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In Display of Indian Soft Power, Sufism to be Showcased as Counter to Radical Islam:The Wire

BY DEVIRUPA MITRA ON 14/03/2016 Government circles believe the time is right for a battered West Asia to turn towards India, where Islam coexists with


Government circles believe the time is right for a battered West Asia to turn towards India, where Islam coexists with multiple religions

Syed Mohammad Ashraf Kicchowchhawi, the national president of All India Ulama and Mashaikh Board, which is organising the World Sufi Forum. Credit: Devirupa Mitra

Syed Mohammad Ashraf Kicchowchhawi, national president of All India Ulama and Mashaikh Board, which is organising the World Sufi Forum. Credit: Devirupa Mitra

New Delhi: In the Islamic world, Egypt’s Al-Azhar University is considered the fount of its intellectual and theological traditions. So, when Shawki Ibrahim Abdel-Karim Allam, the Grand Mufti of Egypt – elected in 2013 by Al-Azhar’s council of ministers – told Sanjay Bhattacharya, the Indian ambassador to Egypt, that he was eager to travel to India to learn about its Islamic experience, it was only a question of time before that happened.

Shawki Allam told Sanjay Bhattacharya that he wanted to “see and study the Indian version of Islam where Muslim sufism exists within a non-Muslim world”.

“When I met him, he mentioned that he was delighted to travel to India for the first time and would observe how a multi-cultural society co-exists,” said Bhattacharya.

Egypt’s head of Islamic jurisprudence got a taste of multi-culturalism during a visit to Singapore in January, and this apparently whetted his appetite to see it work on a much bigger canvas.

Shawki Allam will be one of the main foreign guests at the four-day World Sufi Forum, beginning March 17 at Vigyan Bhawan in the capital. The event will be inaugurated by Prime Minister Narendra Modi. Around 200 scholars from 20 countries – including Turkey, Syria, Bangladesh, Morocco, Egypt, Pakistan and Kazakhstan – will attend. Pakistani-Canadian Sufi leader Tahir Qadri will also participate, visiting India for the first time since ending his dharna (peaceful demonstration) in Islamabad against the Nawaz Sharif government in September 2014.

A model of unity

Shawki Allam’s desire is exactly what the forum organisers would hope is the takeaway from this mega event.

Syed Mohammad Ashraf Kicchowchhawi, the 49-year-old national president of All India Ulama and Mashaikh Board (AIUMB), told The Wire that the primary aim of the event was to showcase Indian Islam’s co-existence with multiple religions and push it as a counter-narrative against ISIS’s brand of radical ideology.

“We want to focus on the fact that in Hindustan, language, rituals and even religion changes every 100 kilometres… In such a multi-cultural, multilingual, multi-religion milieu, we follow Islam, abide by law and live in peace. Nobody has a problem with us and neither do we have a problem with them,” said Ashraf, who is the custodian of the Kichhowchhawi dargah in Uttar Pradesh.

Ashraf, who founded the AIUMB as the umbrella group for Sufi shrine chiefs, scholars and practitioners, noted that the “message (of the event) was for those who live in regions where ISIS and al-Qaeda are thriving”.

“We want to tell the Muslims in those lands that when we can follow Islam living in this country, why can’t you live peacefully when you are living in a mono-religious society. Which Islam are you following then? That means somewhere you have learnt Islam in a wrong way, that the interpretation is incorrect,” he said.

About two months ago, external affairs minister Sushma Swaraj gave a similar message when she addressed the first India-Arab League ministerial meeting in Bahrain.

“None of us can afford to ignore the dangers of radicalisation and indoctrination. We do so at out our own peril, and that is why I believe India’s model of unity in diversity offers an example for the world. We in India have citizens who belong to every existing faith,” Swaraj told her Arab counterparts, following it up with descriptive prose about how the chimes of temple bells, the azaan, the chanting of the Guru Granth Sahib and church bells all mingle together.

