Dawn Jeremiad

Just a few words: autodidact, pathologically anti-authoritarian, seeker, unrepentant atheist, science fiction addict, aspiring writer (will tell you when the novel is finished, but it should be by the end of this year, so watch this space), wildly eclectic music lover, tinkerer with the classical guitar, procrastinator. Should do - for now. Oh yes, Indian, as in subcontinental Indian, with the mindset of a 1960s anachronism. Peace.

Wednesday, September 14, 2005

Islam and conversions

Islam is at a crossroads. Or, to use an analogy as improbable as
Islam's situation today, it is a curled porcupine at a crossroads.
Most of Islam's body politic, pacifist to a fault, has reacted to
being targeted by surging Islamophobia in the so-called developed
world by adopting a defensive, self-protective crouch; the rest,
viciously restive bits and pieces at the fringe of the faith, are
working to strike out at the Islamophobes by expanding little-used
punitive provisions of the Shari'a into entire doctrines of attrition
entirely at war with the Qur'an. Thus, beheadings in Iraq by the
irredeemable Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, insensate kidnappings, exhortations
to an imposed version of jihad incompatible with its cardinal
objective, an understanding of the self.

The debate today, such as there is, is centred round cause and effect
with regard to Islam. Which came first, Islamophobia or Islamomania?
The answer's likely to keep exercising us till we come round to the
view, which is, I think, inevitable, that issues of historical
iniquities must be superseded by issues relating to the state of
things as they are today if we are to lift ourselves out of the
present civilisational morass.

While there is undeniably much truth to the fact that western
imperialism over many years has been Islam's most effective
proselytiser, what is also certain is that Islam has, more as a system
of collective governance than of paradisal faith, qualities of
humanism that most other faiths have long forgone in favour of bombast
and browbeating: egalitarianism, anti-hierarchism, institutionalised
hospitality and charity (the zakat charity tax).

The 20th century's second-most secular Islamic nation (Iraq was the
first), Turkey was sent spiralling into a fugue when its attempt to
join the European Union (EU) was recently rebuffed. Apart from bucking
up Turkey's scattering of Islamic fundamentalists (who had till then
been rendered ineffective by the nation's ruling Islamic party), the
spurning is reported to have given a fillip to conversions to Islam in
"Old Europe", many of whose citizens, unlike those in the "New World"
across the seas, are reflexively, and refreshingly, antiestablishment.
With apologies to Samuel Huntington, what the world is confronted with
today is the absurdity of having to choose between two implacable and
incompatible evils, not a "clash of civilisations". The crisis that
Islam is in today is particularly problematic for governments of
Islam-dominant nations, however secular they may be. Turkey's recent
attempt to join the EU was Islam's third attempt in 13 centuries to
find a formal placing on the Continent and, as before, it
confronted a fortress stiffened with the mortar of almost unanimous
socio-religious disquiet.

A few weeks after Turkey was snubbed, matters became even worse after the
recent murder of Dutch filmmaker Theo van Gogh by a suspected Islamic
radical with Islamist connections has sent the EU spiralling into a
new bout of Islamophobia. Along with the simmering ethnic discontent
following France's recent sartorial secularisation of its education
institutes "banning, along with the Muslim hijab, outsize Christian
crosses, Jewish yarmulkes and Sikh turbans, the murder seems to be
the featherweight needed to tilt the unsound balance of religious
tolerance against Muslims in the EU, if not much of the West. In fact,
BBC journalist Angus Roxburgh reported in his book, Preachers of Hate:

"The Rise of the Far Right, that since September 11, fascism, which
sees enemies equally in colour, race, and religion, has grown to 17
per cent in Europe, and is mushrooming."

But the fact of the EU's increasing Islamophobia has hardly cowed down
Islam in the EU. If anything, reports suggest, two varieties of Islam
are now finding root on the Continent - a liberal, democratic, human
rights-oriented mix-and-match version, and the traditional more
austere, insular kind, in the darkest folds of which fundamentalism
finds its seed and harvest. Among Europe's Muslims, there is the
growth of what Bassam Tibi, a professor of international relations at
the University of Gottingen, calls "Euro-Islam", the basic tenets of
prohibitionist Islam leavened with the Western virtues of liberalism,
tolerance, democracy and civil liberties.

So, although Islamophobia has long been insidiously built into the
Constitutions of the EU's member countries - France's Constitution,
for instance, prohibits the state from extending funding to religions,
although Christian churches and Jewish synagogues receive extensive
tax benefits - Islam is quietly outreaching. A top-secret
intelligence report leaked to Le Figaro revealed that since the 1950s, upwards of
50,000 people have converted to Islam in France alone. This figure,
humongous in isolation but piddling if divided over more than half a
century, goes some way in explaining the its debating but not condoning the
EU's chariness in adding, courtesy Turkey's entry into the Union, 40
million more of the Islamic faith to its 45.7 million citizens (2004
est.).

