Speak Softly, and Cover Yourself in Black

Born in 1963 in Srinagar’s Khanyar locality, Asiya Andrabi was more interested in science than spirituality in her youth. Today, however, she leads Dukhtaran-e-Millat (Daughters of the Community), an all-female Islamic fundamentalist group that is older than both the Taliban and Al Qaeda and that the Indian government has branded a “soft terror” group. Dressed in her habitual dark hijab and black leather gloves, an engaging and fervent Andrabi welcomed me into her home on a recent Friday morning. Over tea and biscuits we discussed the conflict between Islam and the West, the progress of Kashmir’s independence movement, and the assassination of the President of the United States.

I’ve read that as a teenager you wanted to be a scientist but were diverted and became interested in Islam. Tell me about that.

After my graduation I was planning to go to India for my studies because biochemistry was not offered in this KU in those days. My brother, who is a doctor, didn’t allow me to go to India for further studies as he was aware of what was happening in India to Kashmiris, especially to Muslim girls. So after a few days I went into my father’s library and found this book, “The Inner Feelings of a Woman,” compiled by Indian author Mya Faribad. One of the lead stories was of Miriam Jamilah and how she converted to Islam from Chistianity. She had a conversation with Maulana Mahdoodi and they spoke and wrote letters and she was converted. When I read this whole it was the turning point of my life. And I made up my mind that Insha’allah I too would spend my whole life devoted to Islam.

Before that I did not even know the ABC’s of Islam, and that too from such a family that was known for their prominence in Islam (Andrabi is part of the Sayyid clan, originally from Afghanistan). And then I decided that a Muslim is incomplete unless he or she knows Arabic, because most of the books and key Islamic works are in Arabic. So I started reading Arabic. My father too was an Arabic scholar, and he guided me very properly, and I graduated in Arabic from Kashmir University.

And soon after that you started Dukhtaran-e-Millat?

In 1981 I started a school, a madrassa in Srinagar, and the response was very warm from the women folk. And then I started my organizational work. I went door to door and I went to the mosque and delivered speeches from the loudspeakers. I talked to women just to tell them the status of women in Islam, and how we were exploited by West as well as East – everybody exploits us. So let us see what Islam has given us.

Wasn’t it unusual for a woman to speak in the mosque?

Yes, it was unusual in those days. There were confrontations and hurdles from our priests, from the ulema. But I showed them how Allah and Mohammed (SAW) never denied a woman from speaking about Islam. Finally they decided you are the best among all the human beings because you preach the real Islam, you go for the right and you are telling the people to follow the right path and take them away from all the evils.

And how big is the organization today – how many schools and members?

We operate 75 schools across Jammu and Kashmir. These are part-time madrassas for only girls where we teach the Koran and Arabic. I cannot give you exact member total but we are in all districts and areas of the state.

And what is DeT's goal, its mission?

Our goal and aim is that this whole universe belongs to Allah the almighty and so should be governed by the laws of the Almighty. It’s not only Kashmir; my strong belief is that all human beings should accept Islam, and Islam is not only for the Muslims it is for the whole of humanity. As I’m talking to you my brother I don’t know whether you are Christian or what you are, Jewish or atheist, but this is my inner feelings in my heart is that I want to tell you please go and study Islam.

But don’t study the Muslims of this era! Because there is a lot of difference between Muslims and Islam. If you are to study a Muslim you would say Islam is nothing, no different than any other religion. But if you would study Islam, then the teachings of Koran and Prophet Mohammed (Salassam) then you’ll come to know what Islam is.

This is what I tell everyone. Even when I met the Indian agencies when I was arrested, RAW and IBS, CBI – they talked to me. I told them you please go and study Islam.

And how did they respond?

(Andrabi giggles under her veil) I gave them my humble request, and they said OK, Insh’allah Rahman, we will, Insh’allah, go and study Islam (eyes still smiling).

But we are not going for the Dawa work only. Our job is not confined to Dawa only because first and foremost we should liberate Kashmir from Indian clutches, that too for the cause of Islam.

So you seek the re-establishment of the Caliphate, under sharia law?

Yes, we want an Islamic state, why not? Islam should be in power. They should be powerful, the Islam. And that should be governed by the laws of Allah the almighty. Koran is rules and regulations of all parliaments and assemblies – there is nothing that has not been revealed in the Koran.

Does that mean you believe in hudood punishments such as that a thief should have his hands cut off, adulterers stoned and apostates killed?

Yes, of course. These are the punishments from Allah the Almighty. If you cut the hand off one thief, the whole society – none of them would dream of the theft.

How do you say that this is not justice? So when you punish a man in this way, there will be a totally pure society. One man will be killed and whole humanity would be saved.

Even if your son had committed the crime?

Yes, why not. I myself would kill him. In the time of Omar the second Caliph, his son committed a crime and he said: “My son should be punished first then any other.”

Does that mean there is no room for compromise in Islam? That there is no room for moderates in Islam?

