(The following paper was summarized during the India Foundation’s India Ideas Conclave in Goa, 19-21 Dec. 2014. When it started, I felt that the topic was too heady for the audience, or at least for the intent of the organizers, so I quickly wrote a second speech comparing the Narendra Modi Government’s performance with the Hindu agenda, a logical topic for this conclave yet conspicuously missing. But the chairman of my session insisted that I speak about Islam, as this would match the other papers well. With this, he can hardly complain.)
This is meant to be an Ideas Conclave. It follows that I should not try to please you with diplomatic niceties or electoral platitudes. Instead, we speakers have all been invited to brainstorm about hard data and the mechanisms behind them, to think issues through and fearlessly go wherever logic takes us, and stir your intelligence with sharp and novel insights. This remains true even for such a touchy subject as religious intolerance.
Allow me to start with an anecdote. As you know, Mahatma Gandhi, whatever his faults, was a staunch Hindu. Yet, when I stayed at the Mahatma Gandhi Peace Foundation in Delhi, I sat in on a conversation in which these Gandhians were debating whether Hinduism should continue to exist at all. Some thought it could perhaps still correct itself, others wanted to cut out the cancer of Hinduism altogether. And indeed, it is considered normal to question Hinduism’s very right to exist. Hindus are perfectly used to seeing their religion belittled, accused and insulted day and night.
Therefore, it is nothing new if I apply a similar treatment to Islam. Indeed, in this paper I will argue that the answer to the question why the latest wave of “Islamist” atrocities has happened, is very simple: Islam. I will show that Islam itself is guilty. I have been given to understand that the two other speakers will advocate a different opinion on the same topic, so if you don’t like my point of view, you still have theirs to comfort you.
The Islamic State
Today, we get a rare show of religious intolerance in the form of the Islamic State. Even more than the Taliban, al-Qaida and Boko Haram, the new-fangled Caliphate represents our worst nightmare of Islam. Ever since TV brought its images of sensational events and acts of war into our very homes, we have not yet been treated to such explicit intolerance of a type we thought relegated to the past. While murder remains a fact of life, the formal beheading of (Yezidi and Assyrian) Infidels and of (Shiite) Heretics has become exceptional, a throw-back to the witches’ trials and religious wars of centuries ago. While exploitation remains a world problem, the actual taking of slaves to auction them off at the slave-market is eerily premodern.
To be sure, for Indians it is not such an otherworldly fantasy. Their republic was born in 1947 in massacres unleashed by the militants and supporters of the Pakistan movement, finally killing a million or so and putting many millions to flight, most of them Hindus (including Sikhs). Many of you will remember the East Bengal genocide of 1971, where officially 3 million, according to scholars at least a million, were killed, most of them Hindus. In sheer magnitude, this death toll completely dwarfs anything that the Taliban or the Islamic State have done so far.
The grim advantage that the Islamic State now enjoys, however, is the omnipresence of internet reporting, which they themselves promote with their youtube videos of beheadings and other atrocities. Uniquely in-your-face. Another sensational novelty is the official re-institution of slavery. Numerous victims of earlier rounds of violence have effectively been exploited as slaves, particularly as sex slaves (remember Pakistani General Tikka Khan in the Bangladesh war of 1971 justifying his soldiers’ rape campaign openly: “If we cannot hold East Bengal, we will make sure that the next generation of Bengalis consists of bastards”); but a formal institution of slavery, complete with slave markets and the official fixing of auction prices, that is truly a return to the premodern age. This we hadn’t seen in our lifetimes.
Countries around the world take an extraordinary interest in the onward march of the Islamic State in Syria and Iraq. The reason is that some of their own youngsters go there as military volunteers, or in the case of girls, as volunteers to render sexual services to those warriors. Some come in the news because they have been recognized on internet videos as executioners or bystanders during beheadings; others because their death in battle is reported; yet others because they are disappointed and have managed to get back home. The authorities are very concerned with what these returning warriors might do in their homelands, or what the sympathizers who never left but who support the Islamic State might do.
