Betrayals from outside and within

Tabish Khair  

The fight against the Islamic State (IS) was won with the help of three major forces on the ground, for the Western coalition on its own would not have managed to do much with remote-controlled bombs. These were the Kurds, the Shia militia and ordinary Muslims (Sunni and Shia) who spoke up against the kind of Islam espoused by the IS and its supporters, choking the movement of easy recruits. Towards the end of 2019, Donald Trump’s America betrayed the Kurds and abandoned them. In early 2020, with the ‘targeted killing’ of Qassem Soleimani, Trump’s America betrayed the second partner: the very Shia forces with which the West had collaborated in both Afghanistan and Iraq to fight al-Qaeda and the IS. So, what is it that the third force, ordinary Muslims — whether religious, like so many, or irreligious, like me — should expect in the future?

The ‘Muslim’ tag

Let’s face it: Muslims like me in India can no longer avoid that designation. I grew up believing with my secular Hindu friends that I was an Indian first and last. ‘Muslim’ was not a tag I wanted. Recent legislative acts, supported by some of my ‘secular’ Hindu friends, have revealed to me that either they had been lying to me, or they had been lying to themselves. Obviously, ‘Muslim’ is the tag that many in India want to attach to people like me. I seem to have no choice in the matter, despite the fact that I remain what I was: Indian, secular, irreligious.

Is the matter different in the wider world? I am not sure. Let us take the murder of Gen. Soleimani. Unlike Osama bin Laden and Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, Gen. Soleimani was a high-ranking official of a sovereign nation. He was by no means a lovely human being, but then Mr. Trump himself is not a lovely human being. Very few high officials of autocratic nations are lovely human beings. That is not the issue, as it appears to be in many western articles, which focus on Gen. Soleimani’s reported villainy. The issue is this: a country decided to openly murder a high official of another country with which it was not formally at war. This runs contrary to all international laws. It also sets a precedent by which any country can now decide to murder, if it can, the official of any other country. Why isn’t this issue being taken up in the otherwise so law-abiding free ‘West’?

Instead, what is being discussed is the ‘near war’ between Iran and the U.S.: as if Iran, at least 100 times weaker in military power than the U.S., can dare to wage a war. Iran, it is obvious to anyone who pays attention, is fighting with its back to the wall. Its economy is crippled. It is surrounded by U.S. forces.

After all, Gen. Soleimani was visiting Iraq, not Mexico or Canada. Western commentators talk of asymmetrical warfare being waged by Iran, when it appears to me that the main ‘asymmetrical’ warfare being waged today is by the U.S. — with its economic sanctions against every real or perceived threat, from China to Iran.

Why are supposedly independent ‘western’ commentators — I am talking of The Guardian , not even Fox News — unable to analyse these aspects? If I point it out, why am I suddenly a Muslim, and not a human being who wants a somewhat fair, democratic and secular world order? If someone like me feels that he is being pushed, both nationally and internationally, into being first and foremost a ‘Muslim,’ then what is it that practising Muslims must be feeling? I shudder to think of it.

And I shudder to think of what mischief Islamists, Shia or Sunni, will hatch from this feeling among ordinary Muslims. It will be so easy for the younger generations to fall into the Islamist trap. It will be so easy for them to resist people like me, who have been saying endlessly and continue to do so: be a human being first, be an Indian or American or French citizen first, keep your religion to yourself. This has been contrary to what Islamists mostly preach: for them, being Muslim is the distinctive identity, and almost the only one.

Let me end this essay of despair with a word of advice, and aimed only at Muslims, religious or not. For why shouldn’t I address only Muslims, when so many are willing to address me only as Muslim? This is what I say: resist the Islamists. Yes. I say it still: resist the fundamentalists. For they are at the root of your problems. It is because Islamists insist so narrowly on their own versions of Islam and because fundamentalists have been so intolerant of diverging Muslims within their own lands that Muslims across the world fail to support each other and anyone else who needs support. The killing of Gen. Soleimani — mourned by many, celebrated by some in Iraq — was an illustration of this. As is the fact that the oil-rich, culturally similar states of West Asia need to be policed into ‘peace’ by the U.S. and other western powers.

Narrow identity

At the core of the crisis in the so-called Muslim world is not the U.S. or any other external factor. It is the narrowness of Muslims themselves. It is the narrowness of their understanding of themselves. By failing to allow other Muslims to believe or not to believe in their own ways, they do not just divide themselves up — persecuting the atheists, Ahmedis, Bohras, Shias, Sunnis etc. — they also cut themselves off from other communities. If you cannot allow fellow Muslims to differ openly, how will you accept Hindus or Sikhs who do not believe like you do? This is at the heart of the problem. Religious Muslims need to expand their understanding of Islam in order to embrace — and be embraced by — the world.

Tabish Khair is an Indian novelist and academic who teaches in Denmark