Although belated, the condemnation of terrorism by Darul-Uloom Deoband is a major step forward in the war against religious extremism. It can seem odd, however, that it took this widely respected religious seminary based in Uttar Pradesh so long to express its disapproval of the militancy of bigots and mercenaries although this country, and the world, have been battling this menace over a long period.
Arguably, the unavoidable political angle made an immediate outright denunciation difficult earlier because of the hoary chestnut about one man's freedom fighter being another man's terrorist. This was the argument Pakistan consistently used to justify its support to the jehadi enterprise in Kashmir and elsewhere in India. A parallel, though erroneous, was also drawn by Islamabad between Kashmir and Palestine.
Even now, Kashmiri separatists are ambivalent about the diktat as is obvious from Syed Ali Geelani's remark that although he respects the Deoband proclamation, the "decree would have no impact on Kashmir" because of the political background of the "struggle". This attitude will be music to the ears of the patrons of terror in Pakistan's Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI).
As the terror attacks continue intermittently in India, and links are established between similar outrages in Europe and the terrorist bases in Pakistan and Afghanistan, it is obvious that a mixture of surreptitious official patronage and propagation of a warped version of Islam is still nourishing the roots of terror.
The Deoband criticism, therefore, is a much needed corrective if only because it emphasises the unpardonable nature of the sin of killing innocents. "Killing of innocents," its declaration says, "is not compatible with Islam" and falls under the "shirk category of sins", which is a "sin for which there is no pardon".
In stressing this vital point, the edict can be said to have sought to sever the connection between terrorism and the fight for freedom at least in instances where the innocent suffer. In a way, this attitude is not unlike the Gandhian rejection of violence of the "revolutionaries" during the Indian freedom movement.
Considering the longstanding connection between the Congress and the Jamiatul Ulema-e-Hind, whose general secretary was the convener of the Deoband meeting, the declaration is not surprising. The Jamiat, it may be recalled, opposed the two-nation theory and was against the creation of Pakistan. It was the Jamaat-e-Islami that favoured it. Whether the latter will see sense is the moot question.
The importance of the message from Deoband has been increased by the presence of representatives from the Ajmer Sharif dargah, the All India Muslim Personal Law Board and the All India Madrassas Association, among others. Rarely before had so many clerical heavyweights from both the Shia and Sunni dispensations gathered to debate virtually one subject and, what is more, reach a unanimous decision.
What this initiative signifies is that the silent majority of India's 140 million Muslims has long been feeling uneasy about the growth of terrorism and the resultant unjustified bad name the community as a whole tended to earn. The urgency of the meeting may have also been due to the underground activities of organisations like the Students Islamic Movement of India (SIMI), which apparently collaborates with terrorist outfits like the Jaish-e-Mohammed or Laskhar-e-Taiba to attack sensitive targets like government establishments as well as crowded market places.
The recent inclination towards joining such terrorist groups shown by young, well-educated Muslim technocrats must have also become a matter of concern in the community. The arrest of Yahya Khan, president of SIMI's Karnataka unit who is a software engineer, underscores this point.
Earlier, another engineer, Kafeel Ahmed, was involved in the airport bombing in Glasgow. The community undoubtedly also appreciates the fact that allowing such misguided elements a virtual free run will only strengthen the extremists in the saffron brotherhood, thereby exacerbating the communal situation.
It is worth noting in this context the observations of a US Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) operative, Marc Sageman, who has said in a book ("Understanding Terror Networks") that while the strength of the original followers of the Al Qaeda is diminishing, new Internet-based "terrorist wannabes" have made their appearance. These are young people angry with the visuals of American operations in Iraq and elsewhere who indulge in terrorism for the thrill of it. As such, Sageman says that they present no long-term danger to America. But their insensate acts can have a destabilizing effect on countries like India with its delicate balance between the majority and the minorities. Therefore, what is of considerable importance in India is to ascertain whether, if at all, the Deoband pronouncement will help to curb extremism.
Two points are relevant in this respect. One is that notwithstanding all the strenuous efforts of ISI and the anti-Muslim provocations of the saffron brigade, the number of young people who stray from the straight and narrow path is still very small. Secondly, the close-knit nature of Indian families makes it easier for the elders to exercise greater control over the younger generation.
Till now, the elders may have lacked the requisite religious precepts to guide the youngsters. The Deoband verdict has filled this gap. Given Deoband's reputation, it is not impossible that its diktat will influence Muslims all over the world although they may still try to wriggle out of making any commitment as the Kashmiri secessionists are doing. Even then, the significance of its message cannot be gainsaid.
It is now up to the government to play its part by taking serious account of the Deoband's compliant about the ill treatment of Muslims in India by the police following acts of terrorism.
(Amulya Ganguli is a writer on current affairs. He can be reached at email@example.com)