writer in New Delhi, told me last week.  They no longer fear, she added, that Hindu nationalists would be able to erode Muslim culture in India, which they tried to do for decades.  Spread of education and heightened conscious about identity and self-worth appear to have helped stimulate their self-confidence, as it has among people in many other countries.

The BJP’s outreach to Muslims shows a reassessment of its ideology.  The party’s manifesto stipulates, among other things, three highly controversial projects to assimilate Indian Muslims into a Hinduized social mainstream.  One, Islamic tenets enjoining Muslims to follow the Islamic code in marriage, divorce, inheritance, etc., would be outlawed. Secondly, a temple would be built to the Hindu god Ram on the site of the gutted Babri Mosque.  Thirdly, an article in the Indian constitution that provides wide autonomy to the Muslim-majority state of Jammu and Kashmir would be scrapped.

Yet in January BJP president Rajnath Singh infuriated Hindu nationalist diehards by  announcing that his party wouldn’t, after all, seek to end Kashmir’s special status.  And on the campaign trail Modi and his associates have been mysteriously silent on the Ram temple and Muslim canon law issues.

Soumen Purkhayasthha, the BJP’s “good governance” strategist, insisted to me that his party doesn’t plan to pursue those anti-Muslim projects.  The BJP, he said, wouldn’t tolerate any Muslim-bashing. “There has not been a single Hindu-Muslim riot in the five states that came under BJP rule” since the Gujarat, he added.

I think the party has learned its lesson of Gujarat, which turned it into an international pariah. The American blacklisting of Modi, an NGO operative told me, “was too much for them to take.”

At any rate, many Indian Muslims are opening up to BJP overtures for a host of reasons.

For decades they voted blindly for the ruling Congress party, which took their votes for granted and turned a blind eye to their causes and interests.  Assured in their minds that they’ve all but stonewalled the BJP’s Hinduization drive, many of them are attracted by the party’s record and promises of good governance and good economic management.

Modi has earned nationwide acclaim for fostering impressive economic growth in his state.  “We want faster economic growth,” said Sohael Razzack, a Muslim community leader and food industry executive.  “Muslims will benefit from it as anybody else.”

Muslims also realize that the BJP could come to power in the general elections scheduled for April. They think it would be foolish to alienate it.

It’s possible, though seems unlikely, that once in power, the Hindu nationalists may revive their anti-Muslim agenda.   For some Muslims, including the writer Alvi, that would have a bright side as well. Hindu hostility would bolster Muslim solidarity and Islamic revival, as it has in the past.

Today, most politicians and political strategists in India recognize Muslims’ electoral clout and growing willpower, even though they make up only about 15 percent of the Indian population of more than 1 billion.  West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee’s Muslim policy is a case in point.

Banerjee is reviled in neighboring Bangladesh as an anti-Muslim bigot.  She has blocked an agreement between Dhaka and New Delhi that would allow an increased flow of river water to lower riparian Bangladesh, and the mostly Muslim Bangladeshis attribute it to her hatred of Muslims.

Inside West Bengal, however, Banerjee is denounced as virulently by right-wing Hindus for her “rampant appeasement” of Muslims.  She has facilitated job opportunities for Muslims; promoted Muslim girls’ education; given aid to madrasahs, or Islamic schools; and adopted other programs that benefit Muslims. Once clue, Muslims make up about 30 percent of West Bengal voters.

The BJP appears to have given up on healing Indian society from the cultural “virus” or “parasites” as Hindus chauvinists still Muslims. But, as the American diplomat noted, Modi’s and his party’s attitudes toward them are “evolving” and softening.Nancy Powell’s visit with the Hindu nationalist candidate for prime minister signaled that America’s policy toward them is evolving, too.

Mustafa Malik, who hosts the blog ‘Beyond Freedom,’  is traveling in his native Indian subcontinent.

The Hindus outrage Hindus

Arundhati Roy is one of my heroes. Yet I’ve a problem with her stand on The Hindus: An Alternative History.

The icon of the progressive movement in India has blasted Penguin India for pulling out the book. It was written by Wendy Denier, a respected American Indologist. It’s a serious piece of work, which debunks some of Hindus’ cherished beliefs about their religious tradition. Not surprisingly, it  has outraged a whole lot of  Hindus in India. Many of them are Hindu nationalists and traditionalists.  Roy has demanded to know why the publisher had “caved in [to] the fascists.”

