Breaking down terrorist perceptions from within

PUBLISHED : Monday, 15 January, 2007, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 15 January, 2007, 12:00am

A leading Muslim organisation in India is making a determined bid to break down the perception that Muslims are unpatriotic or sympathise with terrorists.

'Our aim is to explain to the community that the true values of Islam do not talk about jihad as an excuse to take up arms,' said Rahamat Ali Khan, a senior leader of the Jamaat-e-Islami Hind. The group is mobilising thousands of clerics and volunteers to impress on fellow Muslims that a correct interpretation of the religion would rebut the charge of all Muslims being fundamentalist militants.

With Hindus (80 per cent of 1.1 billion Indians) and Muslims (13 per cent) drifting apart, the campaign is long overdue.

No country could be more secular in symbol and substance. The head of state, President A.P.J. Abdul Kalam, is Muslim. Prime Minister Manmohan Singh belongs to the minority Sikh community. India's most powerful politician, ruling Congress party president Sonia Gandhi is an Italian-born Catholic.

Dr Singh is also proud that no member of the world's third-largest Muslim community (140 million) has joined al-Qaeda or any other international terrorist organisation.

This is in contrast to neighbouring Bangladesh and Pakistan (both Islamic nations) where Osama bin Laden's lieutenants have recruited plenty of agents. They are also thought to be active in Nepal, leaving India to some extent ringed by troublemakers.

But although Indian Muslims have not rushed to join them, dozens have been killed or arrested by the security forces in connection with secessionist movements or terrorist attacks linked to the dispute over Jammu and Kashmir.

There have also been signs of foreign veterans of campaigns in Chechnya, Afghanistan and Pakistan's North-West Frontier Province trying to infiltrate religious schools and incite Indian Muslims.

Muslim alienation is believed to have increased since 1992 when hardline Hindus led by the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) demolished a northern Indian mosque they claimed occupied the birthplace of the legendary god-king, Rama. Thousands perished in the ensuing riots. More Muslims died in recent massacres in BJP-ruled Gujarat state, with human rights organisations accusing chief minister Narendra Modi of turning a blind eye to the bloodshed.

As a Muslim Singaporean of Indian origin remarked after a recent visit to India: 'It's a no-no thing now to be a Muslim there!' Moderate and highly westernised, the Singaporean had not sensed any tension on previous visits. While Muslims fear their culture is in danger of being swamped, others argue that their insistence on separate personal laws (for marriage, divorce, inheritance and women's rights) prevents integration.

These factors, especially orthodox Muslim aversion to the secular education provided by non-denominational schools, explain the community's lower literacy rate, economic disadvantages, especially in rural areas where villagers blindly obey clerical fatwas or edicts, and the lower status of Muslim women.

Muslims complain of lagging behind Hindus, but they cannot compete on equal terms without taking full advantage of all the benefits the state provides. To do so, argue their imams, would lead to cultural emasculation.

As a result, social reforms that modernising Muslim countries such as Jordan and Egypt accept have passed India by. Rather than lose votes by offending religious sentiment, previous governments compromised.

Dr Singh finds this worrying, especially after a study he ordered showed Muslims to be under-represented in all the services but over-represented in prison. Orthodox Hindus resented the survey, which was carried out by a respected retired judge, and have threatened to resist affirmative action.

It has long been recognised that many of these problems would disappear if the reforming impetus came from within the community.

That may now be happening. Jamaat members are telling Muslim women that under Islamic law, if their husbands die, their brothers-in-law and fathers-in-law must look after them, not throw them out as been the traditional fate of such widows.

'We are calling for the education of all family members, especially girls,' says Mr Khan, 'and equal rights for women, which is what Islam really preaches.' Most Muslim women, in villages and urban slums, are totally unaware of their rights.

The Jamaat commands widespread influence, especially in the countryside, and has 5 million members and volunteers. Reports indicate that thousands of people attend its meetings. 'The response to our call has been overwhelming,' says Syed Qasim Rasool Ilyas, another Jamaat leader.

If the initiative is sustained and is seen to be independent of the government, it might yet help to bridge a potentially dangerous divide.

Sunanda Kisor Datta-Ray is a former editor of The Statesman in India