From, via Priya Gopal on MLG

Eminent historian Mushirul Hasan speaks to Manish Chand demystifying the "Islamic ogre", debunking popular notions of jehad and ummah, and the fashionable but dangerous theory of clash of civilisations

New Delhi, September 22

"The point to remember is that the essentialising of religions doesn't help one to understand the dynamics of the problem. Nor does it help one to arrive at a solution to the problem. I don't think there is an Islamic injunction that would endorse acts of violence directed against civilians. So, the effort to try and discover the roots of terrorism in Islam is not only an exercise in futility, but also a very dangerous exercise, at that".

Why is there this pronounced tendency to find the roots of terror in Islam and in not any other religion? This has happened for reasons that not many people have spoken of. There has been, for centuries, a conflict between Islam and Christendom. Now, Christianity knew how to come to terms with Islam per se. But it didn't know how to come to terms with political Islam. And with the rise of the Ottoman empire, Christendom faced a huge problem, which was aggravated by the character of political Islam. Political Islam, in any situation, is linked with territorial expansion of the Muslim community.

Now, if you come to the first half of the 20th century, the Western hemisphere did all it could to thwart socialism and Communist ideas. And with the self-destruction of Communism and socialism in the 1990s, the spectre of the "Other Enemy" had to be found. So, the whole lot of theories, of which Samuel Huntington's book is a classic exposition, were revived.

You don't believe in Huntington's "clash of civilisations" theory? It's a monumental myth reminiscent of the Crusades. It's founded on the superiority of the Western world. It not only reflects anxieties towards the Islamic world, but also serves to preserve the so-called superiority of Western culture and civilisation. There can be no inherent clash between civilisations. The Arabs live in the US, and the Arabs work in the US. The Arabs live in Europe and work in Europe. The clash, if there is one at all, is a created one.

What is it about political Islam that inevitably puts it in opposition to the West? I am making a distinction between Islam and political Islam because, now, some of the Arabs countries and some of the southeast countries have wealth and resources. This is not something the West is comfortable with. To begin with, the extremely important thing is that the West thought that liberal democracies and democratic democracies as expressions of national identity were at variance with Islam and inconsistent with the needs of the Muslim society.

That's why Gamal Abdul Nasser had to be checkmated; likewise, the democratic and socialist upsurge in Algeria, Syria, Iraq, and Lebanon has to be countered. Why? In order to preserve the status quo in the Gulf region, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and other Arab-Muslim countries. This is where you find the roots of anger. This is why you find that large sections of the Muslim community all over the world are seething with anger and discontent. The point is, you can quell democratic aspirations for a while, but they are bound to surface again and again.

Are you trying to say that even if there was no Osama bin Laden, the West needed to invent him? He is an invention! Bin Laden is an invention. He has been nurtured by the United States. The Taliban is a creation of the West. No one can justify terrorism. What is happening in Kashmir, the kind of terrorism aided and abetted by Pakistan, is not acceptable. Nobody is going to support it. But then how do you find a solution? The solution doesn't lie in just targeting one individual or one community or one country. Earlier, it was Saddam Hussein and Iraq. Before that it was (Yasser) Arafat and the Palestinians. And now it is bin Laden and the Taliban.

That's why there is this strategy of marshalling all your resources and rhetoric to the destruction of the "Other". This is dangerous. One thing is clear: you can destroy Osama and you can destroy the Taliban, but if you think that by doing so, you have bought security and eliminated terrorism, you are sadly mistaken. The retaliation will only produce more Osama bin Ladens.

This approach of inquiring into the roots of terror has attracted a lot of flak from the hardliner lobby, who see it as a veiled apologia by intellectuals

Just because it's advocated by intellectuals doesn't make the exercise any less relevant. Sober reflection and long-term perspective are what one needs in a crisis-ridden situation. To be swayed by emotions or any kind of jingoism is no solution. The US' sense of rage and anger is understandable, and the world identifies with that rage and anger. But the world must go on. And the world must go on with the Muslim communities and with the Arab nations. And they must figure in your worldwide calculations, not always as enemies but as those who represent a different culture, who have different aspirations and who have desires. And if America wants to fulfil the desires of its own people, it must have some sensitivity toward the desires of the Arab people. What is uppermost in the minds of the Arab people? It is Palestine. Surely, the creation of the Palestinian state is a legitimate demand.

There are powerful emotions invested in the Palestinian cause, and these emotions, mingled with a sense of profound injustice, are often cited as one of the reasons for these attacks. Do you see any concrete changes in the US policy in West Asia? There will be a change of the US policy. Once the dust settles down, there will be a fair amount of reappraisal. There will be reappraisal about the invincibility of the US. And there will be introspection about what has led to such violent expressions of deep-seated anger by a group of people. And there will be a reappraisal about where the US has gone wrong. I have a strong feeling that something good and lasting might emerge out of this colossal tragedy.

The concept of a transnational Muslim community haunts the US and the West. How far are these anxieties justified? The idea of the ummah (community) is the greatest myth perpetrated by theologians. There is no unified vision nor is there a single goal among the Muslims that goads the Muslims to act in unison. The Taliban, for instance, is seen as a retrogressive force by many Afghans and many Muslims the world over, and not just by the rest of the world. As enunciated in the Quran, the ummah a very progressive idea. In its original form, it struck at the roots of parochialism and nationalism. It was an effort to create a Muslim personality that would not bear the lineage of race, language colour and other parochial denominations. However, and this is the unfortunate part, its construction in the later centuries was designed to foster not an inclusive notion of Islam, but an exclusive notion. That's where the distortion takes over.

There is this elaborate mythology of jehad being used by radical Islamist groups to justify their existence and terror tactics. What was the original meaning of jehad? Like the ummah, the meaning and import of the word jehad has changed drastically over the years. The Islamic worldview divided the world between Dar-ul-Islam (the land of the pure) and Dar-ul-Harb (the land of the enemy). In the Quran, there is a distinction between "the land of the peace" and "the land of the enemy". But this distinction made sense at a time when the Muslim communities were trying to evolve a code vis--vis the rest of the world.

However, once Muslim expansion reached the heartland of Europe, the distinction became difficult to sustain. Historically, jehad was used rhetorically by the imperialist powers to justify their worldly expansionist designs. In its original sense, jehad was more of an inner moral cleansing for the community. This was called jehad-e-Akbar (The Great Jehad). But now, the whole notion of jehad is being used as an instrument for legitimising militaristic, monarchic and dictatorial regimes. As for these radical Islamist groups, jehad is being used as a cynical ruse to whip up religious fervour for their cause.