No ‘cakewalk’ to Pyongyang, please

ON WEDNESDAY I was about to head out to a seminar on cyber security at Wilson Center in Washington when I peeked into the Internet to check the latest news.

“U.S. quietly plans to occupy North Korea after war,” a banner headline in London’s The Sun newspaper screamed at me. I remembered that President Trump and Defense Secretary Jim Mattis had said, too, that military action against North Korea is a  possibility.

The story led to a Newsweek link. Clicked, it opened a piece in which German Foreign Minister Sigmar Gabriel was quoted as saying that a war between the United States and North Korea “could be deadliest conflict in history,” more catastrophic than the Second World War.

The seminar was about security threats from North Korea, China and Russia.  James Lewis, vice president of Center from Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington, talked about a “deterrent” against cyber threats from Pyongyang.

I told him that North Koreans had been saying that their nukes are meant to be “a deterrent against American invasion.”  I also mentioned that I had heard Sunni Arab leaders in Iraq lamenting that if Saddam Hussein had a few nuclear weapons he could’ve “deterred the U.S. invasion” of 2003, sparing both Iraq and America the “unnecessary and catastrophic war.”

Lewis nodded, apparently signaling that he was aware of it.

Continuing, I inquired if Iranians wanted to have “a couple of nukes,” which they insisted they never did, won’t those warheads also serve as a deterrent against Israeli or U.S. military action? I couldn’t conceive, I added, of Iranians wanting to “commit national suicide” by initiating a nuclear conflict with Israel or the United States.

I asked the CSIS executive what he thought of Kim Jong-un’s reasoning for a nuclear deterrent against a U.S. invasion.

The panelist didn’t answer my question, but warned, instead, that North Koreans “would be deluding themselves” if they thought that a few nukes “would give them immunity” against the U.S. military power. The United States could “get rid of the problem” posed by Kim, regardless of his nukes.

Was he hinting at a possible regime change in North Korea? I wondered.

Explaining the reason America was determined to prevent North Korea and Iran from acquiring nuclear arms, Lewis said, such weaponry could tempt those countries “to evade their responsibilities under international law, to violate international law,” and threaten their neighbors and international security.

I thought of asking him the obvious question of whether the United States and other nuclear powers weren’t potentially violating international law over and over because they sat on nuclear stockpiles.  Nuclear arsenals have given them the ability to commit illegal aggression against non-nuclear countries. Also, they have equipped them with veto powers at the U.N. Security Council, practically shielding them against accountability for violations of international law. But I didn’t want to get into an argument with the panelist.

Martin C. Libicki from the U.S. Naval Academy, another panelist, picked up on my comment about Iran. He said Iranians would be “right to think that Israel can do things with its [nuclear] capabilities that its neighbors can’t.”  But the Israelis needed that capability for their national security, added the professor of cyber security studies.

Their comments reminded me of a complaint that my Pakistani mentor had made to me several times in the early 1970s. Nurul Amin was prime minister and later vice president of Pakistan, and I worked as his press aide.  He would lament to me about America’s “blatant and illegal” military interventions, and often regime change, in Iran, Lebanon, Vietnam, Congo, Ghana and elsewhere. “Independence from colonial rule lets us [Asian and African nations] have our own brown and black rulers,” he would say, “as long as we toe their lines.”

On the subway train back home from Wilson Center, it occurred to me that Nurul Amin’s comment of the Cold War era doesn’t quite apply to the new world we live in. Yes, in 1953 the CIA under the Eisenhower administration could have Iran’s democratically elected government of Prime Minister Mohammed Mosaddeq easily overthrown in a military coup. But by 1979 Iran’s Islamic revolutionaries bundled out the brutal pro-American monarchy of Muhammad Riza Pahlavi, whom the Americans had installed in Tehran.

In 1958 the Iraqi army overthrew the pro-Western monarchy in Iraq while Muslim insurgents in neighboring Lebanon rose up against the pro-Western Christian minority government of President Camille Chamoun. Chamoun asked for U.S. help, and the Eisenhower administration immediately rushed some 14,000 troops to Lebanon. The Muslim insurgents ran for cover and the invading American troops hit the beaches in Beirut.

“We drank a lot,” as the U.S. Marines corporal Thomas Zmecek would recall later. “We were provided with swimming trunks and swam with the daughters [of Christian hosts] and had a grand time.”

Twenty-five years later a U.S.-led multinational force was stationed in Lebanon to intervene in a brewing civil war between the Israeli-backed Christian forces and Syrian-backed Muslim and Druze activists. When opposition forces threatened the presidency of Maronite Christian Amin Gemayel, the Reagan administration, prodded by the Israelis and Secretary of State George P. Schultz (against the strenuous objection of Defense Secretary Casper Weinberger) ordered an American contingent to rush to West Beirut to protect the Gemayel regime. But the new Lebanese generation didn’t go into hiding as had their parents and uncles in 1958. They were infuriated by the America intervention in their internal affairs and began to mobilize to resist it. But one of them, a Shiite Muslim, spared them a prolonged fight. He went on a suicide mission, piling up explosives onto a truck and detonating it at a U.S.-French Marines barracks in Beirut, killing 241 American and 58 French servicemen. That led to the withdrawal of U.S. forces from Lebanon.

American politicians and bureaucrats have had difficulty grasping the changed social ethos and worldviews of contemporary generations of post-colonial societies. Many people who grew up under European colonial rule or in the shadow of the colonial era were tolerant of Western military interventions and hegemony. Their children are not. Born in independent countries and exposed to Western values of freedom and democracy, disseminated by myriad communications media, they’re mostly allergic to foreign domination and presence of foreign troops on their lands.

