Islam and Geopolitics

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 Ambassador Pankaj Saran with civil servant Shah Faesal
Ambassador Pankaj Saran with civil servant Shah Faesal


New Delhi

In NatStrat conversations Ambassador Pankaj Saran discusses Islam and its impact on geopolitics with civil servant Shah Faesal. In this podcast they dissect various dimensions of religion and geopolitics, which would be significant in the coming periods. Here are the excerpts

Pankaj Saran:  Welcome to the show Faisal, and it’s a delight to have you over.

Shah Faesal: Thank you so much, Sir, it is such a pleasure to be here with you.

Pankaj Saran:  Since you are from Kashmir. Tell us the experiences you have had in Kashmir as a young boy, as a young student, now as a civil servant and as someone who has actually taken a keen interest in the intersection between Islam and geopolitics. Things have changed after the abrogation of Article 370 on Aug 5, 2019; the situation seems to have changed radically and continues to change very fast. Give your own impressions about all these changes not going too much into the past but how you read the situation today.

Shah Faesal: We may not have to go much into the past, so even just four years it seems like a lot has changed there and this is unprecedented because so the mood is good and customized me today. It’s very optimistic and visible on the ground. You can go and talk to any ordinary person in Kashmir and you will obviously see a kind of drastic change which has come in the lives of ordinary people. Yeah, I was told that hotels are full, the tourism industry is booming. Those are obviously the dividends of peace. Yeah, once the perception of security improves automatically, the people from outside want to come in correct direction because Kashmir always has had a certain brand value as a very unique pristine destination nestled in Himalayas. There has been a lot of history, a lot of cultures associated with that place ye. So, I think the only obstacle which was there, it was the perception that something is not normal there.  Yeah, and I think in last three years we have the fact that the country has very effectually succeeded in changing their perception.

Pankaj Saran:  And what about governance, board administrative, economic development, the streamlining of the education system, the reopening of schools, colleges etc, the mood among the youth, how’s all that? Is it going hand-in-hand with everything else? 

Shah Faesal: I think on all these fronts, there has been a lot of change. A lot of positive changes happened on one of the most important indicators. I keep talking about is the number of hartals, which have been there in the last 30 years, so, figures are around two thousand to 2500 days of herald, which is effectively around six years. The schools were closed in Kashmir from 1988 to 2019, and the most drastic situation prevailed meanwhile. And alternative status to that is that in the last four years there has not been single hartal. This is completely a dramatic change.

Pankaj Saran: We never had seen much of foreign investment coming in, some figures suggest that around 25 thousand crores of have been pledged. In last couple of years, we have seen unprecedented tourism figures.

Shah Faesal:  So, it is actually not an exaggeration to say that Kashmir has the potential of being the Switzerland of the East. It is indeed, and it has been, I think, traditionally people used to pitch it like that. The cross-border terrorism didn’t give Kashmir an opportunity to be seen in the world as such. So, when we talk of Kashmir, we also recall the concepts of Kashmiryat, and how Islam as the dominant religion of Kashmir has been misused and exploited by extremist groups and foreign ideologies, and the Sufi tradition of the Kashmiri region was deliberately discarded and allowed to be overrun by the more militant forms and schools of Islam.  To actually acknowledge the fact that India is itself the hosts of both Deobandi and Barelvi schools and those have been the fountainheads of Tablighi Jamât of Deobandi Maslak. In fact, Maulana Maudoodi also traces his origin, he was from India, but over a period of time we have seen how Jamât Islami, how Wahabism and where the Deobandis fit in, and now in the last few years, the radicalization of the Barelvi has all added to the complications and I would like to say perhaps ideological confusion within the Islamic world.   

Pankaj Saran:  Recently a few weeks ago, the Secretary General of World Muslim League, Dr Al Issa visited India. He had come here and repeatedly he talked about how he believed that all citizens including Muslims must adhere to the constitution of a country which was actually a very significant statement because by saying that you must adhere to the constitution. There’s the whole talk of the Islamic Caliphate, and now of course you have Taliban that has changed the name of the country to the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan, and they belong to Sunni sect.

