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Islam, Muslims and Ethnicity

Ethnicity is an important factor underlying current rebellions in many parts of the world, including in Afghanistan where the violence is wrongly interpreted as fundamentalist Islam at work.

COMMENTARY

o ffensive against terrorism, which has its

Islam, Muslims and Ethnicity

main base in Afghanistan. It is reportedly deploying an additional 17,000 troops in Afghanistan. Ultimately it is proposed that Balraj Puri 60,000 troops will be there over the next

Ethnicity is an important factor underlying current rebellions in many parts of the world, including in Afghanistan where the violence is wrongly interpreted as fundamentalist Islam at work.

Balraj Puri (balraj_puri1@rediffmail.com) is a writer and human rights activist.

Economic & Political Weekly

EPW
april 25, 2009

B
arack Obama has learnt some lessons from the mistakes of his predecessor George W Bush in his approach to Muslims and terrorism, mainly in terms of strategy.

Strategies: Old and New

Bush declared Iran to be a part of the “axis of evil” for its presumed possession of nuclear arms, though its Shia population had nothing in common with Sunni Al Qaida. Its Persian civilisation predates that of Iraq which is a part of the Arab civilisation and both are traditional rivals. There was an attempt to cut off Iran from its non-Muslim friends like India. As two of the most ancient civilisations, India and Iran share a common heritage of knowledge and culture. Persian has been an official language of India for long and many Persian poets of India like Ghani Kashmiri are also respected in Iran. Another common factor in the mutual relations is that after Iran, India is home to the second largest population of Shia Muslims.

Instead of using Indian influence on Iran to neutralise it, India was pressurised by the United States (US) to oppose Iran’s case in the International Atomic Energy Agency twice. India also had to slow down its talks on economic cooperation with Iran, including constructing a gas pipeline with it.

Obama, in contrast, started his tenure showing a conciliatory face of US to the Muslim world. In an interview with the Duabi-based Al Arabia Network, directed squarely at Muslims around the world, he assured them that “the Americans are not your enemy”. He declared the intention of his government to withdraw in phases from Iraq the bulk of the 1,40,000 American soldiers within a year. He expressed his willingness to talk with Iran and extended his hand to it if it unclenched its fist. Iran has responded positively and high level track two talks are reported to have started.

Having thus narrowed its target the US’ new strategy is to concentrate on an

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year if the war prolongs. America is also exploring other routes to Afghanistan, namely central Asia, to keep its supply line intact in case the route through Pakistan encounters some difficulty.

As terrorism has spread its tentacles to the neighbouring areas of Pakistan, Obama declared both Afghanistan and Pakistan as the centres of terrorism.

Ethnic Identities

The new strategy in dealing with terrorism and increase in forces and economic aid to Afghanistan and Pakistan is certainly an improvement. But this is not enough unless fuller lessons from the recent past are learnt about Islam and Muslim communities. Islam, like any other religion, is not an undifferentiated rigid concept. Apart from the known schism between Shias, Sunnis, Ahmadiyas and the followers of Agha Khan, the followers of the five schools of Fiqh (Islamic laws), Deoband, Bareily, Ahl-Hadith, Wahabi, Salfi and mystic Sufis can be distinguished from one another. Thus Muslims of, say, Iraq, Iran and Afghanistan are different not only in their political ideology but also in their concept of Islam.

What is more important but less recognised is the fact that ethnic identities of Muslim communities are a factor in determining their behaviour. As far as the terrorists in Afghanistan are concerned, there are two groups, i e, Al Qaida who are Arabs, Chechens and Uzbeks, and the Taliban who are real Afghans and whose ethnic base is Pakhtoons. They comprise 54% of the multi-ethnic society of Afghanistan and are settled on both sides of the Durand line that separates Afghanistan from Pakistan. For tactical reasons a distinction needs to be drawn between the Al Qaida and the Taliban.

The Pakhtoons led by the legendary Khan Abdul Ghaffar Khan, were the most ardent followers of Gandhi in the entire subcontinent. They demonstrated their belief and practice in non-violence in an exemplary way. Why of all the communities did they turn from non-violence to

COMMENTARY

terrorism? In the vast literature on the Taliban, the only relevant refe rence to this question that I could find is in a book titled Recovering the Frontier State by Rasul Bakhsh Rais (Karachi: Oxford University Press). He writes “Taliban, which resurrected in 2003 from the debris of Afghanistan thanks to the US being busy in a diversion called Iraq, is not only a crazy bunch driven by religious zeal”. According to him, “its ethnic undertones cannot be dismissed as irrelevant”.

The Pakhtoons, now turned Talibanites, have been fighting for recognition of their identity in the form of an independent Pakhtoo nistan. They never reconciled to being merged into a unitary Pakistan, nor to the Durand line arbitrarily drawn by the British for a specified period and which divided them in two countries of Afghanistan and Pakistan.

Pakhtoon-led Afghanistan did not even reconcile itself to the creation of Pakistan and was the only country which opposed its membership of the United Nations. Afghanistan and the Pakhtoons always looked to India for moral support. But they received a rude shock when India supported the Russian army’s attack on Afghanistan in 1979. Disillusioned by India, they turned to the US and Pakistan who not only supplied them arms but also the ideological support of militant Islam. It was the time when US believed that Islam was the best antidote to communism.