American neocons and Cold War retirees who planned the Iraq war were ostriches with their heads buried in the sand, without having a clue about the dynamics of the Muslim youth of the day. During the run-up to the war neoconservative security expert Ken Adelman proclaimed he was “reasonably certain” that the Iraqis would greet invading U.S. troops “as liberators.” He probably was musing over Lebanese Christians reveling at the arrival of U.S. troops in 1958. Or maybe images of Koreans hailing U.S. Marines under Gen. Douglas MacArthur after their heroic victory in Battle of Inchon was flashing back on his mind.

But in 2003 Iraq had a fiercely independent-minded breed of Arabs who, despite their sectarian feuds, were deeply hostile to foreign domination, as I had observed during three trips in previous years. Their resistance to the U.S. invasion led to the rise of the Islamic State, sectarian blood-letting, unraveling of the Iraqi state, and the security of America and the West.

I’m not sure that the United States can launch a successful invasion of North Korea. Unlike Iraq, that Communist country is believed to have between six and 16 nuclear weapons, most or some of which are in locations unknown to Americans.  “It is one of the hardest, if not the hardest, [intelligence] collection nations that we have to collect against,” Daniel Coats, the director of national intelligence, told Congress in May. Even if America can succeed in taking out all of Kim’s nukes before an invasion, which is extremely unlikely, I doubt that North Koreans would hail American invaders as “liberators” anymore than did Iraqis.  North Koreans are extremely xenophobic people, usually suspicious of foreigners.  A U.S. occupation force would very likely get bogged down in the Hermit Kingdom for years, which the war-wary American public is unlikely to accept.

If the Trump administration blunders into an invasion of North Korea, I’d be as concerned about the catastrophe it would spawn for Americans and Koreans as is Gabriel, the German foreign minister.

– Mustafa Malik, an international affairs columnist in Washington, hosts this blog.

Bravo, Trump!

This is a first for me: supporting an action of President Trump. I applaud his order tonight to strike Syrian military installations with dozens of Tomahawks. It’s a highly moral and humane undertaking whose strategic consequences are likely to be far-reaching.

I hope that America will finally get rid of the ghastliest and most repugnant dictator alive, Syria’s Bashar al-Assad. And I hope this is the beginning of the end of the hell on earth that has engulfed the Syrian people for six years, which has seemed eternity to most.

I have opposed Trump’s election and most of his words and deeds so far. And I will continue to criticize his right-wing domestic political and economic programs and most of his other uninformed and potentially counter-productive foreign policy agenda. But his decision to clip the wings of the bloodthirsty dictator in Damascus has my unreserved support. The president has put the world, and especially the Obama administration, to shame, which they richly deserve, for wringing their hands while Assad and his Russian and Iranian collaborators systematically slaughtered hundreds of thousands of innocent Syrian men, women and children.

Trump has been widely criticized and lampooned, often rightly, for his many faults and failings, but tonight he has hopped onto a moral high ground for his bold decision: to punish the Assad regime for its chemical attack, which has snuffed out the lives of scores Syrians, including “beautiful babies,” as he put it. With a single stone he also is killing a host of other birds: cutting Vladimir Putin down to size; giving Ayatollah Ali Khamenei a bloody nose; putting Kim Jong-un on notice; earning the support and accolade of Arab regimes, whatever it’s worth; and above all, giving a principled dimension to his otherwise wrong-headed, rudderless administration.

The ultimate outcome of the U.S. intervention in Syria is unlikely to please Trump, his Republican friends and many other Americans. Post-Assad Syrian politics and society will likely be dominated by Sunni Arab forces most of whom will remain hostile to U.S. support for Israel and the repressive Arab monarchies and dictatorships. It will require the Trump and the United States a much greater epiphany to earn the support and trust of Arab and Muslim societies, which, at this moment, doesn’t seem to be on the horizon. But that doesn’t diminish the significance of the laudable operation the administration has launched in Syria.

Nobody can tell the future awaiting Syria, which is going to be chaotic at least for a while. Whatever it is, it will be far better than the nightmare that millions of Syrians have gone through since they rose up against their brutal dictator.

Meanwhile, Trump’s bold and decisive undertaking in Syria has earned him and America abiding gratitude of the Syrian nation (except the coterie surrounding and supporting Assad), and a very bright spot in Syrian history.

Mustafa Malik, an international affairs commentator in Washington, hosts the blog ‘Muslim Journey’: http://muslimjourney.com.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Gaping cracks in liberalism

“Bernie Sanders won’t beat Hillary” Clinton. And “Jeremy Corbyn probably won’t be Britain’s next prime minister.” All the same, “liberalism is living dangerously,” and you would be wise to “hedge [your] bet” against its demise. After all, “all orders pass away.”

I was floored by these year-end thoughts of Ross Douthat, a right-wing columnist for the New York Times. Douthat has been a card-carrying apologist for liberalism. Classical liberalism, that is. The ideology that says  the right to life, liberty, property and social equality has been bestowed on us by nature. Not the “liberal” label that Donald Trump or Newt Gingrich would use to demonize Sanders, Noam Chomsky or Paul Krugman.