So, since so much is happening in the Islamic world but at the same time you find also that the focus and edge that you had may be a decade ago of this so-called war against terror and the whole resurgence of ISIS and Al- Qaida in the Levant and in Syria, Iraq can all seems to have abated. So, how do you is there a common thread that you can draw on all these issues?

Shah Faesal: Absolutely the spread of this problem is a matter of contemplation. I mean it is cross continental, it is transnational, and it is international by all standards. And so, as you rightly started with Kashmir that it was actually the frontier from which we got introduced to the idea of political Islam and the subcontinent, possibly the mission launched by Maulana Maudoodi of Jamât Islami started unfolding in Pakistan. Obviously, we have spoken about that, and Pakistan was possibly the first manifestation of how religion could possibly to the extent be important in the political life in the subcontinent. Maulana Maudoodi established the organization Jamât Islami in 1941, and initially he was in favor of partition because of the ideology which he belonged to at that time. Also, he did not believe that nationalism was something which the Muslim must pursue. I think that’s first important point which needs to be made that the political Islam which is all about the use of Islam for political ends. So, let’s first start to understand that point. I want to labor on that point, a little bit more why is Islam there in the first place? So, why should a faith be there in the first place? If you look at how the Quran looks at it, so from the Qur’anic perspective, the Islam or the religion, it’s fundamentally a means to answer the ontological or teleological questions of existence. Why is a man there in the first place? Where is he going? What is the question of life and death? Well, when it comes to the mundane and day to day secular affairs of life? The historical understanding has been that Islam is a very private affair; it doesn’t have much to do with that. It may also come as a surprise to a lot of people that this default theocracy which we keep talking about that in Islam, there’s no division between Islam and the State, the religion and the State. Exactly that has also been questioned that in the first year of Islamic evolution, religion and state were actually separate because if we go back a little bit back behind we had this important incident of Karbala in which the Prophet’s grandchildren had been massacred because of that the State that time the Omayyad (Omaiyah) state. The Omayyad state and the religious clergy were at war. Because of the fact that at that time there were no legitimacy to the Omayyad state, there had been this mass incident where the Prophet’s grandchildren had been killed, it took them a lot of time around 700 years.

To realize how the state and Ulema need to come together and it was around 12th and 13th century when this alliance started coming up again when Islamic theocracy started taking shape and then we zoomed out and came to Maudoodi’s time when the Partition occurred, and there is this person in Egypt who comes about and he creates this violent ideas of Islam and in this way, the movement touched the regions of South Asia including Kashmir that finally became the first frontier for that. The first experimentation of political Islam and its implementation basically happened in Kashmir. Once a staunch follower of Islamic Mission Zia-ul-Haq came into power in 1977, so, he started this mass-Islamization process which then percolated automatically because Kashmir was the natural choice for experimenting with these new weapons which the Pakistan state had got. Like this they used Jamât teachings to radicalize in a sense the Muslims of the subcontinent including India Muslims, so, one interesting thing happened that time in 1980, something important happened in Kashmir. It’s also a unique fact which I want to share which is that an important film came to be released, that film was known as the Lion of the Desert. A lot of people still watch it, so it was about this person called Omar Mukhtar who led the Lebanon resistance against Italian armies. So, this film is considered to be one of the turning points in development of Islamist consciousness in Kashmir. People started associating themselves with ideas of Omar Mukhtar who was fighting so called infidels or a non-Islamic army. So, when in 1977 Zia-ul-Haq incident happened and in 1979, something drastic happened in the world which changed Kashmir forever. The four incidents which we always keep taking about Iranian Revolution, about attack on the Grand Mosque, the Islamic reforms in Pakistan. These invasions and the Soviet – style invasion of Afghanistan etc, so, these four incidents brought a lot of new energy to Kashmir, and Pakistan realized what had happened in 1971? I think this is the time to get back correct so what they could not do by military means, they did it by ideological means. But now do you see for example, the Muslim League which was right at the centre of Indian Politics, today has practically ceased to exist.