There will be no change in Holy Koran; it will be around til doomsday. Nobody can have even a single change, even Asiya Andrabi or any clergyman. Now it is the West who is dictating and wants to see the whole world like the West. In certain areas of the West they are not allowing the women to wear the purdah, because they don’t like it. Some people ask them: “What’s the problem, why can’t women wear this hijab?” But in the West Muslim women do not wear the purdah and should be exploited and sold like commodities and be made commodities like those in the market.

Following that line of thinking, does this mean that the West and Islam cannot coexist?

We don’t have any grudge or anything against the West. One thing we want: If West will try their best to understand what Islam is. What happens is that there are some attacks on Western countries. This is a reaction to what the West is doing! They are trying their best to dictate that the whole universe should be governed by laws of Western countries or laws of America – nobody is ready for that. So what is happening to Iraq, what has happened to Afghanistan: Muslims have a full right to react now. Now that reaction is not always fully according to the laws of Islam, but when somebody is reacting he cannot react in any other way.
If there were dialogues between the West and Islam, that could be positive. And there is a place for dialogues in our religion. Just last year when there were cartoons they were trying their best to show our Prophet Mohammed (Salassam Nowsbillah Nowsbillah) was a terrorist and everyone knows our Prophet Mohammed (Salassam) was the most humble man on this planet. So they are inflaming our emotions and all that – how do you expect there will be civility between the West and Islam?

OK, but these attacks in Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Turkey, Indonesia, Afghanistan and Iraq – many are Muslims killing Muslims, which is un-Islamic, as you say. Are these not bad for the ummah?

That is the conspiracy against Islam. There are some hired persons everywhere. As you can see what’s happening in Pakistan, there are blasts in mosques even. Nobody can justify that! Nobody can say that’s Islam, that’s jihad. They are hired person – hired from West, hired from India. So what they are doing, this is not Islam.

You mentioned the need for dialogues. The US-Islamic World Forum took place last month in Doha, an event organized by an American political organization to give the US an opportunity to hear reaction and advice from a wide variety of leaders from the Muslim world. Mehbooba Mufti spoke at the gathering, what do you hope she said?

This is a very sad thing that they called Mehbooba Mufti. She is a Muslim woman but she doesn’t know what Islam is. She can’t represent Islam anywhere.

Why do you say that?

Because she is not a practicing Muslim woman. She has nothing to do with Islam. She is a secular woman who believes in secularism and all that. So as far as the Islamic representative is concerned you must be aware of Islamic rules and principles and you must know what Islam is. …It was just a government-sponsored program but she has no authority because she doesn’t represent Islam.

What would you have said? What do you think needs to be said at such a gathering?

Until and unless they change their policies, there will be hatred against the US. And whenever and wherever you go, you ask anyone, not Muslims only, whosoever is part of the weaker section of the world, you ask them who do you most hate and they will say George Bush. Because George Bush is against the weaker sections, George Bush is trying his best to have an upper hand on the whole of humanity. So this is my message for the US: You have your whole United States, you have your own set of rules in the United States and you have no right to involve yourself in other people’s lives in other countries. So let us govern ourselves. Let us live our lives how we want. Who are they dictate to us? Who are they to dictate to Iraq? Who are they to dictate to Iranians how they use their nuclear energy and all that? Why are they interfering? Wherever they see that Muslims have some power they interfere to destroy that power! Why not the Israelis?!

So then what was your reaction to 9/11?

As far as my perception, 9/11, this was done by the CIA. I don’t think there was the hand of Al Qaeda in that. But when it occurred Al Qaeda said we have done it. But I think it was the handiwork of the CIA because they were trying their best to destroy Afghanistan, so for that this was all fabricated.

But there is clear proof of these 19 Al Qaeda men on the planes..?

No, no. It is very easy, you hire someone else and you tell him to please tell other people: “I am Al Qaeda man,” and all that. It’s not necessary that whatsoever they spoke was true. Because this was the basis to destroy Afghanistan, because they had no reason, and immediately after 9/11 they destroyed Afghanistan, bombed everything and Taliban system was destroyed. There are hundreds of documents proving that this was the handiwork of the Pentagon. And I don’t think Muslims have as much ability to do such a big job. I don’t think militarily they are mature enough yet.

Speaking of maturity, has DeT made progress towards its goals?

Very nice progress here, yes (eyes smiling). We are progressing very nicely. There are some laws from the government – we are not allowed to preach or go anywhere freely – but still progress for us has been very nice lately.

How do you get around these laws?

We used to get arrested and booked regularly under Public Safety Act even though we are trying our best to make this Kashmir society pure from all obscenity and all the evils. So whenever we used to go anywhere we used to have confrontations with police. But (ahumdullilah) we are trying our best to carry on.

Last month Duktharan helped destroy hundreds of posters and cards and broke up meetings between young couples in public restaurants. Please tell me, what’s wrong with Valentine’s Day?

