Indian Muslims in Israel: Emissaries of a new understanding

Posted in Broader Middle East | 15-Oct-07 | Author: Tufail Ahmad| Source: The Henry Jackson Society


• A delegation of Indian Muslims has visited Israel on a historic mission to foster understanding between the two peoples. Since India is the only country where Muslims have experienced a truly democratic life for more than half a century, this visit is qualitatively different to other such encounters between the faith groups.

• It was this conception of 'democratic polity' in the mind of the delegation leader which led to his suggestion that Pakistan recognise the state of Israel, and abandon its 'religious hostility' to this democratic state.

• This journey will force both the Muslim world as well as the West to realise that the Palestinian question is not an Islamic issue. The visit strengthens the argument that democratic experience can unite peoples across the religious barrier.

• It should also impress upon policy-makers in the US, the UK and European nations that the bulk of the Muslim population of the world lives outside the Middle East. For example, India is the second largest Muslim country, after Indonesia.

Last August, a delegation of Indian Muslims made a historic trip to Israel and before I raise here the question of whether it is right in principle for a state to engage with religion especially in the aftermath of 9/11 when there has been renewed focus on the need to separate the two, let's first appreciate the significance of this journey.

This trip was important for international relations and politics in two key meanings. First, it followed a growing understanding among Indian Muslims that Israel is the only democratic country in the Middle East and, therefore, there are democratic norms and values to be shared between the peoples of the two countries. This thinking among Indian Muslims is a consequence of a growing self-realisation that we are the only Muslims in the world with arguably more than half-a-century's experience of living in a pluralistic, free and democratic society.

Second, the visit of Indian Muslims to Israel denotes a growing shift in the traditional Western thinking that Muslims reside only in Arab nations. This impression in the policy-making circles in the Western capitals is extensively inaccurate. In fact, the bulk of Muslims lives outside the Arab world: India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Indonesia, Malaysia. India itself is the second largest Muslim nation, after Indonesia. The successful and growing democratising of Indian society over years has inculcated a unique sense of moderation and co-existence among Indian Muslims to an extent unseen anywhere else. The visit not only creates meaningful debate about the status of Israel in the Muslim eyes worlwide but it also strengthens the relationship between the two substantive democracies.

The Indian delegation was led by Maulana Jameel Ahmed Ilyasi, leader of the All-India Association of Imams and Mosques. His organisation represents about half a million imams and a vast network of mosques across India. Maulana Ilyasi is also credited for having grasped the democratic realities of India and has been vocal in giving a platform to mosque leaders. In Jerusalem, a correspondent asked Maulana Ilyasi if it was right for him in view of the Palestinian question to have taken this trip and he answered: We are aware of the attempts to divide the peoples of book -- Christians, Jews and Muslims. His statement underlines the need for forging an understanding between the three religions, especially the need for bridging the divide between Israel/Jews and Muslims. This is one respect in which this visit was historic and Muslims worldwide need to realise that not every issue involving the Palestinian question is essentially an Islamic issue.

In any other Muslim nation, such an Israel visit would have drawn wide-scale condemnation. However, in a sign of how fundamentalist opinion makers can be successfully marginalised in open societies such as India, the delegation did not face any serious criticism at home -- certainly not from the Muslim masses. The only criticism, if it can be described so, cropped up after one member of the delegation dropped out; however, in that case his having considered this visit to Israel in the first place itself was significant. A few of the Muslim organisations did offer criticism, but these groups cannot get people to polling booths. The fact remains that India is the only country in the history of mankind where Muslims have been voting and participating in free and fair elections for over half a century, and therefore the trajectory of their life is qualitatively different from that of the Muslims in othe parts of the world.

Indian Muslims are a good example of 'democratic polity'. Despite re-curring religious tensions in India, Mahatma Gandhi, Indira Gandhi and Rajiv Gandhi were not assassinated by Indian Muslims.

This brings us to the first question of the relationship between state and religion - especially in view of the fact that this visit was seen to have the blessings of the state of Israel.The idea of a secular democratic republic, a key principle that informs the basis of the West, requires that religion and state be separated in state policy, a task that has acquired an urgent meaning after the attacks of 9/11. There are several versions of this principle prevalent in the West: the United States is a secular state and broadly a religious society; the United Kingdom is a religious state and overwhlemingly a secular society; France is a secular state and a secular society; and Israel -- much like India -- is a secular state but a religious society. In none of these countries, we notice religion to be the basis of state policy. Therefore, the visit of Indian Muslim delegation should be seen in terms of its ineherent significance as an exercise in democratic geopolitics.

In fact it was the conception of 'democratic polity' in the mind of Maulana Ilyasi when he told reporters in Jerusalem that Pakistan as a state should recognise the state of Israel; what he meant was that Pakistan should abandon 'religious hostility' to the democratic state of Israel. His statement was not liked by, expectedly, some fundamentalist and leftist writers who develop nightmares when thinking of the democratic experience of Indian Muslims. These critics didn't like when India's tennis sensation Sania Mirza, a Muslim girl from the orthodox neighbourhood of Hyderabad, and Israel's Shahar Peer teamed up this summer to win the Women's Doubles at the Bank of the West Classic tennis tournament at Stanford. These writers are ideologically inimical to the existence of the state of Israel and long, at first opportunity, to equate Israel and Zionism with racism. Reacting to the criticism of Maulana Ilyasi's Israel visit, one reader told a blogger:

'It just shows how sick the Muslim world is when Zionism is seen as an evil, while suicide bombings and other forms of terrorism are hailed as heroic. Zionism should mean nothing to Muslims. It is simply the belief of the Jewish people that they should have their own state in their homeland of Israel. Zionism to the Jews is no different than Pakistani nationalism is to the Urdu-speaking people of Islamabad or French nationalism is to the people of Paris. The overwhelming majority of Jews in Israel want to live in peace with their neighbors and want the Palestinians to have their own peaceful, successful and democratic state.'

Importantly, the visit was not organised by the government of Israel. It was a return visit in response to a trip to India by an Israeli delegation comprising of Jewish religious leaders. The delegation of Indian Muslims was sponsored by the Project Interchange, a project of the American Jewish Committee, in coordination with the Australia-Israel Jewish Affairs Council. Rabbi David Rosen, AJC's international director of inter-religious affairs, underlined the significance of the visit as of 'great strategic importance'.

Some journeys are more meaningful than others: they shape the direction of international relations and politics in far-reaching ways and have wider strategic implications. Pope John Paull II's 1979 pilgrimage to his native Poland triggered, in the words of one writer, 'human dynamics' that changed the direction of communist rule there towards an end. US President Richard Nixon's 1972 visit to China began a process of opening the communist nation to the outside world and has worked as the single most important driver of China's current economic boom. George W. Bush's 2006 visit to New Delhi has strengthened India's strategic relationships with the West. Ariel Sharon's 2003 trip to India forged a strong relationship between the two democracies.

The Indian Muslims' visit to Israel will deepen the relationship between the peoples of the two countries. The visit strengthens the argument that democratic experience can unite peoples across the religious barrier. It will effectively force the policy-makers in the US, the UK and European nations to come to a new thinking that the bulk of Muslim populations lives outside the Middle East. It will create an understanding in the wider Muslim world that the Palestinian issue is not an Islamic issue. The visit also will impress upon the universities in the European Union and beyond to set up research programmes on the democratic experience of Indian Muslims since the middle of the 20th Century. As India emerges as a 'great power' ready to claim its place as an effective member of the international community, the visit of Indian Muslims to Israel will give new democratic meanings to New Delhi's relationships with the wider world.