In 1992, this columnist warned “South Asia experts” at meetings in the US that Wahhabism was an existential danger to several countries, including many that were Muslim-majority. However, he was met with scepticism. The Wahhabis, after all, had been loyal foot soldiers of first the UK and later the US for considerably over a century, first against the Turkish caliphate, later against Arab nationalists such as Egypt’s Nasser or Algeria’s Ben Bella, and very recently against the USSR in Afghanistan. Indeed, practitioners of this creed are still serving incumbent US administrations, these days against Iran and its allies such as Syria’s Bashar Assad. Policymakers as well as “think-tankers” in the US and the EU have, over the decades, indulgently encouraged Saudi Arabia to send billions of dollars annually to institutions and individuals committed to the exclusivist, supremacist Wahabbi creed that was developed more than two centuries ago, and which has since been seeking to gain more and more followers across the globe, in the process, creating severe ripple effects on community relations. In India, for instance, almost every “Hindu-Muslim” clash involving loss of life is between Wahhabis and members of the Hindu community. There have been close to zero such encounters between Shias and Hindus, or between Sufis and Hindus, and relatively few between Sunnis and Hindus, if we differentiate the Sunni community from the (much smaller number of) Wahhabis who often pose as the sole representatives of this important branch of the Islamic faith. Almost all acts of terror in the US or the EU that have been perpetrated by Muslims have actually been carried out by Wahhabis, and these teachings are also the basis for the theology of Al Qaeda and its latest mutant, ISIS. Small wonder that these days, warnings about Wahhabism are taken somewhat more seriously even in the US and the EU than was the case a quarter-century ago, although even now, analysts there always confuse Wahhabis with Sunnis, thereby doing a great injustice to the latter, many of whom are modern and the overwhelming majority of whom are moderate.
Now, Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia has become the first member of the Al Saud family to publicly acknowledge the harm done by Wahhabism, and to call for its substitution with genuine Islam, a faith that promotes tolerance, mercy and beneficence. The Saudi Crown Prince has acted just in time. A rolling back of Wahhabism and a return of moderate and inclusivist practices is essential for the Muslim community more than for others, and in such a task, India’s moderate majority among Muslims can be a global asset. At present, there are tens of millions across the globe, who segregate themselves from the rest of the societies they are resident in, and who clutch at uniformity in their dress and deportment. There is nothing objectionable in the hijab or a headscarf, if such choices be the consequence of free will and are not based on coercion. Should an overall climate of freedom of expression and lifestyle prevail within a country, such individuals will find courage to challenge those who are illogical enough to claim that wearing the same type of dress as was in vogue a millennium ago is obligatory for the wearer to enter heaven.
In India, where Muslim women have been in the lead in battling against such medieval practices as triple talaq, finally a fightback by the Muslim community against Wahhabism is taking place, with several both in educational institutions as well as the workplace refusing to follow those dress codes that have been imposed across centuries. Except of course voluntarily, the way many women still wear that most graceful of dresses, the sari. It may be possible to fight fire with fire, but fanaticism and exclusion cannot be fought with fanaticism and exclusion. Recent edicts of some schools in UP who have banned girls who wear the hijab or a headscarf, will encourage Wahhabi tendencies, rather than damp them down. Such acts of exclusion will be used by the Wahhabis to validate their “Us versus Them” dialectic, thereby reinforcing existing affinities to this school of theology, rather than weaning people away from it.
The difference between Malaysia and Indonesia is that one country enforces a ban on the eating of pork, the other does not. The difference between Nepal and India is that one of these countries prohibits the eating of beef under threat of prosecution and, in practice, sometimes death, whereas the other freely permits its consumption. It is a big difference, although there is certainly a case for reducing the eating of beef, given the environmental impact of such consumption. However, such an objective needs to be achieved through informal persuasion and not through the force of law. A state that relies on the police to enforce certain choices in dress, diet and lifestyle choices is usually one where laws are ignored by many. Assuming that the script of the movie is as derogatory of the character of the heroine as is being depicted by detractors of Padmavati, banning its exhibition (that too without having seen the movie) will not erase the historical fact that large parts of India underwent centuries of rule by Muslim kings. Much more reflection needs to take place as to exactly why Muslim invaders were successful over Hindu kings who ruled over far more prosperous lands. Rather than threaten film producers and actors, those aggrieved by it should instead produce a movie that ends with a resounding victory by the defenders of Chittor against Alauddin Khilji, who would in this movie jump into a fire to escape his foes, thereby creating an alternative reality suiting their historical preferences.
The UPA went into a frenzy of enactments, passing laws and imposing regulations each time a television anchor demanded “action”. In the case of the NDA as well, there has been far too frequent a reliance on the bludgeon of law and the police in enforcing choices that are less than universally popular. In a free society, regulations curbing freedom of choice and speech should be the exception rather than the usual recourse of those elected to office. Wahhabism cannot be defeated or even slowed down through methods and mindsets similar to those favoured by adherents of this creed.