Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Book Review : God's Terrorists(Charles Allen)

Indira Mukherjee
One of the greatest pressing issues which plague this increasingly inter-connected, materialistic and complicated world is terrorism. And out of the most gruesome acts that we have seen in the recent past, the 9/11 attack on the World Trade Centre stands out in sharp contrast. It is commonly said that “one man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter” and the book “God’s Terrorists” by Charles Allen skilfully explains this thought. It traces the growth of the Wahabi cult and the hidden roots of modern Jihad. It explains how Wahabism makes its entry into India, why the British expansionist policy of the 18th century comes into conflict with it, how this ideology gets enmeshed with the revolt of 1857 and why the terrorist organisations like Al Qaeda owe allegiance to it. It also tells us that as a theory, Wahabism has a fanaticism attached to it and in practice, it believes in an inherent hostility to people who are not strict adherents of Islam. In short, the author says that Wahabism was always rooted in violent intolerance and it appeared as a champion of the faith of Islam at a time when the triumph of the religion was not proceeding as ordained. This aspect holds true, even today.

To begin with, Wahabism is an Islamic revivalist movement, the guiding ideology behind modern Islamist terrorism. It is named after Muhammad Ibn Abd al-Wahab [1703-1792] of Najd, Saudi Arabia who under the influence of the medieval theologian Ibn Taymiyyah [1263–1328] aspired to return to the earliest fundamental Islamic sources of learning i.e. the Quran and the Hadith. The movement gained popularity and propaganda due to the financial and political support rendered by the royal house of Saudi Arabia. In terms of belief, Wahabism considers Allah as the only one to be worshipped and leaves no space for tolerance or acceptance of any other religion. Much of this notion is attributed to the experiences of Ibn Taymiyyah who witnessed a lot of Mongol attacks on the Islamic world. The motley group of people from different regions and religions during the medieval period led to a gradual inter-mingling of faiths and consequent dilution of Islam. This led a section of the Islamic society to stress the emphasis on maintaining the purity of Islam by adhering to Quran and Hadith only. Muhammad Wahab carried forward this belief and the formal seeds of Wahabism were sown.  

In early 19th century, Wahabism made its entry into India as a religious reform movement whose objective was to restore Muslim power in India by overthrowing the Sikhs and the British. Saiyad Ahmad [1786-1831] of Rae Bareilley was the founder of Wahabi movement in India. He believed that India had become dar-ul-kafir [land of unbelievers] and it has to be made dar-ul-harb [land of war] by waging a war against the infidels and the British. For this purpose, he sought the assistance of the Nizam of Hyderabad, the various Pathan tribes of the North West frontier of India and even some Muslim leaders outside India. The regular organisation of Indian Wahabism was set up in Patna and initial spadework done by Vilayat Ali, whereas Inayat Ali, Titu Mir and others popularized it immensely. Since the Wahabis made vigorous preparations to wage a full-scale war against the British, they were looked upon with suspicion. In fact, during the 1857 revolt it was found that the sepoys were in constant touch with the Wahabis at Sittana and there was a supply chain by which men, money and material was being transferred between the Wahabi camp in the north western frontier and Patna. The first two Anglo-Afghan wars in 1839 and 1878 were meant to weed out the influence of the Wahabis so that Afghanistan could be used as a strong buffer state against the expanding kingdom of Russia. In late 1860’s and early 1870’s, the British crackdown increased and many Wahabi leaders were transported for life – this led to a temporary halt in the movement.

