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SUNDAY’S Panorama programme presented the wretched spectacle of Sir Iqbal Sacranie, secretary general of the Muslim Council of Britain, wriggling on a hook of his own making. Asked why he had boycotted the Holocaust Memorial Day but attended the memorial service to Sheikh Yassin, the ideological chief of Hamas and grand justifier of suicide bombing, Sir Iqbal could not answer. He did little better when asked what he would do if Salman Rushdie had published The Satanic Verses now (back then he said that death would be “a bit too easy for him”). His answer was that the upcoming law against religious hatred would see to the book’s withdrawal.

Listening to Sir Iqbal’s weaseling — which will have failed to impress most Muslims, both “moderate” and “radical”, as much as it will have irritated non-Muslims — I was reminded of another knighted Muslim of long ago.

In India in the 1860s, Muslims had reason to consider themselves the wretched of the earth. For the first time since Islam emerged in the Arabian desert in the seventh century, a large group of Muslims was being ruled by non-Muslims. For the previous 600 years, the Muslims had been the dominant colonial minority in the subcontinent, ruling a subject people regarded as Dhimmis, tolerated unbelievers. Now, with the British ruling India, the Muslims were the Dhimmis. And in the climate of rage and fear unleashed by the Mutiny of 1857, Muslims became highly suspect in British eyes — so much so that some of the British even floated the idea of tearing down the Taj Mahal and converting it into a dance floor.

It was in the depth of this Muslim despair that Syed Ahmed Khan emerged.

His ancestors had served the Mughal court for generations but during the 1857 revolt Khan supported the British. And now he worked hard to convince the imperial rulers that they should not condemn the entire Muslim community.

His fellow Muslims were arguing that as India was now ruled by non-Muslims this made the country Dar-al-Harb, the land of strife, and that this imposed an obligation on all Muslims to fight and destroy the unbelievers and return the country to Islamic rule. Khan countered that as long as the British respected Islam and Islamic laws then India should not be considered Dar-al Harb — that there could be coexistence between the rulers and ruled.

Khan also encouraged Muslims to take to western education and free the community from customs and beliefs that were outdated and hidebound. He had to face the wrath of his fellow Muslims, who condemned him as a stooge of the West. But his tactics worked. By the end of the 19th century, the British and the Muslims were reconciled — so much so that Muslims became Britain’s ally against the Hindus when the first demands for self-rule began.

In 1888, Khan was knighted in honour of his work reconciling the Muslims to the British Empire. As this suggests, of course, it is important not to exaggerate the relevance of Sir Syed to our times. He was no democrat — he felt that elections in an uneducated country like India would bring more evil. But he is relevant at a more fundamental level: he argued there was a distinction between politics and religion. And as Sir Iqbal demonstrated on Panorama, today’s Muslim leaders refuse to make such a simple but necessary statement.

Most Muslims in Britain come from the subcontinent, not the Middle East. Yet some are influenced by a Middle Eastern train of pan-Islamism, which is essentially a political, not a religious idea, with its origins in late-19th century Turkey and Persia.

Subcontinent Muslims have always proved susceptible to Middle-Eastern pan-Islamism. In the 1920s, some got so taken with the idea that they started behaving as if they were colonists from the Middle East — at one point Indian Muslim leaders campaigned ferociously to preserve the Caliphate (the right of the Sultan of Turkey to be the spiritual leader of all Muslims worldwide), only for Kemal Ataturk, who was determined to create a secular Turkey, to abolish the Caliphate.

Today it is rich Saudis who assiduously propagate pan-Islamism. The result has been that British Muslims have become alienated from their roots, both Indian/Pakistani and British. They have been encouraged to forget they belong to a very different cultural strain than the Saudis. They are mostly converts from Hinduism and there is large measure of the gentle Sufi tradition in them. But, influenced by imams, themselves financed by Middle Eastern money, many try to prove they are as Muslim as their co-religionists from the Middle East.

Some from the subcontinent even go to great lengths to deny that they emerged from the wretched Hindus, claiming to be Muslims whose ancestry can be traced to conquering armies of Islam that poured into India through the Middle Ages.

Sadly, however, when these same Muslims go to the Middle East they find that, far from being treated as fellow Muslims, they are often bracketed with the Hindu infidels and not considered real Muslims at all. Privately this causes great angst among the Muslims but it is not a public topic they like to discuss.

A responsible Muslim leader of this country would address this issue and stress the fact that, while those from the subcontinent are part of the worldwide religion that is Islam, they also share many cultural roots with the non-Muslims from the subcontinent. This makes them unique in the Muslim world. Indeed, the subcontinent is the only place on earth where two Islamic countries, Pakistan and Bangladesh, have between them produced three female prime ministers, something inconceivable in the Middle East.

There are brave Muslim leaders, some of whom were bold enough to appear on Panorama, such as Ghayasuddin Siddiqui of the Muslim Institute, and Taj Hargey, the Muslim scholar from St Anthony’s College, Oxford, who revealed how Muslims are taught to consider non-Muslims as kaffirs and inferior to them.

These — not Sir Iqbal — are the modern Sir Syed Ahmed Khans. If only they succeeded in explaining to Muslim Britons that there is a difference between politics and religion, non-Muslim Britons would realise there is a difference between the Islam of the subcontinent and the Islam of the Middle East.

© Mihir Bose

      

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