Don’t write Brotherhood off too soon

(Published in The Daily Star, Lebanon, July 16, 2013)

Alejandro Jodorowsy said, “Birds born in a cage think flying is an illness.” The French filmmaker’s remark was resoundingly vindicated by Egypt’s liberal elites. They led massive crowds against President Muhammad Mursi and succeeded in getting the all-too-willing army to overthrow his year-old democratically elected government. The army-appointed interim president, Adly Mansour, has announced a shotgun process to overhaul the constitution, created by a democratically elected legislature, and produce a pliant “elected” government.

The Egyptian activists and masses who had agitated for the overthrow of the Mursi government should have realized by now that the army has taken them for a ride. Its has used the anti-Mursi rallies as a cover for dumping the democratic process and reimposing its stranglehold on the government and the economy. So far the liberal elites are either cooperating with the army or looking the other way.

This is because most of today’s Egyptian liberals and others were born during the six decades the country languished under uninterrupted military dictatorships. They had never known democracy until the 2012 elections that ushered in the government of Mursi, a leader of the Muslim Brotherhood.

The Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood is a moderate, fast-evolving Islamist organization, the oldest in the Middle East. Throughout its 85-year history, the Brotherhood has been subjected to brutal repression by successive dictatorial regimes. Through it all, its membership and support grew steadily among all sectors of Egyptian society.

Saad Eddin Ibrahim, one of Egypt’s best-known secularist intellectuals, lamented to me in Cairo in 1995 that “foolish mishandling” of the Brotherhood by dictators had made it popular. Otherwise, the movement would have “fizzled” long before.

During several reporting and research stints, I found, however, that while brutal persecution by dictators and the hostility of secularist groups had endeared the Brotherhood among Egypt’s many devout Muslims, the organizations’s strategy of moderation and its members’ adaptation to modernity have been the main sources of its stamina and public appeal.

Muslim Brothers are among the best-educated in Egypt. Mursi has a Ph.D. in engineering from the University of South Carolina. Essam el-Erian, the head of his political party, Freedom and Justice, is a physician.
To most Egyptian secularists, however, the Brotherhood has been anathema.

Ever since Egypt slipped under the military dictatorship of Colonel Gamal Abdel Nasser in 1952, most of the country’s upper class secularists collaborated with successive military dictators and benefited from their patronage. If you tried to talk with them about their government, most of them would change the subject. During the Mubarak era, the only educated people who would talk freely about Egyptian politics were members and supporters of the Brotherhood and the youth – not the older and wiser ones – among progressives and liberals.

Many of the secularists were hurt professionally and financially when the Mubarak dictatorship was thrown out of power by the 2011 revolution. Many of them have now jumped on the military bandwagon.

It’s a familiar drama, played out in many Muslim (and non-Muslim) post-colonial societies. Among them Indonesia, Turkey, Algeria, Nigeria, Sudan, Mali, Pakistan and Bangladesh. In many of those countries the democratic process encountered military intervention, in some more than once, but eventually growing political consciousness succeeded in taming power-hungry generals.

My native town is Sylhet in what used to be Pakistan’s eastern province and is now Bangladesh. In the summer of 1946 the leader of the Pakistan movement, Muhammad Ali Jinnah, paid a brief visit there. The town was paralyzed by an unprecedented human avalanche.

Many of the visitors, I was told later, had walked 20 or 30 miles, to have a glimpse of the leader of their struggle for independence from British colonial rule. Some shed tears of joy when Jinnah stepped up to the podium to give his speech in Urdu, which most of the Sylheti-speaking audience didn’t understand.

In a few years East Pakistanis became disillusioned with Pakistan’s central government, based in what was West Pakistan. The old West Pakistan is what is left of Pakistan since East Pakistan’s secession. East Pakistanis’ main grievance against the Pakistani government was its failure to alleviate their grinding poverty. Their frustration deepened when Pakistani army generals, supported by a Western-oriented bureaucracy, established a decade-long dictatorship, interrupting the nascent democratic process. In 1971 East Pakistan broke away from Pakistan to become independent Bangladesh.

