Lessons From Egypt For Kashmir

Posted on July 24, 2012 in Specials

By Karmanye Thadani:

I had visited Egypt in 2008 with my parents, basically for an international conference on cyber law in Cairo where I was presenting a research paper on cyber terrorism, and an Arab gentleman presenting a paper on the same theme made it a point to condemn any killing of innocent civilians as being contrary to the Quran in letter and spirit, something I affirmed out of genuine conviction when it was my turn to speak and I also discredited the myth of terrorism or even terrorism in the name of religion being a Muslim monopoly, pointing to the Ku Klux Klan, neo-Nazis, Irish Republicans and other such groups the world over, which generated immense goodwill among the predominantly Muslim audience.

The discontent against Mubarak’s regime was yet to manifest itself in the form of relatively peaceful mass uprisings, but one could see it simmering if one bothered to scratch beneath the surface. We had different tour guides on different days and the tour guide who showed us the part of the city known as Islamic Cairo (by the way, I found the mosques and churches of Egypt to be beautiful, as opposed to the Pharonoic structures which were massive and impressive in that sense, but not beautiful in my opinion), a very jovial and friendly man by the name of Aadil, while taking us on a mounted road, told us that there were underground prisons right beneath that spot where political dissenters were being tortured (we don’t know whether that was true or not!), and he went on to lament about Mubarak’s misrule, describing him as a despot. We heard similar complaints from other tour guides, including a woman who told us that while on one hand, some foreigners were surprised to see a woman in an Islamic state working so freely as opposed to being burqa-clad oblivious of how there are Egyptian Muslim women working as doctors, engineers, lawyers and pilots (it’s a sad fact that many non-Muslims across the globe, including India, generalize all Islamic states, except maybe the UAE and Turkey, on the basis of Saudi Arabia or Taliban-ruled Afghanistan, though these are the only two countries where burqas have been imposed by law and Iran, though fairly moderate otherwise, the only one where wearing headscarves is mandatory), on the other hand, there were indeed some conservative compatriots of hers who didn’t approve of her working and joking around with men.

A few years later, in 2011, Egypt saw the toppling of the Mubarak regime on the basis of mass non-violent protests. The international media was obviously interested in covering the ongoings in that country. The protests were heterogeneous in character, with the Christian minority, mostly of the Coptic sect, actively participating in the same, and likewise, the Muslims participating in the protests ranged from being religious fanatics to theocratic by outlook but with their version of theocracy being fairly humanistic to those who envisaged no role for religion in public life in spite of being practising Muslims in many cases, the last category constituting the category of people described as liberals in this article, while the others have been described as Islamists. The liberal Muslim position in Egypt has been well articulated by Ahmed Abdel-Rahman, a geography teacher when he states, acknowledging the diverse interpretations of the same religious texts (the quotation is from a media report) – “I am religious and don’t want laws that go against my beliefs, but there shouldn’t be religious law. I don’t want anyone imposing his religious views on me.” All major global religious groups, especially Jews and Christians, have people of such categories, though in the context of Hinduism, the idea of a theocracy as advocated by the extreme Hindutvavadis is an artificial construct, as I have discussed in another article on homosexuality.

When the protests were on, the international media often spoke to the English-speaking liberals who outlined their vision of a post-Mubarak Egypt, and indeed, the liberals had actively participated in the protests and passionately presented their views on online forums. An article in the magazine ‘The American Spectator’ by a liberal Muslim states that “numerous pundits” spoke of “the ‘Twitter and Facebook’ generation of secularists and liberals – primarily youth activists – that would supposedly prevent the Islamists from gaining ascendancy in the post-Mubarak political scene”. While the liberals continued to be popular with their strong human rights advocacy of releasing under-trials after Mubarak’s government was toppled, the Islamists have been the ones who constitute the real leadership of the people as elections have shown.

