Indian Muslim Leaders Gather to Denounce Terrorism

Hyderabad// Fed up with being blamed for bomb blasts throughout the country, thousands of Indian Muslim leaders descended on this south Indian city to denounce terrorism and ban violence against innocents in the name of Islam.

“There is no relation whatsoever between Islam and terrorism; the two are poles apart,” reads the landmark fatwa signed by 6,000 clerics from across India. “Islam rejects all kinds of unjust violence … and does not allow it in any form.”

Organised by Jamiat Ulama-e-Hind, which has more than 10 million members and a strong bond with the conservative Dar-ul-Uloom seminary in Deoband, the two-day conference culminated on Sunday evening with an open-air gathering of nearly 100,000 devotees. Among a clutch of strongly worded resolutions were calls for better integration of Muslims into Indian society, a law against religious violence, an end to the US occupations in Iraq and Afghanistan and the creation of a Palestinian state.

But the focus was on putting terrorism in its place.

“By coming here we are extending our fight against terrorism,” said Maulana Mahmood Madani, leader of Jamiat and a member of the Indian parliament. “Because these terrorists are making a sustained effort to destabilise this country, we also have to make our effort in a sustained manner to contain this problem.”

Besides the failed and failing states of Iraq and Afghanistan and Pakistan, over the past two years no country has experienced more terror-related incidents than India. Since May, a rash of co-ordinated bombings have killed more than 200 and injured nearly 1,000, with radical Muslim groups claiming responsibility for most of the attacks.

Indian Muslim organisations have begun a counter-offensive. Deoband issued an anti-terror fatwa in February, signed by three leading clerics. This weekend’s ratification of a similar resolution represents a near-consensus across the Indian ulama.

“This fatwa will slow down the terrorist activities,” said Dr N Ali Mandal, a signee and a cleric from the village of Rol in West Bengal. “It will also mean better understanding, better treatment of Muslims in India and hopefully beyond.”

Ajai Sahni, executive director of the Institute for Conflict Management, a Delhi-based security think tank, believed the resolution would hamper recruitment.

“The fatwa will have a great impact, but not a direct and immediate impact in terms of stopping the attacks,” Mr Sahni said. “When you have an alternative interpretation from the seat of authority, this automatically creates doubt – young, fringe radicals who still regard these muftis as their spiritual guides, those people will be forced to rethink their ideologies.”

Mr Sahni believed the fatwa would influence Pakistani Muslims as well. Others wonder whether it might reach further west, to Afghanistan, where the Taliban claim descendance from Deobandi religious thought.

“Afghanistan is a different country, a different political state – it is to the people there to accept or reject our resolutions,” said Mr Madani, acknowledging different interpretations of Islam. Yet he added: “Jihad is a fight against destructive aggression. Terrorism is itself aggression, destruction, so terrorism can never be jihad.”

Such pronouncements are of a piece with a new regional outspokenness against terrorism. For the past year, Saudi Arabia has been rehabilitating terrorists with lessons on proper and improper jihad. Jamiat is organising an anti-terror gathering of Muslim leaders from across South Asia for early 2009. This month, the Jamaat-e-Islami Hind, another Indian Muslim organisation, will lead two simultaneous peace caravans across India to counter terrorism and religious animosity. And last month in Lahore, clerics from a handful of leading Pakistani Muslim groups issued their own fatwa, against suicide bombing and free interpretations of jihad.

“This is done at grave personal risk, as they make themselves potential targets,” Mr Sahni said. “Terrorists have usually been more unforgiving of Muslims who speak out against them.”

Indian Muslims – the world’s third largest Muslim population at 150 million – argue that they are often unfairly targeted.

“The perception of Islam and Muslims is the core issue,” Mr Madani, a charismatic speaker who brought the clerics to their feet, said later. “If we could deliver the message that Islam and Muslims have no relationship with terrorism, we believe this will have an impact on people, law agencies and the media.”

Recent events have aided their case: many security analysts are questioning the authenticity of an August shoot-out between police and alleged terrorists in Jamia Nagar, a Muslim Delhi neighbourhood; and the accused in the September bomb blasts in Malegoan, a city in the state of Maharashtra, are Hindu nationalists.

The Sunday evening finale of the largest Muslim conclave in India in nearly four years offered an Islam that was open-minded and peace-loving. Sitting cross-legged on mats under a cool, cloudless sky, reverent attendees shot videos, snapped photos and recorded speeches with mobile phones held aloft as banks of black loudspeakers boomed the words of various leaders – Muslim, Hindu and political – deep into the night.

“Islam and terrorism have been mixed together, and we have to de-link them,” said Sri Sri Ravi Shankar, Hindu spiritual leader and founding director of the Art of Living. “In order to do that there must be unity, between Muslims and between all religious faiths.”

Mohammed Sharif, a Quran teacher from Nizamabad, felt the enormity of the moment. “This terror fatwa is for each and everyone’s benefit – it will help everyone if people stop doing such things,” he said. Mr Sharif rode seven hours on a bus with his 12-year-old son, Majed, to attend the gathering.

“He wanted to come see Hyderabad,” Mr Sharif said of his son. “With all of the great scholars here, I hope he learns something, too."

-- published in The National, www.thenational.ae, on Nov 11.

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