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Global war against terrorism – the Islamic dimension
By Syed Shahabuddin

In the wake of the terrorist strikes in the USA and particularly after the retaliatory bombing in Afghanistan there is worldwide debate on the Muslim reaction. It was unfortunate that the declaration of global war against terrorism by the US was initially described as a crusade, because it revived the memories of centuries of conflict between the Christian west and the Islamic east in the Middle Ages.

The image has persisted despite repeated disavowal by the coalition leaders and reiteration at various levels that the war is not against Islam but against terrorism. The image has persisted for various reasons. The foremost is the propaganda over the last decade or so about the surge of Islamic militancy throughout the Muslim world, the consequent identification of Islam in the public mind with violence, fanaticism and fundamentalism, the theorization about incompatibility of Islam with democracy, secularism, human rights, and modernism. A rage is said to pulse through Muslim societies and states because they envy the material progress of the west and their own failure to feed, clothe and shelter their people, holding the west responsible for their backwardness. This has led to the acceptance in the West, at least at the subconscious level, of the theory of inevitable clash between the west and Islam in the not too distant a future. The second reason lies in the fact that in the post colonial period, the USA seems to the east as the neocolonial power, par excellence, which has sought to dominate the world in the name of freedom and democracy, control all economic resources, secure access to them on its own terms and exploit them for its own benefit. Mass resentment generated in the Muslim states, particularly where the ruling elite allies itself with its foreign partners, seen as masters, and indeed depends on foreign support for its survival, gives rise to anti-American sentiments. Political frustration is articulated through religious idiom and thus emerge groups in Muslim states whose legitimate national aspirations express themselves through the adoption of the ideology of fundamentalism and sometimes through acts of mindless fanaticism. The net result is that even though the West denies targeting Islam, these Islamic groups accuse it of harboring a motive of crushing Islam. Western acquisitiveness and Muslim assertiveness thus mutually reinforce each other. The third reason is the contribution of western experts who see the Holy Koran as the gospel of violence, project Islam as the religion of fanaticism which postulates a perpetual, unrelenting confrontation with non-Islam, promising its adherents rewards in the here-after, if they make the supreme sacrifice for the cause.

This demonisation of Islam and vilification of Muslim communities generates fear, distrust, and suspicion on both sides of the divide, notwithstanding the fact that by and large millions of Muslims live peacefully and creatively in the USA, Europe and across the globe and that nearly all Muslim states have mutually supportive relations with the West.

All this leaves the Muslim masses in a state of bewilderment and confusion, which has now come to surface. If there have been wide-spread demonstrations in many Muslim countries, one can also hear a murmur even in United States. No doubt there are many non-Muslims in the USA who are not convinced by the official rhetoric against Osama bin Laden and demand solid evidence. Many question the propriety of the role assumed by the USA of being the complainant, the prosecutor, the judge and the executioner, all rolled into one. Even those who have no love lost for the Taliban regime and no admiration for bin Laden, even in Europe, have protested against the air strikes in Afghanistan and see the Afghan people as innocent victims of mindless retribution. Indeed many more question the justification of the bombing as a measure of self-defense. Everyone condemns the tragic event of 11 September, wants the culprits to be identified and punished and yet nurses skepticism over the means adopted and even a lingering admiration for an individual challenging the mightiest power in human history. The more learned are critical of the selective approach of the USA to the phenomenon of global terrorism – its support to Israeli terrorism against the Palestinians, its equivocation towards Russian terrorism against the Chechens, its silence over Catholic terrorism in Ireland and Hindu terrorism in India, at Pakistan’s trans-border role in Kashmir and at its selective approbation of democracy and condemnation of mass violation of human rights. Forced into the conclusion that US adopts double standards, the average Muslim then begins to see something sinister and diabolical in the US campaign. Is the US preparing the ground for an all-out attack on Muslim states? Iraq? Iran? Pakistan? His anti-Americanism as a citizen of the third world is reinforced by his Pan-Islamic consciousness. He tends to see a conspiracy against Islam and so interprets many political and military moves. Such a tendency also grips a section of the Muslims mind in large Muslim communities, which live in non-Muslim states like India or USA. In Muslim majority states, there is indeed a political gulf between the ruling classes and the masses. In Muslim minority states, alienation grows between the Muslim communities and the national main-stream. The worst hit are those living in countries, which form part of the global coalition. For them it creates an existential dilemma and affects their prospects of integration in the state which should command their allegiance and loyalty.

Many old questions are revived under pressure of circumstances. What is the religious status of such a state? Can or should a Muslim fight against a Muslim state? Or support the war effort of their country? These questions have been answered time and time again in Muslim history. Muslims have themselves fought each other for example, in the recent war between Iraq and Iran. Muslim communities all over the world need to be educated about the limits of the demand that their religion makes on them in such circumstances.

The mass media has described bin Ladin’s call to the Muslims of the world to oppose the USA as a “fatwa”, not realizing that he has no religious authority at all to issue a fatwa. Even the head of the Taliban regime who designates himself as the Commander of the Faithful has none. Islam has no Pope but religious edicts can only be issued by a religious authority like the Grand Sheikh of All Azhar or the Grand Mufti of Mecca. By crowning bin Ladin as a Grand Sheikh and by describing his campaign of terrorism as a Jihad, the media have magnified him larger than life, as a modern Saladin or the Muslim version of Che Guevara in an era of Muslim radicalism.

Islam prohibits terrorism as well as suicide. Jihad is neither and has no place for taking innocent lives or one’s own life. No cause, howsoever noble or just, can justify terrorism. So while one may sympathize with the legitimate aspirations of the Palestinian people and support their claim to a state of their own, while one may appreciate the democratic awakening among the people of many Muslim states and uphold their demand for withdrawal of foreign presence from their soil and support their struggle for revision of the terms of trade for their natural resources, no thinking Muslim can go along with the use of terrorism for securing political goals.

The convergence of the impact of centuries of hostility, of mutual prejudice, the misplaced, even misconceived, Pan-Islamic sentiments and the growing assertiveness of Muslim masses is today engendering an environment of conflict and confrontation and jeopardizing the prospects of peaceful coexistence in our multi-religious world. The answer lies in mankind shedding violence and all states cooperating in designing and constructing a new world order based on our common humanity, and our shared heritage, which ensures equality and justice for all peoples, respects their dignity as individuals and as groups and determines a paradigm for resolving differences through dialogue.

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