While the Muslim Brotherhood has pledged its commitment to moderate theocracy and stated that it would prefer to ally with the liberals than more extreme Islamists, a country which declares itself to be a theocracy is much farther away from eliminating religious fanaticism than one which has a minimal space for religion in public life. Shortly after the Mubarak ouster, we saw some loonies attacking the Israeli embassy in Cairo and killing some people there, declaring they want to undo diplomatic ties with Israel, and the elections for the presidential race in Egypt had elements engaging in a disgusting anti-Zionist diatribe (I am not an uncritical admirer of Israel and in fact, I do regard its creation on Palestinian soil as completely unjustified, but to engage in a hate campaign against a collectivity, though populist, never really solves problems). Prior to that, on the Christmas of 2010, there was an attack on a Coptic church in Alexandria, though after that, many Egyptian Muslims formed a “human shield” around the church and condemned the attack, though of course, Islamist terrorism is the most extreme form of Islamism, which has much more moderate versions and these are more popular, most Egyptian Muslims certainly not being supporters of terrorism. Even as the Egyptian constitution was being drafted, liberals and Islamists often came into conflict time and again, with liberals staging walkouts time and again.

Even today, there are serious concerns as regards the stand Egypt will take on the issue of the Israel-Palestine conflict. Mubarak had recognized Israel and under him, Egypt was its ally, but given the widely prevailing strong anti-Zionist sentiment in Egypt (and actually throughout the Islamic world, Indian Muslims being no exception, but of course, this is obviously not to say that all Muslims hate all Zionists; Israel itself has a sizable loyal Muslim population), which wasn’t hard to figure out for me during my short stay there, not in small measure owing to excesses committed by Israeli soldiers in the wars between the two countries. While the Muslim Brotherhood has announced that relations with Israel will not be disrupted, it has also declared that it shall revise the existing arrangement.

Egypt is a developing country like India, with a sizable uneducated and zealously religious educated population (I have no problem with anyone being religious, so long as religious ideas are evaluated by moral yardsticks with a humanistic basis rather than the morality of an idea being judged by religious yardsticks, which leaves scope for interpretations of religion that can have very dangerous consequences), and in the scramble for votes, genuine foreign policy interests can be subordinated, as it has happened with India in the case of it not having diplomatic ties with Israel until the early 1990s to appease sections of Indian Muslims or India recently voting against Sri Lanka in the UNHRC to appease sections of the Indian Tamils. Besides, so long as Egypt is a theocracy and there are religious fanatics, the fear always remains of not only the Christian minority and tiny Jewish minority of Egypt coming under threat but of regressive laws that stifle individual liberty even for Muslims, particularly for women. Pakistan too started off as being a fairly moderate theocracy, but the Zia-ul-Haq regime which instilled strong prejudices against non-Muslims in the education system and gave the mullahdom a greater voice in the administration has now taken the country in the direction of Talibanization.

The same thing needs to be considered for Kashmir as well, which has a history of religious radicalization and where many people define their identity on the basis of Islam with hatred for India (and even Israel) as an article of faith. No, I am not going to compare the Egyptian protests to end military dictatorship with Kashmiri protests to not remain a part of a secular democracy or compare the military presence in Kashmir (which is subordinated to the democratic Indian government), indeed higher than anywhere else in the world, owing to the presence of militants who killed or drove away many of the Kashmiri Hindus and pro-India Kashmiri Muslims from their homeland, with the military rule in Egypt (but which wasn’t ubiquitous, like the military presence in Kashmir). The point I am making is different. I am well aware of the historical background of the Kashmir issue, including the plebiscite promise affirmed by UN resolutions and the human rights violations committed by Indian military and paramilitary personnel, and have written a five-article series identifying the problems and possible solutions. Also, I am certainly no Islamophobe and I never miss an opportunity to criticize the saffron brigade, besides being passionate about dispelling anti-Muslim prejudices, as my refuting the myth of terrorism being a Muslim monopoly or of most Islamic states being very hardline in this very article.

But just like not all Egyptian protesters were liberals, not all Kashmiri separatist protesters are, even if their prominent faces in the international arena are, and these are usually non-resident Kashmiris leading comfortable lives in Europe or the United States, writing pieces on the Internet or showing up in conferences and seminars, often speaking Western-accentuated English, highlighting how religious extremism is a non-issue in Kashmir and is a bogey generated by the Indian establishment and intelligentsia. These are not authentic representatives of the entire corpus of the Kashmiri separatists (just as in the case of the Egyptian protesters) as many in the West would imagine them to be.

