By Izeth Hussain –
Sri Lankan Muslims At The Cross Roads – XV – ‘Muslim Extremism’ Continued
I come now to the charge that looms large, very large, in Sri Lankan Buddhist consciousness that the Muslims destroyed Buddhism in several countries which consequently became predominantly Muslim. It is assumed that this was the consequence of Islamic conversion by the sword. I pointed out in my last article that there was no precedent Muslim conquest in several countries which were converted to Islam, such as the Maldives, Malaysia, Indonesia, and several Black African countries. I did some reading to try to establish the facts about Muslim conquests of Buddhist kingdoms in Northern India as part of the process of spreading Islam. I became somewhat confused because there appeared to be none. The truth appears to be that Buddhist power was negligible or non-existent by the time Mahmud of Ghazni in the 11th century and his predecessors got going with their anti-Buddhist iconoclastic excesses. The truth seems to be that the conflicts of those Muslim conquerors were with decaying Rajput power, not with Buddhist kingdoms. And the reason for that was that Buddhism in North India had by that time been mostly or entirely absorbed into Hinduism.
As I am no historian I will quote one on that process of absorption. The quotation is from the Rise of the West by W.H. McNeill, a book that was praised in superlative terms by Hugh Trevor Roper and highly praised by Toynbee and others. This is the quotation: “The net result of the development of Tantrism and of Hindu philosophy was to undermine the separate existence of Buddhism in India. The fact that Tantrism flourished within both Buddhism and Hinduism tended to blur the distinction between them. In addition, the monastic life lost much of its meaning in a society where Tantric shortcuts to the supernatural had won general acceptance, and where the venerated figure of Buddha had long since been admitted to the Hindu pantheon as the incarnation of Vishnu. Buddhism therefore gradually merged back into the wider field of Indian religiosity from which it had sprung and survived as a distinct organization and doctrine only on the fringes of the Indian world, in Ceylon, Burma, and Tibet. But in India itself, Buddhism had become an empty shell by the end of the tenth century, and when Moslem conquerors plundered the surviving monasteries, no one cared to rebuild them. The Moslems thus definitively eradicated Buddhism from the land of its birth.”
I don’t know whether there were any Muslim conquests of Buddhist territories in India as part of the process of spreading Islam. Mahmud of Ghazni and others of his ilk seemed in reality far more interested in loot than in spreading Islam. If there had been such Muslim conquests, they were clearly of a marginal order because the major process whereby Buddhism disappeared in India was absorption into Hinduism. That could be part of the reason why Buddhists in contemporary India, quite unlike Buddhist extremists in Sri Lanka, seem to take a positive view of Muslims. There is relevant material in that connection in Edward Luce’s In Spite of the Gods (2011) which has been highly praised by William Dalrymple and others.
In Ambedkar’s hometown Aurangabad, Luce met Mahar (outcaste) Buddhists, one of whom told him, “We get along much better with the Muslims than with the caste Hindus because we look out for each other. Before we converted to Buddhism we used to eat beef with the Muslims”. I quote further from Luce: “They talked to us about why Buddhism had virtually disappeared from India, the land of its birth, while it had thrived in so many other parts of Asia. They said the great Indian Buddhist centers of Taxila and Nalanda (in modern-day Pakistan and Bihar respectively) had been plundered by Brahmins, who feared that Buddha’s egalitarian message would undermine their stranglehold on society. ‘They destroyed Buddhism because it had no caste,’ said one militant young novice.” It appears that those Indian Buddhists – the polar opposites it would seem of Sri Lanka’s Buddhist extremists – were so well-disposed towards the Muslims that they were prepared to overlook the fact that the Muslim conquerors had also participated in the plunder of the great Buddhist centers.
I will provide a further quotation from Luce’s book: “The BJP’s textbooks also put a new slant on more recent periods of Indian history. For example, they showed Islam as having come to India at the point of the sword during India’s medieval period without reference to its peaceful spread through trading links in South India much earlier. Before the arrival of Muslims, Hindu society had been contented and peaceful. There was no mention of what happened to Buddhism in India”. The last sentence clearly means that the Hindus were responsible for the virtual destruction of Buddhism in India.