It saddens me indeed to see that the junking of this scholarly work would deny millions of Hindus the opportunity to take a refreshing new look at their society and tradition.  I’m persuaded, however, by the reason Penguin India has given for its decision to call off the publication and destroy the copies in its stock.  It explained that being an Indian company, it had to abide by Indian laws, which make it a criminal offense to deliberately outrage or insult “religious feelings” by spoken or written words.

Roy and many other critics of the publishing company’s action have offered the typical Western liberal argument. They maintain, in effect, that withholding the  publication of a work of art or literature under public pressure flouts what they consider publishers’ duty to defend the freedom of speech, as it’s understood in the West, everywhere in the world. Yes, Viking defied enormous pressure from the Muslim world to publish Salman Rushdie’s novel The Satanic Verses, which maligns the Prophet of Islam. But Viking did so in the West, where the laws and social consensus support its action.

Freedom of expression, as many other Western values, stems from Enlightenment liberalism.  Many liberal values have been emulated productively by Hindu, Muslim, Buddhist, ex-Communist and other non-Western societies.  Free and rational inquiry, pluralism and scientific investigation have enabled those societies to make remarkable intellectual, scientific and technological progress; speed their economic development; and greatly enhance the quality their citizens’ material life.

All the same, many of these societies, especially those with rich and enduring traditions, are adapting liberal ideas and institutions to their own social priorities, which lend most meaning to their lives. India has embraced democracy of the Westminster variety. It retains, however, many religious institutions in the public sphere, which Western democracies wouldn’t. It has banned cow slaughter, forbidden by Hindu scripture. The Indian state patronizes many religious shrines and projects, instead of relegating them to the private sphere. Indian voters have twice elected the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party governments and could do so again this May. The BJP espouses using laws and state institutions to Hinduize Indian society and culture.

The founder of modern Turkey, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, and his followers used state power to ban Islam from politics and Europeanize Turkish culture. The Turks, heirs to the Ottoman Islamic civilization, have subsequently cast off most of their Westernization projects and elected an Islam-oriented government thrice in a row.

Enlightenment liberalism, as all other ideologies, has emerged from a particular set of historical circumstances of particular societies.  It came about mainly as a reaction to the omnipresent church’s rigorous rules suppressing the desires, expressions and creativity of everyday Christians.  It wasn’t much of a surprise, then, that the ideologues and activists of the Enlightenment avenged the harsh religious repression by banishing religion from the public space.

Few non-Western societies faced religious persecution of that scale. Not certainly the Hindus, Muslims or non-Western Christians (Coptic, Maronite, Assyrian, etc.). They all  cherish their traditions, founded mostly on religious values, while emulating many liberal political and social ideas and institutions.

This should help explain why Americans and Europeans cared less about Martin Scorsese’s movie “The Last Temptation of the Christ,” which portrayed Jesus as an imperfect, vulnerable man.  Muslims around the world were, on the other hand, repelled by The Satanic Verses, as are many Indian Hindus by The Hindus.

The right to free speech can’t be absolute or universal. The free-speech doctrine notwithstanding, American society wouldn’t permit you to use the “n” word for African Americans or question the prevalent narrative about the Holocaust. Crying “Fire!” in a movie theater is a crime under American law. Because values and moral standards vary from civilization to civilization and often from society to society, so should the definition of rights and freedoms.

Luckily, progressive, far-sighted minds throughout history have spoken out and struggled against societal norms and taboos that they saw afflicting man and impeding human well-being. By so doing they’ve promoted needed social reforms and evolution.

Arundhati Roy is among Indian activists who would want Indians to be open to criticism and reevaluation of their religious institutions so Indian society can  evolve and progress further. Yet I wouldn’t support her attack on Penguin India for refusing to violate a duly enacted Indian law under which publication of the book could be a crime.  Penguin India needs to operate within India’s legal framework until India’s moral and legal system evolves, if it does, to alter that framework.

  • Mustafa Malik, host of the blog Beyond Freedom, is traveling in the Indian subcontinent.