In Kashmir we have a purely religious society. We had – nowadays it’s not. We were a very pure society based on Islamic rules. And Valentine’s Day vulgarity is not permitted in Islam. We can share our love with our husband only.

OK, but what about two young people showing their appreciation for each other by giving each other cards? This does not seem a terrible thing.

This all leads to vulgarity.

But that’s not…

Who is St. Valentine to you?

If I remember correctly, the holiday as celebrated in the West really has nothing to do with the historical St. Valentine. It was the English poet Chaucer who romanticized the event and the holiday has passed down from…

In Kashmir we know this Valentine was a man who promoted this vulgarity and who promoted that young girls and young boys should go for courtship and all these vulgar activities. And then he was hanged. Here in Kashmir they want to celebrate this…and as far as our Islamic culture is concerned we are not allowed to celebrate such affairs. I can show my love to my husband, and it is not just one day, it is 365 days a year and 24 hours a day.

Maybe not all Kashmiris want to be more devout Muslims.

On Valentine’s Day we saw them and told these youths, young Muslims girls and boys, we told them the ethics of Islam, the principles of Islam. And we asked them “what is wrong with you that you are indulging in these activities?” And with the help of Allah the Almighty they understood what we were telling them and some of them they wept, “what is wrong with us we are not following the rules of Islam?” They told me: “Baji, give us your number” – they called me Baji – give us your phone number, please, we want to contact you, please teach what Islam is.”

But isn't tolerance a basic principle of Islam? Doesn't the Koran preach tolerance – for other individuals, for other traditions, i.e. “No compunction in religion”?

We are tolerating everything but we are also preaching.

But tolerating and preaching seem contradictory. “To every people have we appointed rites and ceremonies.” (Al-Hajj 21:76-69). Doesn’t that suggest that people should be able to practice such traditions the way they want?

No, that’s not what Islam says. Islam says all the human beings should accept Islam and practice Islam, this is what Islam says. That this holy Koran has been given to the whole humanity by Allah the Almighty and whosoever accepts he will be in the life hereafter he will enter the paradise, and whosoever doesn’t accept it, he will enter the hell. So now it is up to human beings. It’s your will and wish. If you won’t accept Islam, it will harm you. This is the holy Koran, if they will accept it it’s good for them, if they won’t accept it they have to face the tyranny in life hereafter.

If they won’t accept it, should they be forced to accept it?

No. They won’t be forced. Its just we preach Islam, let them know what it is. If they won’t accept it, OK, let them do what they want to do.

But the Taliban – not to mention Al Qaeda – they seem to force others to accept their beliefs and practices. Do you support their methods?

Al Qaeda is something different: nobody knows where Al Qaeda is or who Al Qaeda are. But as far as Taliban is concerned, they were practicing Islam under Islamic government, with rules and principles according to Islam, but on the whole that was an Islamic government.

So you support their ideal?

We are not in power. There is difference between Muslims and non-Muslims. If we were in power and there would be a government of Muslims, we could have some rules for the Islamic government that whosoever doesn’t accept this, he will be punished. But as far as non-Muslims are concerned, you can’t force a non-Muslim. For instance, in an Islamic government all the Muslim women would have to accept the purdah, but this order would not be for the non-Muslims. Non-Muslims have their own way of life; they can act as they want. But as far as Muslims are concerned, they have to accept Islam and they have to practice Islam.

And part of the practice is accepting the veil…

Islam has given us respect, has given us honor and to protect this honor this purdah is very necessary for us and we feel that it is security for a Muslim woman.

But is it not sometimes difficult to wear in the modern world, both physically and psychologically?

I think it’s easier, to wear it and go everywhere, as compared to live without the purdah. This whole society is totally vulgar now. With the purdah wherever you go nobody knows who you are and no remark is passed on you. As you compare the girls wearing the jeans and semi-nude girls – I think that’s very difficult.

You have been quoted as saying, “Women are supposed to look after the kitchen and men are supposed to work.” But you seem to contradict this statement – you are out of the house, working quite publicly. Further, you yourself wanted to study and become a scientist – why shouldn't other women be able to follow their dream?

We are not telling them not to study. They can go for the studies wherever they want to. They can go for the study but according to the rules of Islam. Most of our girls are MBBS doctors, PhD doctors – nobody is telling them not to study. But even their mentors haven’t seen their face, even when they visit their guides they are with full purdah.
Let them go for studies. But one thing is there in Islam: duty of earning is not the women’s duty, in Islam. This duty has given to man, that he has to earn and he has to feed a woman. There is this unemployment problem in Kashmir and as a result both men and women are working. If there were no unemployment problem I’m sure there would be no women working.
Go for studies, whatever you want, but as far as the duty of earning the money, that is the duty of the man.

So the studies of a Muslim woman should not be part of building towards a career, towards earning a living.

Right. We are not studying to earn money. I don’t think you need to study to earn money. We are studying just to learn.

