French President Emmanuel Macron merely dared to say Islam is in crisis, and got himself into big trouble.
Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdogan asked him to get his head examined. Pakistan’s Imran Khan wrote a two-page sermon to fellow Muslim nations calling for a re-education of the West about Islam.
No such restraint for Malaysia’s 95-year-old Mahathir Mohamad. He got so furious as to nearly justify mass killings of the French for what they might have done to Muslims in the past, besides indeed condemning the decadent, ‘Christian only in name’ West where women often walk around with no more than a “little string (that) covers the most secret place”. Protests broke out in Pakistan, Bangladesh and India.
But, did Macron speak the truth or not? The reaction of these prominent leaders from powerful and populous Muslim countries points to a crisis. If tens of crores of Muslims across the world feel that they are victims of mass Islamophobia, it is a sense of siege and crisis. Unlike a sacred scripture, however, there can be many versions of what this truth is. Here is this humble editorialist’s effort.
Let me break it down in five broad points:
1) All religions are political. At this point, though, Islam is the most politicised. You can surely hark back to the centuries of the Christian Crusades, but that was some time back. Doesn’t matter if that imagery is often invoked by leaders of al-Qaeda, ISIS and sometimes also the odd angry Islamic nation.
Islam is also the second largest faith in the world, with nearly 200 crore adherents, just behind Christians by about 20 per cent. Like Christians, Muslims also live across the world. But unlike Christians, in the countries where they have a majority, very few have democracy. That’s a checkable fact. Important to note, about 60 per cent of all Muslims are in Asia and four of their largest populations in the world live under different degrees of democracy, between India, Indonesia, Bangladesh and Pakistan.
Stretching this argument further, in countries where Muslims have a majority, secularism is generally a bad word, or a Western concept. But in democratic nations where Muslims are a minority, they persistently put the republic’s secular commitment to test. France, Britain, the US, Belgium, Germany are all good examples. There is a reason I do not include India here. Because, unlike Europe to which they migrated lately, in India Muslims were equal and voluntary partners in forming this new republic.
2) There is an unresolved tension among Muslim populations and nations between nationalism and pan-nationalism. This arises from the concept of Ummah — that all Muslims of the world are one supra-national entity. Check this out from Imran Khan’s two-page discourse to his fellow Ummah leaders. We have seen this expressed in the subcontinent sometimes. In the Khilafat Movement of 1919-24, protesting against Kemal Ataturk’s winding up of the Ottoman Caliphate and founding of the Turkish Republic, to Salman Rushdie to the now-fading support for Palestine. And now France.
There are some interesting consequences here. While the notion is pan-Islamism, many more wars are fought between Muslims and Muslim states than with others. The Iran-Iraq war was the longest, a large number of Islamic states joined the coalition against Saddam under the US, and, closer home, in the Af-Pak region, Muslims only kill Muslims and not all of them in Friday bombings at Shia mosques.
The last time we saw a truly pan-Islamic alliance fight against a common, non-Muslim enemy was the 6-Day War in 1967 against Israel. There was a bit of it again in the Yom Kippur War in 1973. But then Egypt and Jordan signed up for peace. Iran is left mostly alone to fight Israel from a distance, Syria has self-destructed. In none of Pakistan’s wars against India has any Islamic nation come to its aid. Barring Jordan transferring some F-104 Starfighters in 1971.
3) Which brings us to a brutal irony. If pan-Islamism, the Ummah spirit, has worked on the ground, it is with multi-national terror groups. Al-Qaeda and ISIS are truly pan-Islamic organisations, which mostly target settled Islamic states. ISIS actually says that if you believe that all Muslims are part of the same Ummah, then they must also have a Caliphate subsuming international boundaries and enforcing the common Shariat.
Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, Libya, keep counting. This should also make us reflect on why is it that so few Muslims from the subcontinent, home to one-third of all the world’s Muslims, are seen in al Qaeda or ISIS. The argument I put forward in this debate is, in our nations, India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, nationalism trumps pan-Islamism. Muslims in these countries have a flag and a cricket team to support, a leader to love or hate. And if they hate him, to vote him out or protest in any preferred manner. Why should they prefer some mythical Caliphate?
4) The fourth is a crippling contradiction. There are sharp national boundaries dividing Muslim populations and wealth. A bulk of the populations, in Asia and Africa, lives in poor economies. Whereas the world’s wealthiest nations, the Gulf Arabs, have relatively minuscule populations. They won’t distribute their wealth equally to the rest in the spirit of pan-Islamism.
They are happy to find a compact with the West, and now also with India and Israel. Because for them, everything, their political power, royal privileges, global stature depends on that one thing pan-Islamism challenges: Status quo. Nobody has an answer to this GDP-population mismatch. And the rise of a power like ISIS only further fortifies these walls.
5) And last, because of a democratic deficit, in most Islamic countries you cannot even protest, express your resentment against your regime. You might feel sickened that your royalty is sold to the American Satan, but you can do nothing about it. Not shout a slogan, wave a placard, write a blog, a letter to the editor, even a tweet. This could land you in a jail forever, or get you beheaded. So, you go and do it where you can.
That is why, in 2003, I wrote a ‘National Interest’ headlined Globalisation of Revenge. Because you cannot do any of this in your country, you do it in Europe, America. You cannot even whisper a word in anger in your brutally-controlled national security state, so you go to another. Where you can freely live, train to be airline pilots, and then slam those planes into the twin towers. Where even Khalid Sheikh Mohammed has the right to a somewhat fair trial. You can’t fight your masters, so why not punish the master’s masters? Isn’t this globalisation of revenge?
In conclusion, let’s return to the killing of Samuel Paty in France. The killer was Abdoullakh Anzorov, an 18-year-old from a Chechen refugee family. Chechnya is a tiny Russian republic in the North Caucasus with just over a million people, 95% of them Muslim. Russians subdued their separatist rebellion after two brutal wars. But, by the time ‘normalcy’ came, half of that little population was living in refugee camps. Many sought a better life in Western democracies, like this teenaged assassin’s family.
Let’s reconstruct the jigsaw. When Chechnya fought a jihad against the Russians, many Muslim ‘fighters’ from across the world, including many veterans of Afghanistan, joined them. Because this was all they had learnt to do yet, fight a jihad against the Russians. Pan-Islamism led to death, destruction and mass destitution of Chechens. Tens of thousands escaped to liberal democracies for safety, a better life and peace. Now they also want compliance with their own social and religious values there. To decide what your cartoonists can draw and teachers can teach. Reflect on this and then debate if the five points we detailed earlier make sense or not.