Donald Trump’s travel ban on seven Muslim countries and Europe’s increasing resistance towards refugees who have landed at its doorstep, fleeing war and torture, reflect the West’s increasing anxiety about Islam and global jihadism. The lone- wolf terror attacks, with most attackers pledging allegiance to ISIS, have added to the fears, prompting harsher policies. Are the suspicions justified, and if yes, what should the response of liberal States be? Bernard Haykel, professor of Near Eastern Studies at Princeton University and a leading expert on the Middle East and Islamic political movements, interprets the developments.
PRAVEEN SWAMI: India is the birthplace of Ahl-i Hadith but the country has not seen a very powerful jihadist movement.
In the US, there is a dominant argument that the phenomenon of global jihadism is monocausal, that there is one reason for it. They believe funding and propagation of an intolerant form of Islam called Salafism, which in this country you call Ahl-i Hadith, that comes out mainly from Saudi Arabia, has produced the jihadi phenomenon. I have been looking at this phenomenon across the world and I found that the data doesn’t actually prove (the theory). In fact, it disproves this general theory about the nature of jihadism.
Firstly, I think one can be intolerant and not violent or militant. Secondly, this argument that is being made in the US is, I think, driven and motivated by particular anxieties in America, anxieties about Islam, anxieties about the role of the US in the production of this phenomenon. If one looks at global jihadism, you have to realise that it is not monocausal.
Also, you cannot disassociate the phenomenon from the war in Afghanistan against the Soviets, that both the Saudis and the Americans were deeply implicated in; you can’t also disassociate it from the failure of Leftist and nationalist political ideologies in the Arab world that basically produced authoritarian States that could no longer deliver on their promises to their people. So, in other words, the phenomenon of global jihadism is an extremely complicated one. It’s not one that can be simply explained by saying that funding from Saudi Arabia led to jihadism.
India was in the 19th century the dominant Islamic intellectual and financial power in the broader world of Islam. The Muslims of India, even though a minority in the Indian subcontinent, were still the richest, the most educated, the most advanced Muslims in the world. And you had this Ahl-i Hadith movement here, it was very important. The influence of the Ahl-i Hadith that came to Arabia from India was very influential on them. In the 20th century, that dynamic shifted as Arabia got richer because of oil, and as India got poor relative to Arabia.
Then, starting effectively in the 1960s, it was Arabia that began funding the Ahl-i Hadith in this country (India). They started building institutions and funding educational institutions, the most important of which is the Jamia Salafia in Varanasi. And if you look at the Ahl-i Hadith in this country — I have been talking to them since the mid-1990s — whenever you talk to them about Indian politics, they talk about the Constitution, they talk about their loyalty to the State, they are against Partition because they feel that it weakened Muslims, they talk about themselves as representing a vote bank. So they talk the language of electoral politics. So, India is a good example that disproves this monocausal relationship that basically Saudi funding and intolerance lead to jihadism.
You have 180 million Muslims in India which is the second largest population of Muslims in the world after Indonesia. And yet, statistically speaking, you have produced almost no jihadis — I am talking about global jihadis — and that begs an explanation. Maybe one answer is that Indians outside of Kashmir feel that they have a stake in the political system, that even though they are discriminated against and don’t feel that they get enough share of the pie, they nonetheless are engaged in it and, therefore, don’t feel the need to become radical, unlike Muslims maybe in other countries whose frustration can only be addressed through violence.
The other interesting thing about the Indian Muslims is that they haven’t joined the fighting in Kashmir.
PRAVEEN SWAMI: Salafism is used to refer to a vast number of things. It refers to organised Salafists like the Ahl-i Hadith. It also refers to the new movements spearheaded by televangelists such as Zakir Naik.
Admittedly, Salafism is a very confusing term and people use it very loosely to refer to any number of phenomena. When the Ahl-i Hadiths or the Salafists use it for themselves, they mean a theological commitment to a certain understanding of God and to a certain interpretation of Islam which tends to be very literal and tends to be against what they consider to be innovations — new things that have come into Islam after the early centuries.
