The mammoth 'Anti-Terrorism Convention' organised at Deoband late last month[February 2008], which brought together ulema from all over the country, has received wide media coverage. While smaller conventions of this sort have been organized by other ulema (religious scholar) bodies in recent years, this one, unlike others, caught the attention of the media particularly because it was organized by the Dar ul-Ulum Deoband, probably the largest traditional madrasa in the world, which large sections of the media have been unfairly berating as the 'hub' of 'terrorism'.
The speeches delivered at the convention have been considerably commented on in the press. By and large, the non-Muslim press has focused almost wholly on the resolutions that were passed that labeled 'terrorism' as 'anti-Islamic', leaving out other crucial issues that were raised by numerous ulema who spoke on the occasion, particularly about Western Imperialism and Zionism as major factors behind global 'terrorism', and the hounding of Muslim youth and mounting Islamophobic offensives across the world, including India, in the name of countering 'terror'. Muslim papers have dealt with these issues fairly extensively, but, following most of the speakers at the convention, they have placed the blame for 'terrorism' almost entirely on what they identify as 'enemies of Islam', thus presenting a very one-sided picture. In short, media reporting about the convention, by both the Muslim and non-Muslim media, has been inadequate and somewhat imbalanced. The same can be said of several of the speeches made at the convention.
The presidential address to the convention, which was also circulated as a printed document, was delivered by the conference's organizer and rector of the Deoband madrasa, Maulana Marghubur Rahman. 'We condemn all forms of terrorism', he insisted, 'and in this we make no distinction. Terrorism is completely wrong, no matter who engages in it, and no matter what religion he follows or community he belongs to'. 'Islam', he announced, 'is a religion of mercy and peace'. Hence, terrorism or the killing of innocent people 'is totally opposed to Islam'. He evoked the Quran to argue that Islam exhorts Muslims to behave well with people of other faiths if they do not oppress them, to abide by their treaties and agreements with non-Muslims and not to let the injustice of any community cause them to deviate from the path of justice.
Maulana Marghub ur-Rahman argued that far from being 'anti-national', numerous ulema and madrasas were in the forefront of India's freedom struggle. Dismissing charges that madrasas were used for fomenting 'terrorism', he insisted that they 'promote love, peace, tolerance and patriotism'. He appealed to the madrasas to provide 'proper guidance to their students so that they are not misused as agents to engage in any illegal activity in the name of Islam', an obvious reference to certain radical Islamist outfits that have sought, largely unsuccessfully, to make recruits among Indian Muslim youth. He suggested that in order to counter the misapprehensions that many non-Muslims have about madrasas, the managers of the madrasas must establish good relations with government officials and people of other faiths living in their vicinity. 'We must not unnecessarily make or consider others as our enemies', he stressed. 'Instead', he advised, 'we must spread our message of love'. He also suggested that madrasas should improve their system of functioning, maintain proper accounts and focus on the character-building of their students.
Indians, Muslims as well as others, the Maulana declared, are 'brothers', and they have 'jointly sacrificed for and contributed to the country'. He appealed to all Indians to join hands to work for India's 'peace and development'. If the government of India is really serious about combating terrorism, he stressed, it should be neutral in its approach to various communities, not suspect or target anyone simply because of his religion, and cease hounding innocent people, an obvious reference to the growing number of cases of police arresting and even killing Muslims in the name of countering 'terrorism'. He lambasted what he termed as 'Zionist forces' for spreading terrorism throughout the world as a means for promoting Western and Israeli expansionism and imperialism, and even suggested that these forces might well be behind many terrorist attacks in India, which, he insinuated, had been deliberately, but wrongly, attributed to Muslims. He refused to acknowledge that Indian Muslims might engage in terrorist activities, claiming that because this would hurt Muslims more than others 'it is unrealistic and even impossible for them to be terrorists'.
Several other speakers at the convention repeated many of the points that Maulana Marghub ur-Rahman had made. Like him, all of them argued that Islam did not sanction terrorism or the killing of innocents. Some used this argument to make the specious claim that, by definition, Muslims could not be terrorists, thus placing the entire burden of global terrorism on what they called 'anti-Islamic forces', particularly 'Western Crusader' and 'Zionist' groups. These forces, they alleged, were engaged in a global conspiracy to defame Islam and wrongly brand it as a violent religion, while at the same time engaging in state-sponsored terrorism on a large-scale, as in the case of the American devastation of Iraq and Afghanistan, or masterminding blasts and violent attacks which they had, so they alleged, wrongly blamed on Muslims simply to give them and Islam a bad name.
This, for instance, was the burden of the argument made by Maulana Noor Alam Khalil Amini, editor of the Deoband madrasa's Arabic magazine 'Ad-Dai', in a booklet commissioned by Maulana Marghubur Rahman specially for the convention, which was distributed to those present on the occasion. In a similar vein, Maulana Khalid Rashid Firanghi Mahali, a noted Islamic scholar from Lucknow, declared that 'America is sowing the seeds of terrorism all over the world'. 'Anti-Islamic forces', he claimed, 'are scared of the increasing influence of Islam. That is why they claim that Islam and terrorism go with each other'. Likewise, Maulana Mahmood Madani, senior leader of the Jamiat ul-Ulema-e Hind, denounced George Bush as 'the world's biggest terrorist'. He castigated America and other Western powers for 'spreading hatred against Muslims and Islam'.