Some experts have argued that because men are busy doing the fighting and also the dying, women are the surviving victims of the conflict – half-widows, etc. They are taking the brunt of the Kashmir conflict’s suffering and sorrow. Do you agree?

I too am a woman and since I married I have spent just two years with my husband. He has spent his whole life in jail and he is still languishing with life imprisonment. Many other Muslim women also have lost their brothers, their husbands, their sons, to go to jihad. So there are some problems, nobody can deny. I am a woman, without a man, and I am facing hundreds of problems. But (ahumdillah), I am ready for that. I have sacrificed my life, I have sacrificed my love even. I was very closely attached to my husband and I don’t think there will be any husband and wife who love each other like we two. I have sacrificed this for Allah and I believe we will be together in paradise and nobody can separate us – Insh’allah Rahman -- over there. So this for the cause of Allah the Almighty, for the cause of Islam, for the cause of this freedom struggle. So it is for these other women also, we know there is a lot of psychological depression and they are facing threats from different corners. We cannot deny that men too are facing the same. We all are facing these problems at the hands of India.

As a means of combating these problems you’ve said all young Kashmiri men should become militants. Do you still support the insurgency?

My husband was a Mujahideen. When we started the struggle in 1988 we called all of the Muslim men to jihad. Until and unless India will leave this Kashmir, until and unless all the Indian forces will leave the Kashmir, jihad will continue (Insh’allah Rahman) and there is no option that mujihadeen will lay down their guns.

What about your sons?

Yes, I believe in that, and not only in Kashmir. I believe jihad is the most sacred job in Islam, and we believe we will be rewarded in the life hereafter. So if Kashmir will be liberated from Indian clutches and there will be jihad somewhere else in Muslim world it’s my dream that my sons will go there and fight.

Even if one became a suicide bomber?

Yes, why not.

Wouldn’t you, as a mother, miss your son?

I would miss them but I’ll see them in heaven (insh rahman). I would sacrifice anything to please Allah the Almighty.

But they would be killing people.

They won’t kill people. No. They would kill the enemies of Islam.

And who are the enemies of Islam?

Here in Kashmir the enemies of Islam are the Indian army. To kill Indian army is my dream. So are the Indian politicians -- they are the enemies of Islam and they are the enemies of our freedom struggle. Not the common man. If you are from America, I don’t have any grudge with you. But if I see George Bush anywhere, and my son would kill Mr. Bush, it would be a great honor for Asiya Andrabi.

I see. And who are these Indian politicians you mention?

Ghulam Nabi Azad, Mufti Saeed – politicians like this.

What about Mirwaiz and Yasin Malik?

They are not Indian politicians. But they have changed their ways and I think now they are in the hands of some agencies (smiling eyes). Though they were the freedom fighters but as far as the present situation is concerned there is something fishy in their character now.

What do you mean by that?

You know we don’t believe in Mirwiaz Omar Farooq now. We believe he is ready for compromise but we don’t believe in compromising politicians. We started this movement with this aim: Kashmir should be liberated from India, this one thing. And whosoever goes with compromise less then liberation from India we call him a traitor, and Mirwaiz is leaning that way.
Yasin Malik is also I think somewhere engaged (eyes smiling again).

Speaking of the current situation, what are your thoughts on these discoveries of encounter killings?

It is just for the elections now, and they are playing a card now. It is nothing more than that. A CBM for Kashmiris, and it is not a good sign. It’s not the first time that they’ve come to know about such encounters. If it were the first time we could say that they are doing it for the cause of Kashmiris, but it is a political card. They are not charging the Indian army for that, the CPRF or BSF – they are charging just the Kashmiri task force with that. And they want to give the signal that the Indian army is very loyal and Indian army security forces are for your security, but as for your own Kashmiri security they are no good.

And what about the independence movement – how do you think it’s progressing?

I am hopeful because (ahumdullilah) a movement that is now backed by one lakh martyrs cannot be stopped. But there are ups and downs in the movement and this is a time that I think there is a lot of confusion in our movement because of Mirwaiz. India was ready to have another Sheikh Abdullah but nobody was ready to play the part. But now they have hired Mirwaiz for that. So there is confusion among the common masses but I’m sure they are with the movement. As you may have seen Geelani sahab was going for kidney transplant and hundreds and thousands of youths were ready to donate their kidneys. Because people are with the ideology of Geelani sahab, and Geelani s sticks to his word that Kashmir should be liberated from the India – nothing less than that. I am sure with the passage of time the movement shall gain the momentum. If not today then in several years, Kashmir will be liberated – Insh’allah Rahman.


What Do We Have Here? In Gulmarg, It’s Not Clear

The Winter Games Federation of India announced in mid-March that it was bidding to hold a professional-level international skiing competition in Gulmarg next winter. A recent visit found the Valley’s favorite winter destination quite unprepared for such a turn in the spotlight…

Winter’s white bounty begins to bless Kashmir's pristine ski resort town as I arrive in late February, muffling the shouts of touts offering rides and the laughter of tourists playing in the distance. Apart from the hubbub surrounding my Sumo the small central square and stubby main street lie still. Across the broad central meadow a group of female Kashmir University students on maiden voyages down bunny slopes tack tentatively left then right. An hour later the icy flakes, falling harder now, prick my face as a tourism official drives me to my VIP accommodations via snowmobile.

