Muslims’ needs and the cause of Islam

In the past couple of weeks I’ve noticed something startling appearing on the Muslim ‘net: conservative Muslims attacking the Pakistani Taliban. These include a series of posts from Abu Eesa ([1], [2] with links to four more) and the news that a great-grandson of Maulana Qasim Nanotwi, a founder of Darul-Uloom Deoband, has condemned the Pakistani Taliban as “more jahiliyya than Islam” (here is the BBC report in Urdu; not sure if there’s an English translation anywhere). This is a surprising turn, as I converted in a town where the Muslim community is dominated by Deobandis, and support for the Afghan Taliban was strong at the time.

I first became aware of it when I was sitting with a group of Sufi brothers who told me that their shaikh had said that there was no Islamic state anywhere except Afghanistan, clearly meaning the Taliban-controlled areas. They had answers to every objection, either denying or justifying everything the media was reporting them as doing. Making women wear burqas (real burqas, not niqabs)? That’s the Shari’ah. Encouraging the opium trade? All just propaganda from the kafir press, and they were probably paying the Afghan farmers to pretend they were growing the opium poppy anyway.

I found it ironic that they dismissed what even the more respectable western reporters were saying, when they would have readily believed them if they were saying that Muslims were being massacred by non-Muslims, and they had no record of lying and no reason to lie; they had reputations to protect, after all. The excuses were astonishing: “you can’t believe what she writes; she’s a Jewish woman” (both words emphasised); “our shaikh met their amir in Madinah”; “I read it in Dharb-e-Mu’min”; “even the secular Pakistani press call Mulla Umar ‘Amirul Mumineen’”; “they even have a ministry for enjoining good and forbidding evil” (this type of institution originated in Saudi Arabia). Dharb-e-Mu’min was a pro-Taliban propaganda sheet in Urdu and English printed in Pakistan and handed out at various Deobandi mosques, including the one I attended, and contained the false claim that the people the Taliban were fighting were communists (a minority of them may have been, but most were Muslims who had a long record of jihad against the Soviet occupiers).

The well-reported fact of the Taliban closing girls’ schools was excused on the grounds that, when the country had been “secured” (in fact, almost all of it had been by that time, except for the far north — and the presence of “enemy” forces in Badakhshan is no reason to keep girls and women out of work and school in Kandahar), the Taliban would introduce the best Muslim schools and universities in the world; but the chief argument in their favour always was that they brought peace and security and got rid of the warlords and warring factions, as even the western press acknowledged. Of course, if the Taliban really wanted to open Islamic colleges that were the envy of the Muslim world, they would have only had to announce it and scholars would have come from all over the world. It was no coincidence that the Taliban’s chief obsessions were doing away with music, making sure Muslims’ beards grew to the required length and making sure women covered themselves completely — exactly as was the case with so many western Deobandis, many of whom refused to accept that there were any valid differences of opinion on these issues.

Deobandis were not the only guilty party; “salafis” also published apologia for them (such as one in al-Jumuah justifying the pointless destruction of the Bamiyan Buddhas, which were a tourist attraction, which were not being worshipped and which previous Islamic rulers had not seen fit to attack). If they criticised them, it was for not going far enough, or for having Maturidi aqida and not demolishing any graves in Afghanistan. On the eve of the invasion, a number of English-language “salafi” websites, among them Salafi Publications, published a declaration from the Saudi scholar, Rabi’ al-Madkhali, calling the Northern Alliance “greater kafirs than the Jews and Christians … a vile alliance, a gathering of Baatiniyyah, Rawaafid (two categories of Shi’ites, the former more extreme), Communists, Atheists, Secularists and Socialists”, again conveniently forgetting the old mujahideen.

