Shocking news from Belgium: Only eight of the 114 mosque imams in Brussels speak any of Belgium’s traditional languages. When Muslims betake themselves to the mosque to relieve their isolation in the host state, and listen to sermons advocating laws totally alien to modern life, they become more alienated than non-Muslim expats. The reason for this is the nature of the laws imposed on them as compulsory observance. The sharia was once disputed among Muslims; it is no longer. How should such old laws of behaviour be modified in our lives today? This modification is also required due to the tribal origin of sharia.
Muslims are undecided about modifying the law of diyat (blood money), which anciently existed among tribes. Sadly, in the 21st century, they are moving towards a literalist interpretation of their law. In other words, the project of Islamisation is a kind of planned retribalisation of the state. The expat Muslim, therefore, is not only alienated/ dislocated by migration; he is also retribalising himself as a mark of the identity he thinks he is losing.
Akbar Ahmed, in his book, The Thistle and the Drone: How America’s War on Terror Became a Global War on Tribal Islam (2013), pointed out that the wave of terrorism striking the Muslim world was essentially “a clash, not between civilisations based on religion, but between central governments and the tribal communities on the periphery”. He thinks America is waging a global war, not against terrorism, but against the tribal societies of Islam. Borrowing from Tolstoy’s account of rebel Hadji Murad in the Caucuses, Ahmed compares the tribal man to the “thistle” plant that bites the hand that touches it.
The Soviet Union walked into “tribal” Afghanistan because it had forgotten what the tsarist armies in the tribal Caucuses had suffered at the hands of Chechen warriors. Then, America stepped in and got bitten by the same prickly “thistle”. Pakistan activated its tribal areas against India, not realising that 9/11 will cause a rift between it and the tribal warriors. It forced them to choose between co-tribals — Mullah Omar and Osama bin Laden — and the rest of the world. The Muslim tribes of north Africa today are challenging the world by aligning with the supra-tribal Islamic State bent on retribalising the Muslims of the world.
Like Pakistan, Arabs, too, have used the tribes to quell unrest in their societies. Frederic M. Wehrey, in Sectarian Politics in The Gulf: From the Iraq War to the Arab Uprising (2016), tells us how Sunni-ruled Bahrain, facing a Shia-majority challenge at home, imported “tribals” from other Arab states to put down the revolt. In September 2006, a Sudanese-born advisor to the Bahraini cabinet affairs ministry, in a 240-page report, revealed “a long-standing trend by the government of recruiting foreign Sunnis from the tribal areas of Pakistan, Yemen, Syria and Saudi Arabia into the Bahraini security services and then granting them citizenship”.
Radicalisation is another name for retribalisation. The Arab world saw its population squeezed into big cities earlier than India and Pakistan, where agriculture has kept a majority of people out of cities. But in subcontinental cities, the rising middle class is turning to religion and increasingly electing rightwing, religion-favouring parties to power. In Pakistan, large swathes of territory are occupied by the “proud” and “warlike” tribes deeply committed to sectarian Islam. But in the cities, the rising madrasa is retribalising the urban middle class as well because of the tribal-law-based faith it preaches.
In 1997, French scholar Gilles Kepel first warned the world about what was happening to expat Pakistanis in the UK in his book, Allah in the West: Islamic Movements in America and Europe. Workers’ mosques were built in the 1950s in the industrial areas of the UK, as opposed to France, where this trend started only in the 1970s. Clearly, this early development reflected what Pakistan itself was going through: A transition from soft Barelvi Islam of the mystical kind to the hard Deobandi Islam of jihad. Pakistan stopped sending out its Barelvi preachers without London realising what was happening till it became “Londonistan”. As Deobandi preachers from Pakistan took over mosques in the UK, Arab money followed; and today, expat Pakistanis visiting their home country shock their relatives with the hard isolationism of their faith.
Religious disaffection in Pakistan is comparable to the isolationism of the expat Muslim. Expats see Pakistan as a “pagan” state because of its banking system, which allows riba (usury). Most Muslims in Pakistan do interest- or riba-based banking, while most of the Muslim expats in England do Islamic banking. The madrasa in Pakistan is offended that Pakistan doesn’t cut hands for stealing although the punishment is in the statute book; nor does it stone women to death for fornication, as in Iran.
Pakistan will be endangered if the Taliban gets back in power in Afghanistan. Had Pakistan and India not chosen Afghanistan as their next battlefield, they could have cooperated for survival against the rise of outfits like the Islamic State. The revival of the Hindu religion in India doesn’t help the disenchanted Pakistani leaders who belatedly try to observe Holi with their downtrodden Hindu communities.