My hut is pleasantly furnished, with a central bukhari, matching upholstered furniture and warm, colorful rugs in the main room, which is dominated by a picture window. The view is half-blocked by snow when I arrive but the nearby satellite television offers diversion. The bedroom has a bukhari of its own, a smaller, kerosene burning edition, and a domestic assistant by the name of Ali Mohammad has also been provided. During the guided tour he stops and smiles, pointing at the windows of the slope-facing back rooms. “For safety!” he shouts; they are boarded up with two-by-fours in case of avalanche.

As I nuzzle next to my wood-burning bukhari and dig into a good book that evening the snow descends with greater fury. Fat flakes are whipping by the window in sheets when Omar Hajam, a young local ski instructor, pops in to make sure I’m getting settled alright. We discuss the weather and the following day’s skiing and he informs me that I can rent skis from the government-owned ski shop, which his father manages. Then I realize I’m without adequate ski clothes and ask if any are available at the shop.

“Yes, we have,” he responds quickly. “We will get in the morning.”

The next morning Gulmarg looks as if a sweet tooth had employed a rather free hand with the icing on his gingerbread world. Great dollops of whipped-creamy foam grace the tops of flat-roofed shacks and huts. The broad branches of tall fir trees sag with puffy lobster tails of white. A sudden misstep in the wrong place and one could sink chest deep. And still the snow falls. Just outside my picture window it’s piled six feet high, with only the tops of a dozen or so fir trees visible. As I dig into an omelet an ominous sliding noise swallows the room; a thick slab of snow has broken loose overhead and as it slides down the inclined tin roof the scraping swells like an incoming mortar shell. It drops outside my window in innocuous cow dung thuds.

Omar appears and we stroll over to the ski shop. The walls are lined with endless shelves of boots and the room is filled with rows of skis awaiting command like soldiers in formation. But there are no clothes.

“Oh,” says Omar. “Maybe you can get them at the Alpine Ski Shop.”

After a kilometre trudge through thigh-deep snow, I do just that. And walking down the main road that afternoon I recall hearing something about a Gulmarg skating rink. I ask Omar.

“Oh, yes, we have,” he shoots back excitedly. “A very nice, big one, it is over by the gondola.”

It is also, I discovered later, buried under about ten feet of snow.

Widely praised as the best skiing in the Himalayas, Gulmarg appears blissfully unaware. At least twenty inches have fallen since my arrival and we may be looking at twenty more. The flakes are big and fat and land with an audible “tshk,” and if Gulmarg had any infrastructure, any legitimate economic or political leadership, the place would be booming. Instead this small Himalayn ski town is under- or mis-developed in every imaginable way.

To begin with, the two ski rental shops are separated by bunny hills. Even worse, both are over a kilometre from the modern, two-stage gondola, touted at the mountain’s base as “the world’s highest” and the only access to the respectable slopes. Thus any visiting skier without the brawn and foresight to lug a full complement of equipment to this remote resort must trudge up, over and back, dodging streams of unpredictable trainee skiers all the while. By the time he gets outfitted and back to the gondola sitting down to a hot chai in the subterranean restaurant has a stronger pull than heading up-slope for a chilly whoosh through heavy powder. Maybe that’s why on this day no skiers wait to clamber aboard the gondola pods as they swing around and begin their ascent.

In all of Gulmarg there are no swish restaurants or convivial bars, open air hot tubs or skating rinks, chic boutiques or massage parlors, cafes with electric outdoor heaters. Perhaps I shouldn’t expect such refined delights in the northern-most, conflict-ridden state of a developing South Asian country. But Gulmarg also lacks the more mundane: indoor heating, snowmaking and snow-removal machines, and rental shops with equipment from this century. Further, the only regularly available transportation around town is the Kashmiri version of Calcutta’s hand-pulled rickshaw: a cracked wooden sled pulled along by a youngster yanking a rope. In many ways, Gulmarg has yet to enter the 20th century.

Gulmarg’s sole high-tech convenience, in fact, broke down several weeks prior to my visit. Finding themselves without a gondola-repair team, the Tourism Department had to fly in parts and engineers from France. In all, the resort’s primary lift was out of commission for over three mid-winter weeks, which translated into a loss of reputation and lakhs of rupees for the town.

“We are developing infrastructure in Gulmarg,” admits Abdur Rashid, officer of the Gulmarg Tourism Development Corporation. He listed the addition of two more snow grooming machines and two new rope lifts for the coming ski season. “We hope by next year to be able to accommodate 5,000 skiers per day.”

In March the Tourism Department announced plans for a new chairlift and Rashid says that public and private developers are working to develop a connecting valley, where land will soon be auctioned and hotels built. He adds that part of the problem has been the sudden increase in tourists.