Two years later the founder of Bangladesh, Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, visited Sylhet, and was also greeted by huge crowds. But while Bangladeshis had taken 22 years to rise up against Pakistani rule, they staged the first a anti-Mujib rally in Dhaka, the capital, 23 days after Mujib became the country’s president. Public frustration with the Mujib regime reached its peak two years later, when Mujib was assassinated in a military coup.

Not a soul in all Bangladesh came out to the street, or held a meeting or issued a statement to condole the murder of the father of the nation. Bangladeshis’ disillusionment with the Mujib government was spawned mostly by a devastating famine, shortages of necessities and widespread government corruption, which followed the birth of Bangladesh. Today democracy, though more chaotic than in many other countries in the region, has taken root in Bangladesh. Few Bangladeshis expect the return of an extended military dictatorship.

In Egypt, as we know by now, crippling power shortages, the near-collapse of the security apparatus and other administrative and economic problems were artificially created by Mubarak-era employees and anti-democratic activists. Their purpose was to discredit Mursi’s democratic government. I believe that few Egyptians would enjoy very long the sights of corrupt anti-democratic politicians, judges and pundits back in power or on the air waves. Fewer still would like to see the army, which they struggled hard to dislodge from political power, pulling the levers of government once again.

A democratic process in Egypt wouldn’t have legitimacy without the participation of the Brotherhood, the country’s largest political organization with deep roots in society. Most Egyptians are devout Muslims. Despite their frustration with Mursi, the Brotherhood’s Islam-oriented political agenda will continue to resonate among large numbers of them.

I don’t know how long it will take, but democracy will eventually prevail in Egypt, as it has in many other post-colonial countries. While the upper crust of the liberal establishment may continue to collaborate with an army-led government, post-revolutionary Egyptians in general are much too politicized and rights conscious to accept any system other than full-fledged democracy. And if the democratic process has to work in Egypt, the Brotherhood would need to be its integral part.

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

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’.

Pakistan out of U.S. shadow

“How do you ask a man to be the last man to die in Vietnam? How do you ask a man to be the last man to die for a mistake?” These were the words of a young antiwar activist named John Kerry, testifying before the U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee. Forty-one years later Kerry, now chairman of the  same Senate committee, was defending the Afghan war, in which the last man has probably yet to die.

“A premature departure [from Afghanistan] would jeopardize the chances for a responsible transition,” he writes in the Chicago Tribune.

As the end game in Afghanistan draws near, half-heartedly and in confusion, the Americans are trying to put in place an exit strategy. As part of it, Pakistan has agreed to reopen Nato supplies.

The supply route was closed indefinitely seven months ago when U.S. bombers killed 24 Pakistani soldiers on the border between Pakistan and Afghanistan. For reasons of sanity, lets us not indulge in to the logic of why such an incident took place. Even if you kill my cat, I will try my best, not to allow you to live in a house next to mine.

For the Pakistani government and army, it was the last straw. Besides stopping Nato supplies to Afghanistan, Pakistan suspended other forms of cooperation with the U.S. and demanded an American apology for the killings.

For seven months the U.S. tried all sorts of diplomatic maneuvers to force Pakistan to reopen its “southern supply route” running through Pakistan. Those maneuvers included financial squeeze on Pakistan through the IMF, Pakistan’s exclusion from strategic talks on Afghanistan and overt preferential treatment of India, Pakistan’s arch rival. But Pakistan stood its ground and demanded nothing less than an apology for the killing 24 of its troops would make it consider the reopening of the supply route.

In the words of mark twain, “History never repeats itself but often rhymes.” Mention the Afghan exit strategy to any American in Afghanistan and the first thing that comes to his mind is Vietnam, America’s longest war until Afghanistan.

