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Dhaka Tribune

The Islamist narrative - Part I

Update : 08 Sep 2014, 07:06 PM

The first of a two part series on the real problem with the IS and the Taliban: Their control over the Islamic narrative has allowed them to give their sociopathic tendencies a religious sanction, simultaneously dragging Islam into the mud and perverting the minds of well-meaning Muslims.

Part-1: The Muslim problem 

The notion that Muslims are most vulnerable when they are a minority, the conceptual basis for the Partition of India in 1947, is proving to be an absolute fallacy. In fact its been wrong for quite some time now. Bengali Muslims in Pakistan were far more vulnerable and ultimately more persecuted in a Muslim-majority country than they ever have been when they lived with a significant number of people of different faiths.

Its true that our grandparents endured scorn, derision and contempt in an undivided India and had a very real fear of social and economic discrimination, but they were – as Muslims in India still are – protected by the laws and institutions of the Indian State. And even though unfortunate incidents like the Godhra riots in Gujarat do occur, they are not the norm and administrative avenues exist to try and address them.

In contrast, the protection of laws and institutions is increasingly moving beyond the reach of millions of people in Muslim majority countries today. More and more, Muslim populations are living under the threat of violence and persecution with no establishment, Islamist or otherwise, to rely on for safety.

On top of that, many are still being dealt scorn, derision and contempt, now also followed by murder. Ahmadiyyas in Pakistan and Shias in Pakistan, Iraq and Syria are being killed for their religious beliefs, while in parts of North Africa and Iraq, pilgrims at Sufi shrines are being targetted for what is seen as an idolatrous worshipping of graves.

Sufi shrines have also been attacked in Libya, Afghanistan, Pakistan and Bangladesh. Even when the persecution is not of a sectarian nature, it remains insidious, causing entire nations to be subjected to a rigid and often entirely unsubstantiated reading of Islamic morality, by people who possess neither the sophistication nor the humanity to know any better.

The rise of the Islamic State (IS) in Iraq and Syria mimics the Taliban’s hold over Afghanistan in the mid 1990s and revisits the horrors imposed upon a once thriving and cosmopolitan population recovering from the ravages of colonial ambition.

Much in the way that the Taliban set upon an Afghanistan shattered by Soviet expansionism, the IS is wreaking its havoc on a society entirely ripped out by America’s colonial adventures in the Middle East, a society that could once boast of impressive success in areas like women’s empowerment, education and health, as well as in communal harmony, well above the average in the region.

Iraqi society, not entirely unlike Afghanistan’s, was cultured, with thousands of years of civilisation informing its sophisticated urbanity.

Two successive Gulf wars and years of economic sanctions have reduced this thriving society to virtual penury, and in its place, a severe and misguided one is emerging, intent on taking the territory and the people into the dark ages of cultural and ethical poverty.

Doing almost exactly what anyone expected them to do, the IS has attacked and killed Shias calling them non-Muslims, issued medieval, un-islamic edicts against Christians (causing the total evacuation of Christians from Mosul, for the first time in 2000 years), imposed “Islamic” standards on social behaviour and demolished the tombs (and their associated mosques) of two prophets, Danyal (Daniel) and Yunus (jonah), along with scores of Sufi shrines and centres.

The tomb and mosque of Nabi Yunus, over a thousand years old, was reduced to rubble in a matter of minutes, erasing an archaeological marker of Iraqi history forever. The full extend of this devastation becomes clear when one considers that it and other archaeological sites strewn across this Mesopotamian country managed to survive catastrophes like the Mongol invasion and the Ottoman conquest – sites that belong to humanity’s collective heritage and are now at risk of total obliteration.

The IS has also extended its hold over Syria, another urbane civilisation enriched by the crosscurrents of history and trade. Syria too lies in total ruin because of its civil war, and while the archaeological damage is indeed heartbreaking, nothing is more heartbreaking than the human cost of the conflict – nearly 200,000 lives and counting.

Into such places go totalitarian governments calling themselves Islamist.

Purging the faith and the faithful

When the Taliban took control of Afghanistan, they immediately attacked its pre-Islamic heritage (the Buddhas of Bamiyan), cultural foundations and its social development. Banning everything from music, to art, to television, and imposing strict dress and behavioural codes on the population, they went about trying to remake the country in their own image.

The trouble is, they were viewing that image though a distorted mirror and while they thought they were being good Muslims, they were in fact being good fascists. This is the real problem with groups like the IS and the Taliban: Their control over the Islamist narrative has allowed them to give their sociopathic tendencies a religious sanction, simultaneously dragging Islam into the mud and perverting the minds of well-meaning Muslims.

Colonial aggression, political conflict and civil wars do a bulk of the killing, without a doubt, but the existential threat isn’t carried in bombs or bullets, but in distorted ideologies and by ideologues who seek to impose themselves upon Muslim populations in Muslim majority countries.