“Visitors are up more than 40 percent over last year,” Rashid said. “We’ve definitely had a good season; I think it is due to early snowfall and a better situation in the state overall.”

Indeed, with violence down and visitors on the increase, Gulmarg is ripe for development. For now, however, this fertile fantasyland lies mostly fallow, which often provides altogether different and unintended entertainments.

A late morning ride on the gondola can be quite pleasant. Moving silently through the falling snow 100 metres above the ground, white-blanketed Mt. Apharwat looks serene and peaceful, and the occasional skier slashing through the fir trees is inviting, even inspiring. The slow, leisurely pace gives a passenger time to think, to gather himself before taking the plunge.

I’ve skied a few dozen times in my life, including visits to Colorado and Whistler, British Columbia, but I’m not an expert skier by any means. I don’t own my own equipment. I have never skied back-country bowls or a double black diamond. I wouldn’t know virgin powder if you sprayed it in my face, and, until this week, I hadn’t hit the slopes in over three years.

Scanning the ground below as my pod reached its mid-mountain destination – a wreath of fog and the previous night’s snowfall rendered the summit off-limits – I make a frightening discovery: no groomed runs. Thus the past few days’ 2-3 feet of snow wait like quicksand in near-freezing temperatures. Nor are there any trail-markers or named runs, no blue squares or other signage, no employees with radio transmitters offering assistance. Which direction to go, I wonder. Is there a wrong way?

I learn later that no trail map of Mt. Apharwat’s skiable terrain exists – such a valuable commodity has never been produced. The place is also sans boundary fencing, leaving open the possibility of coming face to face with armed soldiers keeping vigil along the nearby Line of Control. It was as if the management were saying: “We got you up here, good luck getting down.”

I follow a couple confident-looking foreigners around a small shed and up to a summit point overlooking a dip and then a ridge. Shortly after they slide down and vanish I put on my skis, take a breath, and push off. Two seconds and twenty feet later I’m buried up to my belly button in thick wet whiteness. I laugh. Then I yank my legs out and lumber back up to my original take-off point.

OK, I think to myself, I’ve got a few options here: slink back to the gondola and ride down with tail between legs; attack the mountain and make glacially slow progress, sinking or falling every few metres and darn near wearying myself to death; or attack the mountain relatively successfully but unknowingly swerve off track, fall into eye-high snow and disappear from the face of the earth.

Walking towards the gondola with skis in hand I hit upon a fourth option: find a couple guides and accept their offer of assistance.

It’s slow going at first – I sink hip deep at nearly every turn, flip onto my face at one of the steeper sections, and, because of the shooting pain in my legs, fall over on purpose a few times – yet we finally reach terra firma. Unused thigh and calf muscles throb angrily, but my kindly guides tell me I’ve done well and that part of the problem is my skis, which are thin and not made for this deep, heavy snow. We do it again, a bit more quickly and enjoyable this time. And then I climb on that rickety gondola a third time and head down on my own, just to prove to that mountain, if any question remained, precisely who was boss.

Body groaning, I return to my hut and flop onto the couch. I ask Ali Mo for some hot water. He goes into the kitchen then reappears five minutes later.

“Glass of water?” he asks, face screwed up with uncertainty.

“No, no, a pot. Of hot water,” I explain for the third time. “Like tea, but no tea.”

“Ok, ok, ok,” he intones, toddling away.

Minutes later the phone rings. It’s Miraj, the ski patroller who helped me communicate with Ali Mo the first night.

“Mr. David, Hello!” he begins. “What is it you are wanting?”

“Hi, Miraj,” I reply. “Um…nothing. I think I’m alright over here. Ali is making me something to drink.”

“No, no, Ali is here in the room with me.”

“Oh.” News to me.

“So what is it you wanted?” he asks again.

“Well, I would love some herbal tea – tea without caffeine – but I figured you didn’t have any of that so…”

“Yes, we have,” he interrupts, as if I’d asked whether Gulmarg had snow.

“Really?” I respond, pleasantly surprised. “You have herbal tea?”

“Of course, we have everything you need,” he explains.

“What kind? Chamomile, ginger…?” I query, warming up to the idea.

“Don’t worry, Ali will come over and make it for you,” he reassures me before hanging up.

And twenty minutes later with a bright smile on his face Ali Mo serves up a pot of regular Lipton tea made without milk, which he warmed and poured into a separate container.

…With only eight months until the curtain is raised on another winter season, Gulmarg needs to get its act together, and fast.


Zitunian or Sadikian? Muslims Ponder as the West Taps Its Foot

From the Islamic perspective, the attacks on New York and Washington were part of an ongoing clash between those Muslims who strive to reconcile their religious values with the realities of the modern world and those who react to modernism and reform by reverting – sometimes fanatically – to the “fundamentals” of their faith.
-- Reza Aslan.