Pankaj Saran:   You instead have Tablighi Jamât which is continuing the Deobandi traditions and it is solid. It is based and rooted in history, and then you have the Maudoodi and the Wahabism, and then of course the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, and then you have ISIS and Al- Qaida. So, is it possible to break down these different strains of interpretation of Islam absolutely among the followers and how it fits into may be India to begin with, and then we can talk about Afghanistan, Pakistan and Bangladesh.

Shah Faesal:  I think it is a very insanely complex kind of breakdown to happen because there is this entire spectrum which has subtle theological differences. Yes, subtle historical differences, subtle approach to religion and approach to modernity, approach to history, approach to state and it is different shapes and to Islam itself. So, if we talk about like, what would be one easier way to understand these movements? So, one would be for example Jamât Islami? So, what and where do they stand? Jamât Islami is basically an organization that believes in the divinity of God and Hakmiat. The Jamât believes in sovereignty, it says that the sovereignty belongs only to the God, correct, nobody else, so, we want to establish a system, where Sharia rules apply. They say that action is about only establishing the rule of God on the earth and Jihad is the sixth fundamental of Islam. Shahada, Namaz, Roza, Zakah and Hajj are the widely accepted five fundamentals of the Islam, and political Islam which was founded by Maudoodi and Jamât Islami. That is about the six that ok, you established the Hakimiat of Allah and Jihad is the instrument to do that, which is the sixth fundamental for the persons following the righteous path. 

Second is now Jamât Islami doesn’t like Deeni Ijtema. The reason is very unique. Although on theological front you will realize that these organizations are very similar. But the organization Tablighi Jamat is also very unique. It was founded by Indians in India in the British times and the only difference is that Tablighi Jamât is the quietest organization. They don’t believe in establishing the political part of this. They also believe in reformation of society from below downwards. They say let us change the individual, first he must become pious and a true Muslim, only then the society will change. But Jamât Islami believes that we need a revolutionary form of thing so that the Hakmiat of Allah can be established. So, these are these two. Third, then we come to Deobandis and ISIS. Now it is a very unique thing that Taliban follow the Deobandi strain of the school of thought. Now Deobandis are very uniquely positioned.

Deobandi group of people say that OK, once Prophet Mohammad of Islam came and the Qur’an came and the Hadith came, so, the way Islam has to be practiced and the way Islam is to be seen, it is to be based on the Qur’an and Hadith. So, those people who talk about the Quran and Hadith only, they say whatever happened after that, we don’t recognize that yeah, so we call them Salafi. So Salafi and Wahabia becomes one group. We would say that let’s go to Salafies, which appear as if we go to the ancients, the first one, the prophet and his rightful companions. They believe in the ideality of the Qur’an. They emphasize on the fact that between 7th and 8th and 9th century, we had the jurists who reinterpreted the scripture and made it easy for us and from which four important Maslak or Schools emerged or came about Hanafi School, Shafai School, Maliki School and one more Humbali so that they say that no one of these schools you have to obey.

Pankaj Saran: You cannot go far to the Salafi level. It is a very unique, the position which they take and they say that OK, whatever has been said by them. You ascribe to one of these schools and that’s it. And beyond that the Deobandi groups also say that there is no possibility of reinterpretation of religion beyond that time. So, historically speaking, in the last few decades of contemporary history, which of the two seems to be capturing the imagination of the followers, is it the Deobandi approach? Or is it the Maudoodi approach? Or is it the Wahabism which has come to us?

Shah Faesal : I think if you look at the post 1973 world when the war happened in Arabian Peninsula against Israel, and after that when Youm e Quds and other things after 67 in 1973, and then the oil shock happened in 1973. So, there was this sudden resurgence of the Salafi Islam.