What motivates the Islamic militants?
It is but normal that we feel an urge to do something about these atrocities committed in the name of Islam. Often our actions do not match our emotional revulsion, though. The initial talk of “bringing our girls back” in the case of the hundreds of Nigerian schoolgirls abducted by Boko Haram in early 2014 has petered out, and at this time they have not been brought back. At any rate, any thought of either remedying a condition that has just arisen, or preventing that it can happen again in the long run, raises the question: why do the mujahedin do all this?
For the mujahedin themselves, it is very simple: they do this in conformity with the commandments of Islam. If we take 11 September 2001 as a cut-off date, we have had since then hundreds of testimonial videos in which suicide-bombers and other terrorists set out the Islamic reasons for what they are about to do. When Mohammed Bouyeri killed Dutch filmmaker Theo van Gogh, he not only added a death threat to apostate Ayaan Hirsi Ali on a paper pinned in Theo’s corpse, but also explicitated that Islam made him do it. Statements by terror movements such as Boko Haram, Hamas, the Taliban and Islamic State are very explicit about their Islamic motivation. The first thing Boko Haram did when it abducted the schoolgirls, was to forcibly convert them to Islam.
By contrast, our politicians, both Indian and Western, assure us that these atrocities have extraneous causes and are foreign to Islam. Thus, it is said that these are unemployed youngsters, often high-school drop-outs, losers in our society who see risking their lives in military operations as a shortcut to becoming important or at least someone respected. Yes, that is the route to success or at least to a meaningful life which marginalized young men have always chosen. But then why do non-Muslims not do the same thing? Why do they settle for less than becoming beheaders? And why do we also find well-to-do Muslims among the mujahedin, such as the late lamented billionaire Osama bin Laden?
No matter just how exactly the politicians and their media allies beat around the bush, about one thing they are all in agreement: it has nothing to do with Islam. Out of the dozens of big names I could quote here, let me settle for the eloquent judgment of British PM David Cameron: the Caliphate warriors are “monsters, not Muslims”. And since these warriors only want to emulate the Prophet, Cameron’s words amount to saying: “The Prophet was a monster, not a Muslim”. Mind you, I would never say such a thing (indeed, even in the secrecy of my thoughts I don’t consider Mohammed a “monster”), but Cameron comes very close to asserting just that.
Unfortunately, Cameron and many of his ilk don’t respect Muslims. Personally, I take Muslims seriously: if they say Islam made them do it, I take them at their word. But Islam-lovers like Cameron or US Secretary of State John Kerry overrule the Muslim perpetrators’ own testimony when it does not suit them. They have invested heavily in a rosy picture of Islam, and they are willing to lie and even to kill for it.
Yes, they are ready to kill Muslims in order to uphold their delusion. Indeed, John Kerry has said, justifying the armed attacks on the Caliphate, that one of the US war aims was “remedying the distortion of Islam” which he imagined the Caliphate’s orthodox Islam to be. This leads us to the paradox that Islamophiles are ready to kill Muslims in order to defend Islam.
What must not be done?
Several false trails are abroad, are even popular, nay, even espoused with firmness and fanaticism, which are given as solutions for religious intolerance.
The violent approach is at any rate the wrong one. Islamophile Western politicians have, between them, killed hundreds of thousands of Muslims in Somalia, Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, Mali and Syria, all while making statements calling Islam “great” and a “religion of peace”. Their only justification towards the Muslim world is that they are merely killing “monsters, not Muslims”, a lie which no sane Muslim will swallow. What the Muslim world needs, is a thaw. The present polarization, aggravated by every new Western intervention, freezes men in their beliefs and prejudices. In order to grow, they need some peace and stability. By contrast, the Western interventions in Iraq and Libya have only destabilized these countries, engendered a plethora of warring militias, and enthroned sectarian rivalries culminating in the Islamic State.
