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Jehad: On My Behalf?

Islam, already stigmatised in the west, is again being equated with its aberrant expression.

Jehad: On My Behalf?
illustration by Saurabh Singh Terrorism has no sanction in religion, morality and international law. It follows, therefore, that whosoever struck at the citadel of the US' economic and military might has committed an act of barbarism. Yet, today, its long-term consequences are far more important than the precise identity, religious or ethnic, of the terrorists.

Terrorism is bad news for us and the rest of the world. It represents, though not in official parlance, the collective fury and indignation of a people against the Other. For this, as indeed for other reasons, it has to be taken seriously. At the same time, it must be combated not by targeting a leader—Osama bin Laden for example—but by coming to terms with the collective anger of people spread across the continents.

Military pacts and hollow moral posturing won't do. Regardless of domestic compulsions, stronger nations need to address themselves to the long-standing grievances of the Palestinians and the beleaguered Iraqis. Talking in terms of 'a monumental struggle of good versus evil' (President Bush) may move audiences, but such self-righteous constructions typify a mindset that will preclude a lasting solution of outstanding international disputes. Henry Kissinger has rightly called for a systemic approach to deal with the terror tactics directed against his country.

The stability of American democracy is close to our heart, but then White House has to think and act differently in relation to Iraq, Palestine and other vulnerable nations across the globe. It can't hope to remain secure by making concessions to Zionism. It can't occupy a high moral ground by legitimising monarchical and military regimes. If this monumental tragedy turns out to be the defining moment in the reappraisal of priorities, we hope the American people will recognise that their national interests lie in fortifying the values enshrined in their constitution. The great American dream can't be realised without discarding the Zionist, racist and anti-democratic ideologies of their allies.

In the long run, the strength and durability of Islamist movements and their ideological impact has to be blunted. Immediately, punishment will be meted out to those involved in this utterly despicable apocalypse-like carnage. At the same time, restraint rather than punitive action against an entire nation will serve the global interests of the US better. Terrorists have no territorial loyalty and no permanent bonding with their fellow-countrymen.

At the time of writing this article, some arrests have taken place in Boston, but the main culprits are still at large in the shadowy world of conspiracies. Bin Laden may well have masterminded this war-like operation, though he has denied involvement. So has Al-Hamas. Yet, the knives are already out in the open pointing to the so-called Islamic conspiracy of international dimension. Islam, already stigmatised in the western hemisphere, is once more being equated with fundamentalism and terrorism. Some journalists talk of a worldwide jehad against the West, echoing Samuel Huntington's notoriously ill-founded thesis on the clash of civilisations.

Already, I am inundated with scores of requests to speak and write on Islam and fundamentalism. Is it because the views of a professional historian will enhance the quality of debate? Or, is it simply because I bear a Muslim name and, therefore, am accountable for the conduct of my co-religionists from Morocco to Malaysia? It is utterly gibberish to construe last week's tragedy as an assault on Christendom: the Islamic rhetoric and the live images of some Palestinians celebrating the havoc caused by the terrorists are peripheral to a complex configuration of factors—notably, cultural anxieties, mounting political disillusionment and national identity. It's equally preposterous to draw Islam into this debate, for no religious creed sanctions violence. I needn't invoke the Quranic verses to establish the validity of my argument: this task may well be assigned to Muslim divines. My own reading is that Islam's civilisational rhythm flows from its explicit recognition of tolerance, social equality, and high moral order and spiritual depth. This factor, rather than the interpretations of an aberrant stream of Judaeo-Christianity which some people cling to, has enabled Islam to survive through the vicissitudes of history.

Doubtless, political Islam exists; in fact, the reality of mostly semi-feudal and undemocratic Muslim countries contributes to a climate in which the influence of Islamic activists will increase rather than diminish. Doubtless, fundamentalist ideas—exemplified by the imposition of obsolete moral codes and the brazen vandalism at Bamiyan—inspire certain segments of the Muslim communities. But, then, how do such elements alone represent Islam's authoritative voice? Why categorise and essentialise their stridency, and not the poise and equanimity of the silent majority? Is my Muslim barber ready to attack his next 'Hindu' customer? Do the school-going children on Bombay's Mohammad Ali Road carry the green flag with the intention to attack their Hindu or Christian neighbourhood?

Why lend credence to the notion of jehad, a doctrine that has undergone changes in its meaning to suit the changing circumstances of life? The change in the conception of jehad in the tenth century—from active to dormant war—marked, according to Ibn Khaldun (d.1406), the great Muslim thinker, the change in the character of the nation from the warlike to the civilised stage. Today, the call for jehad is merely a weak component of the Islamist rhetoric. It has few takers among Muslims.

We must reflect on these issues, for they are relevant to Kashmir and our relationship with Pakistan. As for the US, the sober advice of the American scholar John L. Esposito merits consideration: "Guided by our stated ideals and goals of freedom... the West has an ideal vantage point for appreciating the aspirations of many in the Muslim world as they seek to define new paths for their future."

(The writer is an eminent historian and author of many books.)
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