And so it goes: of the world's 1.3 billion Muslims, 625 million live
in Asia, 270 million in Africa and 39 million in the former USSR.
There are an estimated 12.5 million Muslims in Europe, including one
million in Britain, 5 million in France, 3.2 million in Germany, six
million in North America (more than 200 were killed in the Twin Towers
and 14,500 are in the US military), and 1.2 million in South America.
While many are relatively recent converts of the past century, the
Muslim communities in Central Europe were established as long back as
the 14th century by Ottoman armies galloping west through the Balkan
Peninsula.

The EU is not the only beneficiary of an Islamic surge. In the past
quarter century, Australia's Muslim community has burgeoned. According
to the 2001 census, the Muslim community constituted 281,578 people;
this is a 40 per cent increase over the 1996 census and, more
significant, an overall rise of 91 per cent in the past decade. Since
censuses are historically established as error-prone when it comes to
counting heads religion-wise, these figures could well be very
conservative. More recent estimates suggest that Australian Muslims
today number about half a million.

One of post-9/11 America's reigning fears is that Islam is the fastest
growing religion in the US; according to the State Department's
International Information Programme, by 2010, it will outstrip
Christianity. In truth, though, compared with Europe, the Muslim
population in America, estimated at five million, is still relatively
small. But it is growing, not just in terms of immigrant Muslims -
who have all but been blocked out after 9/11 - but of converts, who
comprise 29 per cent of the Muslim population. Among 19,700 (average)
annual converts a year, about 14,000 are black and 13,000 are men.
Despite the paranoia fostered by 9/11, the number of mosques in the US
has increased in the past five years from 843 to about 1,300.

An influx of Muslim immigrants and refugees to central Ohio from
places such as Somalia, Sierra Leone, Bosnia-Herzegovina and Kosovo in
Yugoslavia is attracting an increasing number of Americans - among
them whites, blacks, Asians, Hispanics and others - to explore Islam.

The fact that many of the world's wounded see in Islam an invitation
to refuge was underscored when tens of thousands of Rwandans converted
to Islam following a genocide that left about 800,000 of them dead.
Today, roughly 14 per cent of Rwandans call themselves Muslim, double
the number before the 1994 genocide. Rwanda was the only Christian
majority nation among a block of nations comprised of Sudan, Tanzania
and Uganda, all with large Muslim communities. During the genocide,
Rwandans were touched by the fact that Muslim households, regardless
of whether they or the appellants were Tutsi or Hutu, took in refugees
even as Christian houses - and churches - not only turned them away
but also handed them over to the killers.

India's population of 1,028 million includes 828 million (80.5 per
cent) Hindus and 138 million (13.4 per cent) Muslims, up from 10.7 per
cent in 1961 (census data). There are no statistics indicating how
much conversions contributed to the rise, although it could be
significant, given the frequency with which India's disadvantaged
Hindus were walking out of the fold, till the reconversion machinery
of the Hindu Right went into action a decade ago.

And while Islam's expansion can hardly be limited to the EU, it is the
scale and speed of its global expansion that puts paid to the wistful
Christian Right theory that Islamism, the ultraviolent, outre fringe
of contemporary Islam, has put the faith itself into retreat. (That
this theory militates against another Christian Right theory, which
holds that the procreative rate of Muslims will inundate other faiths
in a matter of decades, is just another instance of how Islamophobia
bunches the contradictions it is based upon into a seeming truism. The
high priest of this grand paranoia is Patrick J Buchanan, who, in his
controversial book, The Death of the West, "predicts" that by 2050
Christianity and Christian America will be in terminal decline,
overtaken by forces and faiths inimical to them. His publisher's lack
of faith in his thesis, and the US government's perception of its
inflammatory potential, both of which delayed the publication of the
book after 9/11, couldn't stop it from becoming a bestseller,
much-derided but avidly purchased.)

* * * * *

The speed of Islam's numerical and philosophical augmentation - which
might not be one and the same thing where most of the world's other
mass religions are concerned but is certainly so in Islam's case -
also brings into question the understanding that conversions are
largely a property of religions in the ecstasy of military expansion.
Even in its crisis, the growth that Islam is seeing today beggars its
expansion during its Ottoman Empire heydays.

Despite Western prognoses to the contrary, most converts to Islam join
the pacific majority. There are any number of reports that Islam is
today busy coercing conversion to the faith. (The Puebla Institute, a
human rights organisation, for instance, complained to the United
Nations Commission on Human Rights that the Sudanese government was
kidnapping African Christian and African Animist children and forcing
upon them Islamic names and practices.). But the single largest
Islamic movement - which includes conversions - in the world is the
peaceful Tablighi Jama'at, launched in 1925 by a Deobandi 'alim,
Maulana Muhammad Ilyas; it is today active in almost every country on
the map.