Wahabi Salafi Doctrine: So, for many years across the world Wahabi Salafi was the most dominant doctrine which started to spread as it was the bank rolled by a lot of money. It was back rolled by the oil money. Obviously there all doubts there in the official kind of strain of Saudi Islam, it became the official strain which had to be exported across the world. But now with this wind of change in Saudi Arabia, so, now the Salafi and this Islam which was a kind of it was an interpretation, it was not a form basically. That’s on the retreat, so the vision which has been given by MBS, the vision 2030 that has put a break on this. It is very unusual. We are at such a moment in history where what has happened, what has been done in 30 years? The same people are trying to undo it because they have realized the kind of monster that it is, the kind of damage that seems spreading throughout the world, extraordinary. This is actually a silent revolution.

In front of our eyes in the early days of 1990, probably a scholar Sehba predicted a phase of post Islamism. He set the time for this Islamism, the Jamât Islami, and then Maudoodi Islamism and then Salafi Islamism is going to be over very soon. In recent years we saw how Islamic state the kind of end it met. Yes, there was a time when it had recruited millions of people, and Islamic State ideology is the most extreme form of ideology, so extreme that Al-Qaida calls itself the Left of Islamic state. Compared to the Islamic state, Al-Qaida comes up across the world as a moderate organization.

Pankaj Saran: So, would you say that the US actions in Iraq, in Libya and Syria etc, and the way Turkey also joined in has contributed to the retreat of Islamic State and al-Qaida.

Shah Faesal: Obviously, I think most of the top leadership of Islamic state died, including Al-Baghdadi and also his successor Islamic State, the kind of expansion and the kind of attraction it had among young Muslims across the world, it was unprecedented because of the kind of brutality, and there was this unique thing about Al-Baghdadi because he traced his ancestry to the Quresh which was the Prophet’s tribe. And he said I am the rightfully appointed Khalifa (Caliph). If you remember his speech in Mosul Mosque, he said at that time that these are the attributes of a Khalifa and I declare myself to be a Khalifa and anybody who does not accept my base and does not accept me as a Khalifa; he will be regarded as a Kafir (infidel). In fact, the fundamental difference that started that time between al-Qaida and Islamic State, it was this, al-Qaida said that you are being too extreme by asking people that need to be killed. But Islamic states decline that happened from 2014 onwards. This time we are witnessing. It’s a very surprising thing that Islamic State is experiencing resurgence in some parts of Africa. Really, it is unbelievable because a lot of instability is happening in Mali, in some other parts of the West Africa, so because of that, it is resurging there. We have also seen Islamic State of Kraal Pakistan which is giving a tough competition to Taliban in Afghanistan.

Pankaj Saran: You know one of the things which Egypt under Sadat and Mubarak and then Morsi has done is to actually completely crack down on the Muslim right and they have done for 2030 and 2040. You know Hasan Al-Banna exactly that entire ideology. They resurfaced briefly under Morsi and then they were crushed. So has that had what kind of an impact has that on Saudi School of Islam and also on the terror that used to emanate from Palestinian territory from the Hamas and so on. Because all this   had a multiplier effect, it would spread across and then people in the subcontinent would watch. And then when I think the Deobandis and others and the Tablighis, then I felt that the agenda was being hijacked absolutely by that whole region because those scholars were better funded, were more vocal, and the West actually looked at them. They never regarded the Indian Islamic School of thoughts as deserving of independent study.

Shah Faesal: I think one of the unique case studies of this Islamic extremism is Egypt. As you rightly said this entire movement with Hasan Al-Banna in 1928, and then say the Govt. also there and then you have assassination of a president happening exactly but still in 40 to 50 years of time. Muslim Brotherhood doesn’t get a time to rule even once exactly apart from that short period in 2011 when Morsi came there. That is, I think Egypt has been successfully able to contain the Muslim Brotherhood there, although the kind of threat which Muslim brotherhood posed to the rest of the world. It was tremendous and phenomenal.