Women in the West’s blind spot

‘Why does the world ignore violence against Arab women?’ PovertyMatters blog, The Guardian, London (link below).

I DON’T THINK “the world,” which essentially means America and Europe, is ignoring the travails of Arab or Muslim women per se. After all, when the Taliban attacked the Pakistani schoolgirl Malala Yusufzai, the West made her an international celebrity and hero. The spectacle was focused, however, on the suppression of women by the Taliban and other forces that were hostile to America and its invasion of Muslim countries. 

Muslim women in Saudi Arabia and other Gulf Arab countries are among the worst victims of male repression and misogyny. Yet how much concern have American politicians, journalists, intellectuals – or feminists – shown about their tribulations?

And what about Hindu women in India?  Misogyny has been endemic in the mostly Hindu Indian society.  Women are being raped and persecuted with abandon in much of India. Indian politicians and law enforcement agencies never took their suffering and humiliation seriously until recent media publicity forced them to try to do something about it.  Indian women’s ordeal, as that of women in the Middle East, has largely been ignored by “the world.”

The misfortunes of women in those societies are America’s and the West’s friendly ties to their governments.   You wouldn’t see moral issues getting in the way of  “the world’” coddling governments and other actors who serve Western interests.  Moral concerns are pressed into the service of those interests when they’re threatened by the West’s enemies, albeit if those enemies also happen to be trampling women’s rights or human rights.  And wittingly or unwittingly, Western intelligentsia  – conservatives, liberals, feminists, and so forth – follow the flag.

Remember Laura Bush’s women rights campaign in Afghanistan after her hubby invaded and occupied that poor country?  Indeed American feminists showed great concerns (mostly well-meaning, I believe) about the fate of those women if the United States had to transfer power to the misogynists who dominate the Afghan political class.  I’m not hearing those concerns voiced (or I’m not reading the publications where they are)  since the Obama administration announced its plans to end the occupation of Afghnistan.

Many Americans and Westerners would indeed like  to help women under suppression in old and traditional societies – but only when Western  interests don’t get in the way.

The Guardian blog post:


Mustafa Malik is an international affairs columnist in Washington. He hosts the blog ‘What Freedom?’




Pakistan’s scary quest for roots

WHY IS PAKISTAN being riven by Sunni-Shia and Sunni-Ahmadi strife?

A scholar at Columbia University shares his thoughts on the question in a New York Times op-ed entitled “Pakistan’s tyrannical majority.”

Manan Ahmed Asif quotes Muhammad Ali Jinnah telling Pakistanis: “[E]very one of you, no matter to what community he belongs, no matter what relations he had with you in the past, no matter what is his color, caste or creed, is first, second and last a citizen of this State with equal rights, privileges and obligations.”  And Asif deplores that the promise of Pakistan’s founding father for “religious equality [has] proved false,” that the country’s Sunni majority has been on a witchhunt of the Shia and Ahmadis.

Sadly, it’s true. I was hoping, however, that the professor would tell us why sectarian hatred among Pakistanis appears to have deepened since their independence from British colonial rule. But  he doesn’t delve into it beyond blaming Pakistani politicians for pandering to the anti-minority Sunni masses. Targets of his criticism include then Prime Minister Zulfikar Ali Bhutto and today’s Movement for Justice party leader Imran Khan, both leftists.

Asif mentions that among the early victims of sectarian intolerance is Pakistan was Sir Zafrullah Khan, an Ahmadi who was “hounded out” of his Cabinet post.  Ahmadis don’t believe that Muhammad was God’s last messenger to mankind, as the Quran says; but that their religious leader, Mirza Ghulam Ahmed was.  Therefore, most Islamic theologians and Muslims in general consider them outside the pale of Islam. The professor scorns Bhutto and Imran Khan for endorsing this theological position on the Ahmadis.

The question here is not whether Ahmadis are true Muslims. It is whether they deserve to be barred from holding jobs or subjected to social discrimination, which Islam itself forbids.

Unfortunately, societies have historically gone through one kind of prejudice or another. In 1954 when Zafrullah Khan was forced out of his foreign minister post in Pakistan, America was convulsing with virulent racism; African-Americans were disenfranchised, segregated and still being lynched.