A traditionalist Catholic, Douthat resents Pope Francis’s “ostentatious humility.” He believes that the pope’s humble lifestyle and progressive words and deeds are a ruse to camouflage a “plot.” That plot is meant to recognize the remarriage of divorced Catholics, give them the sacrament of the Eucharist, and sidestep other long-established Church rules. The columnist opposes any dramatic deviation from the Catholic tradition.

For all his worries about liberalism, Douthat remains its inveterate defender. He points out, proudly, that liberalism’s past ideological rivals such as fascism and communism have failed.  So would, he predicts, the “vision of a new Islamic empire,” proclaimed by the Islamic State in Iraq and greater Syria (ISIS).  So would Russian President Vladimir Putin’s “Stalinist nostalgia.”

What, then, is bothering him?  Why wouldn’t he bet on the survival of the liberal, capitalist system? Well, the Harvard alumnus says he sees some “cracks in the liberal order.”  What are they? The Black Lives Matter movement continues to show its “potency.”  Trump is drawing big crowds, despite his “boastful authoritarianism” and bizarre antics. Streams of Democratic voters, on the other hand, are romping and whooshing to “crypto-Marxist” Sanders’ rallies, as though mesmerized by his socialist rhetoric. More worrisome, polls are showing Americans’ “declining faith in democracy.”

The spectacle is as bleak in Europe, according to Douthat. The European Union project is wobbling from a surge of ethnic nationalism, separatism, and economic crises, especially in Greece, Hungary and Poland.   If that was not all, Angela Merkel’s decision to accept “a million Middle Eastern refugees” jangles his mind with the specter of an Islamized Europe, as envisioned in Michel Houellebecq’s novel Submission.

Douthat’s concerns are legitimate, except that he is rather late to recognize them.

A host of other Western intellectuals and polemicists already have. They are dismayed by the havoc the liberal capitalist order is wreaking everywhere. The top 5% of Americans are soaking up of most of the national income and wealth. The incomes of most people in the lower rungs of American society are dropping or stagnating. Families and communities are breaking down. Carbon emissions threatening the existence of the human species. And so on.

By and large, liberals seem to have become tone deaf about it. They continue to cherish in the old-line liberal mantra that you can solve the world’s problems and improve human conditions everywhere by holding on to and spreading liberal values and institutions (democracy, secularism, nationalism), and capitalist tools and processes (technology, trade, production and consumption). If free trade is costing American jobs and depressing American wages, charge ahead with it, anyway. Never mind democracy is facilitating, instead of stopping, capitalist greed and social injustices in the West. Spread it around, nonetheless. Except for a circle of sociologists and philosophers (among them Peter Berger, David Martin, Grace Davie, Daniele Herview-Leger, and very lately Jurgen Habermas), most Western scholars and intellectuals are caught up in this charade.   They react to the blowbacks of what has been called the “crisis of liberalism” with clichés and canned answers from received knowledge.

Question: Why are Greek and Hungarian economies in a mess?

Answer: Well, their leaders are irresponsible and have not learned the rules of capitalism and the market economy.

Q: Why are xenophobia, racism and Islamophobia surging in Europe?

A: Europeans are scared stiff by “the invasion” Muslim workers and refugees. These Islamic reactionaries would not assimilate into their host societies and threaten to tear up the liberal order in Europe. Naturally, people are losing patience with them.

Years ago I read in a medical journal that people afflicted with terminal cancer go through several stages before reconciling with their fate. The first is the stage of denial: The prognosis can’t be right. Let us have a second opinion. It follows spasms of anger: Why me? Why couldn’t my doctors find it out before it spread?

There is no denying the fact that the Enlightenment, the harbinger of liberalism, has changed our world, mostly for the better, beyond the imagination of our ancestors. As Isiah Berlin aptly said, “The intellectual power, honesty, lucidity, courage, and disinterested love of the truth of the most thinkers of the eighteenth century remain to this day without parallel.”  The problem is that they went a bit overboard with their mission. The mission to create a brave new world with the flawed premise of universality of rationalism. They revolted, rightly, against the abuses and corruption of the Roman Church. But they lost sight of the ennobling teachings of the Christian faith that Jesus and Paul brought to the world: humanity, compassion, community, and aversion to greed and materialism. They threw the baby out with the bath water.

The Enlightenment’s Achilles’ hill has been a basic misconception about human nature. The belief, which is credited to Rene Descartes but can be traced to Plato, is that we are all alike in our basic mindsets and style of reasoning. That our deeds and proclivities can be ascertained with the kind of scientific methods that Isaac Newton used to determine the laws of motion. This old argument has been challenged by curious minds since the dawn of ontological thinking – from Greek sophists to David Hume  to  Giambattista Vico to Richard Rorty to my friend George McClean, professor emeritus of philosophy at Catholic University in Washington. They all maintain that we are cultural products, that our thought processes and value judgment are conditioned by our cultural environment, not by any universally applicable standards. “[T]here is no such thing as a human nature, independent of culture,” as Cliffort Geertz puts it presciently.

Liberal rationalists reject this view and hold on to their a priori notion that liberal recipes for progress and fulfillment would apply everywhere.  Among the latest disasters caused by this belief and attitude was the Iraq war. The invasion of Iraq was planned by neoconservative Ph.Ds. to plant Western-style liberal democracy in Iraq’s traditional Muslim society. From there, they said, such democracy would spread to other Muslim countries.  The devastation of Iraq, loss of nearly a million Iraqi lives and the birth of ISIS have been among the outcome of this experimentation.

