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Published in the 1-15 Jan 2004 print edition of MG; send me the print edition

Uncle Sam courts Indian 'ulama'
By Yoginder Sikand

America's image in the Muslim world has never been as badly tarnished as it is today, and many Muslims are convinced, rightly or wrongly, that the American establishment has launched an all-out war against Islam. 

The actual situation might be more complex than what conspiracy theorists claim, but there can be no doubt that the attacks on Afghanistan and now the invasion of Iraq have given further legitimacy to the arguments of those who see America as leading a global war on Islam. The powerful influence that the Christian fundamentalist evangelicals as well as the Zionist lobby exercise on Bush and his administration is held up as further evidence for the assertion of Islam being framed as America's latest global enemy.

Bush's several statements denying that his country sees Islam as the enemy seem to have had little impact on popular Muslim opinion, for America's aggression against Iraq and Afghanistan and its continued support for Israel have been taken by Muslims as belying Bush's claims. Not surprisingly, then, Muslims all over the world see America's protestations of innocence as simply hypocritical.

In a bid to improve America's image among the Indian Muslims, the American Centre in New Delhi recently launched an ambitious programme of reaching out to the ‘ulama of the traditional madrasas, who exercise an important influence on Muslim opinion both within India as well as elsewhere.

I first heard about the programme from a friend, who was involved in launching it. Curious to learn more, I fixed an interview with Robert Schmidt, counselor for cultural affairs at the American Embassy in Delhi. Mr Schmidt is also the chairman of the board of the United States Educational Foundation in India (USEFI). Since I am presently working on a book on the Indian madrasas, Mr Schmidt was willing to meet me and invited me to his office.

Mr Schmidt explained that so far under the programme that he has launched four batches of ‘ulama, around 25 each, from various Indian madrasas have been sent to America on a three-week visit, all expenses taken care of. The participants were first taken to Washington, where they met with State Department officials, and discussed various issues of mutual concern. Thereafter, they were taken to various American cities, where they interacted with Christian, Jewish and Muslim educationists and visited schools run by different religious groups. Mr Schmidt said that he hopes to expand the programme in future and is contacting ‘ulama at other madrasas in this regard. The identity of the ‘ulama who have gone to the US under this programme remains a closely guarded secret and Mr Shmidt declined to make available a list of the participants in the four batches who have been to the US so far.

Reportedly some ‘ulama who went to the US faced problems on their return while one institution, Darul Uloom Deoband, is said to have declined to take part in this exercise.

I stepped out of the office wondering at the Americans' sudden interest in the Indian madrasahs. In the days that followed my meeting with Mr Schmidt I met several Muslim leaders as well as ‘ulama to ask them what they thought about the programme. Predictably, their response was mixed. Some saw it as a ploy to 'purchase' the ‘ulama by showing them the glamorous side of America. Some ‘ulama, they said, would be more than willing to speak out in favour of America if they were suitably rewarded for their services. They argued that the programme had nothing to do with any philanthropic motives such as helping to improve the functioning of the madrasahs, and was aimed simply at cultivating a group of ‘ulama who would work to promote American interests, such as by issuing statements in America's favour or speaking out against anti-American Islamist groups. If the programme was motivated to help reform the system of education, they argued, why take the ‘ulama all the way to America, instead of to modern schools and universities within India itself? If the Americans were genuinely concerned about the pathetic state of education in India, they asked, why pick on the madrasas alone? Why, they asked, have the Americans not thought about reforming the Shishu mandirs, run by the RSS, for instance, where venom against Muslims and Christians is so openly preached to young children?

On the other hand, several other ‘ulama I met saw the programme as a positive development. One ‘alim argued that by affording an opportunity to the ‘ulama to travel abroad and observe the functioning of religious schools in America the programme might help promote reforms in the madrasas that they run. Another 'alim asserted that the dialogue that the programme was intended to promote was indeed a welcome thing, for it might help remove misunderstandings and alleviate conflicts between America and the Muslim world. 'There is no alternative to dialogue', he said. 'America and the Muslims have to learn to live together and dialogue is the only way out'.

Going by past precedent, it is likely that the programme would not be entirely free of political implications and consequences. America's role in supporting radical Islamic groups to counter leftist forces in the Arab world and in Afghanistan clearly suggests that it is not undying hatred for Islam as such, but, rather, what are seen as America's strategic interests, that underly America's policies vis-a-vis Islamic groups and the ‘ulama. As to the actual agenda of the ‘ulama programme that the Americans have launched in India there seems to be no general consensus, but there can be no doubt that it is stirring considerable debate in ‘ulama circles.

In the next issue: 
U.S. Consulate's un-diplomacy backfires In Kerala

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