But what really interests me in that quotation is the detail about Islam’s “peaceful spread through trading links in South India much earlier” – that is to say, much antedating the Muslim conquests in the North. It leads to an important question. Let us assume that the Muslims after conquering parts of India, enforced conversions by the sword and in the process destroyed Buddhism. Should the Sri Lankan Muslims be regarded as culpable over that? The SL Muslims are an entirely different people from the central Asian marauders who conquered North India. It would certainly be absurd to regard SL Buddhists as culpable over the massacre of Rohingya Muslims by Burmese Buddhists. It would be not just absurd but practically insane to regard SL Muslims as culpable over what was done in North India by central Asian marauders over a thousand years ago. What I have been arguing in this article points ineluctably to two conclusions. One is that anti-Muslim Buddhist extremists should stop jabbering about Buddhist countries having become Muslim through enforced conversions. The second is that the government should declare all such jabber as hate speech, which is punishable under the law.
Before I conclude this article I will try to situate Muslim extremism in its wider Islamic perspective. This, a complex subject, can be dealt with in this article only in brief outline. On the factual level Muslim extremism has clearly to be regarded as an aberration as its occurrence is not normal in the history of the Islamic world. I share the view of Emmanuel Todd that Muslim extremism results from the pressures brought about by the transition to modernity, a problem facing the rest of the third world as well. Before proceeding further I must establish ET’s credentials as someone whose views have to be taken seriously. Trained as a demographer, he became well known as a French political scientist and shot to fame for his accurate prediction, based on demography, about the impending demise of the Soviet -Union.
In his book After Empire (2004), ET wrote that there is no linear progression, a smooth and uninterrupted transition, to modernity as had been imagined by the thinkers of the eighteenth century Enlightenment. On the contrary, the tearing up of roots involved in the breakaway from traditional ways of life, the destruction of the equilibrium of pre-literate societies, the increase of literacy and the lowering of the rate of population growth, leads at the first stage, quite paradoxically, to as much disorientation and suffering as a sense of liberation and enrichment. Very often, perhaps in the majority of cases, the mental and cultural change involved amounts to a crisis of transition. The accession to modernity is very often accompanied by explosions of violence that are backed by ideology.
This is why there is so much violence in so many third world countries that are making the transition to modernity. The West, in deploring that violence, has forgotten its own violent transitions: the British Civil War of the 1640s, the French Revolution, the American Civil war, the Russian Revolution, all of which involved ideological change. ET states that only a few countries escaped violent transitions, such as the Scandinavian countries except for Finland. After referring to the ideologues behind Cromwell’s Revolution, he writes: “The Jihad in the name of Allah of recent years is not of an altogether different nature. If it is far from being always liberal’ it nevertheless represents, fundamentally, not a regression but a crisis of transition. The violence and the religious frenzy are only temporary”.
I come now to traditional Islam which holds sway in the greater part of the Islamic world while the Islamic State and Boko Haram are perpetrating their horrors. I hold that the liberal version of traditional Islam is flourishing and represents the Islamic wave of the future, and further that it is far from being antipathetic to change and modernity. That view will be hotly contested by those who are prejudiced against Islam and by Islamophobes, one of whom Geert Wilders the Dutch Parliamentarian, or one of his followers, has sent me in reply to my last article the text of a speech he made some years ago. I will not refute that article in detail, instead of which I will adopt a pragmatic approach and pose the question: If such negative views of Islam and its Prophet are valid, how is it that Islam inspired one of the great seminal civilizations of the world?
Bertrand Russell wrote that during the Dark Ages of Europe, “From India to Spain the brilliant civilization of Islam flourished.” Furthermore, that civilization contributed to the development of Western civilization in a way that cannot be ignored in any proper account of the latter. Christopher Dawson’s The Making of Modern Europe, written of by Trevor Roper as a highly regarded text-book, has a whole section on Islamic civilization. In fact today no book on Western philosophy can omit a section on Islamic philosophy, and it has come to be recognized that the Muslims did more than merely convey Greek learning to the West which would otherwise have been lost forever. Ibn al-Farabi is now being recognized as an original thinker. As for Islam’s compatibility with modernity Ernst Gellner, who had a background of anthropological field work in the Islamic world, wrote this: “By various criteria – universalism, scripturalism, spiritual egalitarianism, the extension of full participation in the sacred community not to one, or some, but to all, and the rational systematization of social life – Islam is, of the three great Western monotheisms, the one closest to modernity”.
I believe that these articles suffice to establish that alleged ‘Muslim extremism’ poses no existential threat, or any kind of threat, either internally or externally, to Sri Lanka. There has been talk of Jihadists in Sri Lanka getting together with the vestigial LTTE. That kind of threat can be easily contained, for which international co-operation will be readily forthcoming. The situation can however change radically if a 1983 is perpetrated against the Muslims, and they are subjected to periodic bouts of violence as part of an anti-Muslim project. In that case there could be Muslim counter-action and some kind of threat could conceivably ensue. But that would be the consequence of what the Sinhalese, not what the Muslims, do.