Liberalism is all about methods. It does not relate to the sources of realities. Newton saw an apple falling from a tree, and discovered the law of gravity. One of the most momentous, epoch-making scientific discoveries ever. Humanity will forever remain indebted to him for it. The questions that Vico would have asked the renowned physicist, and remain unanswered to this day: Why was the gravity there? Or the apple?

Our friend Douthat is worried about the “cracks” he sees in the liberal social and political model, and appears to be getting reconciled with the prospect of its demise because “all orders pass away.”

Would he ever wonder why?

Maybe we should follow up on the question another day.

  • Mustafa Malik, an international affairs commentator in Washington, hosts the blog: Muslim Journey (http://muslimjourney.com).

 

 

 

 

‘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.”

http://www.nytimes.com/2015/11/08/opinion/sunday/the-pakistan-nuclear-nightmare.html?action=click&pgtype=Homepage&module=opinion-c-col-left-region&region=opinion-c-col-left-region&WT.nav=opinion-c-col-left-region

Fighting phantom terror

THE ISLAMIC STATE has sent new shock waves through the world by capturing more than 200 Syrian and Egyptian Christians. The terrorist group’s gruesome killing of other hostages has heightened concerns among many about the fate of these hostages.

Meanwhile, the Obama administration and the Iraqi government reportedly have shelved their long-publicized plans to try to retake Mosul. The second-largest Iraqi city has been under IS occupation since last summer. If true, the news would further embolden the IS terrorists. They probably will further consolidate their occupation of the Syrian and Iraqi territory, which is already larger in size than the United Kingdom.

Meanwhile, the IS campaign of terror goes on. The New York Times describes it as a “rampage reminiscent of Tamerlane or Genghis Khan.” The reporter Anne Barnard depicted the horror as “entire villages emptied, with hundreds taken prisoners, others kept as slaves; the destruction of irreplaceable works or art; a tax on religious minorities, payable in gold.”

The last time the Middle East saw such repugnant sights was during the American invasion of Iraq, spotlighted by Abu Gharib; and of Afghanistan, where American soldiers not only slaughtered countless innocent Afghan and Pakistani men, women and children, but showed little concern for the humanity of their victims. Nothing symbolizes the dehumanization of the Afghans as the pictures of U.S. soldiers peeing before rolling cameras on the corpses of Afghan guerrillas. The pictures, like those from Abu Gharib, weren’t isolated events. We know from leaked reports of CIA atrocities in Iraq and Afghanistan that high echelons of the Bush and Obama administrations were aware of these war crimes or condoned them after learning about them.

Leave aside the morality of the two administrations’ insensitivity toward these Muslim peoples and their values. What worries me most is that this see-no-evil, hear-no-evil attitude is a stumbling block to the search for a solution to the U.S.-Islamic imbroglio. In fact the same attitude has led American policy makers to decide that the Muslim rage against America and the West is actually confined to a fanatic fringe of Muslim societies. Studies after studies have shown that more than 80 percent of people in most Muslim societies are seething with anti-American rage. The IS and other Muslim terrorist groups enjoy tacit or vocal support of large numbers of people in these societies.

Most Americans apparently don’t know about it because American politicians and flag-waving American news media are more interested in mud-slinging against Islam, variously described, than looking inward into America’s role in the confrontation. In a prayer breakfast three weeks ago Obama condemned the IS for “twisting and distorting” religion for their heinous acts. But he also reminded his audience that Christians had engaged in similar crimes in the past.

“[R]emember,” the president said, “that during the Crusades and the Inquisition, people committed terrible deeds in the name of Christ. In our home country, slavery and Jim Crow all too often was justified in the name of Christ.”

Nobody questioned the validity of his remarks, but his words triggered an avalanche of fury among Western politicians and intellectuals. Rudy Giuliani blamed the president’s upbringing for his reference Christian extremism. “I do not believe,” added the former mayor of New York, “that the president loves America.”

Sen. Ted Cruz also didn’t dispute the veracity of Obama’s comments. But the Texas Republican blasted him for not mentioning Islam as the source of IS terrorism. “The words ‘radical Islamic terrorism’ do not come out of the president’s mouth,” fumed the presidential hopeful, “The word ‘jihad’ does not come out of the president’s mouth. And that is dangerous.”

“Any use of the word ‘Crusade,’’ said the University of London historian Thomas Asbridge, “has to be made with great caution.” Asbridge, who has written a series of books about medieval history, didn’t say why “great caution” needs to be used in references only to the Crusades, but not to Muslim extremism.

Their own neocolonialist attitudes and policies toward the Muslim world remain hidden to most Americans and Westerners in their dangerous blind spots.   Americans, especially American policy makers, need to remember that the IS, and its predecessor Al Qaeda in Iraq, didn’t exist before the uncalled for and catastrophic Iraq war. The IS, appallingly cruel as it is, emerged as the only defender of the members of Iraq’s Sunni Arab minority who had survived the horrifying slaughter, ethnic cleansing and persecution by the successive U.S.-backed Shiite governments. Iraq’s sectarian Shiite leaders had collaborated with the George W. Bush administration in its invasion of Iraq. Most of them had returned to Iraq from exile “on the backs of American tanks,” said Columbia University scholar Rashid Khalidi.

In Afghanistan, Pashtun guerrillas, who organized as the Taliban militia, never had an argument with the United States until it invaded and occupied their country. In fact the CIA collaborated with Pashtun guerrillas, then known as the mujahedeen, or freedom fighters, during their 1980s war against the Soviet invaders. The U.S.-led war in Afghanistan not only made the Taliban hostile to America, but also led to the birth of the Taliban in Pakistan.

