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Polarization of Kashmir a cautionary tale

Polarization of Kashmir a cautionary tale

Author: Martin Regg Cohn, Asia Bureau - Srinagar, India
Publication: The Star (www.thestar.com)
Date: November 21, 2001

Worshippers crowd into the Makhdoon Sahib shrine for more than their midday prayers. They also bring their babies along for a ceremonial first haircut.

Kashmiri tradition holds that toddlers whose bangs are trimmed here can expect a blessing from the 16th-century Sufi saint after whom the Muslim shrine is named. And while the children wail in fright, women weep behind their veils, beseeching the saint to heal sickness or grant them another child.

These ancient rites evoke the Sufi mysticism that gives Islam its distinctive local flavour. So, too, does the shrine's close proximity to nearby Hindu and Sikh temples, symbolizing the Muslim tradition of tolerance toward other faiths.

But, now, heavily armed soldiers patrol the perimeter of this shrine and moderation seems a distant memory in Kashmir, which has fallen under the shadow of a violent 12-year-old insurgency.

A disputed territory claimed by both India and Pakistan since 1947, Kashmir has seen the political debate over its borders transformed into a religious battleground. Kashmiris believe their indigenous movement for self-determination was hijacked by radical forces in the 1990s when mujahideen fighters started infiltrating from neighbouring Pakistan.

The switch from moderation to militancy serves as a cautionary tale for the outside world: Festering political problems are easily exploited by religious movements, and then magnified into intractable conflicts.

"This militancy has been introduced here from the outside and we are suffering from it," says Mufti Bashiruddin, who serves as the Grand Mufti of Kashmir. "I was approached by so many militant organizations to join them, but I refused, because I knew what the consequences would be."

For Kashmir's mainstream Muslims, radicalization is a recipe for disaster. Once a honeymooners' paradise in the Himalayas, the tourists were long ago scared off by the deaths of more than 35,000 people since 1989.

"Militancy is no way of solving the problem," Bashiruddin says.

Islam came late to the Himalayas, some 700 years after it spread through the Arabian desert in the 7th century. Sufi preachers travelled here from Iran, converting people through the force of their words, rather than conquest.

A half-century ago, while the rest of the subcontinent was aflame from the ethnic strife of partition, the Muslim-majority state of Kashmir rose above the communal massacres. But that local ethos of co-existence is under threat from "Islamization."

Sunni Muslims from Pakistan are prone to imposing their own brand of Islam, says Kashmir's hereditary chief Muslim cleric, or Miraiz, Umar Farooq.

Farooq, who inherited the position when his father was assassinated by suspected Pakistani agents, says the mujahideen would not be satisfied with liberating Kashmir from Indian occupation. They want to convert the rest of the subcontinent to Islam and impose sharia, or Islamic law.

"Their sympathies are with Kashmiris, but their motives are different. They want to hoist the green flag at the Red Fort in Delhi," he says, as bodyguards pace along his lawn.

The Muslim mainstream must come to terms with the consequences of Islamic fundamentalism, or what is often called political Islam, he says.

"The whole Muslim world has to rethink its policies. We need to discuss among the ulemma (Muslim clerics) how to create a balance between religion and politics. We have lost that balance in most cases."

For other Muslim thinkers in India, the attempts by Pakistani militants to introduce a radical brand of Islamist politics into Kashmir have wider implications. They believe political Islam distracts Muslims from their primary religious focus.

"Islamization definitely tries to erode local traditions, and when that happens...it becomes a super-charged Islam," says Imtiaz Ahmad, a sociologist at Jawaharlal Nehru University in New Delhi.

Moderates must confront the growing power of radical movements or risk destabilization of their countries and lasting damage to the Islamic world, Ahmad says.

Democratization and pluralism, such as the political freedoms enjoyed by India's 120 million Muslims, are prerequisites to reform, but free speech alone will not ensure moderation, he says.

"I think the silent majority, the non-fringe in Pakistan or India or elsewhere in the Islamic world, is going to have to be more vocal."

Otherwise, he says, the likes of Osama bin Laden, with calls for jihad against America and Israel, will one day pit Muslims against one another.

"Osama is, in fact, precipitating a sharper division in the Islamic world," Ahmad argues.

"It's easy to fight the Palestinian battle against the Jews, or Osama's battle against America. But when the target eventually shifts from America to the regimes in the Islamic world, then a very substantial silent group will be obliged to speak up."

His colleague at the university, political scientist Zoya Hasan, warns that Muslims will pay a heavy price for passivity or denial in the face of extremist violence.

Islam preaches peace, she says, but as long as a small minority repeatedly links the Qur'an with holy war, the mainstream cannot sit back.

"The term jihad has been hijacked by the hijackers. And you can't say it was just 19 kids (hijackers). It was 19 highly educated kids who were part of a political network. They seek to change regimes, to change Saudi Arabia and other Muslim governments."

Hasan believes Muslims around the world face a fresh challenge to speak out about Islamic education and the overheated rhetoric that often passes for religious discourse.

"The issue is not religion at all. The issue is the way Islam is practised, or mispractised," she says.

"Muslims have to re-examine their own societies, they have to take charge of their own societies. We can't always blame the U.S. and we can't always see ourselves as victims."

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