The annual US-Islamic World Forum was held in Doha, Qatar last month. Organized by the Saban Center for Middle Eastern Studies at the Washington-based Brookings Institute, the event brought together over 200 predominantly Muslim analysts, scholars, journalists and activists to advise the United States on its policy towards the Muslim world. As usual, it was an animated three days, with heated debates and angry denunciations of the Iraq invasion and other American foibles. Several polls revealed growing anti-Americanism across the region, which to most observers came as no surprise.

More interesting, then, were the results of a Gallup poll that found Muslims admired American freedom and democracy, yet sought greater respect. And what, according to the survey, did most Americans like about Muslim societies? Nothing.

The poll’s findings underscore the incomparable visibility of liberal American culture, surely. And perhaps the survey also suggests the relative ignorance of Americans, aware of little beyond their own comfortable existence. Yet the poll certainly illuminates the argument that dare not speak its name: Muslim societies today offer the rest of the world very little to admire.

“Much of Western public opinion today has a poor view of Islam and Muslims because of the barbaric acts committed by fundamentalists that are so often in the headlines,” explains Islamic scholar Mohammed Charfi in the 2005 edition of his insightful book “Islam and Liberty.” “Violence is no more part of the essence of Islam than it is of the other monotheistic religions. The only problem is that, whereas the great majority of members of other religions have left behind that stage of history, Muslims are still living through the pain of a transitional period.”

But violence is not the only problem. The 22 member countries of the Arab League, for instance, which have a total population of 300 million and a land area larger than Europe, as well as plentiful natural resources—have a GDP lower than that of Belgium plus Holland and produce fewer scientific publications than Israel alone. Finally, the proportion of religious books is three times the world average yet the number of books translated into Arabic each year is fewer than the total translated into Greek.

Charfi first highlighted the root causes of this societal underdevelopment nearly a decade ago, presenting a diagnosis that, although updated for a new era two years ago, still applies today. The Tunisian scholar wondered how this happened – why Islamic societies, which dominated the world a millennium ago, stopped investigating the mysteries of the universe and fell into a deep freeze that led to widespread and growing fundamentalist extremism – and came up with a convincing two-part response.

The first mistake was linking Islam to politics and the structure of the state. Although the Prophet no specific instructions on electing a successor, the ulema of Medina immediately fell to doing so after his death in the late 8th century, ultimately selecting Abu Bakr, who dubbed himself caliph, or Prophet’s successor. During his reign and that of his two successors, Oman and Othman, an ambitious Islamic empire stretched across a broad swath of the world.

[The contrast with early Christianity is illuminating. After the crucifixion of Jesus, Saint Paul was clear. “’It is not my responsibility to unravel or dispatch temporal matters;’” he wrote. “’There are people who have those as their vocation: emperors, princes, and authorities, and the source from which they must derive their wisdom is not the Gospel.’”]

Ever since, Islamists have been convinced that the Islamic state is a pillar of Islam. It was not by chance that the Muslim Brotherhood, with its goal of restoring sharia and the Islamic state, was established a mere four years after Mustafa Kemal Ataturk’s triumphant abolition of the caliphate. And Sayyid Qutb, the father of modern fundamentalism, has written: “any regime that bases sovereignty on the will of men is a regime that deifies man instead of God.” Perhaps, but Charfi would argue that any regime that bases sovereignty on the will of God is blasphemous, at least according to the Koran.

Although the Holy Book does mention a ruling deputy of Allah and David is at one point made a caliph, Charfi explains that according to the Koran the state is not a religious institution. “No religious function is attributed to it,” he writes. “It is a question that does not come up for discussion. It logically follows that the state and politics are not part of religion.” Further, the five pillars of Islam are belief, prayer, fasting, almsgiving, and pilgrimage, and to add a sixth is to doubt the Prophet and contradict the Koran.

But the event that “marked the onset of the intellectual decay of Muslim civilization,” argues Charfi, “was the fall of Baghdad during the Tatar invasion in 1258, which caused the deaths of numerous ulema and the loss of many of their manuscripts.” With Muslim society thus weakened, many ulema lost hope in the future and, fearing Islam would be lost in interpretations increasingly distant from its essence, they decided to close the door of ijtihad, or reflective effort. From that point on there was little room for interpretation of Islamic texts by researchers, clerics, or muftis. Those with new ideas were denounced as apostates and faced death; classicists were revered and conservatism prized above all else – an attitude that, among Islamists and the ulema, has essentially remained intact to the present day.

To sum up: Since the death of the Prophet Islam has been inappropriately intertwined with the state; thus intertwined, state-sponsored education has served up a closed-minded, medieval version of Islam unchanged since the 13th century. As a result, 21st century Muslim youths learn that it is necessary to cut off the hand of a thief, to stone those guilty of adultery, to kill apostates, and to wage war on infidels, even though such things often seem wildly out-of-date.

“This is a grave discrepancy that tears people apart and brings them to the verge of schizophrenia,” writes Charfi, having witnessed the problem firsthand. “For they do not wish to sacrifice either Islam or modernity.”