An of course, 9/11 was a direct fallout of the 1991 deployment of U.S. troops in Saudi Arabia. Osama bin Laden, a Saudi citizen who was America’s ally in the Afghan war against the Soviets, was among the most vocal Saudi voices against the U.S. troop presence in “the land or Muhammad.” Expelling “the Crusaders” from the Muslim holy land was the first item on bin Laden’s agenda, as he outlined in his 1996 fatwa. Seventeen of the 19 plane hijackers on 9/11 were Saudi citizens.

In April 2003 when America finally pulled out its troops and base from Saudi Arabia (under pressure from the Saudi monarchy, scared by 9/11), Al Qaeda groups in the Middle East celebrated it as a vindication of 9/11.

Western politicians and intellectuals are deluding themselves and their people by blaming Muslim terrorism on Islam, “radical Islam,” “Islamic extremism,” “a twisted [Islamic] ideology,” and so forth. Of course some of the Muslim terrorism stems from Muslims’ sectarian and ethnic fissures. But most of it has been a reaction to foreign occupation.

A study of Britain’s prestigious think tank Chatham House has found that foreign occupation and domination is the wellspring of modern terrorism: Palestinian, Lebanese, Tamil, Kurdish, Buddhist, Chechen, Kashmiri, and so forth. In one of the most comprehensive studies of suicide terror attacks during 1980-2004, Robert Pape found that 95 percent of them were targeted at what the terrorists considered foreign occupation of their or their allies’ homelands.

In his landmark book Dying to Win, the University of Chicago professor recalls that Arabs learned suicide terror techniques from Hindu Tamils in Sri Lanka and Marxist Kurds in Turkey. He says terrorists use religion as an inspiration only when they have “a religious difference” with the occupying or hegemonic power.

I’m afraid that even if the Obama administration’s repeatedly articulated plans to “defeat ISIL ever materialized, that of itself wouldn’t diminish Muslim terrorism against America and its allies. The Bush and Obama administrations succeeded in expelling Al Qaeda from Afghanistan, only to see it spread to the Middle East and north and West Africa. America and the West have to come to grips with the root cause of the Muslim rage against them: foreign occupation and hegemony.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Terror bred by grievances, not Islam

PRESIDENT OBAMA’S speech at this week’s terrorism conference in the White House sounded to me like a broken record from the George W. Bush administration. Bush and his advisers attributed Muslim terrorism to Islam.

“Islam is a religion in which God requires you to send your son to die for him,” said John Ashcroft, Bush’s attorney general. “Christianity is a faith where God sent his son to die for you.”

President Obama, too, believes that Islam is a major source of Muslim terrorism. His aides have lined up a group of Muslim clerics, activists and governments to present a “moderate” interpretation of Islam to their fellow Muslims. But unlike his Republican predecessor, Obama is more sensitive about the sentiments of mainstream Muslims, who resent linking their religion to heinous acts like terrorism. Hence he camouflaged his reference to Islam with the phrase “distorted ideology.”

The Muslim “religion,” in the sense religion is understood in the West, has little to do with terrorism. I tried to explain in my last segment that Islam, unlike Western Christianity, doesn’t segregate a Caesar’s domain from God’s. All Muslim domains, private and public, belong to God. In practical terms, the Muslim public sphere is suffused with Islamic values and social outlook.

Of late that the Muslim public sphere has all but submerged under waves of anti-American and anti-Western sentiments. Surveys after surveys have shown that between 72% and 94% of populations in Muslim countries are hostile or antipathetic to America. Their antipathy derives mainly from U.S. foreign and defense policies toward Muslim societies.

Muslim societies are modernizing fast, while becoming more and more attached to Islamic values and Islamic cultural patterns. They’re more concerned about Islamic causes and the global Muslim community.

Obama’s attribution of Muslim terrorism showed his gross misunderstanding of Islam as well as the motives that propel some Muslims into acts of violence. The president came into office with very little grounding in international affairs, and has stuffed his administration with holdovers from the Bush and Bill Clinton administrations. He is, unfortunately but unsurprisingly, getting the same kind of off-the-wall, jingoist advice that doomed both previous administrations’ Muslim world policies.

Islam, as I said, is a both a private- and public-sphere religion. These days most Muslims are channeling their grievances against America or their own governments in the public sphere through the democratic process. They’re engaged in democratic movements and, when permitted, pushing their agendas through the electoral process. It signals a dramatic and healthy evolution of these movements since the late 1960s and early 1970s, when their watchword was “Islamic revolution.” Those days some of my Islamist acquaintances in Pakistan and Bangladesh espoused armed struggle against the “enemies of Islam” at home and abroad.

Among them is Motiur Rahman Nizami, the head of the Islamist Jamaat-e-Islami party in Bangladesh, now on the death row for his alleged involvement in the killing of Bangladeshi independence activists in 1971. I met him in 2003 after the Jamaat had won the second-largest number of seats in a Bangladeshi parliamentary election, catapulting him to the post of industries minister.

His sparsely furnished office was tucked away in the Motijheel business district in Dhaka, the Bangladeshi capital.

Did the Jamaat “still believed in armed struggle?” I asked.

He smiled, and instead of answering my question directly, he said, “Democracy is the best tool for us to spread the message of Islam.”

Because Islamic spirit and values are spreading quite rapidly in most Muslim countries, mainstream Islamists everywhere have come to believe that they no longer need violent methods to pursue their Islamization agenda. They’re avidly participating in democratic activism.

