War is the transformation of heightened violence into the familiar. The world is back at war with this difference: The enemy is, in scale, malevolence and persistence, outside known precedent. We are still shocked but, worryingly, no longer startled. Global terrorism has become the birth defect of this century. It hovers over every port and destination, residence and playing field like a venomous fog curling out of some bottomless chasm of hatred. There is uncertainty even among the sane as their response fluctuates wildly between reason and dread. The new normal is in dangerous flux on every side. On the Friday after the terrorist attack in Brussels, some local Muslims urged that prayers be offered for the departed. The Imam refused. The dead, he said, were not Muslims. Such is the silent womb that breeds a culture of killing. I was both shocked and startled at the response of the clerics.
The most effective ally of terrorism is complacency. One criminal, Ibrahim el-Bakraoui, was hiding in plain sight of the authorities. Turkey had deported him to the Netherlands in 2015 for being a “foreign terrorist fighter”, to repeat the term used by Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. A second, Abdelhamid Abaaoud, was on the most-wanted list. The Belgian police did nothing. Has the present European establishment, born in luxury and oblivious of battlefield conflict, become too bewildered by a crisis it does not understand, whose dimensions it does not recognise and whose consequences it does not know?
Something truly historic is happening. Huge Muslim populations are abandoning nations their fathers fought to liberate from foreign rule and seeking sanctuary in the very countries that once subjugated them as colonies. This is not economic migration, which is a common enough fact in any age. This is political and social migration, a desperate search for security and social values that have disappeared from their ancestral nations. Formidable imperialists like Winston Churchill predicted, before 1947, that India would descend into chaos the moment “natives” took charge. India found its feet and matched forward. How would Churchill have reacted to Syrians and Iraqis waiting at Britain’s door? After all he, as the colonial secretary in 1922, drew the lines that became boundaries. Churchill would have enjoyed explicit accolades to Britain’s welfare state and values, but might have winced at the embrace.
The most frequent question I hear when abroad is: Why have Indian Muslims remained by and large free from this plague? The world is often more objective about us than we are about ourselves. It does not confuse a wart with an incurable disease. The reasons range from old to new. Indian Muslims, with their unique history, are at heart culturally cosmopolitan, drawing their living ideology from the Quranic injunction “La qum deen o qum wa il ya deen (To you, your faith, to me, mine)”. This is the essence of what is known as the Barelvi school of thought, advocated so eloquently and powerfully by Prime Minister Narendra Modi at the international conference this month. Compare this with the rather unfortunate intervention by Mrs Sonia Gandhi at the meeting of the Jamiat Ulama-E-Hind, an organisation of clerics that has many (but not all) leaders who tend towards Wahabi fundamentalism. Mrs Gandhi sought to suggest that the secularism that is India’s inheritance and reality was under threat, which is political gamesmanship at best and cynicism at worst. India has always believed in faith equality as the basis for civilisation and a foundation for the nation-state. The world is beginning to appreciate the value of this truth.
Fear can have strange dimensions. Dread of total annihilation seems so impossible that fear itself becomes pointless. It is fear of the possible that makes terrorism such a consuming cancer. Indians and Pakistanis are today arguably less afraid of nuclear war than of the terrorist monster that ravages the enemy and also savages the hand that feeds it. But are we witnessing the ultimate dream, that the worst of times brings out the best in us? Even months ago, any suggestion that the governments of India and Pakistan would cooperate on terrorism would have been dismissed as too optimistic by even the most generous well-wishers. And yet a beginning has been made over Pathankot, although we can be sure that the masters of evil will do their best to sabotage this incipient trust. Narendra Modi and Nawaz Sharif are fully aware of the perils ahead, which makes their courage all the more remarkable.
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