July 7, 2007Foreign AffairsPublic PolicySecurity

Of state-sponsored greybeards (2)

A reflection on the main objections

This is an archived blog post from The Acorn.

The recent post on state-sponsored greybeards—arguing that it is in India’s interests to promote the India interpretation of Islam around the world—generated both heat and light. The latter merits further discussion, not least because of the events of the last few days, where it has emerged that among the individuals suspected of planning and carrying out the attacks in London and Glasgow were several well-educated Indian Muslims.

Let’s examine the key arguments against the proposal. The first, made by the Rational Fool, is that not only will a state policy of promoting Islam go against secularism, but it will also lead to a slippery slope’ where adherents of other religions will demand similar support. And he’s right. Yet, in reality the Indian state is waist-deep into religion—among others it subsidises pilgrimages, supervises places of worship, lacks uniform personal laws and is about to introduce reservations based on religion. In practice then, the damage caused to secularism will be real, but marginal. Given that radical Islam is a serious international threat, trading off some more secularism to attempt to offset the bigger danger is not a bad idea at all.

As to his other point, it is certain that there will be competitive calls for the promotion of other religions. Yet the point that people missed—at least in the discussion on the previous posts—is that the notion that such a policy will be zero-sum is bogus. The promotion of a more tolerant interpretation of Islam—both at home and abroad—need not come at the cost of Hinduism or any other religion. Sliding down the slippery slope may be certain. At worst, this will lead to pressure on the government’s finances and a blunt the effort to tackle the Middle Eastern interpretation. The policy will be successful to the extent that the leadership is able to shape a national consensus on what the priorities are.

The second argument, made by Atanu Dey, is similar to the one made by Sam Harris: it sees Islam as an unreformable monolith which has no space for moderates of any kind. Attempting to reform or moderate it, therefore, is a fool’s errand. Given this understanding, it predicts near-apocalyptic global religious conflict as a cathartic solution. The problem with this line of argument is not only that it is too pessimistic or fatalistic. Rather, that it relies too heavily on the very extremist interpretations of the religion that are the cause of the world’s problems. There are far too many theological, ideological and political schisms within Islam for it to be the monolith it is often understood to be. Indeed, as The Economist argued in its recent article, the problem is that there are too many interpretations vying for space. The last half-century has seen the strengthening of the Wahhabi, Shia and Deobandi versions, mainly because these served the geopolitical interests of their backers—Saudi Arabia, Iran and Pakistan. It is reasonable to suggest therefore, that these radical interpretations can be rolled back, or at least a balance struck, through the promotion of a countervailing strand. [Marc Sageman, who conducted an empirical study on 400 jihadis, concludes that the war of ideas is important and we haven’t really started to engage yet”; via Gideon Rachman]

That brings to the fore the other question—asked by Yossarian—is Indian Islam” any different? Isn’t the violence of Partition, as Atanu pointed out, evidence to the contrary? For that matter, doesn’t the culpability of upper middle-class Indian Muslims in the British terror plot prove that Indian Islam, if there was one, is not immune from radicalisation? Not quite. What of the fact that more Muslims chose to stay on in India notwithstanding the communal bloodbath of Partition? And take the contemporary case of the London-Glasgow plotters—the fact that the Indian brothers had to harangue their friends and even the local Mosque official suggests that they were the exceptions.

This is not to say that there are no radical individuals and groups among Indian Muslims—there are, many have been involved in acts of terrorism and their numbers are growing. Nor is it to suggest that Indian Islam does not itself need reformation—it certainly does. Rather, we can conclude that it is possible to distinguish among various strands of the Islamic religious tradition and strengthen those that can counter the more intolerant ones. Such a project will not be easy, but as Libertarian wrote: India is easily the best place to address the issue. Great powers solve giant problems. No other great power has both the incentive and the capability of solving this issue.”



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