The Qur'an expressly forbids compulsion in religion, so a tacit
Qur'anic approval of conversion is next to impossible. Muslims are
prevented from actively seeking converts, but a concept called da'wa
"encourages" them to "share" religious information with those
receptive. In today's world, da'wa is the engine of so-called "passive
conversion".

Even so, the obstacles to seeking conversions are many, concentrated
mainly round the problematic concept of ijtihad (creative
interpretation), which many Islamic scholars say is responsible for
Islam's present troubles - the concept of jihad as militaristic and
external to the self, the actual - as opposed to scriptural -
unequal status of women, the faith's insularity, the primacy of mullah diktat,
the revisionism. While mainstream, pacifist Islam eschews ijtihad,
some prominent Sunni scholars, notably Ibn Taymiah (1236-1328) and
Jalal ad-Din as-Suyuti (1445-1505), are known to have bucked
convention, setting a precedent for the xenophobia of contemporary
hardline scholarship. Dipti Nazeer Ahmad, a leading 19th century
Islamic scholar, also urged Muslims to embark upon ijtihad. Today's
Shi'ite Muslims, who distanced themselves from the Sunni majority in
the 7th century, believe that ijtihad is permitted.

The Qur'an says that God sent prophets to every single one of the
world's peoples, all the prophets teaching the same elemental faith
which, in Arabic, is called "al-Islam", or "submission to God". This
fundamental simplicity permits an assortment of interpretations, many
of them truculent, and one which generously holds that since India
couldn't possibly have been left out of the lottery, perhaps Ram,
Krishna and the Buddha might have been God's messengers, too.
But scholars have long known that conversions, from whatever creed to
whatever creed, need bellum justum (just war), a justification central
to not only today's fringe Islamists but also to the ongoing US
imperialist expansion, of which the Christian "crusading spirit" is an
essential component. A just war not only bestows ethical legitimacy to
sheer politico-military expansionism, but also makes conversions an
act of defence.

This is also when religions start taking on the characteristics -
disquiet, insularity, aggressiveness, ruthlessness and xenophobia -
of those comparatively short-term phenomena of societal insecurity called
cults.

Since, at its very core, the Qur'an is a handbook for civil
comportment, conversions to Islam are often acts of angst and
desperation. "Conversion" Islam, as contrasted with "inherited" Islam,
is a religion of the disaffected. Converts are typically people who
find their faith - most likely dominant in the society of their
disaffection - unable, or unwilling, to yield up what it promised
them. The "replacement faith" begins by giving them sympathy and then
eventually offering them the religious succour they have lost.

This is why da'wa flourishes in America's penitentiaries, where more
than 300,000 prisoners are said to have converted to Islam in the past
decade. (The US' National Islamic Prison Foundation, however, claims
that it converts approximately 135,000 prisoners every year.)
According to federal prison statistics, 10-20 per cent of prisoners in
America are Muslims.

As in the UK, conversions to Islam in the US occur largely in the
black ghettos in the prison system. Jamaicans in the UK and
African-Americans in the US take to the confrontational and the
fraternal aspects of Islam; the replacement faith offers not only an
escape from a despised White system but also a sense of ordained
belonging.

Pierre Raffin, director of the Sante prison in Paris, claims that
fundamentalist Muslims prisoners incarcerated for crimes linked to
extremism have been converting inmates to Islam since the 9/11. Making
it clear where he stood, Raffin informed an official commission
examining religion and its role in French secular public life that
Islamic proselytism was "insidious".

Some of the conversions to Islam are a thoroughly post-modern
response, a mixture of apologia and political correctness, to a
perceived affront centuries ago. In Spain, for instance, post-Franco
intellectualism is busy re-evaluating the country's Moorish past and
fitting it back into current historical discourse. Many of these
intellectuals have their provenance not in Islamist historicising but
in the Beat Generation - specifically an itinerant Scot named Ian
Dallas who converted to Islam, changed his name to Sheik Abdalqadir
al-Murabit, and went to Britain. Among the converts he made there,
known as the Mirabitun, were some Spaniards, who returned to Cordoba
to set up the Islamic community that has now found its calling. (The
Beat never did entirely desert al-Murabit: his proselytising vision
focussed on an Islamic caliphate with an economy based on gold dinars.
No one knows whether he also wanted djinns as force multipliers.)