Along the same lines, many Hindus who want to get out of the Gandhian stereotype of the “meek Hindu” fall into the other extreme, throw their weight around and try to act tough: “Muslims should be taught a lesson!” While I recognize that in emergencies, physical methods may be necessary (the Army’s defence of Kashmir, the police’s re-empowerment in the no-go areas that have come up in places like Mewat or Moradabad, the organized Hindu self-defence against the rise of Muslim aggression in West Bengal), they will not go very far and will soon land into abuses if they are not informed by a more fundamental doctrinal strategy. So, my focus is to inform an elite capable of understanding Islam as an ideological problem, essentially as a mistake, and then let these insights percolate to the masses.
We have no reason to go down the violent path. We make a clear distinction between Islam as an ideology and Muslims as human beings. They are its captives, its abductees, but of course they are people like the rest of us. (This distinction is always and insistently blurred by the Islamophiles who, no matter how thoroughly you refute their allegations, go on claiming that Islam criticism amounts to “spreading hatred against 2 billion Muslims”.) Among your friends there are nice Muslims? Well of course there are, the indoctrination in Islam sits lightly on numerous nominal Muslims, who remain human beings after all, and only after that, succumb in various degrees to the doctrine in which they have been raised. Their goodness is part of their general human heritage and says nothing about Islam.
In physicist Steven Weinberg’s words, “good people will do good and evil people will do evil; but for good men to do evil – that takes religion”. Or in other words, religion is like alcohol: some drunken drivers reach home safely anyway, some teetotallers still manage to be a danger on the road, but for most people, alcohol will affect their driving negatively. In the case of Islam, more followers than in other doctrines are swayed by it into acts of fanaticism against others.
An intellectual approach which appeals to post-religious atheists and secularists is the line that “all religions are the same”, that they all equally lead to fanaticism and terrorism. This is obviously untrue, and I am confident that I won’t be contradicted by the numerous victims of Jain terrorism. Nothing in other religions compares with the wave of Islamic violence that currently affects dozens of countries.
Note also the potential for religions to develop, e.g. Christianity gradually renounced its practice of violent persecution and of slavery, which it voluntarily abolished after having imbibed the spirit of the Enlightenment. Or consider Hinduism, which in its early history developed the institution of caste, and more recently has started eliminating caste. But such evolutions are more difficult in the case of a religion closely bound up with a law system deemed to be valid until Judgment Day, as Islam defines its Shari’a. Thus, the Islamic world has never abolished slavery but was forced to do so by an outside world that had outgrown it. (The antics of the Islamic State show how this abolition has been but skin-deep.)
The converse approach is the idea that all religions are good, and true, and noble. And yes, even Islam, a very late composite of elements from existing religions plus a few personal innovations by the Prophet, has to contain worthwhile points. But the fact that no religion equals zero, doesn’t imply that they all evenly equal one. There may be equality before the law between human beings, but there is no conceptual equality between doctrines, nor spiritual equality between paths. Just as in science one theory may be plainly wrong while another one fits all the available facts, one religion may be a false trail while another, though still imperfect, may essentially be right.
In particular, the second of the two points of the Islamic creed, that Mohammed was the messenger of God, is demonstrably untrue. Most religions don’t think of themselves as true or not: truth is for philosophy and scholarship, religion is about devotion and surrender. Yet Islam insists on being the true religion, while others are false. Alright then, let us judge Islam in terms of truth and falsehood. There is nothing in Mohammed’s collection of messages, the Qur’ân, that couldn’t have been said by a 7th-century Arab businessman, including clumsy superstitions typical of the childhood of mankind. Some parts may be OK as literature, but there is nothing divine about it. If we keep this in mind, we have made a great stride out of the confusion arising as soon as the word Islam is uttered.
What is to be done?
In the case of the Islamic State’s attraction of youngsters, even from India, authorities the world over wonder how to deal with it. We should not combat the consequences, viz. the youngsters’ involvement in jihad, but the cause of this involvement, their prime motivator, Islam itself. In every generation, some youngsters will not settle for a syrupy version of their chosen ideology but insist on the radical version. That radicalism is a normal phenomenon and need not be punished, unless they have committed war crimes, and in that case, they can be punished under existing laws.