A second group of Islamists, known as terrorists, continue armed struggle to achieve their goals. They’re generally focused on resisting occupation and aggression by armed opponents. They include Al Qaeda, the Islamic State, Lashkar-e-Toiba and Jaish-e-Muhammad in Kashmir, Riadus Salikin and the Islamic International Brigade in Chechnya, the ETIM in China’s Xinjiang province, the Taliban in Afghanistan, the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, Jabhat al-Nusra in Syria, Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine in the Levant, Boko Haram in Nigeria, Chad and Niger, and so on. All these terrorist groups see themselves fighting to liberate their peoples from foreign occupation or defend them against domestic persecution.

Obama was talking, specifically, about the Islamic State terrorism in Syria and Iraq. The IS emerged to defend Iraq’s Sunni Arabs, who suffered horrible persecution and ethnic cleansing from the U.S. invasion and occupation of Iraq, the Iraqi Shiite governments and Shiite militias and the Bashar al-Assad government in Syria. As many other terrorist groups do, the IS also has engaged in gruesome slaughter and brutal persecution of innocent civilians. The world shouldn’t tolerate such crimes.

The fact remains, however, that these terrorist groups have been fighting for political, not religious, causes. They’re inspired or instigated by political and social grievances, not by the Quran or some “distorted ideology” based on it. Whether their causes or methods of operation are justified (Nobody would justify the slaughter of innocent people), is another matter.

 

Cow, crescent and star

 Published in  Middle East Policy, Washington, D.C.; December 5, 2014

Mustafa Malik, an international affairs commentator in Washington, is investigating the impact of Hindu nationalism on liberal values and democratic institutions in his native India. Earlier, he conducted fieldwork on religious movements and nationalist experiments in the Middle East and the Indian subcontinent as a fellow of the German Marshall Fund of the United States and the University of Chicago Middle East Center.

LAST MONTH President Obama accepted India’s invitation to be the chief guest at its Republic Day celebrations. He will be the first American president to do so.

I was in Kolkata (Calcutta), India’s “cultural capital” when this was announced. Most of my interlocutors there were euphoric about the news, especially the supporters of the ruling Hindu nationalist Bharatya Janata Party (BJP). Narendra Modi, the BJP leader and prime minister, had invited the American president to the January 26, 2015, events. On that date 67 years ago, newly independent India adopted its democratic constitution.

Most Hindu nationalists in India viewed Obama’s gesture as America’s acceptance of Hindu nationalism.  I saw it as the president’s doing business with a democratically elected government that happens to be Hindu nationalist. Two years ago, the Obama administration embraced the Islamist government of Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi, who had come to power through a free and fair election. The Morsi government has since been overthrown in a military coup, and Morsi languishes in jail.

Nevertheless, secularists and liberals in the West who throw a fit on hearing the word “religious fundamentalist” or “militant” might consider following Obama’s lead on the issue. Not that we should approve of religious militants’ violence or other destructive conduct, if they engage in it. However, we need to understand the sources of their militancy and encourage their evolution into more peaceable social or political categories, and participation in the democratic process is one of the best roads to that goal. So far, though, bombing Muslim militants has been America’s and NATO’s preferred method of dealing with them, it has served only to multiply them and bolster their capabilities.

Today religious values and ethos permeate most postcolonial societies, whether Hindu, Muslim, Jewish, Buddhist or others. Unfortunately, the religious upsurge also has ratcheted up interfaith hostility in many countries. The BJP is a glaring example. The party and allied Hindu nationalist organizations plan to change India’s traditionally multi-cultural society into one based on Hindu religious and cultural values. They have come a long way toward that goal, but their march has been accompanied by widespread discrimination and violence against Muslims, India’s largest religious minority, numbering around 160 million people.

Modi has long been in the vanguard of the movement to Hinduize Indian society. He was banned from visiting the United States for nearly a decade for his alleged connivance in the horrific anti-Muslim riots of 2002. Nearly 2,000 Muslim men, women and children were hacked, beaten and burned to death by Hindu mobs. The all-important question haunting many Indian minds, including mine, is whether these faith-based communal conflicts will abate. And if they do, how?

I disagree with those who fear that the new wave of religious resurgence, especially among Muslims, might lead to the kind of sectarian or interfaith bloodbaths that ravaged Europe during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Some historical records show that 35 percent of the population perished in those waves of intra-Christian militancy. But these are different times. Thanks to the spread of the Enlightenment values of freedom, tolerance and humanism, people around the world are increasingly getting used to divergent ideologies, religions and cultures. Everyday people in most countries are more tolerant of the religious or ethnic Other than they were 50 years ago.

The growing acceptance of the Other has been facilitated by globalization and the 24/7 electronic and digital interaction across countries and continents. Of course, most diehard liberals (Canadian philosopher Charles Taylor calls them “liberal fundamentalists”) and religious militants have yet to feel the winds of pluralism and contestation with discrepant ideologies, faiths and communities. I also do not rule out further aggravation of Muslim hostility by the military aggression and political and diplomatic tutelage America and its allies are using around the Muslim world. But I see this approach running its course before too long, as its futility and backlash begin to dawn on its practitioners.

Meanwhile, there has been a growing search among intellectuals, the media and others for the sources of the what is commonly known as religious militancy and violence. A host of sociologists and social scientists has concluded that the religious pull being felt by people in postcolonial societies stems, in large measure, from their quest for dignity and authenticity. This is also fostered by their pervasive exposure to Western ideas of freedom and selfhood. Modernity’s corrosive effects on societies are another source of religious upsurge. “Modern societies,” says Daniele Hervieu-Leger, a leading French sociologist, “may corrode their traditional religious base; at one and the same time, however, these societies open up new spaces and sectors that only religion can fill.”