* * * * *

Traditional Islamic theology bisects the world into two zones, one
enlightened, the other impious: the dar al-Islam (house of Islam) and
the dar al-harb (house of war). The latter part can never be a safe
haven for the devout and cannot be inhabited by Muslims. It's not a
stricture that finds much favour among moderate Muslims, particularly
those settled for a generation or two in Europe, who have a new
concept to look up to - the dar ash-shahada (house of testimony),
which permits Muslims to live wherever they can freely practice their
religion. This belief is an intrinsic part of Euro-Islam, so much so
that conversion to Islam, principally in the West, requires no more
rigour than speaking the softly-palatal two-line Shahada, a formal
declaration of faith in Allah and the Prophet Mohammed.

And then there is a quality particular to Islam - it provides a level
playing field to everyone, regardless of race. One of African-American
Black Power radical Malcolm X's most enduring rants was about how his
trip to Mecca dispelled his notions about human divisiveness. He said
he saw there black Muslims and white, dark-haired and flaxen-haired,
black-eyed and blue-eyed, all brought to such intimacy by a faith that
transcended the individual in favour of the collective. His words
echoed those of Arnold Toynbee in Civilisation on Trial: "The
extinction of race consciousness as between Muslims is one of the
outstanding achievements of Islam and in the contemporary world there
is, as it happens, a crying need for the propagation of this Islamic
virtue..."

As the hybrid nature of the African-American Muslim culture shows,
intrinsic to the very nature of conversion is interactivity - the
convert brings to the table a whole gamut of cultural influences which
will, in time, localise and influence his replacement faith.
One aspect of this process of religio-cultural osmosis is that it
renders socioeconomic conversions a stopgap arrangement, open to
reversal by changes in fortune, so to speak, of the converted. The
Indian subcontinent's Partition saw hundreds of thousands of Hindus
forcibly converted to Islam in internment camps, but few adhered to
their new faiths any longer than that required for survival. Largely
because Hinduism has no scriptural methodology of conversion (or
reconversion) - except that which has lately been manufactured by
India's Hindu fundamentalist Right - their return to the Hindu fold
was ethically uneventful.

Another aspect is that converts don't always get along well with every
tenet of the replacement religion. Black American men turned to the
Nation of Islam (NoI) in huge numbers after the Civil Rights Movement
of the 1960s, but the Qur'an was for them primarily a symbol of
political radicalism, not faith. Not long after NoI founder Elijah
Muhammad's death in 1975, his son, Warith Deen Mohammed, became
disenchanted when he discovered serious contradictions between NoI
theology and the doctrinaire Islam he preferred over his father's
separatist ideology. Changing directions towards Sunni Islam, Mohammed
named his group of adherents the American Muslim Society (AMS) -
which is today said to have two million members - and brought it closer to
mainstream Islam, causing no end of anxiety to the US'
Judaeo-Christian establishment. There is also evidence of a divide
between Muslim immigrants and black converts in the US, with the
former unwilling to believe that the latter can ever be wholehearted
people of the faith.

Much of conversion in the West has depended on high-profile converts.
The problem with these converts is that they bring a sensationalist
image to a religion that is already seen in the popular imagination as
renegade. Perhaps the convert with the highest profile is Yousef
Islam, earlier pop musician Cat Stevens, who flashed into the
headlines recently after he was deported from the US to the UK within
minutes of disembarking from his flight. The US authorities accused
him of terrorist connections, which he rubbished. Islam couldn't have
asked for better PR. Jonathan Birt, son of Lord Birt, late of the BBC
and now the government's transport guru, converted in 1997. His
father's position hasn't done anything for him. Mike Tyson, the former
world champion boxer, is always in trouble. Chris Eubank, the British
middleweight boxing champion, who changed his name to Hamdan, is never
out of it.

Conversions of high-profile people, which by definition should serve
as invaluable PR, sometimes boomerang. Malayalam poetess Kamala Das
alias Madhavikutty became Kamala Sorayya after converting to Islam in
December 1999, and embarked on a rollercoaster ride far rougher than
anything she had experienced in a life spent bucking convention and
writing terrible poetry.

(Kamala Das had hit the headlines two decades ago when she published
My Story, a controversial memoir that let all her laundry hang out.
She went on to again shock straight-laced Malayalees in the 1980s with
her nude paintings of young women.)

Sorayya's conversion and her overwrought trashing of Hinduism and
encomiums to Islam's treatment of women left a wake of verbal excesses
that brought conversions a reputation they could have done without.
Just the fact that she had converted became an issue of debate,
inspiring an outbreak of copycat conversions and vitriol from the
Hindu fundamentalist Sangh Parivar, in effect deflecting any debate on
Hinduism's iniquities. In January 2000, Poet Balachandran Chullikkad
became a Buddhist - "not converted," he said, not putting too fine a
point on it, "but embraced" - declaring that he had been inspired by
Sorayya.

