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Why Varun and why not Geelani?

By T V R Shenoy
April 01, 2009 16:45 IST
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In August 2008, Syed Ali Shah Geelani, the Hurriyat Conference leader from Jammu & Kashmir, gave an interview that has not received the attention it deserved. He said, among other things, "The question of imposing an Islamic rule is different. Why do people object to it? If America and India can have democratic rule, others can have Communism, why object to Islamic rule?"

Presumably to avoid any misunderstanding, Geelani also said, "The creed of socialism and secularism should not touch our lives and we must be totally governed by the Quran and the Sunnat."

[Varun Gandhi has been gaoled for reportedly making provocative statements. Would any ministry, either in Delhi or in Srinagar, ever dare apply the same draconian laws against the Hurriyat Conference chairman?]

Of course, elections were held in Jammu & Kashmir within months of Geelani's incendiary statements. But the polls have scarcely dampened militant activity in the state, nor do they seem to have notably reduced Geelani-like sentiments. We are now told that the assembly elections were about jobs and the trinity of 'bijli-sadak-pani', not about issues of identity.

The Hurriyat Conference leader's sentiments are shared by others across the world. Shortly after engineering the Taliban's ascent to power in the Swat Valley, Mullah Sufi Muhammad gleefully howled, ''We hate democracy. We want the occupation of Islam in the entire world. Islam does not permit democracy or elections.''

It is for Islamic scholars to take up the challenge implicit in that last statement. But if we look at the history of elections in Muslim-dominated nations it is hard to see how voting has led to more 'secular', more pluralistic societies.

How many times has Pakistan gone through the ritual of elections? Yet the Pakistan of today is notably less liberal, more hostile to the world at large than Ayub Khan's Pakistan of the 1960s.

Observers applauded when Sheikh Hasina's Awami League won the last election in Bangladesh. But the most notable event of her tenure to date has been the revolt of the Bangladesh Rifles, not confined to Dhaka but spread across a dozen cities. One of Sheikh Hasina's cabinet ministers, Faruk Khan, has admitted that the rebels were linked to the Jamayetul Mujahideen Bangladesh, a Muslim fundamentalist outfit. They obviously have as little respect for elections as Mullah Sufi Muhammad on the other end of the subcontinent.

We in India tend to think of Pakistan and Bangladesh only as smaller neighbours. In actuality they happen to be two of the four countries with the largest Muslim citizenry -- India and Indonesia being the other two. And "tiny" Afghanistan, as we think of it, is actually home to the eleventh largest Muslim population. (It is also larger in area than Iraq.)

Pakistan, Bangladesh, and Afghanistan are certainly no advertisement for elections being a shield against Muslim fundamentalism. How do other nations with a large Muslim population fare?

As it happens, some of the largest will be going to the polls this year. Indonesia, with the largest Muslim population on this planet, elects a new parliament on April 9 and a new president on July 8. (There may be runoff elections if nobody comes through with clear majorities in the first round.)

Iran, the principal Shia power and eighth overall in terms of Muslim population, elects a new president on June 12. The West expects little of Iran's polls. The ultimate arbiter is the Supreme Leader, Grand Ayatollah Sayyid Ali Hoseyni Khamenei no matter who sits in the president's chair. There is, however, more than the usual amount of interest in Indonesia -- partly because of President Obama's family links, partly because Indonesia is historically one of the most pluralistic Islamic societies.

Oddly, the influence of the more overtly Islamic, less 'liberal' Indonesian parties seems to be increasing over time as it moves from its history of dictatorship to elected governments. The Partai Keadilan Sejahtera (Justice and Prosperity Party) wants a central role for Islam without specifying what that means. The Partai Amanat Nasional (National Mandate Party) speaks out against the historic Hindu and Buddhist influence. Between them they hold 98 seats in the current lower house of parliament, and are generally expected to hold the balance of power in the next one (which will have a total strength of 560).

Indonesia, to be brutally honest, is not an opinion leader in the Muslim world, certainly not on the scale of a Saudi Arabia, an Iran, or an Egypt. But it is home to the least 'fundamentalist' school of Islam. If even Indonesia, that most liberal of Islamic nations, veers to a more puritanical form of Islam with each election, will other Muslim-majority nations act differently?

I come back to where I started. Are the likes of Syed Ali Shah Geelani and Mullah Sufi Muhammad correct in holding that Islam and electoral democracy stand at two ends of the spectrum? And if they are wrong -- as I hope they are -- where are the Muslim leaders that are telling them off?

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T V R Shenoy