The contest over ‘true Muslims’

The Muslim leadership must consider why sectarian violence has spread with such rapidity,

Written by Balbir Punj | Updated: January 17, 2015 12:00:24 am

As is the vogue, there was all-round condemnation of the Paris massacre, both by Muslims and non-Muslims. The denouncement of the dastardly act was along predictable lines — it was an attack on the freedom of expression, and those responsible for it were not “true Muslims”.

Dalil Boubakeur, head of the French Council of the Muslim Faith, condemning the killing, said: this “immensely barbaric act is also against democracy and freedom of the press”, and that its perpetrators could not claim to be true Muslims. This statement raises an interesting question: Who is a “true Muslim”?

The sad fact is that the slain staff of French cartoon weekly Charlie Hebdo would have met the same gory end had the “crime” been committed in any of the dozen-odd Islamic countries, and even in non-Islamic countries. In Saudi Arabia, the “criminals” would have met the sword, in Pakistan, a hangman’s noose, and in Iraq and Iran, possibly faced a firing squad.

In Paris, the three “faithful” responded to the call of their “divine” duty. Elsewhere in the Islamic world, the state would have done the same, with popular sanction, as part of its duty to uphold the faith. The regimes of most Islamic countries are armed with strict blasphemy laws, where punishment for the “crime” ranges from death to years of imprisonment. And in these countries, there is widespread public support for such laws and the harsh punishment meted out to the “kafirs”. For example, a law in neighbouring Pakistan punishes derogatory remarks about the Prophet with death or life imprisonment, in addition to a fine. The offender can commit such defamation through spoken or written word — by “visible representation or by any imputation, innuendo, or insinuation” that “directly or indirectly” defames the Prophet.

This ugly reality of the Islamic world was brought out by the shocking assassination of Salmaan Taseer, governor of Punjab, in January 2011. His attacker was identified as Malik Mumtaz Hussain Qadri, a security guard, who surrendered to the police immediately afterward. “I am a slave of the Prophet and the punishment for one who commits blasphemy is death,” the assassin told a television crew shortly after the killing. The slain governor had opposed the blasphemy laws.

The fact that Qadri’s despicable act had popular endorsement was underlined during his trial. While he was being taken to court, thousands of people, including lawyers in large numbers, showered bags full of rose petals
on him and raised slogans in his favour.

Don’t Islamic states such as Pakistan, and the assassins of the cartoon magazine team, conveniently dubbed as non-state actors, share a common philosophy? Is there not commonality between the likes of Mahmud of Ghazni, who repeatedly raided India in the early 11th century and had taken a vow to wage jihad every year against the “idolaters of India”, and those guilty of organising and executing 9/11 in the US and 26/11 in India? Are they all not trying to prove themselves to be “true Muslims” and be recognised as such by the bulk of the Muslim community? Any serious effort to fight the demon of terror has to seek honest answers to some of these questions.

How serious the race to be a “true Muslim” is, is obvious from the Saudi Arabian example. The Saudi royal house is claiming its right to rule and its propagation of the faith as the protector of Islamic orthodoxy according to the faith’s holy book, and also the protector of the two holiest places of the faith. Saudi Arabia has a strong religious police to enforce the precepts prescribed in the holy book to its letter. Yet, Islamists oppose the Saudi royal house, and for long, al-Qaeda boss Osama bin Laden was its most bitter enemy, training his militants to act against Riyadh.

The whole range of conflict, whether it is between Sunni and Shia or among the Sunni or Shia factions, revolves around the issue of who a true Muslim is. It forms the basis of the bitter rivalry between Shia Iran and Sunni Saudi Arabia. The conflict between the two spills over from Pakistan to the entire Gulf region and to North Africa and elsewhere. The daily reports of mutual killings from these countries centre around this question, which seems to be answered by horrible violence that kills hundreds everyday.

The unfortunate part of this bloodletting is that those who claim that Islam is for peace and mercy are not forthcoming or willing to confront the orthodox in their faith. The ability of the extreme orthodoxy to hijack who and what is a true Muslim and carry the masses with them has led to the increasing withdrawal of the liberal Muslim from the public discourse. The majority of Muslims continue to be inspired by religious schools or madrasas.

The question, “who is a true Muslim”, is a dangerous one because it gives others the authority to set the standard for the tenets of this world religion and enables some to claim the divine right to enforce it with arms. It is for the Muslim leadership to consider why such sectarian violence against others, and even more against its own community, has spread with such rapidity, as is evident in the Islamic State- and al-Qaeda-sponsored massacres. The silence of the lambs within the community needs to be broken, especially after so much Muslim blood has been shed by their own people.

The writer is national vice president, BJP.

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