The fact is that many of the Kashmiri Muslims still regard the murders of the Kashmiri Hindus by the militants as justified, labeling their fellow co-regionalists of another faith as RAW agents (similar to how quite a few Gujarati Hindus, including educated ones, have no hesitation in assigning negative labels for all Muslims and consider the 2002 carnage to be justified, or Oriya Hindus having the same attitude towards Christians and the 2008 Kandhamal violence), and Geelani has described the move by the Indian state to resettle the Kashmiri Hindus in their homeland a sinister design at the instance of Mossad, the intelligence agency of Israel, and this very man had offered prayers for Osama bin Laden when he was killed, hailing him as a martyr. Indeed, many Kashmiri Muslims would envisage independent Kashmir to be ultra-theocratic, with hardline versions of Islam having become more popular in Kashmir competing in adherence with the traditional, heterodox versions indigenous to the valley.

Yet, many of the Kashmiri liberals who advocate the secessionist cause, as also their non-Kashmiri Indian and Western supporters, would like to bury their heads in the sand and refuse to acknowledge there being any problem with the Kashmiri people themselves. Of late, some Islamist Kashmiris have announced that they have a problem with the immodest attire of the tourists that doesn’t conform to the tenets of Islam; now, how on earth can Kashmiris expect an economic boom if they have such a conservative approach?

The liberals among the Kashmiri secessionists, whose narrative of the issue traces the history of the subordination of Kashmir to its incorporation into the empire of the Mughals (who were also Muslims) and values the pre-Islamic history of an independent Kashmir, need to wake up to reality and if they really think Kashmir can ever attain freedom from both India and Pakistan (for while the Islamists are divided between those seeking independence from both India and Pakistan and those seeking the merger of the whole of Kashmir with Pakistan, the liberals are crystal clear that they want the former), then they would have to also simultaneously combat Islamism (the idea of Islam having a role in the politico-legal framework and/or in public life in general; not to be confused with Islam as a religion per se) in the valley on an ideological basis, for leaving this question will lead to chaos as we are seeing in Tunisia where liberals and Islamists are engaging in violent clashes (though in Kashmir, the differences between them are not so pronounced just as they were not when Pakistan was created, but leaving this question unsettled has caused huge problems there too, though Israel has managed to do quite well without unsettling this contradiction in its identity and its legal system is actually quite secular), or else, explore impartially whether an independent Kashmir can help preserve a liberal environment better or remaining with India, which is a secular democracy, though in the context of Kashmir, it is important to note that a sizable number of Islamists put up a rather unconvincing pretence of being liberals.

Following Manu Joseph’s article in the magazine ‘Open’ and the positive and negative reactions it got from Kashmiris and others, the remarks by moderate Hurriyat leader Prof. Abdul Gani Bhat and articles by Kashmiri writers like Naeem Akhtar, I wrote another series of five articles titled ‘A Fresh Wave of Thinking in the Kashmir Valley’, highlighting how many a Kashmiri Muslim had started to value the relative peace and normalcy currently to be seen in the valley than struggling for the cause of azadi, much to the frustration of separatist leaders. After that five-article series, subsequent events proved my reading of the situation correct. Virtually no one turned up in a recent Hurriyat rally at Lal Chowk and in a Facebook note written by a Kashmiri separatist, he has expressed his frustration about the current state of affairs in the following words — “…the efforts being made to incorporate us into the so-called mainstream are meant to subdue us into forgetting and moving on”, something which I proudly accept as an Indian, for subduing or pacifying is very different from subjugating or oppressing! How can peace be a cause of complaint now, and why isn’t it a good idea to bury the past and look at a bright future? Kashmiris are South Asians and a Kashmiri Muslim is as different from an Oriya Hindu as a Malayali Christian is — if all of us can be under one banner in a united India that the world sees as a rising power, then why follow the precedent of a failed state like Pakistan, for the very question of Kashmir not being a part of India can only have its roots in the supposedly religion-based partition of the country?

[box bg=”#fdf78c” color=”#000″]About the author:

The author is a freelance writer based in New Delhi and has co-authored two short books, namely ‘Onslaughts on Free Speech in India by Means of Unwarranted Film Bans’ and ‘Women and Sport in India and the World: A Socio-Legal Perspective’. He is currently working as a research associate in the Centre for Civil Society (CCS), a reputed Delhi-based public policy think-tank. The views expressed in this article are entirely personal.[/box]