Pankaj Saran:  So, within the Arab world there was a lot of division on that?

Shah Faesal:  Muslim Brotherhood pitched itself as a political party, that is a very unique thing about that. And Muslim Brotherhood also has through its various kinds of statements and others, they have denounced violence. Muslim Brotherhood actually used to be thought of as some sort of a moderate organization because Hasan Al-Banna’s strain or original thought process was not as militant as people think. Al- Banna had not conceived of his mission as a jihad organization. It was basically a mainstream Islamic organization that will implement Islamism, the Sharia but through mainstream means, they would also participate in elections. So, their position was very unique, so they were not rejectionists and there was no idea of Takia in that, they didn’t actually have campaigns against the Shias and Ahmadi and other Yajidis and other non-Muslim heretical sects.

Pankaj Saran: But you know, I have always heard frequently this possibility of ideological and theological collaboration and cooperation. Let’s say between Taliban and Al-Azhar University in Cairo. I don’t know, is that natural fit. They complement each other or they do all at certain points of time.

Shah Faesal:  Although there has been a lot of competition between the two universities, they don’t actually see much of harmony on many issues. There are definitely a lot of debates where Deoband has a totally different stance. I told you because the Deoband believes in Taqlid; it believes in the Islamic Fiqh in the four important schools of thoughts, so, the entire world was driven by that. This is why if you look at Taliban, the Taliban has constantly been at war with the Islamic state of Khurasan in Pakistan, which is unbelievable otherwise. That means the direct confrontation between Deoband and Salafi Jihadi sect, so, Deobandis and Salafies actually came into clash in Afghanistan. The reason for that is Islamic state that believes in the transnational version of Islam that has to be enforced across the world. There are no national boundaries to be accepted and there is no mercy to be given to non-Muslim minorities. But Taliban believes otherwise. They believe that okay; they still respect the national boundaries. That okay, we also the idea that the difference between Ameer and Caliph.

Pankaj Saran: The Emirate and the Caliph, this is a very crucial difference which needs to be made. But I was told that the Taliban is actually in the process of drafting a new constitution for Afghanistan and I have heard that they are roping in Indonesian scholars. And the question arises whether for example the Deobandis can be roped in, or contribute to the drafting of such a constitution.

Shah Faesal: Taliban want to learn from Indonesia. That’s going to be. I mean that’s like calling day and night because Indonesian Islams are completely different. It is ironic that we have not been able to offer Indian Islam as an alternative, yes to the west Asian or to the Salafi Islam. The way Islam came up on judicial grounds with a very unique term, they call it the Archipelagic Islam or the Islam Nauntra. They say they have a very unique experience where their local custom and local history, it reforms the practice of Islam. But more than them it was basically the Indian Islam. So, I think one of the important implications of what is happening around is that the way Islam used to come from the western side. I mean like our western neighbors from Pakistan, Iran, Afghanistan and the West, Asia and the Central Asia and the Middle East. Now it is the time that the right interpretations of Islam go from our side to that side.

Pankaj Saran:  That’s a big point you are making, which is that time probably has come to assert the Indian Islamic ideology and the version of the world which is syncretism, which is by definition. Accepting of others faiths lives in a multicultural multi faith environment, respects the political constitution. May be the time has come for that voice to be heard and to be much louder than it has been so far, otherwise you are at the mercy of other interpretations. In 2024, it is going to be the 100th year of the abolition of agreement made with Turkey. The period of agreement consisted from 1924 to 2024.

Shah Faesal: This is a very crucial moment. I think in the Islamic world which in this moment there is one introspection which needs to be done, it is that Muslim world needs to look at the experience of last 100 years, what has worked and what has not worked. Definitely what hasn’t worked is that the ideology, the political Islam the extremists’ interpretations of Islam have not worked. Yeah, I think this the moment when now the original Islamic lands can possibly learn.