The current crisis situation only highlights the more general problem how to undo the impact of Islam on its followers. But followers of Islam as such must not be punished either, nor persecuted or discriminated against. This is useless and counterproductive, as the survival of repressed religions under Communist regimes should teach us, and it just goes against what we stand for. Freedom of religion should of course also count for Muslims, let there be no doubt or lack of clarity about that.
But I do propose that Islam should be phased out, as should any delusionary belief. The violent aspects of Islam make this need more pressing, but ultimately it is of wider application. Indeed, I will draw upon my own experience as an apostate from Catholic Christianity. I am but a representative of a whole generation that turned Western Europe from predominantly Christian to predominantly secular. Changes of religion do happen, even on a collective and continent-wide scale. There is no reason why they could not happen in the Muslim world.
About the homecoming of Muslims from their exile, their thraldom to Islam, my thoughts are admittedly incomplete, and I am only making a beginning here. If all the secularists in India had not wasted the past decades with defending religions (except for Hinduism), but instead started deconstructing their favourite religions, we would have been a lot closer to a solution. But the guilt and at the same time the ridiculousness of the Indian secularist scene are topics for another occasion. Fact is, some work remains to be done, and I welcome input from others. Here, however, are a few stray ideas that may be helpful.
Ideas on apostasy from Islam
· The first thing to do is that we ourselves are clear about the nature of the Islam problem. Before we can even think of telling the Muslims how we view Islam, we ought to understand it for and amongst ourselves. Just a few days ago, I saw a TV debate in which a BJP spokesmen called the Caliphate warriors “heretics”, implying that they do not represent the true Islam. Sometimes this can be excused as an electoral gimmick or a diplomatic platitude, to be expected among politicians. But I know from experience that most Hindus are serious about such pseudo-expert notions. As a wise Hindu told me, “the typical Hindu always thinks he knows everything about everything”, and so he will pretend to tell Muslims what “real Islam” is. In this case, he will tell the accomplished Islamic theologians behind the jihad movements that they have it all wrong and that these are “heretics”. On the contrary, all that the Islamic State makes headlines with, has been done by the Prophet himself, who started wars of conquest, took hostages, ordered rape, took and sold slaves, had his critics murdered or formally executed, and discriminated between Muslims, other monotheists and real Pagans. Everything the Caliphate does, can be justified if brought before an Islamic Court, unless the judges are willing to state that Mohammed’s behaviour was un-Islamic and illegitimate. You cannot find a single Islamic Court, Mosque or Madrassa where it is held that “Mohammed was wrong”. The typical Hindu attitude to Islam is “under-informed but over-opinionated” wishful thinking. So we will have to convince them and other non-Muslims about the true nature of the Islam problem first.
· Telling Muslims what we think of Islam is intellectually quite alright, but humanly we have to keep in mind that it is delicate to offend people’s cherished convictions. It should only be done, as it were, in self-defence. There is no need to “attack” Muslims with your opinions, it is only when they themselves give you as valid their own (or at least, Islam’s) opinions, that you may counter them. Only when they take the initiative to call your religion false, should you respond by questioning their own. This is but a matter of politeness and sensitivity, but also a premise of the eternal dharma: speak gently, and only confront others with a harsh truth when they ask for it.
· When we approach the Muslim community, let us keep in mind how Christianity imploded in Europe. Since the 18th century, an elite of freethinkers left the Church but had little influence among the masses. After the Industrial Revolution, a large part of the working class also left the Church. But the real breakthrough took place around 1970, a generation after World War 2, when education was democratized and nobody who had gone to school could take the defining dogmas of Christianity (hereditary sin as the cause of mortality, Jesus as sole incarnation of God, virgin birth of Jesus, salvation from sin and mortality through Jesus’ death and resurrection) seriously anymore. It was no longer cool to be Christian, the defining beliefs were ridiculed. As soon as enough people had left the Church, the force of conformism, of doing like the others, which had so far retained people inside the Church, now started working inversely. Those with little conviction, who had only gone because of the neighbours, now stayed away because of the neighbours. So now only a marginal percentage goes to church. This is what will have to be achieved regarding Islam.
