October 5, 2012
Islam is a brotherhood, not a nation,says Mobashar Jawed Akbar
COMMENT by Terence Netto: The subject of renowned Indian journalist Mobashar Jawed Akbar’s talk at the Royal Lake Club last Tuesday was Pakistan – not the territory of Rudyard Kipling’s affectionate gaze in the novel ‘Kim‘, but the turbulent present-day polity concerning which Akbar had several coruscating observations to make.
Not least among these concerned the notion of an Islamic state and what that bodes for multi-confessional nations with Muslim majorities, an issue of no small import to Malaysians, poised as we are on the hinge of fate, to borrow from the title of one of Winston Churchill’s books on the Second World War.
The fact that the talk came in the context of the launch of Akbar’s latest book, ‘Tinderbox, The Past and Future of Pakistan’, by Opposition Leader Anwar Ibrahim, lent the occasion more than adventitious significance because the nation-founding issues he would have to deal with in the event he becomes Prime Minister, would not be unconnected to what Akbar said at the talk and mulls over in the book.
But more interesting than what ostensibly was Akbar’s subject matter was its subtext: ideas have consequences and a muddled idea could very well eventuate in grotesque realities.
‘More Muslims are killing Muslims’
Akbar stopped short of calling Pakistan a grotesquery though he noted that “more Muslims are killing Muslims” there regularly over the last two decades than in any other part of the Islamic crescent.
He employed a lapidary formulation to suggest the reason for this reality that’s so mortifying to Islamists: “The idea of Pakistan is weaker than the Pakistani” whereas “The idea of India is stronger than the Indian.”
To what would Akbar (left) attribute this phenomenon?
To the coterie of intellectually formidable leaders, mainly Hindu though there were impressive numbers of Muslims, who led the movement for independence from British rule from the later decades of the 19th century until the country’s partition into independent India and Pakistan in 1947.
Though the internationally more renowned members of this group of freedom fighters were English-educated, several others did not have benefit of a western liberal education which made their eventual acceptance of the Westminister model of parliamentary democracy remarkable.
Apart from George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison and Benjamin Franklin (an insufficiently representative list, no doubt, of the American pantheon of national liberation), few colonial nations have been more privileged than India by its possession of an illustrious set of independence fighters in Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi, Mualana Abul Kalam Azad, Jawaharlal Nehru and Mohamed Ali Jinnah.
Akbar cited this quartet as his starting point for an erudite disquisition on one of the last century’s pivotal ideas: the notion that multi-confessional countries could not only be freed from control by one of history’s more puissant powers, the British Empire, but, also, that they could then emerge as viable democracies.
No doubt, an absorbing account could be written on the fate of the nation-forging ideas espoused by each of the four horsemen of the Indo-Pakistani apocalypse.
But Akbar, with a journalist’s penchant for the telling and often colourful detail that can make facts sit up and breathe, joined to an intellectual’s feel for the history of ideas and the ironies in their dialectical play, goes in for the kind of condensation that can start a fire in your head.
Akbar’s Muslim/Indian identity
On the evidence of his talk last Tuesday, without as yet the benefit of reading his book, it could be said that Akbar has pulled his intellectual chestnuts out of the fire with impressive verve.
The tones in which Akbar avowed that “I am a Muslim though one who does not necessarily pray five times a day” and “I am at the same time an Indian” to a crowd of some hundred, chiefly Muslim, PKR luminaries and supporters were redolent of Gandhi’s anguished cry, “Vivisect me, do not vivisect India” after the last Viceroy of the British Raj, Lord Louis Mountbatten, had decided on partition in 1947, as a solution to the subcontinent’s communal furies.
Akbar’s non-self contradictory conception of his Muslim/Indian identity throws into illuminating relief Mualana Azad’s question to a delegation of his co-religionists who visited to inform him of their decision to make the hejira (Arabic for migration) from their Indian homeland to what was going to be newly carved out Pakistan: “Where would you go should you discover that Pakistan is not your home?”
What Akbar, author of an acclaimed biography of Nehru and other noteworthy works and presently editorial director of the prestigious weekly India Today, is boldly asserting is that Islam is not a sufficient basis on which to forge national identity.
Otherwise, he argued, there would not be “32 Arab nations” in the world and “Malaysia and Singapore would be one instead of two countries.”
“Islam is a brotherhood, not a nation,” asserted the writer, who was once a member of the Indian Parliament.
Akbar described events as disparate as the Taliban’s rise in Afghanistan, 9/11, the American invasion of Iraq and, even, such works as the film, ‘The Innocence of Muslims‘, as “attempts to destroy the possibility of co-existence between peoples of varying religious beliefs.”
“The faith of Muslims cannot be destroyed,” asserted Akbar. “It could not be destroyed even when there was once only one man, Prophet Muhammad (Peace Be Upon Him), who believed in it.”
Akbar’s book deserves to be widely read not just for what he said in his talk about such enduringly interesting things as the unintended consequences grand ideas generate, but also for what he intimated about leaders of destiny who affect to be sure about where they are taking their people, but who in reality travel in a fog on a journey without maps.