The contraindications soon made themselves felt: an equally abrasive
group of Muslims and Christians, led by Muslim writer Palakkode K
Hassan (who became Kamal Hassan, no relation to the filmstar),
converted to Hinduism. Kamal Hassan's reason for converting seemed as
specious as Sorayya's. "I do not want to remain in a religion that
admits [a] poetess like Kamala Das," he said.

But Kamal Hassan's conversion is heretically illegitimate in the eyes
of Islam, which is one of the few religions that actually places
conversion at par with blasphemy. In his Asare Mal Maslool, scholar
Ibn Tamiya mentions a judgment by Hazrat Imam Abu Hanifa: a Muslim
blaspheming against the Prophet Muhammad should be tarred a murtad,
whose punishment - according to some but not all Muslim scholars -
is hadd (death).

It's not a judgment that finds favour with Islamic moderates, although
most mullahs say that hadd has been vetted by ijma (consensus) by
those who formulated fiqh (Islamic jurisprudence).

Professor K A Jaleel, an Islamic scholar, reformist and chairperson of
the Kerala Wakf Board, who has researched conversions to and from
Islam, says that conversions never quite pan out the way they are
designed to. "Some cases of conversion only lead to religious and
social upheavals," he says. "Lack of understanding of core religious
issues by the neo-converts will only strengthen the obscurantists in
the community."

And so it goes.

* * * * *

Muslim conversion in India was a response to the Arya Samaji shuddhi
(purification) campaign in North India in the early 20th century,
which sought to corral into the Hindu stable those groups that had
traditionally been relegated to its periphery, such as Untouchables,
Christians and Sikhs. Later, it even targeted Muslims. The first
shuddhi targets were caste Hindus who had committed apostasy by
crossing the seas or eating food cooked by Christians or Muslims.
Over time, Muslim leaders and groups countered by formulating
tablighi, or Islamic missionary initiatives, with the individual as
the driving force. The duty of tabligh became a farz-i-kifaya, a
responsibility not of the ulama alone; every Muslim had to become a
muballigh (missionary). The most effectual counter to shuddhi was seen
in spreading Islamic knowledge among neo-Muslim groups.

The formalisation of 'Hinduism' as a religion with a coherent identity
and scriptural perimeter, as in Christianity and Islam, came of a
confluence of the various ambitions of Orientalists, British
administrators, Christian missionaries and the Hindu elite. To such a
well-defined entity, conversion was deemed possible. Dayanand
Saraswati, the Gujarati Brahmin who founded the Arya Samaj in 1875,
realised the value of a recognisably specific scriptural text (and not
just a grab-bag of rituals) and made the Vedas the central Hindu
transcript.

The first recorded shuddhi of a born Muslim was in 1877, performed by
Dayanand Saraswati. Then, Maharaja Ranbir Singh, the Hindu ruler of
Muslim-dominant Kashmir, commissioned a 21-volume encyclopaedia,
Ranbir Karit Prayaschit Mahanibandh ([Ranbir's Great Essay on
Repentance), which blueprinted the mass conversion of all "neo-Muslim
communities" ("nau Muslim aqwam").

Shuddhi sabhas were set up at Etawah, Kanpur, Shahjahanpur, Hardoi,
Meerut and Mainpuri in 1910 but folded up the following year when
local Muslim bodies intervened, working together with the Anjuman
Hidayat-ul Islam, a Delhi-based Muslim missionary organisation.
In 1923, a meeting to formulate strategies for shuddhi expansion was
attended by Sanatani, Jain and Sikh representatives, suggesting that
numbers and political interests, rather than conversion to the Arya
Samaj, were the driving force. The meeting served as a clarion call to
Indian Muslims, whose leaders began the campaign for consolidation in
right earnest.

Madrassas were set up all over the country by the Jamiat-ul
Ulama-i-Hind, an organisation of Deobandi 'ulama, in order to impart
Islamic education to Muslims to protect them from the Arya Samajis.
"No number of madrassas is too much, and nor is any amount of money to
be spent on them," declared Maulana Muhammad Abdul Halim Siddiqui,
treasurer of the Department for the Propagation and Protection of
Islam, set up by the Jami'at in 1923.

Maulana Abdul Bari, the head 'alim of Lucknow's Firangi Mahal
madrassa, demanded that Sufi teachers and their disciples cover the
countryside preaching Islam to neo-Muslims. Apart from Muslim
scholars, these wanderers would include medicos who would also treat
non-Muslims.

The major proponent of the tablighi campaign was the scholar Maulana
Sayyed Abul A'la Maududi, founder of the Jama'at-i-Islami. Editor of
Al-Jami'at, the organ of the Jami'at-ul Ulama-i-Hind, he wrote in 1925
that tablighi was a Muslim's lifelong core ideology, not just the
exploitation of opportunities. "The entire life of the Prophet

Muhammad was a manifestation of this da'awat-i-haq (Invitation to the
Truth')," he wrote.

