Decades after the two states came into being, relations between India and Pakistan continue to be, to put it mildly, hostile. This owes largely to the vast, and continuously mounting, influence of the Hindu religious right-wing in India and its Muslim counterpart in Pakistan. Seemingly irreconcilable foes, the two speak the same language—of unending hatred between Hindus and Muslims—each seeking to define itself by building, stressing and constantly reinforcing boundaries between the two religiously-defined imagined communities.
Much has been written on the ideology and politics of right-wing Hindu and Islamic movements and organisations in both India and Pakistan, by academics and journalists alike. Yet, almost no attention has been given to how individual Hindu and Muslim religious activists at the local level, as distinct from key ideologues and leaders at the national-level, imagine and articulate notions of the religious and national ‘other’. Understanding this issue is crucial, for such activists exercise an enormous clout among their following.
The Lahore-based Mashal Books, one of Pakistan’s few progressive, left-leaning publishing houses, recently launched a unique experiment: of recording and making publicly accessible speeches delivered by maulvis or Muslim clerics at mosque congregations across Pakistan’sPunjab province, including some located in small towns and obscure villages. These speeches deal with a host of issues, ranging from women’s status and scientific education, to jihad and anti-Indianism, all these linked to an amazingly diverse set of understandings of Islam. Hosted on the Mashal Books’ website (www.mashalbooks.org), these speeches reflect the worldviews of a large majority of Pakistani maulvis, representing a range of sectarian backgrounds, who now exercise a major influence in the country’s politics and in shaping Pakistani public opinion and discourse.
Of the dozens of speeches hosted on the website, only two are classified as relating particularly to India, but these may still be taken to be representative of how a great many Pakistani maulvis conceive of India and of relations between India and Pakistan. Predictably, in both speeches India is depicted in lurid colours, as an implacable foe of Pakistan, of Muslims, and of Islam. Not surprisingly, then, efforts to improve relations between India and Pakistan or to work towards rapprochement between Hindus and Muslims are vociferously denounced. The two maulvis appear to insist that Islam, as they understand it, itself requires that Pakistani Muslims must never cool off their anti-Hindu and anti-Indian zeal.
The first of these two speeches, by the Deobandi Maulana Muhammad Hafeez of the Jamia Masjid Umar Farooq, Rawalpindi, refers to India only in passing. He presents Muslims the world over as besieged by a host of powerful non-Muslim enemies. It is almost as if their ‘disbelief’ (kufr) in Islam goads all non-Muslims, wherever they may be, to engage in a relentless conspiracy against Islam and its adherents, a war, like Samuel Huntington’s infamous ‘Clash of Civilisations’, in which compromise and reconciliation are simply impossible because Islam and ‘non-Islam’ can, in this worldview, never comfortably coexist. It is also as if Muslims have a monopoly on virtue and non-Muslims on vice. ‘Islam will rise,’ Maulana Hafeez thunders, ‘and America and India will fall,’ conveniently forgetting (assuming he knew of the fact) that India probably has more Muslims than Pakistan and that if India falls, it will drag its tens of millions of Muslims along with it, too.
The second speech is by a certain Maulana Mufti Saeed Ahmed of Jamia Masjid Mittranwali, Sialkot, who belongs to the Ahl-e Hadith sect, which closely resembles the Saudi Wahhabis. Pakistani Ahl-e Hadith groups, most notoriously the Lashkar-e Tayyeba, have been heavily involved in fomenting violence across Pakistan, Kashmir and in India as well. Hatred for India and the Hindus seems to be an article of faith for many Pakistani Ahl-e Hadith, as Maulana Ahmed’s speech clearly indicates. At the same time, it must also be recognized, as is evident from instances that the Maulana cites, that these deep-rooted anti-Indian and anti-Hindu sentiments are constantly fuelled by brutalities inflicted by non-Muslim powers, including the United States and fiercely anti-Muslim Hindu chauvinists in India, on Muslim peoples. These brutalities need not always be physical. They can also take the form of assaults on and insults to cherished Islamic beliefs, which inevitably provoke Muslim anger. The appeal of people like Maulana Ahmed lies in their practiced ability to use these instances of brutality directed against Muslims to craft a frighteningly Manichaean world, where all Muslims are pitted against all non-Muslims in a ceaseless war of cosmic proportions that shall carry on until Muslims, it is fervently believed, will finally triumph.