Postcolonial societies aren’t generally receptive to the liberal tools of mediation, elections and so on, to settle what they see as existential issues: foreign domination, preservation of religious and cultural values, and basic communal interests. Many Western societies have no qualms about waging war over lesser questions.

Liberalism, is a uniquely Western ideology; it cannot be planted holistically in most non-Western societies.  The liberal concepts of church-state separation, individualism and freedom without responsibility emerged largely as reactions to anomalies in European traditions. Those include the long and bloody religious conflicts, the church-state power struggle and the sanctity of individual property rights in the Germanic tribal cultures. Societies that were unaffected by these historical trends and experiences have mostly been inhospitable to most of the liberal values that are germane to Eurocentric civilization.

Hence most of Europe’s former colonies are modernizing, while cherishing the basic aspects of their religious and other traditions.  Peoples outside the West can, of course, profitably cultivate many of the useful institutions that have evolved from Western ideas, experience and endeavors. Indeed they have been enriching their lives and societies by embracing many of those ideas and institutions — democracy, the rule of law, scientific inquiry and so forth. But they’re doing so to the extent these pursuits can be adapted to their core religious and cultural norms.

The view that liberalism is a specifically Western ideology and that aspects of it will not work in many non-Western societies, is shared, to different degrees, by a growing number of sociologists, philosophers and historians. Among them are Peter Berger, David Martin, Grace Davie, Karen Armstrong, Amy Goodman, Steve Bruce, Ernest Gellner and Charles Taylor. They also include many non-Western intellectuals who are committed to liberal and leftist causes and worldview.

Susnata Das is professor of history at Rabindra Bharati University in Kolkata. The leftist Hindu intellectual complained that Hindu-Muslim tensions had increased in India since the BJP had come to power in New Delhi seven months earlier. Asked about his take on the Gujarat “riots,” the professor took exception to my use of the word. We were talking in our native Bengali language. Getting excited about his viewpoint, he switched to English: “It was NOT a riot. It was pogrom.” With portraits of Vladimir Lenin, Friedrich Engels and India’s socialist icons watching us from his office walls, Das described some of the horrifying details of the Gujarat carnage. He blasted Modi and his BJP for their anti-Muslim “bigotry, pure bigotry, and hate,” which he said had unleashed recurrent Hindu violence against Muslims.

Then, scratching the back of his head, indicating a sense of resignation, my interviewee lamented that India’s once-powerful leftist and secularist movements had been “losing ground” to Hindu nationalism. That was because, he added, many Indians are “turning back to their religious and cultural traditions.” The same can be said of people in many other non-Western countries. They are forswearing many features of liberalism with which they began their journeys as citizens of independent states and substituting them for their own religious institutions and idiom.

The “Muslim homeland” of Pakistan was founded by a thoroughly secular and Anglicized Muslim statesman. He did not practice the Islamic faith, and he drank gin in the afternoon and whiskey in the evening, though drinking alcohol is strictly forbidden by Islam. In August 1947, Muhammad Ali Jinnah declared in Pakistan’s Constituent Assembly (parliament) that his new nation would guarantee complete freedom to practice any religion, but that religion would have no role in the affairs of the Pakistani state.

The father of the nation assured Pakistanis,

You are free to go to your temples. You are free to go to your mosques or to any other places of worship in this state of Pakistan. You may belong to any religion, caste or creed — that has nothing to do with the business of the state.

Yet the Islamization of Pakistani society and laws began less than a decade after Jinnah’s death in 1948. It reached a peak under the government of another staunchly secular Pakistani leader, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto. That left-leaning populist came to power as president when grassroots Islamization campaigns had spread to large swaths of Pakistan and threatened his government. In September 1972, he said to me in the Pakistani city of Rawalpindi, “You can’t be a democrat and secular [in Pakistan] at the same time.” I had asked him about the pressure from the Islamist political parties Jamiatul Ulama-i-Islam and Jamaat-i-Islami to enshrine the Sharia, Islamic canon law, in a constitution that was being drafted in parliament.  “The National Assembly has been elected by the people,” he reminded me. “Most of our people are devout Muslims.”

I was prompted to ask for the interview with the non-practicing Muslim politician after he had made a clarion call to Pakistanis “to make this beautiful country an Islamic state, the bravest Islamic state and the most solid Islamic state.” The U.S.-educated “socialist” Zulfikar Bhutto’s new constitution declared Pakistan an “Islamic state.” It proclaimed that “all existing laws shall be brought in to conformity with the injunctions of Islam,” and that no new laws would be enacted that would be “repugnant to the injunctions of Islam.” Later, as prime minister, Zulfikar Bhutto endorsed other measures, excluding the Ahmadiya sect from the traditional Islamic mainstream; changing the weekly holiday from Sunday to Friday, the Islamic Sabbath; and taking other measures, all of which turned Jinnah’s secular Pakistan into an Islamic state.

Turkey, Iran, Iraq, Sudan, Somalia, Tunisia and most other postcolonial Muslim states also founded their political structures on liberal — sometimes socialist — models. Today most of them have reworked those models to accommodate Islamic tenets and code of conduct. Some Muslim states continue to maintain formally secular political systems, mostly for Western consumption. But Islam pulsates in the life of their Muslim citizens. This category of Muslim states includes Indonesia, Bangladesh, Azerbaijan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Mali, Senegal, Djibouti and Gambia.