The final declaration of the convention ran on similar lines. It denounced the killings of innocents as completely 'anti-Islamic', no matter who the perpetrators were, Muslims or non-Muslims. It insisted that Islam 'teaches peace, equality, justice and service to others'. It failed, however, to recognise the very existence of terrorism in the name of Islam engaged by some self-styled Islamist groups. Instead, it appeared to put the burden of terrorism entirely on the shoulders of those whom it saw as inimical to Islam. 'Governments of most countries', it announced, 'are toeing the line of Western and imperialist powers, and in order to please them are behaving in a despicable manner with their citizens, particularly Muslims'. It rued the fact that India's internal and external policies were being increasingly shaped by these anti-Islamic powers, who 'have unleashed untold terror' in countries as far as Afghanistan, Iraq and South America. It condemned the hounding of innocent Indian Muslims and their religious institutions in the name of countering 'terrorism', while lamenting that the Indian state took no action against the real perpetrators of crimes against humanity. It appealed to the Muslims of India to 'follow their established tradition of love and respect for the country and be alert so that no anti-Islamic and anti-national forces could use them as agents'. Finally, it called for all Indians to unite 'for upholding justice, the rule of law and secularism'.
The significance of the Deoband convention can be gauged from the fact that various Muslim organizations (including several non-Deobandi groups), as well as Hindu and secular bodies have welcomed it, although some have rightly expressed the wish that it should have been organized much earlier. The announcement by the organizers of the convention that similar meetings will be held across the country is indeed a very heartening development. One wishes this step would be reciprocated by Hindu religious organizations, who, too, need to take a clear stand against the terrorism being actively stoked by hardliner Hindu groups. One also hopes that the appeals for cooperation with secular non-Muslims that have been made at the convention are accepted by the state and civil society groups and movements, who can explore creative ways of engaging with the ulema for working for Muslim empowerment, inter-communal harmony, improving India's relations with Muslim countries (particularly Pakistan), promoting dialogue with Kashmiri groups and countering radical Islamist forces from across the borders.
That said, some burning questions still remain. Writing in the Urdu "Hindustan Express", Shakeel Rashid asks, 'Why is it that the ulema were silent for the last two decades when Muslim youth were being hounded in the name of combating terrorism and when communal violence, which is also a form of terrorism, was being unleashed on a massive scale?'. For an explanation, which he obviously does not agree with, he refers to Syed Arshad Madani, till recently the President of the Deobandi Jamiat ul-Ulema-e Hind, as having declared at the convention that despite widespread anti-Muslim violence in India for the last 60 years, the Deoband madrasa 'had not brought the community together', but that now it was forced to, in the form of the convention, because madrasas are being increasingly targeted. What Shakeel Rashid was probably suggesting was that the ulema were coming into the open to protest mainly because now, unlike before, their own institutions are under attack and that they themselves are being branded as 'terrorists'.
Another critical issue raised by the commentator Yusuf Ansari, also in the "Hindustan Express", is that none of the ulema who condemned terrorism at the Deoband convention 'named a single terrorist organization and condemned it'. Ansari sees it as unfortunate that the ulema failed to explicitly mention, leave alone condemn, Al-Qaeda, the Taliban and similar groups in Pakistan and Kashmir, some of which have also now reportedly extended their activities into India, who are 'misusing the name of Islam to spread terror'. 'The question arises', Ansari writes, 'as to why those ulema who condemn terrorism as anti-Islamic did not say a thing about these groups'. 'Is it', he asks, 'that in their eyes their actions do not constitute terrorism?' 'Every speaker at the convention', he notes, 'condemned America for its terrorism', but why, he asks, 'did they not themselves also introspect and look within?'. Further, he rightly adds, while the ulema denounced the massive killings of Muslims in Iraq, Afghanistan and Palestine by America and American-backed regimes, they remained curiously silent on the massacre of Muslims by fellow Muslims, be it by the late Saddam Hussain in Iraq, or in Darfur, Sudan, where several hundred thousand Muslims have been killed and rendered homeless in a devastating intra-Muslim civil war.
In conclusion, Ansari aptly comments, 'It cannot be logically sustained that, on the one hand, terrorism is condemned as anti-Islamic, and, on the other hand, silence is maintained about those [Muslims] engaged in such anti-Islamic activities'. 'It is not enough', he insists, 'to denounce terrorism as anti-Islamic. Terrorist organizations must also be specifically named and explicitly and sternly condemned'. Their failure to do so, he suggests, had kept madrasas in 'suspicion'.
Yet, despite these apt comments by critics, the Deoband 'anti-terrorism' convention is indeed a very welcome development. One hopes it is not just a one-time event, but that, as the organizers have promised, it is but the first of a series of such meetings to be held across the country in order to galvanise a truly popular movement involving people from different communities jointly struggling against all forms of terrorism, whether by the state, groups or individuals, and irrespective of the religious or communal affiliation of its perpetrators. As one of the speakers at the convention, Maulana Abdul Alim Faruqi, very appropriately put it, the struggle against terrorism demands that 'Hindus and Muslims should unitedly work to take the country forward in a spirit of love, brotherhood and unity'.