Just a couple of weeks ago, the Jamiat Ulema-e-Hind, the political party of Indian Muslim clerics representing the Deobani school of Sunni Islam, organised protests in seventy-five Indian cities against the Islamic State. In the years past, the JuH has often taken the lead to denounce terrorism in the name of Islam and has even issued fatwas against all forms of terrorism. Other Indian Muslim organisations, from all sects and schools of Islam, have also condemned the IS and other jihadist terror groups. Apart from one senior cleric – Salman Husaini Nadwi of Lucknow – no credible Muslim cleric has endorsed the infamous and self-styled Caliph Ibrahim.
Efforts are being made by the Muslim clergy to counter the pernicious narrative of Islamist terror outfits and prevent Indian Muslims, young and not so young, from getting seduced by the formidable IS propaganda machine. While at one level the role being played by the Muslim clergy against terrorism must be commended, even encouraged, at another level it also gives rise to both concern as well as scepticism: concern because the Ulema and all the baggage they bring with them is a double-edged sword, more so because instead of a secular response to IS, a religious response is being given which will have its own repercussions in the future by adding to the strength of the Ulema and giving them a central role in the affairs of the community, which in turn could lead to religious demands that will be incongruous in a multi-religious, multi-cultural secular polity; scepticism because it is still not clear if the clergy will be able to play an effective antidote to countering the radical ideology.
A lot of the opposition from the clergy to the IS and other radical groups is on account of doctrinal and theological differences with a Salafist – many Ulema even attach the label of Takfiri and Kharaji – IS. Worse, many of the Muslim organisations that are taking a stand against the IS aren’t exactly poster boys of syncretic and secular values, much less liberal and progressive values, among the Muslim community. Notwithstanding their stand against IS savagery, some of these groups have in fact themselves been involved in some very unsavoury incidents, for instance the Azad Maidan vandalism in Mumbai. Others are notorious for their antediluvian world view. Many of them use ifs and buts and thereby dilute their rejection of IS. After all, denouncing the IS and in the same breath qualifying their condemnation by talking of global conspiracy theories which portray the IS as an American, Zionist plot to defame and even divide Islam, sends out an unmistakeable signal of equivocalness.
The Ulema are unable to understand that modernism isn’t just about having an online presence or being computer savvy. While both the IS and the moderate clergy tend towards a literalist interpretation of religious texts – the only difference is that the latter tries to put a context to its interpretation while the former revels in distorting the text to justify its barbarism – the IS packages it in today’s idiom while the clergy remains stuck in a time warp.
Some Muslim groups and political leaders say all the right things against terrorism but for their own political reasons play up real and imagined grievances of the Muslim community and play down the many success stories of Muslims in India. Such a negative narrative does very little to promote the ‘composite culture’ that exists in India and which many consider to be the bulwark against the spread of radical ideology in India. There is also a need to recognise the fact that there are many Muslim organisations all over India which represent an aggressiveness that is hardly conducive to social harmony – the Popular Front of India is an example. Some of these groups predate the IS and even Al Qaeda – the Coimbatore bomb blasts were carried out in 1998 before 9/11, before Iraq invasion and before IS.
The struggle within Islam between the moderate and the radical Ulema isn’t new, but centuries old. In practically every critical phase of history, Ulema have been divided on how the community should respond to the challenge of the times, resulting in a clash of ideas and ideology between pro-change (radicals/extremists) and the pro status quo (moderates). By and large, the latter have come out on top, partly because of the support they enjoyed from whoever was in power at that time. At the same time, the radicals did manage to inject and implant some of their views on the hearts and minds of the community, something that should be a matter of concern in this latest version of the ‘struggle for the soul of Islam’.
While the Ulema certainly have a role to play in correcting and clarifying aspects of religion that are exploited by terror groups to justify their monstrous actions, their effectiveness in being able to discharge this role is quite iffy. For one, radical ideology isn’t being peddled by the local Mullah from the local mosque, at least not the ones who belong to established schools of Islamic theology. The guys getting radicalised and recruited by IS on the internet or through some radical preacher aren’t even going to the local mosque for reconfirming or getting an endorsement of what they have learned online. This means that the Ulema will have to launch a massive counter-IS campaign of their own if they want to get traction among the target audience of the IS, something they are not equipped to do simply because the idiom they use has no connect with many of the youth of today. In other words, the Ulema are just too yesterday, even last century, to be able to wean away guys being seduced by the slick IS propaganda.
The Ulema are unable to understand that modernism isn’t just about having an online presence or being computer savvy. While both the IS and the moderate clergy tend towards a literalist interpretation of religious texts – the only difference is that the latter tries to put a context to its interpretation while the former revels in distorting the text to justify its barbarism – the IS packages it in today’s idiom while the clergy remains stuck in a time warp. What this means, for example, is that insisting on medieval dress codes in the 21st century is anachronistic because a fighter pilot has to wear a G-suit and not a Salwar Kameez if he wants to fly a fighter aircraft.
In other words, the real challenge for the Ulema is how they reinterpret the religion to make it compatible in the modern context. This becomes even more important because some aspects of religion are never going to sit comfortably in a pluralist, multi-religious society and polity run on secular principles in which constitution and not religious texts form the ‘grundnorm’. The challenge becomes even more onerous if it means having to reject certain doctrines that are exploited by the terror groups to rationalise their actions. Islam does allow them the flexibility to do this, but somehow the Ulema, especially in India, seem to recoil at the very thought of undertaking this much needed initiative. Until the Ulema rise to this challenge, their role in countering radicalism will continue to be viewed with a fair bit of scepticism.
The author is Senior Fellow, Vivekananda International Foundation
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