I think that Faisal Devji, an author and historian at the University of Oxford, should be fired from his job for writing an ideologically motivated article on the terror threat to India in The Hindu, a leading Marxist newspaper. In the article dated November 30 and titled “Fighting terrorism with the big boys”, Devji dwelt on the terror threat but the target of his ideological attack were not the Islamic State (ISIS), Al-Qaeda or other such jihadist organizations but the Indian security analysts, journalists and commentators. In his intellectual thinking ISIS is an “imaginary” enterprise. He notes: “India isn’t a serious target for these groups despite appearing on their imaginary maps like so many other places.” He also thinks that Indian journalists should “be thankful for this situation.”
“[I]nstead of being thankful for this situation,” Devji observes, “a number of Indian journalists and policymakers seem anxious that the country be recognised as a victim of globalised terrorism, and so an ally of the Europeans and Americans fighting against it.” I do understand Devji’s spiritual discomfort with the West which gives him a respectable job, citizenship and voice, but to argue that India does not face the jihadist terror threat is inaccurate. The ideological configuration of Devji’s mind fails to grasp that the ISIS and Al-Qaeda have emerged as such a big menace that no nation-state today can fight single-handedly. It is essential that democracies unite and search for ways to deal with the global jihadism that is destroying Muslim lives in large numbers.
But for this University of Oxford academic, it’s the colour of human skin that determines the shape of politics, academic writing or intellectual output. Devji, appearing at unease with the white colour of human skin, introduces racism (white vs. blacks) into an analysis of the terror threat and feels that India must not be on the side of those who are opposed to Islamists. He notes: “This longing to join the all-white club of terrorism’s leading enemies can even be seen as a perversion of the older desire that India take her place among the great powers.”
Two things emerge from his sentence. One, Devji is uncomfortable with the “enemies” of terrorism and therefore it can be safely concluded that he is on the side of the terrorists, at least intellectually. Second, Devji sees India’s rise towards a Great Power status as “perversion” and he is deeply unhappy that Indians too desire that India take a great leap forward on the world stage. Devji sees the terror attacks in Mumbai as “a novel form of militancy — one in which a whole city could be paralysed by the coordinated, yet random, killing.“ To hear from a professor of history that these attacks are “random” is academically dishonest, to put it mildly, and I am left wondering what he is teaching students at the University of Oxford.
Devji’s article, and the fact that it has appeared in a Marxist Indian newspaper which hides behind the authentically sounding name The Hindu, is not “random”. It is a product of a systematic ideological campaign in our societies across the world in which Devji and liberal academics like him stand between ISIS and those who are on the opposite of ISIS jihadists. The first beneficiary of articles by liberal ideological analysts like Devji therefore are the jihadists and ISIS. The Oxford academic thinks that terrorists do not threaten humans but electoral prospects of governments. For example, Devji writes: “[such terror] attacks can at most threaten only the electoral prospects of governments unable to prevent them.” He has no concern for human lives.
The worst constituent element in Devji’s intellectual landscape is that he thinks only non-Muslims are opposed to terrorism. During Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s meeting with his British counterpart David Cameron, Devji notes: “By mentioning the shared threat of terrorism, Mr. Cameron was in effect appealing to what he may have imagined was an anti-Muslim audience of Hindus….“ He views Cameron as a Sanghi. Contrary to his liberal ideological conviction, large number of Muslims grasps the view that this is indeed a “shared threat” from Pakistan to the Middle East and Europe.
Appearing as an expert on the jihadist terror threat to India, Devji writes: “Islamic militancy in India continues to be defined by politically conventional causes rather than global ones.” I am wondering over the words “politically conventional causes” – but his analysis cannot decipher how the Islamic State is able to attract Muslim youths across the world. If not global, then what? I understand that academic minds trained in anti-colonialism literature fail to grasp the emerging threats and new social realities. As per the media reports, at least a dozen Indian states – from Assam to Jammu & Kashmir, and from Maharashtra to Kerala – are witnessing radicalisation in favour of ISIS. On September 29, Khagen Sarma, the police chief of Assam state, was specifically asked by journalists if pro-ISIS interests could be just out of curiosity. He responded: “That kind of interest is a very small percentage.”
