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Published in the 16-31 Jan 2004 print edition of MG; send me the print edition

The American Centre’s ulama programme: some reflections

Yoginder Sikand’s article, ‘Uncle Sam courting Indian ‘ulama’ (MG, 1-15 Jan. 04), makes interesting reading. The article is probably the first ever piece on the recently launched ulama-related programme of the American Centre in Delhi. Sikand’s article goaded me to seek further information on the programme that the American Centre seems to have deliberately sought to shield from the public gaze. For their part, the numerous ulama who have visited America on the programme have also maintained a suspicious silence on it, probably for fear of criticism on the part of the Muslim community for appearing to be collaborating with a regime that is seen as vehemently anti-Muslim. Being a regular reader of various Urdu newspapers and magazines, I have not come across a single article or statement by any of these ulama on the programe or about their experiences during their visit to America as part of this programme. This perhaps suggests that the programme itself is motivated by political compulsions rather than by any philanthropic motives.

For the past one week I have been meeting Muslim activists and journalists in Delhi discussing the American Centre’s ulama-related programme. Apparently, the ‘ulama programe is only the tip of the iceberg. The American Centre, I was told, has also been running programmes in recent years that are aimed at, among others, Muslim journalists, social activists and youth. I was told by reliable sources that the American Centre has organized visits by batches of Indian Muslim journalists, professors of Islamic Studies and Muslim youth activists to the United States. In addition to this, efforts are now being made to promote American interests through the Urdu media. Recently, the American Centre in Delhi launched an Urdu edition of its magazine Span, for which it has recruited the services of a one-time firebrand Islamist activist and writer, who now serves as its editor. I was told (although here again I cannot vouch for the claim) that in less than six months since it was launched, Urdu Span now has a print run of some 30,000 copies. Some heads of madrasas whom I met told me that the magazine is being sent to them free of cost. Obviously, an enormous sum of money is being spent by the American Centre to keep Urdu Span afloat. Priced at Rs. 30 per issue, not many Muslims can afford to purchase it. Yet, the Americans probably see it as a worthwhile investment, for it serves as a valuable propaganda tool presenting a rosy image of America to the Indian Muslims. Its glossy pages and colourful pictures conjure up the image of a veritable paradise.

The ulama programme must then be seen as only one component of a broader American propaganda campaign being conducted with such careful planning in India today, aimed particularly at the Muslims of the country. In his article Sikand has quoted Muslim ulama who, while recognizing the sinister politics behind the programme, claim that it might help promote urgently-needed dialogue between Muslims and the American establishment. This argument, to my mind, is completely fallacious. How anyone can expect the ulama of our traditional madrasas, who have almost no knowledge of the world outside the narrow confines of their seminaries, to dialogue with American government officials? Almost none of our ulama knows English, and this itself rules out any meaningful dialogue. To hope that American government officials would repent of their ways and urge the American government to put an end to its imperialist ambitions in the Muslim world simply as a result of pious preaching by a handful of visiting Indian ulama is simply ridiculous. The so-called dialogue that some ulama expect might emerge from the American centre’s ulama programme can have only one result: To create the illusion that the Americans are seriously committed to dialogue, while at the same time making no dent whatsoever in America’s imperialistic designs. If at all the Americans are seriously committed to dialogue with Muslims, then why is it, one must ask, that there is not even a whiff of this commitment reflected in its actual policies today, whether in the case of Afghanistan or Iraq or indeed in America itself, where Muslims are being singled out for attack in the name of the so-called ‘war on terror’? How can Muslims believe America’s pious proclamations of dialogue when Bush himself flirts with right-wing Christian evangelists who regard Islam as the religion of the Devil?
As I see it, the ulama-programme launched by the American Centre has only one purpose: to cultivate a section of the ulama who would speak out in favour of America or, at the very least, would seek to counter anti-American sentiments among the Muslims that are increasing with every passing day as a result of American aggression in Muslim lands and America’s support for dictatorial regimes in Muslim countries. I do not wish to cast any aspersions on the integrity of the ulama, but history tells us that there have always been people among the ulama, the ‘ulama-i su (the ‘wicked ulama’) or the ulama-i duniya (the ‘worldly ulama’), who have been willing to sell their souls and misinterpret Islam for worldly trifles. Such self-styled ulama eagerly issued favourable fatwas to Muslim and non-Muslim rulers alike in return for power and privileges, and they are still around with us today. Who can say that none of the ulama who have gone to America on the American programme or might join the programme in the future will not fall prey to American blandishments and work to actively promote American interests?