Even those born and bred in countries where Muslims are a minority, join the ranks of totalitarian movements in Muslim majority countries, and do not, or rather cannot, actively seek to control the states they come from. This is particularly true of the IS.

Terrorist attacks in non-Muslim majority countries make these distorted ideologies an existential threat to non-Muslims as well, increasingly so in places like Nigeria, but just as extremists view apostasy as worse than unbelief, they see the “redemption” of Muslims and Muslim majority countries as their primary objective.

The “purging” of Muslim cultures is therefore an urgent obsession with ultra-radicals. Using a list of things deemed bidah or innovations, these ideologues go about attempting to expunge elements they believe are “un-islamic” but have become part of Muslim culture through association with pre-islamic cultures or because individuals made them up along the way.

In this list, things like traditional death anniversaries (milaads), parts of traditional wedding ceremonies (gaye holuds – the turmeric ceremony – in Bengali culture), the veneration of sufis and the frequenting of their shrines, the visiting of graves, graves themselves, devotional music, whirling dervishes, Shab-e-Barat prayers, certain types of clothes and a raft of other practices have been deemed unholy.

They then take it a step further to make anything “foreign” ( from an Arabic point of view of course) haram, making, for example, democracy, yoga, western and indian education and the English and Bengali languages suspect, if not completely anathema.

It never occurs to these people, Salafists most often, that the actual “bidah” or innovation might be the legislating of things that have no legal sanction in the Quran.

For instance there is no ban on music or art in the Quran, no allowance for forced conversions, no mention of a tax on non-Muslims, no ruling on graves nor any provisions for stoning people to death.

On the contrary, the Quran expressly warns against the forbidding of things that have not been forbidden by God. Numerous directives and rules that have been imposed upon Muslims at various times, from mandatory hijabs and beards to enforced prayers and death for blasphemy or apostasy have no legal basis in holy scriptures whatsoever, and are usually nominally derived from hadiths, which are not divinely inspired.

Muslims have become so used to extremist interpretations of Islam, that they hardly notice it when it informs their own personal relationship with the faith. This is why many ordinary Muslims think photography or painting is haram, that certain musical instruments are haram, that only Muslims will be allowed into heaven, that seafood like shellfish is forbidden and that women are not allowed to lead congregations or pray alongside men – none of which get any mention whatsoever in the Quran.

It’s interesting to note that in Iran, which is Shia and where the Salafi influence has been minimal if not non-existent, music and art is not frowned upon, but segregated prayers and mandatory hijabs exist, along with a number of other unsanctioned practices. Distorted interpretations of the Sharia are not exclusively a Salafi or Wahabbi ( a type of Salafism) preserve.

But these norms have not been part of Muslim societies from the beginning, nor has this totalitarian standardisation of practices, beliefs and expression been the Islamic way all throughout. Quite the opposite in fact – the Islamic world is abounded with a variety of opinions and interpretations, so much so that raging philosophical battles were once had between various schools of thought, like the Asharites and the Muta’zillas, across continents and countries.

The notion that there is only one legitimate way to be Muslim is an entirely new concept and has gained ground through a very successful indoctrination campaign as well as through the forced silencing of alternative voices.

Forerunners of IS have been responsible for the deaths of over 300 Sunni clerics and Imams since 2006, in Iraq alone, and have shown a willingness to eliminate any and all opposition to their Salafist ideology. They are following in the footsteps of numerous extremist groups before them, the likes of which killed scholars, clerics and even caliphs like Uthman and Ali (RA) throughout the ages, successfully narrowing the Islamist narrative to what we’re left with today.

Simultaneously, indoctrination efforts have been underway for decades if not centuries.

The first and most successful Wahabbi state is of course Saudi Arabia, which, starting from the 18th century, has seen the House of Saud establish three successive kingdoms in the lands of Hijaz and Najd, on the Arabia peninsula.

Being in charge of the Islamic heartland, especially the Ka’bah, Wahabbis could control the narrative in a way that gave them legitimacy throughout the Muslim world, and they went about “purging” the peninsula of “unacceptable” mystical practices, venerated holy sites, historic relics related to the Prophet’s life and differences of opinions.

They altered the lifestyle on the peninsula drastically, even forcing the beduins to give up nomadism, which was considered an un-Islamic practice by the Wahhabis, and many pre-Salafist cultures and lifestyles in what is now Saudi Arabia have been extinguished forever.

Despite the existence of various stronger and weaker strains of the Wahabbi philosophy (that have sometimes even fought each other) the main thrust of the belief system has been successful exported around the world as Islamism.

The Muslim Brotherhood, though antagonistic to Saudi Arabia, is one such strain and the ideological inspiration for groups like al-Qaeda and the IS, although it claims to be non-violent in its orientation. It is also, like the Salafi movement before it, inherently anti-imperialist and significantly contributed to the Islamist revivalist spirit of the early and mid 1900s, which is largely a positive thing. 

The concluding part of this article will be published tommorrow. 

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