Typically they attack, in writing or verbally, sometimes in action, Sufis, who visit graves; this is an obsession with them. They feel that if you go to the grave of a Sufi saint and pray or if you ask something of the saint, then you are actually violating God’s power and belief in the ‘One God’. They also tend to be against the Shias for similar reasons. So that’s the very core, basic understanding of what Salafism is.
PRAVEEN SWAMI: But many jihadis, paradoxically, talk like Sufis.
The jihadis, in America at least and in the West, are regarded as having no culture. They are just regarded as killing machines. And one of the things about the jihadis that you will notice, if you follow them on social media, is that they produce a tremendous amount of poetry. I would say at least half of their time is devoted to poetry. I looked at their poetry and it is about this culture of martyrs who don’t decay, whose body smells nice… It is also about this utopian vision of a State in which you get justice. The jihadis think of themselves as a minority diaspora that is scattered across the world because of persecution. Poetry is also a way of having a communal identity. So, in fact, they do have a culture and that culture is very specific to them.
PRAVEEN SWAMI: What about this new kind of Islam we see being propped up online by televangelists such as Zakir Naik?
He is not a Salafi by the way. The fact that he wears a tie, you see him wearing a silk tie, no Salafi would ever do that. So you have all these hybrid forms of authority that have emerged because of the new media. With the emergence of people like him and others online, the older, traditional forms of authority have actually declined and lost some of their power. That gives space to these new forms of religious authorities to emerge and to address the public in a message that resonates with them. What the older Maulvi-types say is not in tune with the times, it is not interesting to a newer audience that maybe more educated and more plugged into the Internet.
PRAVEEN SWAMI: Dr Christine Fair, Dr Jishnu Das and others, came out with a very interesting statistical paper from Pakistan, where they found that the level of religious knowledge is actually inversely correlated to propensity to jihadism or jihadist violence.
People who really know religious tradition realise that it is a complex tradition in which you don’t often have clear-cut answers. If you look at any traditional, legal text in Islam, you always have a whole mixture of different opinions. I think the modern person, whether a jihadi or otherwise, especially if they have a bit of education and they feel empowered to look at the text themselves, they want straight-forward answers, they want an engineer’s quality (in the texts). And there is a co-relation between engineers and fundamentalism and there are a number of reasons for that.
PRAVEEN SWAMI: Is this tide of violence, witnessed over the past decades, a result of the centuries-old Islam breaking down, and a new kind of Islam finding its feet?
At least in my mind, the issue of who speaks authoritatively in the name of Islam, is now highly contested. What I feel deep down is that Islamists, people who believe that the answer to modern problems lies in religion, those people will fail.
One of the reasons why you have Islamists and jihadists is because, in the Arab world in particular which is where this is largely a problem, the State has failed. The authoritarian State in the Arab world, which was taken over by military officers through coups, adopted socialist policies and wanted to build industries, provide free healthcare, free education and jobs for everybody. But they have not been able to do that. They are all failed economies and, as a result, have had to become much more oppressive.
If you look at any population pyramid or profile of any Middle Eastern country, typically 60-70 per cent of the population is under the age of 30. These people are extremely frustrated because they see on the Internet what is happening around the world, they see that Indians have it better than they do… People’s frustrations have led to radical forms of politics.
MUZAMIL JALEEL: What in your opinion is the reason for jihadism? Religion or politics?
This division between economics and politics on the one hand and religion on the other, I am not sure human beings are like that. I think motivations are often extremely complex and some individuals may be motivated by a combination of religious ideas and economic or political constraints. Religion often acts as an explanatory framework for justifying the forms of politics that they adopt.
If you look at a typical ISIS recruit, there isn’t a single socio-economic profile you can point to, there are rich ones and there are also the poor ones. There are educated recruits and uneducated ones as well. You can’t point to a nationality, ethnicity. It is everyone and anyone. So there is no way to say that there is one type of person who is motivated by one type of issue.