The tablighi project, he went on, should not stop at spreading
knowledge of Islam: it must also be buttressed with social reform as
advised in the Shari'at. This wasn't conversion for conversion's sake,
it was civic progress in every sense of the term.

* * * * *

As I mentioned earlier, converts also bring to their replacement
faiths things that would have been better left behind. A case in point
are the Dalits, Hinduism's most disadvantaged caste, who began not too
long ago to snap the dragging shackles of the caste system by
converting to other faiths. Dalits and other low caste escapees
constitute a majority segment of contemporary India's Muslims,
Buddhists, Christians and Sikhs.

Most Indian Muslims are descendants of Untouchable and low caste
converts; only a tiny minority can honestly trace their origins to
Arab, Iranian and Central Asian settlers and invaders. In 1994, Ejaz
Ali, a young Muslim medical doctor from Patna, from the Muslim Kunjera
caste of vegetable-sellers, established the All-India Backward Muslim
Morcha (AIBMM) to get the Indian government to also slot the country's
100 million Dalit Muslims into the Scheduled Castes and, consequently,
into the controversial reservation system for education, government
jobs, reserved seats in Parliament and the state legislatures, and
development programmes.

Even though egalitarianism is at the crux of the Qur'an's teachings,
Indian Muslim society has clung to the jati (caste) concept. Muslims
who claim foreign origin from Central Asia, Iran and Arabia
declare themselves "ashraf" (noble), as against indigenous converts,
who are "ajlaf" (lowly). The latter, by far the more numerous, are the
AIBMM's target audience. For instance, Dalit Muslims in Bihar, where
the AIBMM has its headquarters, form 90 per cent of the state's
Muslims, who are divided into 29 jatis.

The Indian Muslim caste system is as irretrievably entrenched as the
Indian Hindu one. It goes back to the 13th century, when Ziauddin
Barani, a court historian, declared that the ashraf must guard against
higher education percolating down to the ajlaf, who must be granted no
more than a working knowledge of the Qur'an.

Battling this convention, by the turn of the millennium, the AIBMM had
under its aegis more than 40 Muslim, largely demotic, jati
organisations, with branches in Uttar Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh, West
Bengal, Delhi, Rajasthan, Maharashtra and Bihar.

Contemporary Indian law, fiercely secular for the most part, permits
only Hindu, Sikh and Buddhist Dalits to be members of the Scheduled
Castes. This the AIBMM calls "unconstitutional". Not surprisingly,
this umbrella organisation of Muslim converts doesn't have the support
of the high-caste Muslims or of the government.

Ejaz Ali got the hackles of the Hindu Right up when he said that many
high-caste Hindus had also converted to Islam, sometimes to retain
their properties, sometimes to curry favour and secure positions in
Muslim-ruled territories. Notions of caste superiority piggybacked on
these opportunistic converts. Using the sanction of ijtihad, the caste
hierarchy was fitted into quotidian doctrines by misinterpreting the
Qur'an.

One of the greatest dangers to Islam being true to its provenance
could lie in such ease of (mis)interpretation. All the conversions in
the world cannot help to consolidate a faith whose scriptures are
being hijacked by those true to it only in word, not in action.

Wednesday, May 25, 2005

A church excursion with a Muslim friend

It was raining that night, I remember - a noir drizzle, Bladerunner precipitation, the city glowering with disesteem for the tens of thousands huddled under wet newspapers or, at best, polythene bags cauterised together with matches.

My father was curled up in a Christian Missionary hospital bed, dying: he would soon be released as a gonecase and would die at home, of the slow but unrelenting extirpation of many human qualities over the years, but primarily of rampaging lung cancer. Then, again, I think he died of a good many other things, too, including an abiding and reason-reviling hatred of Muslims: he was a Partition refugee from Dhaka (then Dacca), who left "everything" behind - but this "everything", like the cathartic tales of all refugees everywhere, had a catch in it. If one were to believe every "East Bengali" about the amount of property s/he was forced to leave behind by suddenly-berserker "Muslim servitors", it would add up to seven times the current size of Bangladesh. But he hated Muslims - I never heard of him eat in the house of a Muslim, nor entertain one at our home. Not even a glass of water.

In his last days, for some reason, he seemed to have converted, in a dimly cognitive manner, to a felicitous evaluation of the Christian values of service - the nurses were invariably attentive to his every need, clipping his nails, giving him a shave, diligently brushing the single Vlad tooth he had left in his head. Good for family, friends and the nurses and doctors - years of often self-inflicted pain had rendered him violently psychotic with unerring aim for those who loved him most. Law of nature.