It is very difficult not to draw similarities between the Vietnam and Afghanistan. A corrupt government elected by a small minority, a consumer economy fueled by war spending, alienation and neglect of ground realities, and end game where exiting American forces are trying to pull a PR stunt to convince everyone that the local forces are fully capable fighting their  war.

Some Vietnam parallels to this war are amazing. In the spring of 1972 then President Richard Nixon flew in to Saigon to ink a treaty with then Vietnamese President Nguyen Van Thieu, codifying a ‘long-term’ U.S. relationship with South Vietnam, which would leave Vietnam’s security to Vietnamese. In May 2012 President Obama flew in to Kabul to sign a “strategic partnership agreement” with the Afghan President Hamid Karzai. Said Obama: ‘Afghans are responsible for the security of their nation, and we build an equal partnership between two sovereign states; a future in which the war ends, and a new chapter begins’. How much more secure will post-American Afghanistan be than was post-American Vietnam?

Before the exit of their combat forces from Vietnam, the Americans started believing that they were losing because Cambodia was supporting the rebels in Vietnam. Ali Syed writes “The Cambodians remained as neutral as they could but the Americans alleged that they are playing a double game, they bombed the border areas (since they believed that communists had set up sanctuaries there), with the result Khmer Rouge was formed and later what they did with their people is also horrid. There are stark similarities between the conflict of Vietnam and Cambodia and the one that we have now (Afghanistan and Pakistan).” In Afghanistan, many Americans blame their travails on Pakistani elements’ alleged support for the Taliban.

After seven months of intense negotiations and arm-twisting, Washington has persuaded Islamabad to reopen the NATO supply route through its territory.  Hillary Clinton agreed to release a ‘Sorry’ statement and Pakistan accepted it and allowed non-lethal shipments to pass through its Karachi port.

Even though a second NATO supply route that runs through Central Asian countries was given a lot of hype after the closure of the Pakistani one, it was not viable. Ahsanurahman Khan writes in Pakistan’s Frontier Post newspaper that the Pakistani route is ‘the inescapable requirement of the NATO for the exit phase, despite the availability of the Central Asian routes.’

Pakistan’s help is essential for invaders’ retreat.  Soviet invaders needed assurances from Pakistan to prevent mujahedeen attacks on their withdrawing units. Now NATO will need Pakistan’s cooperation to retreat safely from Afghanistan through Pakistani territory.

Many in Pakistan such as Asif Haroon Raja believe that there is no justification  for Pakistan ‘to become party to the massacre of Afghans by the US kill teams particularly when drawdown has commenced and the US is actively engaged in parleys with Taliban in search of political settlement.’ They see the reopening of this route as ‘digging our own graves and consciously putting our heads in hornets’ nest.’

However, the closing and reopening of this route has some Geo-strategic implications. Mahmoud Majid in a policy paper  points to ‘the American policy shift in favor of a ‘regional’ approach for a grand political reconciliation is in itself evidence on the limits of US power in the region.’

The U.S. apology shows that Islamabad can finally take an independent stand for its own strategic interests. We are also seeing the beginning of an era where Pakistan can view its relations with India without the American prism. All this will also help Pakistan in its relations with China and Russia.

Tajwali Khan is a guest contributor to ‘Islam and the West’. (He is an Independent researcher and blogger  from Pakistan, with an interest in South Asian and Middle eastern issues. He is editor  of the blog He also writes for  Oriental Review and Islamabad Times Online)

Taliban fight for freedom, justice

By Mustafa Malik

SYLHET,  Bangladesh — Aunt Salima Khatun, my mother’s sister, barged in to see me here in the Bangladeshi town of Sylhet.  I spend part of my Bangladesh vacations in Sylhet, known for its tea gardens, cane furniture and the shrine of the famed Muslim saint Hazrat Shah Jalal.

Behind Aunt Salima was her grandson, a college student, carrying a big bowl. It had several dozen homemade sweets, wrapped in banana leaves under plastic covering.  They were made of flour, meshed with the delicious juice of a local fruit known as “tal” and other ingredients, before being rolled into round cakes and cooked.