It would not have bothered me so much if the support had been justified on the grounds that the opposition were worse, which is debatable; the support was essentially partisan and unquestioning. This was well before 9/11, but they approved of the Taliban’s sheltering of Osama bin Laden; I am not suggesting that they would have approved of 9/11 itself, but the attitude of denial that many Muslims clung to for years afterwards is well-known (there were also those who approved of the Taliban principally because of their connection to Bin Laden, whom they believed was “doing jihad”, even though they may have disapproved of the Taliban’s behaviour towards women). Ironically, one of the “Sufi” group that first introduced me to the marvellous Taliban worked for GCHQ (Government Communications Headquarters, a British government security agency) and another worked for a state weapons development centre.

Fast forward to 2009 and the disputed Iranian election, and I notice that many Muslims still have a reflexive anti-western attitude; anyone who appears to be “supported by the west” must be bad, and they disbelieve western journalists whose writings they enthusiastically believed, and flagged up on blogs and forums, when he was writing about enemies of Muslims (e.g. Robert Fisk) and newspapers which are not generally uncritical of western governments, such as the Guardian and Independent in London. They tell themselves that the whole opposition is just an invention of the CIA or Mossad, often recycling material from non-Muslims with their own agenda, harping endlessly on British and American plots to destablise the régime in Iran, as if that meant that this particular movement was a product of one of those. One of these articles alleged that the protestors were playing into the hands of the CIA, as if people should hold off challenging a rigged election to satisfy the designs another group of foreigners have on their country. In any case, the man they support is liberal only in comparison to Ahmedinejad and is a post-revolutionary establishment figure of long standing, so the dismantling of the Islamic Republic was not on the agenda.

Why is this? I always suspected, even though most of the pro-Taliban Muslims I met wore turbans and long white clothes, and their wives dressed in black and wore niqab, that none of them would ever have wanted to live under such a régime themselves, and now that a similar movement has stirred beyond the Afghan-Pak border mountains and into regions east of Peshawar, the thought of these people bringing their version of Shari’ah into Rawalpindi or Lahore was too much to bear. I am sure most of those who cheer on Ahmadinejad, call his opponents CIA dupes and insist that he won the election fair and square would not like him ruling their country. Could it be that to many of them, what they perceive as “the cause of Islam” is more important than the well-being of actual Muslims?

This perception is strenghtened by the reactions of Muslims to insults, such as the Danish cartoons, compared with that to actual persecution: there was a campaign to boycott Danish products, and there were demonstrations, riots and even incidents of arson, while with the exception of the long-running boycott of Israel, I have not heard of any campaign having been mounted against countries where Muslims are being persecuted, or killed by mobs, or where Islam cannot be practised freely, or where Muslim women or girls are being harassed. Consider the “campaign”, such as it was, against the French anti-hijab law; the street protests were tiny (and split), and I can’t recall any call to write letters to the French embassy or any other French institution, let alone to boycott French products; yet an insult to the Prophet (sall’ Allahu ‘alaihi wa sallam) from a privately-run newspaper results in a backlash against an entire nation.

Of course, historically Muslims were loyal to the Muslim ruler regardless of whether they were just or not, because they ruled according to Islam and, in any case, no ruler would live and rule forever. However, I believe that there is a difference between supporting the Muslim ruler against the Roman or Persian emperor and falling over oneself to excuse or justify the crimes of ignorant religious fanatics when they tyrannise Muslim women and deny them work, education and even medicine, or support a tyrant when he decides to rip up his own state’s rule-book just to maintain an anti-Western posture. I am not suggesting that Muslims should have supported the Western action to remove the Taliban, let alone that British Muslims should have supported British involvement in it (I didn’t support either), just that some Muslims (and it was not just ordinary brothers I am talking about) should have adopted a more critical and less partisan stance towards the Taliban the first time around, as it may have led to a moderation of their behaviour and fostered greater goodwill among Muslims and probably others; it could have become a great hope for the Muslims, rather than a source of terrible oppression for some and a dreadful embarrassment for the rest of us. If you do not want them running the place where you live, be it Lahore or London, don’t cheer them on in Iran or Afghanistan.

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