It doesn’t mean that we should justify or discount social prejudices. But unless we know the sources of  a prejudice, we can’t explore its correctives.  Jinnah and his second in command, Liaqat Ali Khan; Mahatma Gandhi and his top lieutenant, Jawaharlal Nehru, were all  products of a British education, and they shared many Western values.  British India was steeped in widespread illiteracy and despair from nearly two centuries of colonial subjugation and suppression.  The political idiom of the subcontinent’s Western-educated elites was shaped by Western values and standards.

Independence from colonial rule, followed by the spread of democratic values and education in a domestic setting, has engendered self-respect and pride in indigenous cultural heritage among the elites and masses in South Asia and other developing countries. More and more, people in these societies are differentiating  themselves along their indigenous cultural fault lines, rather than the mostly artificial boundaries of their “nation-states,” created by colonialists and their own Westernized elites.

Their affinity with their religious and ethnic communities is often deeper than  with their state institutions. Hence the increased antagonism between many of these communities. Shia-Sunni conflicts rock not only Pakistan, but most of  Muslim west Asia and North Africa.  In India, the phenomenon has triggered the dramatic rise of the anti-Muslim Hindu nationalist movement.  In fact Pakistanis have never given their Islamist parties more than 6% of votes; but in India, the Hindu nationalist Bharatitya Janata Party has twice been voted to power. And the instigator of the harrowing Muslim massacre in Gujarat, Narendra Modi, is one of India’s most popular leaders and is could become its next prime minister.

Today nationalist bigotry and hubris stalk much of the West, while communal prejudice swirls much of the rest of the world. Muslim and other post-colonial societies have to find ways to douse their people’s communal animosity. As military and political hostility between the nation-states of Pakistan and India abates, politicians and civil society groups there should get on with promoting tolerance and resisting violence between their religious and ethnic communities.

◆ Mustafa Malik, an international affairs commentator in Washington, hosts the blog Islam and the West.




Bangladesh’s epic quest for identity

I’M SADDENED by the bloody mayhem rocking Bangladesh, where I lived and worked through two turbulent decades.  Street fights between the country’s secularist government forces and Islamist activists have claimed dozens of lives. The clashes were triggered by a death sentence handed by a Bangladeshi court to  a leader of the Islamist political party Jamaat-e-Islami.  Maulana Delwar Hussein Saeedi, the death row inmate, and other top Jamaat leaders have been charged with having roles  in the killing of Bangladeshi liberation activists 42 years ago.

The Islamist leaders have been put on trial by the Awami League party government, supported by a  secularist youth movement.  The Awami League is the party of the country’s secularist founder, Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, which had been in power nearly a dozen times since Bangladesh achieved independence. But it ignored the Islamists’ alleged crime until now. The other day I called a friend in Dhaka, the Bangladeshi capital, and asked why.

“Because public support [for the trials] was not there,” he replied. “Now huge crowds are calling for their death penalty.”

This is a new twist to Bangladeshis’ long odyssey to find their niche in a national framework, as most other post-colonial societies have been going through.  It began with the end of nearly two centuries of British colonial rule in the Indian subcontinent, which had obliterated the political structures that had been evolving there over the millennia. Bangladeshis, as other  communities in the subcontinent, now faced the baffling task of choosing the space, ideology and cultural pattern for a nation-state they were called upon to build.

Nearly 90 percent Muslim, Bangladesh comprises the eastern half of the old Bengal, which became Pakistan’s eastern province in 1947.  Those days Bengali Muslims pulsated with Islamic fervor. They plunged headlong into the movement to split British India to create the Muslim state of Pakistan.  A stalwart of the Pakistan movement was young Mujibur Rahman.

Years later Mujib would tell me about his work for the Pakistan movement at his home in Dhaka.  He said, proudly, that undivided Muslim-majority Bengal was “the only province in all [British] India that elected a pro-Pakistan government” in a 1946  election, which legitimized the Muslim demand for Pakistan. The four provinces in then West Pakistan, he added, had larger Muslim majorities, but that none of them voted to join Pakistan. I interviewed Mujib now and then for my column in what used to be the Pakistan Observer newspaper, published in Dhaka.