Recounting a long list of anti-Muslim brutalities (but conveniently ignoring similar outrages committed by Muslims on others), Maulana Ahmed exhorts his listeners to unite and take revenge. ‘O Muslims!,’ he shrilly appeals, ‘get up and take in hand your arrows, pick up your Kalashnikovs, train yourselves in explosives and bombs, organise yourselves into armies, prepare nuclear attacks and destroy every part of the body of the enemy.’ His speech is peppered with fervent calls for what he terms as ‘jihad’ against both America and India, these being projected as inveterate foes of Islam and of all Muslims. He prays for America to ‘be destroyed’, and ecstatically celebrates the recent devastating terrorist assault on Mumbai by a self-styled Islamist group that left vast numbers of people dead, unapologetically hailing the dastardly act as a ‘big slap on the cheek of the Hindus’. Not stopping at this, he calls for continuous terrorist violence against India, including, he advises, unleashing ‘bloodbath to [sic.] Indian and American diplomats in Kabul and Kandahar’. Only then, he argues, can Pakistan’s rulers ‘relieve the pressure’ on them and being peace to their country.
The ‘enemy’, as Maulana Ahmed constructs the notion, could be any and every non-Muslim, particularly Americans, Jews and Hindus or Indians. It is as if every non-Muslim is, by definition, irredeemably opposed to Islam and is necessarily engaged in a grand global conspiracy to wipe Islam from off the face of the earth. It is as if non-Muslims have no other preoccupation at all. All non-Muslims are thus tarred with the same brush, and no exceptions whatsoever are made. It is almost as if Maulana Ahmed desperately wants all non-Muslims to be fired by anti-Muslim and anti-Islamic vitriol, for that is his way to whip up the sentiments of his Muslim followers and fire their zeal and faith. It is as if further stoking such hatred is crucial to his ability to maintain a following and to claim to authoritatively speak for Islam and its adherents. ‘The hatred among the people against the kafirs has reached a new height,’ the Maulana exults. For the Maulana, fomenting hatred of non-Muslims is his chosen way of realising what has for centuries remained the elusive dream of Muslim unity. That this hatred, which he so passionately celebrates, inevitably further stokes the fires of Islamophobia and anti-Muslim prejudice, already so widespread among non-Muslims, appears of no concern to him at all. In fact, he seems to positively relish the frightening Huntingtonian thesis of the ‘Clash of Civilisations’.
Deobandi and Ahl-e Hadith outfits today enjoy tremendous clout in Pakistan, and they have been at the forefront of Islamist militancy that now threatens to drown the country in the throes of what promises to be an interminable civil war. As the speeches of these two Pakistani clerics, one a Deobandi and the other from the Ahl-e Hadith, so starkly indicate, inveterate hatred for India and the Hindus, indeed for non-Muslims in general, is integral to the ways in which vast numbers of Pakistani Muslim clerics understand religion, community, nationalism and the world. Such hatred is inevitably further fuelled by acts of brutality directed against Muslims by non-Muslims, including by the United States, India (particularly in Kashmir) and by militantly anti-Muslim Hindu chauvinist groups. Muslim and non-Muslim right-wing radicalism and militancy thus enjoy a mutually symbiotic relationship, opposing each other while, ironically, unable to live apart, needing each other even simply to define themselves.
Religion is too powerful an instrument to be left in the hands of hate-driven clerics to manipulate as they please, most often for fuelling conflict between communities and states. As the frightening records of Hindutva chauvinists in India and the Pakistani clerics discussed in this article so strikingly illustrate, leaving religion to the right-wing to monopolise is a sure recipe for bloody and endless conflict. It is thus crucial for socially-engaged activists, even if they do not subscribe to religion personally, to enter the terrain of religious discourse and contest and critique the claims of those who speak in its name and deploy it as a tool to promote hatred against what are defined as the religious and national ‘other’. Efforts to improve relations between India and Pakistan, and Hindus and Muslims in South Asia, can hardly make any headway if this indispensable task continues to be so sorely neglected