There seems to be a conscious effort by New Delhi to promote the sub-continental version of Islam, with its myriad local identities, as an antidote to the extreme version originating from West Asia that has fuelled the ideology of Islamist terror groups.

Two weeks after Swaraj’s speech, the joint statement issued during the visit of Abu Dhabi Crown Prince Sheikh Mohamed bin Zayed Al Nahyan had a paragraph echoing this narrative. The bilateral document noted that the “Indian and UAE models act as strong bulwarks against the forces of extremism and radicalism”.

The time is right, government circles believe, for a battered West Asia to turn towards India – with a rising profile for New Delhi in the region being a useful side-effect.

The US had also experimented with promotion of Sufism as a counter-terror strategy, especially after a 2007 Rand report. But that effort fizzled out. The reason, practitioners believe, was that there was a no base for Sufism in the US, unlike India.

On his part, Ashraf is insistent that the World Sufi Forum is not a government function. “The only support that we have got is for visa and protocol from the ministry of external affairs, as some of our foreign guests are also senior government functionaries,” he said.

Following the inauguration, two days of academic sessions will be held at the India International Islamic Centre. The final day of the event will see a mass gathering at the Ram Lila grounds, where a declaration will be read out.

“We will give a clear cut message that ISIS and other such organisations are un-Islamic and have no connection to Islam,” said Ashraf.

The hope is that the message will reach the youth through the same medium that has been successfully harnessed by ISIS and their ilk. “We are using the internet, social media…will send CDs of speeches abroad. If the young persons listen to it, I am sure they will like it,” Ashraf said. Incidentally, a mobile app has also been listed for download during the event.

Criticism of the event

The function has already drawn some criticism, notably from the Jamiat Ulama-i-Hind chief Maula Syed Arshad Madani, for inviting Modi to inaugurate the event.

“We don’t know if he (Modi) is going there or not, but if a section of Muslims is being held close and others are being ignored, hatred is being spread in minds of people, then this is bad for the country. None will benefit from this, but the country will be hurt, of course,” Madani was quoted as saying.

Ashraf bristles at such disparagement, pointing out that the invitation was to the prime minister of India. “He may have been with a party once, but he is now PM. Didn’t the people who are bad-mouthing me only invite people from one party? Wasn’t that politics?” he asked.

Some of the criticism is also perhaps a result of the fight for space, with the AIUMB, formed ten years ago, trying to get its place for seats in Muslim religious administrative organisations, such as the Wakf and shrine boards.

“Around 80% of the Indian Muslims adhere to the Sufi faith, but none of us have ever been member of any Wakf board. Why are some of the shrine boards headed by people who don’t even believe in the Sufi ideology?” asked Ashraf, adding, “We had written so many times to the UPA government for a fairer representation, but nobody heard us. Let’s see, if this government will do something.”

Ashraf led a AIUMB delegation with 40 Sufi scholars and shrine heads, at a meeting with Modi in August last year, where they had laid down some of their demands. A few days later, Modi spoke about the meeting in his monthly radio programme, ‘Mann ki Baat’.

“The choice of their words, the way they spoke, the meaning, the generosity in Sufism, I felt nice,” Modi said on August 30.

When the delegation met Modi, there was still no decision on what shape their proposal of a World Sufi Forum would entail. “He (Modi) listened to us carefully…positively. When he took it up in his speech, we were really pleased,” said Ashraf.

When asked about his views on the ‘intolerance’ debate, he chose his words carefully, but emphatically. “In Dadri, the best answer was by the son whose father had been killed – that [we should] blame the perpetrators, but not the community. Remember, he still said saare jahan se accha” (my country is the best).

At the same time, Ashraf is nervous that communal frenzy could take over the country. “Khatra mandra raha hai (danger is hovering). Earlier, a fight between two friends, Rakesh and Aslam, was also between them. Now, it is not any more,” he said, grimly.