Once East Bengal became East Pakistan, however, the Islamic wave there began to give way to a growing secularist one.  As elsewhere in the world, ideological movements in Bangladesh began to lose steam after their immediate goals were realized. Additionally,  the use of Islamic slogans by West Pakistani elites in their economic exploitation and political suppression of East Pakistanis discredited Islamic political parties. Mujib now rode the crest of the secularist tide, bringing about East Pakistan’s secession from Pakistan and emergence as independent Bangladesh. The East Pakistanis who opposed that secession included the Islamists who are now facing trial for “treason.”

Bangladeshis paid a heavy price for their independence. During spring through mid-winter of 1971, West Pakistani troops slaughtered thousands of innocent men, women and children; and raped many Bangladeshi girls and women; while trying to suppress the movement. Post-independence, the Mujib government got  “secularism” enshrined in Bangladesh’s first constitution as among its foundational principles.

But then, just as the Islamic wave in East Pakistan had begun to recede after the creation of Pakistan, the secularist wave in Bangladesh tapered off almost immediately after its independence from Pakistan. Now the Islamic surge that had accompanied the Pakistan movement nearly three decades before began to revive with a vengeance.

Barely four years after Mujib created his “secular” and “socialist” Bangladesh, he and most of his family and Cabinet members were assassinated in coup d’teat by army officers. They resented his close ties to Hindu-majority India, which was seen exerting hegemony over Bangladesh. Most Bangladeshis shared this perception of him. Nobody mourned the “Father of the Nation” in public, let alone stage a protest against his assassination. Politicians who followed the new Islamic surge to power shelved the Mujib government’s secularist constitution, and at one point adopted a new one rebranding Bangladesh an “Islamic Republic.”

During trips to Bangladesh in the 1980s and 1990s I almost couldn’t believe my eyes as I saw droves of head-covered women milling about college campuses, where headscarves were a rarity during the country’s Pakistan phase. Mosques were proliferating all over Bangladesh and prayer congregations in many of them extended to the yards. Stores, automobiles, streets and schools for secular education flaunted Islamic names and signs as never before.

Hamidul Huq Chowdhury, an elder statesman who published my old newspaper,  told me in 1982 that the new Islamic upsurge was “partly a reaction to an overdose of ‘Indiaphilia’” which disturbed many Islamic-minded Bangladeshis.

“But watch how long this [Islamic wind] lasts,” advised my old boss, a British-educated barrister.

Today’s secularist upsurge and the hounding of Islamists by secularists remind me of Chowdhury’s caveat.  The point, though, is that while Bangladesh’s embattled Islamists and secularists have been going through ups and downs, neither side has been quite vanquished.

Neither needs to be. The histories of Western nations, many of them bloodier and more tumultuous, show that bitter ideological and political struggles often produce societal and national integration.  Unlike many other nations, most Bangladeshis belong to a single religious community, Sunni Islamic; and a single ethnic community, Bengali. I can see them integrating into a relatively cohesive national society sooner than seems possible now. Meanwhile, as Bangladeshis go on modernizing, they will continue to secularize. But they’re unlikely to be unhinged from their Islamic cultural and social roots, anymore than any other modernizing Muslim society.

◆ Mustafa Malik, an international affairs commentator in Washington, hosts the blog Islam and the West.


Kashmiris try to globalize struggle

A Kashmiri Muslim noticed my Facebook comment about protests over the gang rape of a medical student in India. The 23-year-old woman has died of injuries from the brutal assault. I had applauded the electrifying protests in New Delhi and elsewhere in the country. And I had expressed hope that they would shame the Indian government and society into taking legislative and law-enforcement measures to curb rape and misogyny, which are widespread in India.

“Did you know,” asked the gentleman,  “that more than 10,000 Kashmiri women have been gang-raped by Indian forces? I didn’t see you mention those heinous, those barbarous crimes.”  I promised him to write this post.

Jammu and Kashmir, or Kashmir for short, is indeed one of history’s gravest tragedies, which has been virtually ignored by the “international community.”  The Indian government is in a state of denial about its armed forces’ widely known gang-rape raids in the Kashmir Valley, where a rebellion against Indian rule has been raging for 24 years. Rebel sources claim that 10,042 Kashmiri Muslim women and girls have been raped by Indian troops. Their claim hasn’t been independently verified and the rape figure they provide seems too big to be credible.