“When you were a little boy, you loved ‘tal sandesh’ (tal sweets),” said my aunt, 81. “See if you like them.”

As the conversation progressed, she asked if I could bring the student over to the United States for further education.  He had been “pulling out my hair,” meaning badgering her, to make me the request, she added.  I apologized for my inability to help him get a U.S. visa.

The young man was, however, a member of an Islamic student group, which campaigns against U.S. and Israeli occupation of Muslim lands.  Why was President Obama “so viciously opposed” to Palestinians’ U.N. membership? he asked.  He was elated, however, that Muslim guerrillas were “throwing out the [Western] invaders” from Iraq and Afghanistan. Would Americans “dare to occupy a Muslim country again?”

His admiration for anti-American guerrillas is widely shared by most Muslims in South Asia, as I have learned during trips through the region.  Noor  M.  Khan, a family friend in the northeast Indian town of Haflong, told me during a visit there last year that “our mujahedeen [Islamic guerrillas] are our only hope against American imperialism.”  The Afghan mujahedeen drove back Russian invaders from Afghanistan in the 1980s, he continued.  Now thanks to the Taliban, American occupation forces would be fleeing Afghanistan, “peeing in their pants.”

Many South Asian Muslims, as many Muslims elsewhere, usually get to like Americans with whom they come in contact.   Many try to migrate to the United States for a better life.  If young, some of aspire to have an American education, as my aunt’s grandson does. Yet the same Muslims would be denouncing Americans vehemently for America’s “war on Islam.”

It’s a déjà vu of the last decades (1910s-1940s) of British colonial rule in what was then “British India.”  Those days many Indians had British friends. Many were educated in British schools or British-style secular schools in India.  Yet some of them joined the struggle to liberate their country from British colonialism.  British-sponsored education had taught them Western concepts of liberty and freedom and inspired them into anti-colonial struggle.

Justice is Islam’s core principle.  Muslims, secular or religious,  innately resist foreign hegemony because they consider it fundamentally unjust. Today most of the leaders and many activists of Muslim movements against U.S. invasions and domination  zest for freedom among Muslims, firing them up against American hegemony.  In earlier times, onset of modernity  stoked their struggles for freedom against European colonialism..

Modernity, it seems, has become the West’s Frankenstein’s monster!

But many of South Asia’s anti-American Muslim guerrillas are educated in madrassahs, or Islamic schools. They’re inspired by their innate antipathy for foreign military presence — which they share with many secularist activists — and pride in Islamic civilization, which madrassahs have inculcated in them.  In October 2007 a madrassah-educated Taliban supporter in Pakistan’s Mohmand tribal agency town of Ghalanai (whose name I promised not to publish) said to me that Muslims had built “the glorious Spanish civilization and taught Europeans the sciences and philosophy for more than 700 years.”  How many years, he asked, could “American Crusaders” stick around in Afghanistan?

The Taliban and other Pakistani and Afghan militants with only a madrassah education are also fighting for freedom from foreign occupation and domination.  Most of them just don’t know that freedom is a core American value that Americans once fought wrest from British colonialists.

Muslims youths are struggling to snatch that American ideal from the jaws of the American hegemon, which they consider unjust.

● Mustafa Malik is the host of the blog site Beyond Freedom.

Secularism loses ground in Indian subcontinent

By Mustafa Malik

(Published in the Columbus Dispatch, October 12, 2011)

Bangladesh has had a big political surprise since my last visit here a year ago.  Its staunchly secular Awami League party government has amended the constitution, making Islam the “state religion”!  The amendment also gave the constitution this opening statement from the Quran:  “In the name of Allah, the Beneficent, and the Merciful.”

The event highlights the growing politicization of religion throughout the Indian subcontinent.

“It’s Allah’s revenge!” said Abdul Aziz, a friend from my college days in Sylhet, known for its  133 tea gardens and the shrine of the famed saint Shah Jalal.