SHEELA BHATT: How is the Middle East looking at Trump and vice versa?
In the Arab world, countries such as Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Libya, they are hoping that as President Trump and a number of his key advisors are anti-Iran — because they are engaged in a geopolitical rivalry with Iran — they are hoping that Trump will side with them against Iran. The Iranians, who are the other pole in this rivalry, look at President Trump and think, that well, maybe, because of his Russian connections, he will back off and not be so anti-Iran. So I think in each case in the Arab world, you have people who are projecting their hopes and looking at President Trump to support them against their regional enemy.
It is not clear actually where he will ultimately choose to be. What he is saying is very contradictory. You cannot be pro-Putin and anti-Iran in the Arab world, you will have to choose.
Israel, which is also a very important country in the region, looks to Trump and thinks that he is going to support the right wing in Israel, people who are for settlements in the West Bank. He is not going to push for a two-state solution for Palestine. I think we are yet to see what is going to happen with Trump. President Trump is an individual who seems to say something and you think he actually believes it and then it turns out that he doesn’t.
RAJ KAMAL JHA: How do you see these lone-wolf terror attacks in cities in the US and Europe playing out over the next few years? Is Syria today’s Afghanistan? Will refugees and role of big powers in the war feed the next wave of anger, violence?
The attacks in the West are of two types. You have the lone-wolf attacks, such as the Orlando incident, the San Bernardino attack (in the US), the attacks in Nice and Berlin. And then you have coordinated attacks which are directed from the ISIS in Europe, like the 2015 attacks in Paris.
I think that as the ISIS is defeated, as this political project is defeated, the number of people attracted to this idea will diminish. But terrorism as a whole is a phenomenon that we will have to learn to live with, specifically terrorism that is motivated by Islamic considerations about Muslims being victims and being pushed to retaliate.
Now my view is that fine, they killed 200 people, whatever it is, it is not an existential threat. In the US, you lose 20 times more people in car accidents. So, we shouldn’t overreact and accept it as a normal part of life, in the way that Israelis have accepted it. Overreacting is serving the purpose of terrorists. My worry is that some people, such as the right-wing Europeans, are overreacting to these kind of attacks. They are using these attacks to justify policies that are against refugees, that are against outsiders. So you see this rise in xenophobic nationalism in Europe that I think had gone away after World War-II. But it’s coming back in a big way.
As far as Syria is concerned, it is a very serious situation. The regime of Bashar al-Assad, backed by Iran, backed by Russia, has done two things. One, it has killed at least 5,00,000 people. And it has tortured probably an equal number, including rapes and assaults. And it has displaced 11 million people internally and around the region. That is half the population of Syria. That is the scale of human tragedy. Refugees are, by nature, having lost everything, more amenable to radical action. My fear is what will happen to these 11 million people if they don’t go back and remain refugees.
MANEESH CHHIBBER: You spoke about Muslims in Kashmir not finding support outside the Valley. Why do you think that is the case?
The answers are anecdotal. One is that Muslims in India, outside of Kashmir, feel that it is a very local issue and doesn’t concern them. It could also be because they don’t support the idea that some Kashmiris may want to be a part of Pakistan or be independent. Indian Muslims feel that we are Indian, we don’t want to get involved in the Kashmir debate, or be in any way painted with the same brush, because in the Kashmir situation, your commitment to Indian nationalism is put under question. Indian Muslims already feel nervous about this issue because they are questioned why they are here and not in Pakistan.
AMRITH LAL: How do you see the Kashmir rebellion? Do you see it as a national liberation struggle or do you see any other manifestation?
It is complicated. There are Kashmiris who have been brutalised by tactics of the Indian government that have been extremely aggressive. It is a population that has been taken advantage of by the Pakistani State, specifically the Pakistani military and intelligence service. I think of Kashmiris as victims, as double victims maybe even triple victims. Being victims of both the Pakistani State, the Indian State, and their inability to find a solution that will suit both their national interests and will somehow (help them) get rid of the grip of these two States, in the most intimate and daily affairs of the people of the Valley.