· The magnitude of the task should not be underestimated. Thus, the comparison with European Christianity’s implosion is valid but with the nuance that in Europe, the change in worldview was facilitated by the high degree of individualism, which was both intrinsic to the culture and reaching a new high in the post-WW2 welfare states. In Islamic society, family and community ties tend to be stronger, and they in turn tend to stabilize religious identity. Another reassuring argument among non-Muslims is that the oil wealth is finite, so that the financing of Islam worldwide by the Arab monarchies is bound to come to an end. Arabs oil sheikhs know this too, and they prepare to switch to providing solar power to cold and cloudy Europe from the Arab desert. Other scenarios may develop, and we cannot count on an implosion of Islamic finances to solve the problem for us. People like to believe anything that implies we do not have to actually do anything, but often wrongly.
· In the case of Christianity, it is the young who have convinced the old. Numerous are the families I know, where the first one to stay away was a rebellious son. Then other youngsters rebelled, and finally their parents followed suit. Aged people who once were devout Christians, and who –- you would think -– would take consolation from their faith in their declining years, openly confide: “Oh, how they fooled us in our youth!” Similarly, we have to focus on the young Muslims, whose self-liberation from Islam will then start taking along most of the older people. As for the older ones who stick to their childhood beliefs: we will just tolerate that, as we always have, because it is impossible and undesirable to pressurize them out of their beliefs. Thoughts are free, opinions are perfectly permitted, so if people insist on believing that the voice Mohammed heard carried a message from God, well, let them. But such a belief should not be promoted. We should finally get serious about India’s Constitutional provision that requires the promotion of the scientific temper. If we expose the Muslim youth to the scientific way of thinking, they will become sceptical of the defining dogmas of Islam.
· While in Europe, many people have left religion altogether, it will be said that Indians are a religious nation, and that the only alternative to Islam is another religion. Indeed, even in Europe, many ex-Christians dabble in various alternative religions, including elements of Hindu-Buddhism. Well, in the case of India, you already have every possible alternative in place. For Indian Muslims, the alternative religion is all around them. For most people, the Ghar-wâpasî (“homecoming”), the return to their ancestral religion, will do. Moreover, it allows for the introduction of positive ideas and attitudes: far more than a critique of negatives, these will convince Muslims that there is a better world outside Islam.
· Now, more concretely, expose youngsters in their education and via the general culture to the demythologizing information about Islam. This can be done not so much by the media which Westerners use, such as Daniel Pipes’ Middle East Forum or Robert Spencer’s Jihadwatch, but the forums of ex-Muslims like faithfreedom.org by Ali Sina (pseudonym of a Canadian Iranian) or islam-watch.org by Ibn Warraq (pseudonym of a British Pakistani), or work by Anwar Sheikh, Taslima Nasrin, Afshin Ellian, Ayaan Hirsi Ali and other ex-Muslims. Respond positively to the demand of Muslim youngsters to pay more attention in schools to Muslim thinkers, but then tell them the whole story rather than the streamlined hagiography, e.g. the racist judgment by Ibn Khaldun on Blacks, or the account by the Moroccan globe-trotter Ibn Battuta of slavery in the Delhi Sultanate, or the motto of the Algerian Berber singer Lounès Matoub (murdered in 1998 by jihadis): Ni Arabe ni Musulman , “neither Arab nor Muslim”. There is nothing intrinsically Islamic in our Muslims, nothing they cannot outgrow.
· Muslims will ultimately have to do it themselves, they will outgrow their Islam in a natural process. But this process should not be hampered by any artificial hurdles we put in its way. Let us at least not give Islam the extra advantages that it now enjoys to prolong its existence.
(More controversial statements came about only during question time. My response there, and to some objections uttered afterwards, will be presented in a forthcoming contribution.)