But Kashmir, especially the Muslim valley, has been a human catastrophe. India has deployed about 600,000 mostly Hindu military and paramilitary troops to put down the Muslim uprising.  These forces have, besides raping many women, killed some 60,000 protesters and others. In 2011 a human rights group discovered a number of unmarked mass graves in the valley with more than 2,000 bodies, obviously victims of Indian military action.

The Kashmir imbroglio has been complicated by the demographic makeup of the old kingdom. It comprises four ethnic patches. Two of them – the Indian-held valley and the Pakistan-held “Azad Kashmir” – are each 99 percent Muslim.  Both are irreconcilably opposed to Indian rule. The other two segments — both under Indian rule — are Hindu-majority Jammu and Buddhist-majority Ladakh, and they would be amenable to remaining with India.

One reason the unrest in Kashmir festers for so long is the lack of international pressure or concern for the resolution of the predicament, over which India and Pakistan have fought two wars. Western, especially American, governments and societies are known for selective concern about rights and freedoms outside the West.  You hear vociferous denunciation of infraction of human rights and democratic norms in Iran, an American enemy. You hear little about the horrible misogyny, rights abuses and authoritarian rule in oil-rich Saudi Arabia, with which America maintain cozy relations. Western amnesia about Kashmir has to be viewed in light of India being a world power, which has extensive trade and economic relations with other world powers. Yet the Kashmir issue isn’t going to go away.

For most of its history, the Himalayan princedom has been independent of states and empires that existed in the Indian plains.  In 1947 the old India became independent of British colonial rule, and split into Hindu-majority India and Muslim-majority Pakistan. Kashmir was given the options to join India or Pakistan or remain independent.  It opted for independence. But then a Muslim tribal mob from Pakistan roared into Kashmir and occupied a third of it. India captured the other two-thirds after getting the the Hindu ruler of the Muslim-majority state to sign an “accession” agreement. The agreement recognized Kashmiris’ right of self-determination and stipulated that they would decide their political destiny through a plebiscite. The U.N. Security Council also passed a resolution, calling for the plebiscite.

India has since reneged on its plebiscite commitment and claims that Kashmir has become its “integral part.”   The Kashmiris point out, however,  that the public and politicians in British India had participated in continual elections and even formed a central government. But simultaneously, they continued their struggle for their independence from British colonial tutelage until they achieved it. Moreover, the decades-long Muslim uprising and India’s extremely brutal measures to suppress it don’t quite prove that the state is integrated into India. One can’t imagine Indians resorting to such mindless atrocities on the population of Uttar Pradesh or Maharashtra, which is a real part of India.

For the past several years, the violent Muslim revolt in Kashmir is showing signs of exhaustion and life appears to be returning to normal.  But Kashmiri Muslims are far from reconciled with Indian rule.  On the contrary, a new generation of educated and technically savvy Kashmiri youth is ushering in a new phase of the struggle.  They’re taking their cause to the global stage through Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and other social media outlets, and myriad web sites and other Internet forums.

This new campaign, somewhat like the Palestinian struggle, is meant to raise global and Indian public sensitivity about the suffering of the Kashmiris and their right to self-determination.  Military and law enforcement tools, which  New Delhi has used to suppress the upheaval, can be of little use in this arena.  And the political climate of the 21st century, with its heightening sensitivity about human dignity and freedom, is unlikely to be conducive to the continued suppression of Kashmiris’  aspirations for freedom.

Any just and lasting settlement of the dispute has to take into account the deep-seated hostility of the two virtually all-Muslim parts of Kashmir toward Hindu-majority India. Polls have shown, though, that most inhabitants of the two Muslims segments would prefer becoming independent, rather than join Pakistan, let alone India.  Pakistan opposes, as does India, opposes their independence. These Kashmiris would opt for Pakistan only if independence is off the table.

In any case, Kashmiris are insistent on nurturing their unique culture and values. It’s possible that one day a solution to this woeful tragedy would be found in Kashmiris in the Indian-occupied valley joining their ethnic kinfolk in Pakistan-occupied Kashmiri territory. But such a deal should ensure Kashmiris’ political and cultural autonomy.

◆ Mustafa Malik, an international affairs commentator in Washington, hosts the blog ‘Islam and the West’.