Muslim-majority Bangladesh, which separated from Islamic Pakistan to protect Bengali language and cultural heritage, is known for its democracy and empowerment of women and is contesting radical Islam. And, Indonesia, another Muslim-majority democracy, proud of its linguistic and cultural heritage, promptly responded to home-grown terrorism. In contrast, the Taliban, who destroyed the cultural heritage of Afghanistan and adjoining parts of Pakistan and killed thousands, are nurtured as strategic assets by Pakistan. The Taliban are products of Deobandi seminaries sympathetic to the extremist Wahhabi cause. These seminaries promote Arabic — ‘the official [sic] language of Islam’ — at the expense of South Asian languages.
Predictably moderate Eastern Islamic societies, which have so far been supportive of NATO’s War on Terror, are held up as role models for democratizing Arab countries. But they can be treated as role models only if their moderation can be explained by factors that are not peculiar to East Asia and southern and eastern parts of South Asia.
Muslims across the world can be divided into Arab, Persian, Southeast Asian, South Asian, Sub-Saharan, and Turkic Muslims and immigrant Muslims in the West. But starting in the late 19th century, Arab Islam gradually claimed moderate Islam in the northern and western parts of South Asia. Islam in the rest of South Asia, however, continues to be moderate so that we can still speak of an Eastern Islam to refer to Islam in large parts of Southeast and South Asia. Moreover, Sub-Saharan Muslims are rarely taken seriously on ideological issues, while moderates within immigrant communities in the West are denounced as sell-outs.
This leaves us with four potential role models within the Islamic world — Arab, Persian, Turkic and Eastern Muslims, which can be further classified into two broad groups: those who use Arabic language and/or script for daily communication and those who do not. So far only the latter have proven to be largely moderate and conducive to relatively stable democratic states and have, unsurprisingly, been held up as role models for Muslims elsewhere.
Most Muslims in countries like Bangladesh and Indonesia and in provinces of India like West Bengal and Tamil Nadu are ethno-linguistically rooted and use Arabic only for prayers and specialized religious studies. Many of them read the Quran translated into their mother tongue (and written in a non-Arabic script), which is also the language of the state, as well as market. This has four effects.
First, the majority of Muslims in these countries cannot directly participate in West Asian religious discussions and are, in turn, less affected by such discussions.
Second, clerical control over religious discussions is largely confined to specialized debates. The routine religious debates that most believers are exposed to are conducted in a linguistic medium which the clerics cannot claim exclusive control over.
Third, the favorable position of local language among the believers helps them maintain links with local cultural heritage.
Fourth, local languages allow engagement between believers and non-believers. Non-believers not only access developments within the local Muslim community through a common language, but also make creative contributions.
These effects reinforce ethno-linguistic roots of believers by strengthening their bond with local cultural heritage, as well as by building a bond between believers and non-believers who share that heritage. Ethno-linguistic rootedness in turn dampens the quest for ideological and cultural dominance à la the jihadists, while secular bonds between believers and non-believers and the marginalization of clerics shield the state from religious majoritarian pressures.
Equally importantly, in the lands of Eastern Islam, Muslims are part of a religiously and, often, ethnically diverse societies. In these societies, there is a substantial non-Muslim population and religious minorities are not unlikely to belong to ethnic and/or linguistic majorities. Moreover, Muslims are themselves divided into various groups, some of which blend with pre-Islamic faiths. Cross-cutting ties in turn shield religious minorities from the fury of the extremists within the Islamic majority.
In short, the moderation of Eastern Muslim societies critically depends on their ethno-linguistic rootedness, demographic diversity, and cross-cutting ethnic affiliations. So, they cannot serve as role models to the Arab world, where Arabic and Islam have long ago erased diversity. The Arabs have to find their own solutions.
Vikas Kumar is Assistant Professor of Economics at Azim Premji University, Bangalore.