Devji thinks of jihadists more like cuddly cows. He views Mehdi Masroor Biswas – who ran the Twitter handle #ShamiWitness from Bengaluru – as a “mild-mannered, young professional” who too had “no interest in attacking India.” He is unaware that a Mumbai youth was planning to attack the American School in Mumbai last year, and four Muslims went from Mumbai to join ISIS in Iraq. Devji also writes: “Pakistan-sponsored groups are focussed on the conflict between the two states rather than some global war.” It is time for Devji to do some basic reading of jihadist literature from Pakistan. Of particular interest to him should be: Jamaatud Dawa (the masked Lashkar-e-Taiba founded by Hafiz Muhammad Saeed) whose members are currently present in the Burmese refugee camps of Indonesia, in Syria and in Gaza; or Jaish-e-Muhammad (led by Maulana Masood Azhar) whose members organise annual events in mosques across Pakistan to inculcate the teaching of jihad-related verses from the Quran, which is a global scripture, not a local document that Devji would like us to believe.
It is surprising that Devji, perhaps reading too much anti-colonialism literature, sees sectarianism within Islam as the 19th century phenomenon. “The importance of sectarian violence may even signal the coming apart of Islam itself as a category, one that in any case only dates from the 19th century,” he observes. So, what was the Battle of Karbala in 680 CE? Sectarianism in Islam is much older than the discovery of America or the West. The fact is that between ISIS and Barelvi Islamic scholars across India, there are no theological differences on the issues of blasphemy (a major cause of the attack on Charlie Hebdo in Paris), apostasy and Shias, who are deemed as infidels. Even Pakistan’s Tahirul Qadri is on record of having declared Shias as infidels. Devji is especially urged to read Facebook comments by Indian Muslim youths.
I am aware that Devji does go into complexity of the issue but that is meant to hide the clarity of this global problem. “Globalised forms of militancy have only taken root where the state is failing, as in Somalia, Yemen, Afghanistan and Iraq, or where it is despotic, as in Saudi Arabia and Syria,” he writes. But such an argument cannot explain why jihadists are attacking in European states, or that for almost every week this year Muslim youths have been arrested in the United States. It is unfortunate that Devji and liberal writers like him offer excuses, rationalisations, justifications and grievance analysis for the rise of global jihadism, and in this sense his article does exactly the same by discussing lots of things such as currency, banks, culture, management and social relations.
If the purpose of Devji’s writing is that journalists should not write about the emerging jihadist threats, please do write more clearly. What is the purpose of academic training – to write clearly about a security issue or to camouflage it in the defence of liberalism and its ideological cousins: jihadism and Islamism?
“Islamic militancy in India remains conventional and bizarrely even ‘nationalist’,” he writes. When did Islamic militants become nationalists? “Islamic militants” are jihadist, Islamist or Islamic because they stand for the imposition of Sharia rule – for example in Pakistan. In Pakistan itself, there are Balochi rebels who are fighting for the independence of Balochistan from Pakistan; they too are Muslims but are not called “Islamic”, “jihadist” or “Islamist” militants because they do not stand for imposition of Sharia rule. Jihadism is essentially a global worldview, even when it is located in a specific territory.
There are two concluding points to learn from Devji’s article. One, journalists who write about security issues do make people “anxious” but the purpose of their writing is to ensure that their writing is disproved in the end and we stay safe. All news stories are negative and cause some anxiety among people, except in the case of business journalism. Journalistic commentary on security issues is meant to raise awareness among people and security agencies so that they can take preventive measures. This is essential for the health of democracies and open societies like India. Second, the purpose of the writing by liberals like Devji seems to be to create intellectual space for the defence of jihadist forces in our social life. If I am an Indian Muslim standing up to fight against ISIS, I see Devji as the pillar who I must fight before reaching to fight ISIS. This pillar is the first line defence of jihadists in our societies.
Former BBC journalist Tufail Ahmad is the executive director of the Open Source Institute, New Delhi. Ahmad is the author of “Jihadist Threat to India – The Case for Islamic Reformation by an Indian Muslim.” He tweets @tufailelif