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A Muslim Ideal in South Asia:  The Search For Inclusion - 2004-01-22

The recent thawing of relations between the south Asian giants India and Pakistan, though still fragile, has brought a collective sigh of relief from much of the world. At a recent gathering at the Mahatma Gandhi Memorial Center here in Washington, a renowned Islamic scholar stressed that reconciliation of Muslims and Hindus must serve as an example to the world.

Akbar Ahmed one of the world's leading scholars of Islam, ponders a fundamental question regarding the future of humanity in his latest book, Islam Under Siege: Living Dangerously in a Post-Honor World. “Will there be a clash of civilizations or a dialogue of civilizations in the 21st century? And what can the historical experience of South Asia bring to this discussion? And why is this discussion relevant or important in the 21st century? We are seeing the developments, the good news coming from South Asia. And we pray that momentum will sustain.” He believes that for better or for worse, the 21st century will be the century of Islam. The events of September 11th, 2001, plus the rapid growth of today's one-point-three billion Muslims have brought this religion to the forefront of our times. He believes that interfaith dialogue is critical to bridge the gap that divides Islam from other religions.

At the Mahatma Gandhi Memorial Center in Washington, Professor Ahmed discussed the history and future of Islam in South Asia. About a third of the world's Muslims live in the region, where the religion has uniquely evolved since Arab seamen first arrived in the 8th century. “In South Asia, Islam met something extremely different -- it met Hinduism, a completely different religious system. Confronted with a religion and civilization that was not only older but had a greater population, the philosophers, both Muslims and Hindus began a process of mutual understanding. There were points of theological, cultural and intellectual contact and even synthesis.”

Professor Ahmed says the two sides mingled, leaving lasting cultural influences on each other. He describes this as an inclusive approach -- whereby dialogue, tolerance and mutual respect are maintained. “Islam spread across the subcontinent over a period of centuries. In the early 16th century, descendants of Genghis Khan swept from the north through the Khyber Pass and established the Mughal Dynasty -- a line of Muslim emperors who reigned in India until the 19th century.”

Considered one of India's most remarkable rulers, Akbar the Great expanded Mughal rule over a territory that encompasses modern-day India, Pakistan, Afghanistan and Bangladesh. His reign in the late 16th century ushered in a remarkable period of tolerance. He appointed Hindus to high civil and military posts and invited scores of religious scholars, including Jews, Christians and Hindus, to debate him personally in his private chambers.

But Islam in South Asia has not always been so open and inclusive. Professor Ahmed says there has been tension between inclusivists and exclusivists throughout Muslim history in the region. Akbar's great grandson, Aurangzeb ruled with the intent of imposing orthodox Islam across India. He dismissed Hindus from public service, reimposed taxes on them and destroyed their temples. Professor Ahmed says his exclusivist rule cast a long shadow on the future of South Asia.

Soon after Aurangzeb's death, the empire broke up with the arrival of the British in 1858. As British rule was nearing an end at the close of the Second World War, Indian leader Mahatma Gandhi led the way to independence. Concurrently, the founder of Pakistan, Muhammad Ali Jinnah, known as Quaid-e-Azam or great leader, pressed for a moderate separate Muslim state. Professor Ahmed says Jinnah's approach was inclusive. “His first and perhaps most important speech in Pakistan on August 11,1947, to the Constituent Assembly clearly outlines his modern, democratic, open-minded and humanist vision for Pakistan in which he exhorted Hindus to worship in their temples and Muslims in their mosques with freedom.”

Concerned that British occupation would be replaced by Hindu oppression of India's Muslim minority, Jinnah urged a partition along religious lines to protect and empower Muslims. That occurred on August 14, 1947. Jinnah said “to the states beyond our borders, we send our greetings. We assure them that Pakistan will extend to them a most friendly cooperation in preserving peace.”

But Jinnah did not live to see his ideal realized, dying of tuberculosis a year after the formation of Pakistan. His death was a blow to Pakistanis and to his vision of a secular government. Division led to communal violence that cost at least half a million lives as Hindus and Muslims separated behind their new borders. Since then, the two countries have gone to war three times, twice over the disputed Himalayan territory of Kashmir.

Scholar Akbar Ahmed says Muhammad Ali Jinnah and Mahatma Gandhi would have despaired over these developments. “Both Quaid-i-Azam [Jinnah] and the Mahatma reflect the inclusivist traditions of South Asia and neither saw 1947 as the creation of two states that would remain in permanent confrontation and enmity. I find that the tragedy of South Asia is that few in Pakistan appreciate Mahatma Gandhi's inclusiveness and few in India appreciate Quaid-i-Azam's inclusiveness. In Pakistan we need to know much more about figures like Mahatma Gandhi. In India people need to read and know more about Quaid-i-Azam.”

Mahatma Gandhi often began his prayer meetings by reading the Koran, the Bible and other holy texts. He fasted to prevent riots against Muslims and was assassinated by a Hindu extremist who thought he was too sympathetic to Muslims. These facts are not well known in Pakistan, says Zulekha Jennings, a 32-year-old Pakistani-American. “What I knew about Gandhi I learned from family members who grew up in Pakistan. They said that he was anti-Muslim and not a good person towards Muslims, and that is why we had to separate.”

Mrs. Jennings says all Pakistanis are originally Indian, and although she is proud to be Pakistani, she believes both sides must stop hating and move on.

But rising Islamic fundamentalism seems to be going in the opposite direction -- back towards exclusivism. Along with similar Hindu militancy, it could undermine peace efforts.

Even so, Wajahat Habibullah of the US Institute of Peace is cautiously optimistic. “It is just a beginning. This has happened before and bore no fruit but hopefully this time it will move forward. The difference is that the prime minister of India -- the most powerful south Asian country -- is leading the effort. He had declared this a life's mission.”

By opening border crossings and re-established air links, Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee and Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf are preparing for formal peace talks in February that could give a great boost to the inclusive approach to religion urged by Akbar Ahmed.