Moderate Muslims are as attached to their religion as they are to the idea of the modern state, which they believe should be democratic and representative. Yet they sense the inherent contradiction or even an incompatibility between the two; a dissonance that inevitably leads to confusion and sometimes worse. Fundamentalism was born of a divorce between society and its educational institutions, and it will last as long as that chasm remains.

Because of apparent echoes of Christianity’s violent splintering, in his bestselling 2004 book No God But God Islamic scholar Reza Aslan called “this internal battle to define the faith and practice of a billion Muslims” the "Islamic Reformation." Yet this tug-of-war has already been waxing and waning for more than a century.

In Tunisia, the divide was at least partially bridged in the late 19th century after an ideological cleavage in its finest institutes of learning. For most of a millennium Zituna religious university educated the best and the brightest of young Tunisian scholars. But when the reformer Khereddine become prime minister in 1873 he pointed out that Tunisia lacked a political and intellectual life because Zituna “lived outside time in a shell where the only subjects taught…were sharia law, the history of the Prophet, and Arabic grammar.” He then created Sadiki, a liberal university that quickly became a breeding ground for the Tunisian elite.

Inevitably, the two schools clashed, pitting the Zitunians versus the Sadikians for the future of Tunisia, one supporting liberty and open study and the other clinging to conservative Islam and sharia.

“The debate soon went beyond the particular issue that had triggered it,” writes Charfi, “turning into a fierce Kulturkampf apparently between religion and secularism, Francophonia and Arabhood, East and West, but in reality between tradition and modernity.”

The fight remained intense, if civilized. After several decades the voice of progress and secularism – the Sadikians – prevailed and ultimately built an independent Tunisia, eliminating sharia courts and ensuring liberal institutions.

In recent years, however, extremist Zitunians are again in ascendance across much of the Muslim world. Last month a liberal Egyptian blogger was sentenced by an Alexandria court to four years in jail for insulting Islam. The very next day the Taliban, which according to reports has recently retaken large swaths of Afghanistan, promised international observers the bloodiest year yet. Hamas and Hizbollah cling to their guns, their fundamentalist beliefs, and a measure of political legitimacy in Palestine and Lebanon, respectively. Late last year, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmedinejad cleared the nation’s universities of liberal professors, fearing they might influence the students. This while the mullah and Ayatollah-dominated Islamic Republic grows ever-nearer to wielding a nuclear weapon. A late February Time magazine cover story described how Indonesia, the world’s most populous Muslim nation, was going the way of fundamentalist Salafists. The story pointed out that 53 percent of its districts had enacted sharia law. And it was one year ago this month that conservative Muslim rage led to nearly 50 deaths after a Danish newspaper published cartoons of the Prophet.

Even Charfi’s home region of North Africa is witnessing a Zitunian resurgence: Moroccans were behind the Madrid bombing of 2003; in February a Salafist Algerian terror group set off seven near-simultaneous bombings just outside Algiers, killing six; and the same group also planned a January bombing in tourist-friendly Tunis next door. Regional counter-terrorism officials and local police foiled that plot but according to a recent New York Times article, experts say the rugged and desolate North African mountains “could become an Afghanistan-like terrorist hinterland.” In nearby Somalia, the extremist Islamic Courts recently threatened suicide attacks on African Union peacekeepers.

Charfi argues that reforming and modernizing education is the best hope for the reassertion of a liberal, moderate Islam, but the United Nations’ 2003 Arab Human Development Report describes a region making scant progress (the Arab and Muslim worlds are different entities, to be sure, but the former is the godhead of Islam and often indicative of the state of the broader Muslim world). The quality of higher education in the Arab world is dropping steadily, according to the report, and public spending on education has declined since 1985. The number of computers per head is one quarter the global average and the number of newspapers published is one fifth that of the developed world average, most of which are censored and restricted.. And expenditure on research and development is 0.2 percent of GNP while the number of scientists and engineers per capita is one third the world average.

All of which may explain why Americans find so little to admire in the Muslim world. Yet ironically, Islam is the fastest growing religion in the United States, and the US’ estimated 2 million Muslims are more educated and more affluent than the average American. The Wall Street Journal, in fact, has characterized the group as "role models both as Americans and as Muslims.” And if Islam were incompatible with modernity the majority of Muslims polled by Gallup would not admire freedom and democracy. Such views place them in the Sadikian camp and bode well for the future of the ummah. Further, a University of Maryland (US) survey released in late February revealed widespread rejection of terrorism in the Muslim world, including 86 percent of Pakistanis and 75 percent of Indonesians.

More than half the Westerners polled in that same survey, however, linked Islam with terror. Again it appears the Muslim World has failed in the exporting of peaceful and progressive ideals. With that in mind, here's to hoping that at the inaugural Islamic-Western World Forum sometime in the not too distant future, a young American will stand up and list all the things she admires about the Muslim world, and nobody will be the least bit surprised.