Fundamentalists flourish in secular vacuum
By M J Akbar
The great contradiction of fundamentalist politics is that it cannot deliver on the basic problem that provoked its rise, economic deprivation...Ordinary Indians hunger for more bread, not more guns...The bad news is that it takes only 1% to wreak havoc.
Who, or what, is a fundamentalist? The word might even be a tautology, for a believer can only be true to his faith if he believes in its fundamentals. You cannot be very faithful, can you, if you believe only in supplementaries? I fast during Ramadan, one of the five fundamental tenets of Islam: I hope this does not make me a fundamentalist.
The slide begins when one faith begins to encroach upon a separate conviction. The first symptom of fundamentalism is aggression. When this aggression is channelled through an organized section of a community, it becomes communalism. When a state codifies such aggression through statute, or executive authority, it becomes a fundamentalist state.
Is an Islamic state ipso facto fundamentalist? No. The Quran repeatedly commends co-existence: “ Lakum deen-e kum wal ya deen (Your religion for you and my religion for me)” and “La iqra fi al deen (Let there be no compulsion in religion)”. The exemplar of the Islamic state is obviously the period when the Prophet was head of the city-state of Medina in addition to being rasool of the Muslims. Medina was multi-religious and multi-ethnic, with a mixed population including Jews, Christians and non-Muslim Arabs. There is no instance of a church or synagogue being destroyed under his watch. There was instead a Muslim-Jewish covenant on the principle of “Lahum ma lana wa alayhim ma alayna” : Jews and Muslims had the same rights and duties. “The terms of the covenant were primarily based on recognition of diverse affiliations and did not demand conversion,” writes Tariq Ramadan (The Messenger, Penguin).
This hardly means that Muslims today cannot be fundamentalists, but it is illogical to blame Islam for the sins of Muslims.
Indian secularism, turned into a modern political force by Mahatma Gandhi, a great expert in fusing the best of Hinduism and Islam, is based on the equality of “diverse affiliations”. His personality and philosophy attracted unprecedented Muslim support. No Indian has commanded as much allegiance from Indian Muslims as Gandhi did during the Khilafat movement (1919-1922), but that support withered after the Mahatma abandoned the movement arbitrarily after Chauri Chaura. One section of the disillusioned community drifted, over the next fifteen years, inexorably towards the politics of separation and eventually Pakistan.
British India re-mapped itself into three nations. Each has a father figure: Gandhi, Jinnah, Mujibur Rehman. All three wanted their children to believe in a multi-faith nation. Gandhi prayed all the time; Jinnah only when compelled; Mujib was somewhere in-between. Their personal predilections did not influence their vision for their country. Jinnah wanted his “Muslim India” to permit Hindus to worship as they pleased in their temples for religion, in his view, was no business of the state. Mujib’s Bangladesh promised equality to Bengali Hindus.
One measure of prevalent fundamentalism would be the distance that each nation has wandered from the vision of its father. Surely the most heartbroken would be Jinnah, as the laws and culture of puritanical theocracy invade public space in Pakistan with a momentum that no one seems capable of reversing.
The shift towards fundamentalist politics, even by a minority within a minority, needs a combustible base as well as a spark. Some Indian Muslims have been drawn towards extremist rhetoric by a growing sense of economic victimization. Not unnaturally, this was most evident among the young, who feel the humiliation of discrimination in jobs most keenly.
Rising India seems sympathetic to only two categories: the winner and the victim. The first becomes a celebrity; the latter wallows, effectively, in the swamp of the collective. The government has created a sanctimonious comfort zone for the victim. It is called reservations. Muslim youth have been denied the false comfort of reservations as well.
The spark is demagoguery. Oratory is a fine art in Indian Muslim culture; demagoguery is periodic epilepsy. The man who revived it was the Shahi Imam of the Delhi Jama Masjid in 1977, Abdullah Bukhari. His anger had cause. The Congress had threatened his sanctum sanctorum during the Emergency. The interesting point is that both the anti-Congress alliance, banded under the Janata label, and the Congress gave him legitimacy. The Janata used him to defeat Mrs Indira Gandhi in 1977; Mrs Indira Gandhi used him to defeat the Janata in 1980. His self-importance never looked back. In the company of imitators, he shifted to hysteria during the Shah Bano episode in the 1980s. This was soon answered by the equally ferocious hysteria of the Ram Janmabhoomi movement. It took the conflagration of the winter of 1992 and 1993 to put hysteria on hold.
The pause did not eliminate the strain in either gene. The culture of verbal violence had an inevitable physical by-product, organized riots and terrorism.
Fundamentalism flourishes best in the space vacated by secular parties. As the principal standard-bearers of secularism have devalued and corrupted their ethics, smaller parties have emerged with fewer reasons for restraint. The din of electioneering makes a mockery of electoral laws; very few candidates could survive a scrutiny based on the standards imposed by the Election Commission. Governments may screen their misdemeanours artfully, but their record is even more reprehensible. The overt indulgence of minority fundamentalism is compensated by covert compromise with majority fundamentalism. The end result is an unholy mess.
The great contradiction of fundamentalist politics, its epic flaw, is that it cannot deliver on the basic problem that provoked its rise, economic deprivation. Rage is not an economic policy. Violence is the antidote of economic progress. It can succeed at moments of high social stress or public rage, but that is a short-term placebo for blood pressure. Ordinary Indians hunger for more bread, not more guns. This is what keeps the overwhelming majority away from fundamentalism.
The bad news is that it takes only one per cent to wreak havoc.
Appeared in Times of India - September 07, 2008