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Message from Deoband Religiosity Isn’t Political Identity!

Updated: February 19, 2011 11:08 am

Dar-ul-Uloom, the world famous orthodox teaching institute set up by the Islamic Deoband seminary is at the heart of a fierce controversy. To briefly recapitulate the facts. It recently elected a new Vice Chancellor (VC), Ghulam Mohammed Vastanvi. The new VC is unusual. He belongs not to northern India but to Gujarat . He is highly educated and has done his MBA. He has successfully modernized and vastly expanded an Islamic teaching institute in Gujarat that provides modern education in addition to Islamic theological teaching. He recently exhorted Muslims of Gujarat to take full advantage of the inclusive development provided by the Narendra Modi government to improve their prospects. He neither mentioned nor endorsed the Modi government’s role in the Gujarat riots.

                However the mere praise of Modi’s performance in furthering Gujarat’s development, which is widely acknowledged, infuriated Vastanvi’s critics within Deoband who demanded his instant resignation. Vastanvi obliged and announced his decision to quit. However this in turn provoked his supporters to become vocal. They urged him to continue and take on his opponents head on in order to modernize Islamic education. As a result Deoband is fiercely divided between Vastanvi’s supporters and his detractors.

                However, there is a feature of the division within Deoband that reinforces a profound truth often stressed by this scribe. In Deoband the division has taken on a regional colour. Students of UP and Bihar are ranged against those from Karnataka, Maharashtra and Gujarat. So where did the unifying element of religion disappear? The most powerful political impulse is provided by identity. And political identity is determined by the combination of geographical location, language, ethnicity, culture, economic interests and religion. By itself religion does not denote political identity. Nor do economic interests. The communists learnt this to their cost when China split from the Soviet Union. The Muslims learnt this to their cost when Bangladesh split from Pakistan. No doubt the Indian government encouraged the breakup of Pakistan. But it would never have succeeded unless a fierce conflict between political identities had not already existed. And among all the elements comprising political identity that of ethnicity, tribe or family is the strongest.

                The assertion of this truth within the heart of renowned and conservative Deoband can prove to be a game changer. Even the leaders of the Afghan Taliban are adherents of Deoband. The developments in this world famous seminary located in western Uttar Pradesh should be viewed in the overall context. Globally, Islamic society is in ferment. The dictatorship in Tunisia has fallen. The one in Egypt is tottering. Pro-American dictators are being removed. This does not automatically suggest victory of fundamentalist Islamists. On the contrary it may signify the further defeat of fundamental Islam. A new generation of Arab protesters seems to want genuine democracy instead of pro-US puppet regimes. This would be a significant advance.

                This development cannot in the long run fail to affect the Muslims of South Asia and elsewhere. Already, as was repeatedly pointed out by this scribe, the Afghan Taliban is prepared to dump Al Qaeda’s global agenda in return for foreign powers ceasing interference in Afghanistan’s domestic affairs. Political identity will always triumph over mere religiosity. That is why it is desirable to talk with Afghanistan’s Taliban. The destruction of the pan-Islamic dream will demolish the basis of Islamist fundamentalism. Modernizing Islamic society, as Maulana Vastanvi is also attempting, will strengthen religion and weaken fundamentalism.

                Why and how has this ferment in Islamic society started? Some analysts suggest the CIA’s hand. But the CIA by itself could never have achieved such change. There is a simpler explanation. It is the theory of the hundredth monkey. In the early 1950s scientists conducted experiments on monkeys living on a number of small offshore islands around Japan. It seems that one day a female monkey picked up a beetroot fallen in the water. It tasted sweeter. Thereafter the monkey always washed the beetroot before eating it. Soon other monkeys emulated her. Then one day, the scientists found that miraculously all the monkeys in all the islands separated from each other took to the practice of washing the beetroot before eating it. The mystified scientists came to the conclusion that when awareness spreads to a certain point the entire community accepts its truth. The point when awareness is overall accepted they termed as the moment when the notional hundredth monkey became aware. I believe that the spread of television in the Soviet empire awakened the hundredth monkey to destroy Soviet dictatorship. Information from the Internet, Facebook and Twitter may have reached the hundredth monkey of the Islamic world.

By Rajinder Puri

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