The hospital had a tiny chapel, but father couldn't obviously make it there, and Ashfaq - a devout but secular Muslim friend - decided that we'd pay my father's respects to the altar at another church I occasionally dipped my head into, just to see the action, even though I'm an irrevocable atheist.

I sat in the front pews. Ashfaq walked up to the Cross - he had never been inside a church before - carefully giving what was basically a giant cenotaph that had obviously been made in Moradabad, India's brass capital, populated with Muslim artisans, a once, then twice, then a thorough-going over, ignoring, for the moment, the item that had snagged my attention - a small, fast-abrading, obviously bootleg version of the Theotokos Dexiokratousa, with the usual Mary holding close the usual infant Christ, but with such ineffable grief, as if she was beset by prescience about the depredations he would face in future. It was beautiful - I think my father would have loved it, given as he was to a reflexive appreciation of tenebrosity.

Then Asfaq turned to me and quietly asked what INRI inscribed over Christ's head stood for. Pedant that I am, I said, "In Indian pig Latin, Isa Nazario Rex Ihudi. In the original Latin, Iesus Nazarenus Rex Iudaeorum, which Pontius Pilate had carved over Christ's bleeding head. Either way, it means, 'Jesus of Nazareth, the King of the Jews.'"

And that was it: Ashfaq turned around and walked out. I think it was the "King of the Jews" bit that did it. And it was also then that I realised that today's Millennial Crusade is anhistoric - it has nothing to do with what happened in the distant past, full of Semitic discord as it was - and I mean "Semitic" beyond the simple but astringent Judaeo-Christian discourse that today is creating a saturnalia of orthodoxy in every house of scriptural interpretation from the Vatican to the Jewish study centres in Jerusalem to Qom to the Indian muths. J G Frazer, the greatest of the first generation of religion sociologists, would have had a ball analysing this cornucopia of choler.

But this is hardly the first time that what I've taken the liberty to suggest above has happened. In his Teape Lectures, published in The Beginning and the End of 'Religion' and delivered to quietly absorptive audiences in India in 1994, Nicholas Lash, who occupied the Norris-Hulse Chair of Divinity at Cambridge (1978-99), said in no uncertain terms that the "modern" concept of "a religion" can undo all the Semitic religions - Christianity, Judaism and Islam - and the ancient religions traditions of India, China and Japan. This was the time when a certain brand of Hinduism gridlocked by its own overproduction of insecurities was busy turning fascistic (and I don't use the word lightly: we've already had our anti-Muslim Kristallnacht in Gujarat in 2002).

If my father were alive today, I might not have been able to change his mind - pretty much impossible, in fact. His synapses, like those of millions across the world today, had set in lead, impregnable to heterodox stimuli. But I might have introduced him to Ashfaq, just to see if he would offer him a glass of water - Bengali superstition says that if you don't slake the thirst of a parched man, you become a lizard in your next life. Imagine having my father on my wall, keeping a jaundiced eye on my apostasy.

Monday, May 23, 2005

I had the absolute, if belated, delectation of reading an article by David Brooks, published on May 19, a so-called journalistic philippic I might have missed, to my loss, if it hadn't been forwarded to me by a friend either out of a devoted sincerity that I would appreciate it or out of an estimation of my sense of rampant irony. Brooks begins well by defending Newsweek, and by excoriating those who took it randomly to task as a motley cop-out of "liberals" (sic). And then he blows it all by mentioning a "left-wing, post-Vietnam mentality", which is, I think, vituperation that has become as much a part of political oblivion as calling someone an anarchosyndicalist. I would think the world - and the definitions that once circumscribed it - has moved on, but Brooks obviously thinks that terminological excavation is an acceptable way to rake up arguments that are, really, best when left buried to turn into intellectual compost.

"The people who run Newsweek are not a bunch of Noam Chomskys with laptops," he writes. "Not even close. Whatever might have been the cause of their mistakes, liberalism had nothing to do with it." Not Noam Chomskys? Is there even the faintest realisation who he's comparing the Newsweek bunch with, usually admirable though they might be in the execution of their vocations? If Edward Said had been alive, Brooks would no doubt have taken him on, too - and as cavalierly. He is enduringly lucky that Noam Chomsky doesn't have any particular desire to rebut darksiders. Chomsky makes an easy target.