Just as today many ulama are paid handsome sums of money by the pro-American Saudi regime to promote its own interests, one cannot rule out many other ulama willing to further American interests in return for money or at least regular foreign trips. According to a Muslim journalist I met, one of the ulama who had gone to America on the programme remarked on seeing the glitter and glamour of Washington, ‘This seems just like heaven!’. This journalist suggested that the programme seems to have been carefully structured by the American Centre in order to show their ulama guests only the glamourous side of America, safely insulating them from the other side of American life—its pervasive racial discrimination, rampant licentiousness and immorality and so on. If this alim’s way to paradise lies through America, one shudders to imagine the lengths that he might go in promoting American interests in the name of Islam.

I am not alone in voicing these concerns, for these seem to be shared by many other Muslims as well. In a letter recently published in the Urdu Rashtriya Sahara (New Delhi, 23 December, 2003), a certain Dr. Aqib Javed Kufail of Delhi, writes that the ulama programme of the American Centre is a ‘fraud’ and warns the ulama against joining it. He writes that America’s invasion of Afghanistan and now Iraq have resulted in the deaths of tens of thousands of innocent people, because of which Muslims the world over are now vehemently opposed to America. In order to win over Muslim opinion, while at the same time carrying on with their aggression in Muslim lands, the Americans, Dr. Kufail writes, have now started the ulama programme under which selected ulama are sent for a three-week tour of America, all expenses paid for. Kufail claims that those ulama who have joined the programme have ‘sold their conscience’ to the Americans. He appeals to the ulama in general to ‘understand this American ploy and stay away from it’, for ‘the lives of innocent people in Afghanistan and Iraq are more valuable than American dollars’. He insists that the ulama should, instead, be so bold as to tell the Americans that if they truly wish to improve their image in the Muslim world, they should stop supporting Jewish terrorism in Palestine; put a firm halt to American imperialism throughout the world; and withdraw their forces from Afghanistan and Iraq.

I fully support Dr. Kufail’s views and would appeal to the Indian ulama to understand the sinister designs behind this latest American ploy. I believe that the ulama-programme that the Americans have launched is no harmless academic exercise or philanthropic venture. A Muslim journalist whom I met says (although I could not confirm this) that he has heard that the American Centre plans to hold a conference in Hyderabad next year to which the ulama who have already visited America on the programme as well as possibly some others, would be invited. Presumably, he says, this is aimed at cultivating a group of ulama who can then be possibly used to further American designs. He also tells me that the Americans plan to start or have already started similar programmes with ulama in two other large Muslim countries, Indonesia and Bangladesh, and warns that if the Indian experiment is not resisted by the Indian ulama themselves it would embolden the Americans to go ahead with similar programmes elsewhere as well.

Lest I be accused of advocating blind anti-American hatred, let me say that I am all for dialogue between Muslims and Americans, or between Muslims and any other people for that matter. In a closely integrated world such as ours there is obviously no alternative to dialogue. However, making a clear distinction between the American state, on the one hand, and the American people, on the other, I would argue that given the American state’s continued aggression against Muslim countries, there can be no question of dialogue with it. On the other hand, I would welcome any dialogue between Muslims, including the ulama, and sections of American civil society. However, there must be certain common grounds to any dialogue, and in this case I would argue that both parties to the dialogue must be united in a firm resolve against imperialism as well religious intolerance.

One final word: For Indian Muslims, the foremost priority is not to dialogue with the American state, but, rather, with our fellow Indians who belong to other faiths. This is an urgent task that unfortunately few, if any, of our ulama have ever considered. Let dialogue begin at home itself and then let the ‘ulama think of trying it elsewhere. In the absence of this, the ulama programme that the Americans seem so desperate to push forward would, at best, be simply an excuse for a paid holiday for the participating ulama, or, at worst, a sinister ploy to use the ulama to further America’s imperialistic designs.

- Hussain Zahid
(received through

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