Bangladesh, which is 90 percent Muslim, was founded by secularists who ushered in a constitution with “secularism” as its core principle.  “It’s ironic,” Aziz said, “that the ‘Islamic state’ amendment was sponsored by [Prime Minister Sheikh] Hasina, who hates Islamic politics and parties.”  Hasina turned to Islam, she said, because of “ground reality”:  rapid Islamization of Bangladeshi society and politics.  Islamist political parties are gaining popularity, mosques and madrassahs (Islamic schools) are proliferating and even secular politicians are trumpeting Islamic causes.

The surge of religion in Bangladeshi politics follows the same trajectory as in the subcontinent’s other two nations:  Pakistan and India.  In both, democratization accompanies the growth of non-secular forces and ideologies.

The two top leaders of the struggle to create Muslim Pakistan — Mohammed Ali Jinnah and Liaqat Ali Khan– were secular, Oxford-educated lawyers.  In the 1960s President Mohammad Ayub Khan campaigned vigorously to “modernize” Islam by reforming Islamic laws of marriage, divorce, inheritance, and so forth.  By the mid-1970s, Pakistan was swamped by Islamic mass movements, leading to the Islamization of much of its legal system and cultural space.   In democratized Pakistan mosques and madrassahs are mushrooming; head-covered women and bearded men abound in offices, schools and shopping malls; and anti-American Islamic militancy has diffused in the social mainstream.

Equally dramatic has been the rise of Hindu nationalism in mostly Hindu India.  Mahatma Gandhi and Jawaharlal Nehru, the foremost leaders of the Indian independence struggle, were also secular, Oxford-educated lawyers.   They opposed the creation of a Muslim Pakistan out of British India, arguing religion would, in Nehru’s words,  “recede into the background” in a democratic India, and hence Muslim fears of discrimination by the Hindu majority were unfounded.   Yet the Hindu nationalism snowballed after India’s independence in 1947.  Hindu nationalists say India is a Hindu holy land (punya bhumi) and that Islam and Christianity are “foreign” creeds.   The Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party has thrice formed the national government.  Relentless campaigning by Hindu fundamentalist groups –the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, Vishwa Hindu Parishad and Shiv Sena — has spawned anti-Muslim xenophobia in society, politics and — even academia.

In 2007 I was invited to speak at a Republic Day (January 26) event at Vikram University in India’s holy city of Ujjain.   Hearing my views the previous evening, the organizer of the meeting requested me to limit my talk to 20 minutes!  The next day I found out why.  During my speech I was booed by the audience.  I had said, among other things, that “the founders of Pakistan clearly couldn’t foresee the Islamization of their society. One could also argue that the rise of Hindu nationalism and the travails of Indian Muslims have borne out their argument for the creation of a Muslim homeland.”

One reason for religious upsurge in the subcontinent’s public sphere is the “vernacularization” of democratic procedures.  The secular institutions introduced by Westernized elites don’t resonate with many of the postcolonial-era Muslims and Hindus, whose values and outlook have been shaped by religion.  Secondly, the idea of confining religion to the private sphere is alien to most Muslims and Hindus.  As I wrote elsewhere, the separation of religion from state affairs was prompted by Europeans’ bitter experience of religious wars, church-state power struggle, pogroms and the Inquisition.  Muslims, Hindus and most other non-Western faith groups didn’t go through such nightmares over religion and cherish their religious heritage.  The Arab Spring is the latest example of the democratization process spurring religious upsurge in postcolonial societies.

Unfortunately, religious passion can also trigger interfaith hostility.   In all three states of the subcontinent persecution of religious minorities has increased with the rise religious militancy.   It’s time policy makers and peace makers in the three countries earnestly explore avenues for outreach and engagement among their religious communities.

● Mustafa Malik, a columnist in Washington, was born in India and worked as a journalist in the United States, Britain and Pakistan.  He hosts the blog site Beyond Freedom: