Saturday, October 4, 2014

Muslims in America – and the story of emergence of Radical Islam

The United States is “not perfect” and so it must have committed mistakes in the past, remarked an American Muslim at a seminar in the national capital on the state of Muslims residing in world’s oldest democracy. He was asked to comment on the role played by the US in turning Islam, otherwise a religion of love and compassion and cherishing ‘mohabbat’ more than anything else, into today’s “Radical Islam” – something more identified as an instrument of Jehad.

The question was not unfounded or based on simple conjectures.
To start with the United States carried out regime change in Iran in 1953 which led to radicalization in the country.  

History is witness that the CIA admitted in later stage that American establishment had hired Iranians to pose as communists and stage bombings to turn the country around politically.

Jimmy Carter’s National Security Adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski told CNN earlier this year that the United States “organized and supported” Osama Bin Ladan and other originators of Al Qaeda in the 1970s.

CIA director and Secretary of Defence Robert Gates confirmed in his memoir that the U.S. backed the Mujahaeedin in the 1970s.
Thus, the truth of the matter is the “biggest enemy” of the US, bin Laden had left Saudi Arabia to fight the Soviet army in Afghanistan after Moscow’s invasion in 1979. As a consequence of this, by 1984-85, he was running a front organization Maktab al-Khidamar – the MAK – which funneled money, arms and fighters from the “outside world” into the Afghan war.

This is about the past. In the present time, the United States has had many faces before the world about its relationship with Muslims both residing in America and outside. In 2009, that is exactly 8 years after 9/11 disaster, the US president Barack Obama said in Cairo, Egypt, “Let there be no doubt, Islam is a part of America”.

The seminar was addressed by the American Muslims or Muslims from other countries now settled in America. As a section of skeptical audience put it, the effort was to “whitewash” the American image – at least partly.
One panelist and a woman was born closer home, Mumbai and had migrated with her parents at the age of 7.
She and other shared stories about American Muslims and other Americans’ behaviour in the neighbourhood especially after the 9/11 Frankenstein’s monster-type disaster. 
“Instead of encountering hostility from the wider community, we found that half of the people at the mosque often are Americans of other faiths who come to express support and solidarity,” said another. These could be true. But for many Indians among the audience, the story was almost similar as after such communal holocaust a section of people do try to spread the message of sanity and compassion. Pluralism is also much cherished a norm in India like the US over religious divide or prejudice.
Now, coming back to Indian polity for a while, one does have the cases of 1984 anti-Sikh riot and 2002 anti-Muslim mayhem of Gujarat on the backdrop. 

The political reality also is: in both the instances the political impact has been immense. In 1985, Rajiv Gandhi stormed to power inheriting the throne from his slain mother Indira Gandgi with record 400-plus members in Lok Sabha; and the ‘2014 hero in Indian politics’ is Narendra Modi, a chief protagonist as chief minister of polarized Gujarat of 2002!

Let us revert back to the issue at hand, “Muslims in America”. The general refrain both from the panelists and the US establishment is: the Muslim Americans are the most ethnically diverse faith community in America. For instance, we are told time and again in the media that American Muslims not only help their country (that is the US) through professions but also donate time and money to help America’s needy. 
But how does one really diagnose emergence of a fundamentalist Islam in the western world, say unlike India, where the Muslims did not have to confront traditional rivals like Hindus?
Perhaps in European perspective, the pragmatic approach to religion was ‘traditionalist Islam’ and that offered Muslims a “stable and satisfying” life. Notably, this traditionalist approach to Islam still rules the roost in remote Muslim countries such as Morocco and Yemen.
But with the advent of 18th century and an assertive –western world-European-civilization, perhaps the “traditionalist Islam” began to lose its hold. The European expansion in the fag end of 18th century caused a decline in the power and wealth of the Muslim world.

Muslims came face to face with their poverty and what was also dished out by western intellectuals especially as ‘cultural backwardness’. 
In India too, such thinking had dawned for quite sometime and thus many Hindus in India and Muslims in the west responded by looking to Europe for “new ideas and methods”.
The Hindu society benefited by few instances like it could do away with Sati system and also encourage girl-child education and also education in English in general. But the traditionalist virtues were eroded. This was also the case with the school of thought that championed the cause of traditionalist Islam. Thus, in the west and partly in the Arab world too, three faces of Islam came to the fore: the moderate or the one allowing secularism, the reformism and the fundamentalism or radical Islam championing Jehad and even terror.
Notwithstanding the American role in 1970s, it is also a fact that the ‘fundamentalist’ face of Islam actually existed in some parts since the seventh century. According to some historians, it gained political legitimacy in some parts in the 1920s. Thus, the 1970s and beyond led to the rise of ‘fundamentalism’. The experience worldwide and also in America was contrary to Muslim intellectuals appetite for ‘modernization and secularism’, the Muslim masses have a greater tendency to absorb the ‘radical Islam’. This also had resulted in the ironical twist in Indian history in the context of Mohammed Ali Jinnah’s initial commitment for a Hindu-Muslim unity and how he partitioned India.
The general experience is the Muslim masses either in America or in Indian sub-continent preferred to “preserve accustomed ways and radical face” as the instrument to fend off European or Hindu influences and practices. In Iran, Akbar Hashemi-Rafsanjani, speaker of the Iranian parliament, had stated famously what is on every Muslim fundamentalist's mind: "Islam is important because it is capable of defeating Western culture."

The argument would sell even in India when Muslims are given a call to fight “majority Hindus or kafirs”. Similarly, such a call has come from Al Qaeda in recent times.

But in the ultimate analysis, one is touched by the remarks of an American panelist, who told the seminar rather emphatically: “What I love about America is that as Muslims and non-Muslims we at least agree that we remain united in facing the problems and challenges together”. This could save America and we in India too, need to emulate this simple test of life.


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