Hindu or Muslim societies aren’t the only ones facing a religious upsurge in their once-secular public space. The world’s only Jewish state was founded as a fiercely secular polity.  In its declaration of independence in 1948, Israel announced that it “will ensure complete equality of social and political rights” and “guarantee freedom of religion, conscience, language, education and culture to all citizens irrespective of religion, race or sex.” These principles formed the bedrock of Israel’s Basic Law.

Beginning in the late 1970s, however, the ultra-orthodox and orthodox branches of Judaism began to Judaize Israeli politics and culture, gradually reducing Palestinians and other non-Jews to second-class citizens. The racial and religious apartheid that became pronounced under Prime Minister Menachem Begin has culminated in the policies of the  Benjamin Netanyahu government.

Despite the state-sponsored discrimination and suppression of Israeli Palestinians, however, the state’s Basic Law still recognizes the equality of all Israeli citizens, regardless of religion or ethnicity. In a widely cited ruling, former Israeli Supreme Court President Aharon Barak articulated the state’s doctrine of equality. “It is true,” he wrote, “members of the Jewish nation were granted a special key to enter, but once a person has lawfully entered the home, he enjoys equal rights with all other household members.”

That could soon change. The “Jewish nation-state” bill, which the Netanyahu government has approved and will be pushing through the Knesset (parliament), would confer national and group rights only to Israel’s Jewish citizens. It would override the “individual rights” to be conceded to Palestinian and other non-Jewish citizens. If passed, it would institutionalize anti-Palestinian apartheid, undermine democracy and turn Israel into a Jewish Pakistan. Netanyahu has fired two of his Cabinet members who opposed the bill (and disagreed with him on some other issues), paving the way for new elections.  Public-opinion polls show that religious and right-wing Jewish parties are more popular in Israel than ever; the bill could sail through the new parliament.

These “religious” tides aren’t specific to religions. Secular ideological and nationalist ferment has also fueled intergroup militancy. And it has often been as malevolent and bloody as movements carried out under religious banner. Karen Armstrong points out that the liberal French revolutionaries enacted some of history’s most savage massacres among the opponents and victims of the Revolution:

Early in 1794, four revolutionary armies were dispatched from Paris to quell an uprising in the Vendée against the anti-Catholic policies of the regime. Their instructions were to spare no one. At the end of the campaign, General François-Joseph Westermann reportedly wrote to his superiors, ‘The Vendée no longer exists. I have crushed children beneath the hooves of our horses, and massacred the women.… The roads are littered with corpses.

Ironically, no sooner had the revolutionaries rid themselves of one religion than they invented another. Their new gods were liberty, nature and the French nation, which they worshiped in elaborate festivals choreographed by the artist Jacques Louis David. The same year that the goddess of reason was enthroned on the high altar of Notre Dame cathedral, the reign of terror plunged the new nation into an irrational bloodbath, in which some 17,000 men, women and children were executed by the state.

Europe’s bloodiest religious and ideological cataclysms occurred during its transitions from one ideational paradigm to another: from Roman to Germanic to Christian, from Christian to liberal, from liberal to socialist and communist, and from nationalist to imperialist and colonialist.

The religious and ideological movements in today’s postcolonial societies indicate similar processes of transition. They mark the transition from colonial-era liberal political paradigms to postcolonial indigenous ones. For many Muslim societies, it also represents the struggle to transform Western hegemonic political and security structures foisted on them into native Islam-oriented ones. Foreign tutelage in these Muslim states is sustaining repressive despotism, while native Islamic movements reflect the priorities and aspirations of the public.

The challenge before most of the former European colonies is two-pronged. One is to douse the extremist and violent impulses of the activists struggling for social renewal. They would abate in the course of time, as have previous episodes of Muslim extremism and violence. The other, which is more complex and long-term, is to build bridges between clashing religious, sectarian and ethnic communities: Hindus and Muslims in India; Sunnis and Shiites in Pakistan; and Shiite Arabs, Sunni Arabs, Sunni Kurds and Assyrian Christians in Iraq.

These communal tensions and conflicts have been touched off partly by the unraveling of the political institutions introduced during colonial rule. European powers and Westernized native elites carved out these states overnight, splitting sectarian and ethnic communities among different states without consideration of their inhabitants’ cultural affiliations or economic interests. Yet the citizens of these artificial entities were expected to identify primarily with state institutions and laws. Those citizens have mostly proved unable to foot that bill. They feel strong communal bonds with their religious and ethnic communities that often span more than one of these states.

There are not many true Lebanese in Lebanon. Lebanese citizens are primarily Maronites, Shiites, Sunnis and Druze. There are almost no real Iraqis in Iraq, only Shiite Arabs, Sunni Arabs, Sunni Kurds and members of other religious, ethnic and tribal communities.

When people identify strongly with their nations or states, they view citizens of other states as the rival Other and compete and sometimes fight with them. When religion or ethnicity claims their deeper allegiance, they are prone to rivalry and hostility toward other ethnic or religious communities.

As the older nations and states matured, they learned, often the hard way, the perils of interstate hostility. Europe, once the most violent continent, has all but jettisoned conflicts between states.  Similarly, as religious and ethnic communities in postcolonial states would begin to mature, they would also learn the grief and misfortune caused by communal hostility. They would then be more disposed to living peaceably with one another.

 

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.