The Pakhtoon Factor

This, in short, is the genesis of the birth of what is called Islamic terrorism. The lesson it gives is that Islam is not only uniformly interpreted by its followers everywhere but that Muslims like everybody else have an identity other than that based on religion alone and they also belong to an ethnic identity based on race, language, etc. Khan Abdul Wali Khan, son of Abdul Ghaffar Khan put it graphically when he defined his identity as a Pakistani for 50 years (at that time), a Muslim for 1,400 years and a Pakhtoon for 5,000 years.

The first step to satisfy Pakhtoon urges should be the reorganisation of Afghanistan on some sort of federal principle, so that all ethnic identities get some degree of political and administrative autonomy. Even within Pakistan, the North-West Frontier Province (NWFP) should be reorgnised to include all Pushtoo-speaking areas and, as promised by the late Benazir Bhutto during her election campaign, be given autonomy. As far as the Durand line is concerned, in course of time, it can be made soft and gradually irrelevant, even if it cannot be abolished.

It is the ethnic affinity between Pakhtoons in Pakistan and in Afghanistan that has made its western borders vulnerable to the influence of Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan led by Baitul Masud. The recent ceasefire agreement between the Pakistan government and Taliban led by Maulvi Faqir Muhammad in Swat is a virtual surrender of the former to the latter. The Swat truce extends to Bajans Agency in the Federal Agency for Tribal Areas (FATA). What facilitated the takeover of these areas by the Taliban is the fact that next to Punjabis, Pakhtoons are the major component of the Pakistan army. They are reluctant to fight against Pakhtoon terrorists and have also occasionally surrendered to them.

The next set of people to welcome terrorists from Afghanistan into Pakistan after the NWFp is the Pakhtoon and B alochi population of Balochistan which has been similarly in revolt ever since the birth of Pakistan, under the banner of the Balochistan Liberation United Front. Abdul Samad Khan, also called the Balochi Gandhi, who was their leader during the freedom movement was a colleague of Abdul Ghaffar Khan and believed in the same ideology. Another local rebel leader, the Nawab of Bagti, was killed by the Musharraf regime a couple of years ago and the promise of autonomy to B alochistan too was not conceded.

In fact, the rest of Pakistan has also been undergoing some sort of ethnic resurgence. As opposed to the assertion of ethnic identities, Pakistan has been seeking its unity either through fundamentalism or army rule and at times through both. The revolt in erstwhile East Pakistan (now Bangladesh) and its separation after its demand for autonomy, eloquently demonstrates the limitation of this approach to ensure the unity of the country, as their ethnic urges were not satisfied.

april 25, 2009

The Pakistani leaders must take note of other ethnic identities that constitute the country. G M Sayed, a popular leader of Sindh, carried on a movement for an i ndependent Sindh, which he claimed to be the oldest civilisation of the world, starting from Mohenjedaro and which the Pakistan government officially did not own. The Muttahida Qaumi Movement (MQM) is still promoting the notion of a separate province called Urdu Pradesh (to revive the nostalgia of Uttar Pradesh in India from where the Muhajirs migrated in 1947). It claims to belong to the greatest civili sation of the world that flourished on the banks of the Ganga and Yamuna rivers in India.

Indo-Pakistan Interactions

Incidentally, Indians and Pakistanis become instant friends at the subnational level. The recent upsurge of Punjabiat on both sides of the border has revived common cultural heritage and pride in common heroes and sanits, revered by all faiths. The same is true about Sindhis and Urduspeaking Muhajirs.

It is not the intensity of faith in religions that divides people. It becomes a divisive force only when it is made an exclusive basis of identity. The history of India before independence is very instructive in this context. The class of Islamic scholars, organised under Jamiat-Ulama-i-Hind, steeped in Islamic faith, actively participated in the freedom movement led by Gandhi, a devout Hindu, as they were proud Indians also, besides being proud Muslims. It is no wonder that Islamic scholars of India, in a massive rally, issued a fatwa that terrorism was anti-Islam.

Qaid-e-Azam, M A Jinnah, who had the least knowledge about the precepts and practices of Islam and could be called a non-practising Muslim, believed in the two-nation theory making religion the sole basis of national identity. His Hindu counterpart, Vir Savakar, professed to be an atheist. While devout religious leaders of Hindus and Muslims tried to lay the foundation of a composite and harmonious nation, those who merely regarded religion as an exclusive basis of identity, without much knowledge of it, divided the nation which led to one of the worst human massacres in history.

vol xliv no 17

EPW
Economic & Political Weekly

COMMENTARY

An exclusivist identity and lack of dem-terror may be supplemented by this of Pakistan and improve its relations with ocratic avenues of expression, in short, empirical fact which, in any case, would India which, too, can make its contritend to make a community fanatic and cost much less than other methods being bution in containing the forces of terror resort to violent means. The fight against used. At least it can strengthen the unity in Afghanistan.

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Economic & Political Weekly

EPW
april 25, 2009 vol xliv no 17

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