So, there is this distinction between Arab and Ajam. Arab means Arabic Lands, Ajam means the places like ours. It is possible for time now to learn from the cultural, and the faith experience of the peripheral Islamic lands. Yes, exactly I think it is the time for Indonesian lands. Indonesian Islam, Indian subcontinent Islam to go back and inform the Islamic experience in the rest of the world that you have never been able to be at peace in the last 70 years.

Pankaj Saran: But the question is: Can let’s say the Indian schools of Islam starting with Deobandis and Tablighi’s, are they capable of reinventing themselves the whole Madrasas’ systems of education along with Islamic scholarships. Do you see any sign of moderation?

Faesal Shah: Deobandi and Tablighi schools of thoughts have not been well informed or they have not been grounded in the Islamic experience that India uniquely has. I want to take that point a little bit different with the way it is understood. Islamic experience is an individual or it’s a collective conscious experience of the people with has nothing possibility to do with the organized schools of thoughts. It has not anything to do with the Madarsa system that is in vogue at the moment. Actually, they open these schools of thoughts and the Tablighi Schools of thoughts. They may call the Indian system or Indian experience of Islam as heretical or a deviant form of Islam. It is actually the mainstream the mass practiced experience of Islam which the masses in India actually practice without even knowing which school do they belong correct. It is this unconscious memory which they have had of centuries of intermixing with various faiths and various cultures. I don’t see that there is any organized effort to promote that because that very organic and that’s so scattered in the system and it has so many geographical variations. It is so heterodox, it is so heterogeneous, it is so distributed widely and it is organic. I mean that there is no clergy in that there are no Imams who are trained in that way. It’s out there the way Islamic ideology fully not introduced now. Indonesia has organization called Nadwatul Ulema. So, it is an organization of Ulema who actually promote this strain of Islam which is based on the Indonesian experience of Peninsula. We don’t have any such thing in India. We don’t have any school of thought; we don’t have any university which is dedicated to teaching the Indianspiritual or Indian Sufi tradition of Islam.

Pankaj Saran: I think a lot of this action will actually take place tomorrow in Kashmir. I mean it could become the turning point in how the rest of the Indian Muslims view Kashmir and what kind of example Kashmir sets for the rest of the 200 million?

Shah Faesal:  The way Kashmir experienced terrorism for 30 years and when the terrorism obviously was rooted and the first there was indoctrination. There was a certain intellectual tradition came, it was very violent, which was very exclusivist which was very militant and then became runner for the militancy after militancy. Thirty years people saw it. if I think now in Kashmir also there are a lot of conversations about going back to the Kashmiri way of life or Kashmir as you rightly introduced in the beginning.

I'm sure there is a lot of rethinking happening on that people are actually introspecting what we lost and you know probably the best thing from this point of view is: In a sense what they are seeing across the border which is basically the collapse of a state that was born on the basis of religion and where the Jamât Islami really prospered as you said from 1977 and how. Probably became the capital of political Islam in the world absolutely and today the kind of implosion of that state is there to see for everyone who watches and so that I think is a good warning signal.

What is happening in Pakistan presently is that Sunni are fighting Shias and now Barelvi are fighting the Deobandi. Now you have TTP which is fighting the rest. You had your own organizations like Lashkar-e- Toiba and Jaish-e-Mohammad. Now they are fighting each other. Now you have Sepahei Sahaba, which was an organization to kill Shias. So, everybody is killing everybody. And now you have this latest movement which is about blasphemy that you are out to kill anybody who says even smallest thing about religion or about Prophet Muhammad, law of Islam and you are killing Christians. You are killing Ahmadis; you are taking them away from their homes. I mean, this is like a mad house presently no and this tells us what ideology can possibly do. And I mean I think we are seeing the extremes of extremism in Pakistan and that's for Kashmiri also to see at the moment.

Pankaj Saran: Thank you so much for being with us and for your very, very insightful views,

(Courtesy NatStrat)