The Muslim world again joined hands after the 1st world war when they rose up against the liberal Government set up in Turkey under the aegis of Mustafa Kemal Pasha Attaturk. Soon after, in 1932 the kingdom of Saudi Arabia was carved out of Nejd and Hijaz. After the oil shock of 1973, the royal house of Saudi Arabia was awash with petrodollars and it became a financial cushion for the Wahabis. The Soviet invasion of Afghanistan sparked off another round of jihad wherein the Holy war was waged against the Russians. This war shaped the thought process of Osama Bin Laden, the future leader of Al Qaeda. In fact, the Iraq invasion of Kuwait in 1990 prompted Bin Laden to defend Saudi Arabia by calling his global network of ex-Afghanistani jihadis, beginning with the several thousand Wahabi veterans now back in Arabia. However, the Saudi Government, unlike its traditional support to Wahabis, turned instead to the United States. This feeling of betrayal accompanied with his strong Wahabi convictions led Bin Laden to revisit the Prophet’s injunction that there should not be two religions in Arabia. He became a bitter enemy of the House of Saud and United States, considering them as enemies. Wahabism in the late 20th century led to the emergence of two different organisations - one tight-knit and localised, the other loose-knit and with global aspirations: the Taliban and Al-Qaeda. Osama bin Laden eventually ended up supporting the Taliban in Afghanistan and unleashing terror on the un-Islamic world via the Al Qaeda.
      Charles Allen is a fine narrative historian; “God’s Terrorist” depicts the germination, consolidation and expansion of an ideology which is the bedrock of Islamic fundamentalism of modern day. Wahabism has captured the imagination of several people ever since the medieval ages but the kind of strong principles it believes in, along with the missionary zeal with which it is being professed, has made it a subject which one just cannot leave out while studying the birth of modern day terrorism. And the ease and simplicity with which the author has explained this huge trajectory, is commendable. Writing a book with historical underpinnings, the author has delved into rigorous research and background work – one which is clearly visible in the numerous references to the personal accounts of the British officers who served in Indian civil services during the 19th century, collection of rare photographs and inclusion of the extremely minute details pertaining to the war, casualties, arms, locations etc. A combination of these, has catapulted the book to a different platform all together.

            The best part of the book is the details on the confrontation between the Hindustani fanatics and the British Indian Army in mid 19th century. The complexity of the missions sent to Afghanistan, the often hurt ego of the Governor Generals, the ferocity of the warring frontier tribes, the disadvantage of unfavourable weather during campaigns, the different mechanisms thought of by the officers to win over the “great game” etc would surely keep the readers hooked on to the book. The way in which a supply chain network develops between the “chota godown” at Patna and the “burra godown” at Sittana during the revolt of 1857 makes one think that probably, the commonly held belief of the failure of the sepoy mutiny might not be entirely true because without systematic planning and coordination, such an activity could not have been carried out under the noses of the British administration. The book also carefully explains the threat perceived by the Government from the aficionados of wahabism. In fact, the entire blame of the revolt was put on the Muslims which got further deepened when soon after, Lord Mayo was assassinated by a Wahabi fanatic Sher Ali in Andamans. Thus, in effect the work of later modern Islamic revivalists like Sir Syed Ahmad Khan of Aligarh started by convincing the British that the Muslims were the most loyal subjects of the British crown.

            The author has told his complex story with concision, insight and wide ranging vision. The thread connecting Wahabism, Deoband School, Taliban and Al Qaeda has been clearly portrayed. The very fact that the Wahabi ideology found its way into the 20th century by opposition to the anti Islamic heretic forces under the complex relations of international politics clearly shows the current relevance of the notion. The post cold war scenario accentuated this feeling of antipathy – the Arab-Israel conflict; Islamic revolution of Iran in 1979; Soviet invasion of Afghanistan; and US military intervention in Middle East alienated a large section of the Muslims, some of whom resorted to violent means to establish the Islamic faith. This ranged from terrorist organisation like Al Qaeda to more radical forms of governments like the Taliban in Afghanistan. These groups were able to sustain due to the money being doled out from the Arabian Peninsula. In fact, when the Taliban Government was established in early years of the first decade of the 21st century, Saudi Arabia and Pakistan were the first ones to recognize it.

            There are a few places in the book where the narrative becomes a bit too extended and the tone overtly pessimistic. But on the whole, Charles Allen has delivered a book which the readers will read with rapt attention. The relevance of the topic of terrorism and the long trail of history that lies behind it, makes a double delight for the audience. The concept of Jihad and the thought process entailing it, has been very aptly described by the author. And all this has been done in the backdrop of the Indian colonial setup, giving a chance to relate to the environment, ambience and surroundings of the events. On the whole, “God’s Terrorists” is a long, bloody and commandingly told story and it does what we long for history to do; tells a tale of yesteryears that throws new and uncomfortable light on the contemporary world

Indira Mukherjee is an IPS probationer of the 88th FC at LBSNAA, Mussoorie. This post is her review of the book "God's Terrorists" by Charles Allen.

No comments:

Post a Comment