Terror and Radical Islam in India and Pakistan by Muhammad Ashraf and Stephen Suleyman Schwartz

Cafe Dissensus [New York] January 21, 2016

178Muhammad Ashraf: As 2016 began, terrorists attacked the Indian air force base at Pathankot. Seven members of the military and six extremists were killed in four days of fighting. Media report that responsibility for the assault belongs to a terrorist group mainly active in Pakistan, Jaish-e-Muhammad [‘Army of Muhammad’], which is aligned with Lashkar-e-Taiba [‘Army of the Righteous’]. Both have focused their violent attentions on Kashmir. What is the main motive guiding such terrorist networks in Pakistan in your opinion?

Stephen Schwartz: I believe these groups function on two levels. On one, which is broad, they are associated with South Asian jihadism in general and reflect the same intolerant ideologies as Al-Qaida and the so-called ‘Islamic State’. In addition, they train and indoctrinate jihadist fanatics in a setting away from Western intervention. The aim of that aspect of their activity is to sow fear and confusion in the Indian subcontinent and the subcontinental Muslim diaspora. On a second level, which is narrow, they fulfil the needs of radicals in the Pakistani government who wish to maintain local chaos in Kashmir. The vacillation of the Pakistani regime in dealing with these groups is evidence that Pakistan truly is a failed state. It cannot control its internal politics, and terror continues unchecked, often with official protection.

MA: How should we analyse the fact that the ‘Islamic State’ has less impact on South Asia than in other areas? Is there a particular reason for this?

SS: First, the ‘Islamic State’ already has a considerable number of radical competitors in South Asia, drawn from the Wahhabi, Deobandi, and Mawdudist extremist trends. Second, Pakistan is, at least in name, an ‘Islamic Republic.’ Third, while groups in places as distant from the Middle East as Indonesia on one hand and West Africa on the other claim loyalty to the ‘Islamic State’, and many misguided Muslims have gone from those regions to fight in Syria and Iraq, finally the ‘Islamic State’ is an Arab and (supporting Bashar Al-Assad) an Iranian matter. Lastly, the crimes of the Al-Assad regime have inflamed Sunnis in Syria and nearby countries but no such atrocities are occurring in South Asia, such as might produce a new jihadist outburst on so great a scale.

MA: Can you describe the way Muslims in South Asia may live while keeping their pluralistic tradition of moderate Islam?

SS: The key for maintaining moderate and pluralistic Islam in South Asia is simple, and comprises moderate and pluralistic Islamic education. Muslims trained in the philosophical, theological, and metaphysical aspects of the Islamic past and present will not turn to radicalism. Muslims aware of the living nature of the Islamic classics, especially those of the great Sufis, will be encouraged to avoid the rigid dogmas of the Wahhabis, Deobandis, and their like.

MA: Is there anything for governments to do in this direction?

SS: In the West, some countries, like the United States, stay strictly out of religious affairs. France goes the furthest in this direction. But other democratic countries, like Germany and Britain, support education about religion in the public schools, and The Netherlands finances diverse media for its religious communities. In countries like India, where there is great religious variety, it seems obvious that government will have no choice but to administer religious institutions. For Muslims, these include waqf boards and hajj programs. Moderate and pluralistic Muslims must press action to prevent these bodies from falling into the hands of radicals. Government must be prepared to take action in this direction.

MA: Unlike South Asia, the Western societies are generally secular. What is integral to sustaining pluralism in our times, religion or secularism?

SS: The French Muslim ulema are known for arguing that scrupulous French secularism protects Muslims, like other believers and non-believers. That is, French law prevents the establishment of a single state religion, and leaves matters of faith up to personal conscience. A less rigorous form of secularism is found in the U.S. – for example, France bans religious symbols from public schools, which would never take place in America. As a believer, I am convinced that the works of religion are integral to contemporary pluralism. Religion promotes social values; the state arbitrates among the issues those values produce. We may say that religion and secularism are the two legs on which ‘modernity’, that much-evoked but vague concept, stand.

MA: We know the difference between Western secularism and Eastern or Indian secularism. What do you perceive as the meaning of Islamic secularism? Is it a mere theory without practical implications?

SS: I do not know India well enough to compare Western and Indian secularism, but the long domination of Indian politics by multi-confessional parties and minority personalities suggests to me that there is not much difference. Regarding Islamic secularism, it is not a theory. It is a reality in the Balkans, Turkey, Azerbaijan and the other ex-Soviet Muslim states, and Indonesia. Islamic secularism recognizes the Islamic majority in a country’s census but separates religious decision-making from state policy. That is in reality a well-developed, thoroughly Islamic concept that had its origins in the decline of the Mu’tazila, who created a state interpretation of Islam, beginning in the 10th century of the common era. The Mu’tazila are widely praised in the West and among some Muslim scholars as ‘rationalists’, and as a counterforce to the ulema. But this view ignores the adoption of state compulsion by the Mu’tazila and the importance of the ulema as a counter-power to the rulers. That was the beginning of a form of secularism that may be revived. Further, we have the example of the post-Mongol Baghdad caliphate, which refused to grant lawmaking status to the ulema, but retained their Mongol customary law, and the Ottomans, who similarly preserved their traditional code of law. Whether limiting the interference of rulers in religion, as in the Mu’tazili case, or that of religion in governance, as with the Ottomans, Islamic history has a solid foundation on which to erect a sustainable theory of Islamic secularism. Unfortunately, as noted in my answer to your fourth question, in countries with great religious differences government may be forced to intervene in religious affairs – but it should do so in a non-sectarian manner, aiming at the common public good.

MA: We really must understand the value of pluralism in this time of extremist upheavals. But how do we recover our religious communities from extremist misinterpretations?

SS: The answer remains the same as to your earlier questions: through Islamic education, mobilization, and monitoring of Islamic institutions.

MA: As my last question, can you describe a personal experience, of seeing anyone rescued from extremist ideas?

SS: I have met former jihadis and spoken with them. In the period directly after the attacks of 11th September, 2001, I perceived among them three types, which I had also seen, decades before, in radical leftist politics. Jihadi recruits broke down among ambitious, frustrated men and women who desired to excel but who could not do so in their native societies; convinced ideologues; and sojourners who happened to fall into jihadist company. I referred to these three types as ‘the leader’, ‘the theorist/writer’, and ‘the haphazard follower’. Since the years directly after 11th September, it has become clear that criminals have flocked to the ranks of the jihadis. One thing I can say about nearly all these types: except for the ‘haphazard follower’ and the criminal, who may abandon jihadism as soon as they realize the risks and difficulties they face, the ‘leaders’ and ‘theorists’ often go to jihad with little religious education in Islam. Once they begin to study the faith, many will become alienated from jihadism.

But in the past, this was also true of the radical left: reading and study are the enemies of zealotry.


Muhammad Ashraf Thachara Padikkal is completing his graduation from Madeenathunnor, Kozhikode, Kerala, India. He is an interviewer, writer and independent research fellow, specializing in the areas of Sufism, Islamic studies and cultural anthropology. He is also interested in tradition, philology and subaltern literature.