And Brooks argument, in the second half of his piece, after he's finished lionising Newsweek, is that even if Newsweek erred in reporting that a Qu'ran had been flushed down a toilet at the Guantanamo sequestration centre as an inquisition facilitator, what is the big fuss all about? It's a Qu'ran, after all, a collection of inflammatory diatribes against the Free World. He goes on to quote, entirely out of context, as half-baked journalists often do, an inflammatory panegyric by one Sheik Ibrahim Mudeiris, "which ran last weekend [May 13] on the Palestinian Authority's official TV station:

'The day will come when we will rule America. The day will come whenwe will rule Britain and the entire world - except for the Jews. The Jews will not enjoy a life of tranquillity under our rule because they are treacherous by nature, as they have been throughout history. The day will come when everything will be relieved of the Jews - even the stones and trees which were harmed by them. Listen to the Prophet Muhammad, who tells you about the evil end that awaits Jews. The stones and trees will want the Muslims to finish off every Jew.' "

"These are the extremists, the real enemy," Brooks end with. "Let's keep our eye on the ball." Oh dear, I can see a whole posse of "real" enemies, the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse hard-galloping in the Bush Administration. So I'll be gracious enough to let Brooks keep his "eye on the ball" - I'll have a time enough, as it is, keeping my eye on the damned round thing and on the baseball bat that's undoubtedly used for purposes other than lobbing grenades.

As a journalist, it's Brooks business to recognise, and be calmly dismissive of, an unglued mullah who is actually a paid member of PA TV, and who is occasionally defibrillated from his wild-haired fugue to appear on TV - not primetime - whenever a suddenly empty time slot presents itself, a contingency that all TV stations face from time to time. (Be assured that Mudeiris is no worse than Bill O'Reilly.) And Mudeiris was hauled off the air by a penitent PA - given the impending possibility of rapprochement in Palestine-Israel - and given a dressing down so severe that he'll have trouble putting on his djellabah again. Understood that PA TV was once a nut broadcaster itself, exhorting children to Shahada, or death in the name of Allah, an euphemism for suicide bombings, but those days of selective misanthropia were long over before Brooks wrote his animadversion.

The problem with the increasingly familiar journalistic transport into emotionalism is that it fails to comprehend the simple difference between, say, those the Middle Easterners consider Zionists and the harmless laypersons they call Jews. Mudeiris might seek to blur the difference - splotching facts is also what O'Reilly is paid his millions for - but the ordinary "Arab" knows that you can neither see the world as it is nor excrete standing on your head. Mudeiris' Weltanschauung is, to a great extent, that of a tiny community (although he had been preceded by another discredited Cassandra, Sheikh Ibrahim Madiras, on his Friday sermon on PA TV on January 7).

But let's see how much misanthropic parallax there is between the exhortations of the Qu'ran and the Bible.

Deuteronomy 13

If your very own brother, or your son or daughter, or the wife you love, or your closest friend secretly entices you, saying, "Let us go and worship other gods" (gods that neither you nor your fathers have known, gods of the peoples around you, whether near or far, from one end of the land to the other), do not yield to him or listen to him. Show him no pity. Do not spare him or shield him. You must certainly put him to death. Your hand must be the first in putting him to death, and then the hands of all the people. Stone him to death, [Italics mine] because he tried to turn you away from the LORD your God, who brought you out of Egypt, out of the land of slavery.

2 Chronicles

15:12 And they entered into a covenant to seek the LORD God of their fathers with all their heart and with all their soul;
15:13 That whosoever would not seek the LORD God of Israel should be put to death, whether small or great, whether man or woman. [Italics mine]

The only difference is that, over decades of beleaguering the Vatican, the feminists, liberation theologists, and gays have, thankfully, managed to introduce into the logistics of the faith a certain "liberalism" (sic). That hasn't happened with the Qu'ran: retrogrades like Mudeiris still misuse the whole complicated panoply
of ijtihad (interpretation) to fashion their own arguments out of Mohammed's societal bequests - a concept that journalists like Brooks have no knowledge of, nor, indeed, desire to understand.

Enemies are often politically manufactured entities, as much as is the past, subaltern or patrician. There will be some irony in the fact that two people in theological disagreement will undoubtedly share a commonality of seeming calumniators of their faith (although the minutiae of Bush's Evangelist Christianity would, in better times, ensure his spitting venom at Pope Benedict XVI.) But while that is a matter for another blog, what is not is that many more Qu'rans will be headed down the tubes in the foreseeable future (and I am accepting the fact that whatever goes on at Guantanamo Bay would be publicly impolitic, so a democratic declaration of intent and implementation is impossible.) And this is hardly the first time that the Qu'ran desecration allegation has cropped up: Mark Falkoff, lawyer for some Guantanamo detainees, said that 23 of them had attempted suicide in August 2003 after a guard dropped and stamped on a Qu'ran. At last count, the US military was "investigating" whether the pages of a Qu'ran had been "accidentally" been dropped into a toilet bowl by a 10-thumbed grunt.

I'll close this blog with a statement of what the Qu'ran is supposed to be:

"The holy book itself states:

'That is indeed a noble Qur'an
In a Book kept hidden
Which none toucheth save the purified,
A Revelation from the Lord of the Worlds.'

Surat Al-Waq`ia

And the grunts send this down the crapper. For shame.