Monday, October 23, 2006

Parting of ways

Via ALdaily: The New Statesman has published a fascinating article by William Dalrymple on a 19th century clash of civilizations.

At 4pm on a hazy, warm, sticky winter's day in Rangoon in November 1862, soon after the end of the monsoon, a shrouded corpse was escorted by a small group of British soldiers to an anonymous grave at the back of a walled prison enclosure. The enclosure lay overlooking the muddy brown waters of the Rangoon River, a little downhill from the great gilt spire of the Shwedagon Pagoda. Around it lay the newly built cantonment area of the port - a pilgrimage town that had been seized, burned and occupied by the British only ten years earlier.

The bier of the State Prisoner - as the deceased was referred to - was accompanied by his two sons and an elderly mullah. The ceremony was brief. The British authorities had made sure not only that the grave was already dug, but that quantities of lime were on hand to guarantee the rapid decay of both bier and body. When the shortened funeral prayers had been recited, the earth was thrown over the lime, and the turf carefully replaced to disguise the place of burial. A week later the British Commissioner, Captain H N Davis, wrote to London to report what had passed, adding:

Have since visited the remaining State Prisoners - the very scum of the reduced Asiatic harem; found all correct . . . The death of the ex-King may be said to have had no effect on the Mahomedan part of the populace of Rangoon, except perhaps for a few fanatics who watch and pray for the final triumph of Islam. A bamboo fence surrounds the grave, and by the time the fence is worn out, the grass will again have properly covered the spot, and no vestige will remain to distinguish where the last of the Great Moghuls rests.

His point in the article appears to be that, as that the British achieved ascendency in India, and evangelical Christians became more prominent among the British, they gradually changed character from being just another trading community in a vast subcontinent, to a foreign presence which aggressively rejected any hint of being influenced by the country they inhabited.

The wills written by dying East India Company servants show that the practice of cohabiting with Indian bibis quickly declined: they turn up in one in three wills between 1780 and 1785, but are present in only one in four between 1805 and 1810. By the middle of the century, they have all but disappeared. In half a century, a vibrantly multicultural world refracted back into its component parts; children of mixed race were corralled into what became in effect a new Indian caste - the Anglo-Indians - who were left to run the railways, posts and mines.

He draws a parallel with our times.

Just like it is today, this process of pulling apart - of failing to talk, listen or trust each other - took place against the background of an increasingly aggressive and self-righteous west, facing ever stiffer Islamic resistance to western interference. For, as anyone who has ever studied the story of the rise of the British in India will know well, there is nothing new about the neo-cons. The old game of regime change - of installing puppet regimes, propped up by the west for its own political and economic ends - is one that the British had well mastered by the late 18th century.

By the 1850s, the British had progressed from aggressively removing independent-minded Muslim rulers, such as Tipu Sultan, who refused to bow before the will of the hyperpower, to destabilising and then annexing even the most pliant Muslim states. In February 1856, the British unilaterally annexed the prosperous kingdom of Avadh (or Oudh), using the excuse that the nawab, Wajid Ali Shah, a far-from-belligerent dancer and epicure, was "debauched".

The war that followed was essentially religious

The eventual result of this clash of rival fundamentalisms came in 1857 with the cataclysm of the Great Mutiny. Of the 139,000 sepoys of the Bengal army, all but 7,796 turned against their British masters, and the great majority headed straight to Zafar's court in Delhi, the centre of the storm. Although it had many causes and reflected many deeply held political and economic grievances - particularly the feeling that the heathen foreigners were interfering in the most intimate way with a part of the world to which they were entirely alien - the uprising was articulated as a war of religion, and especially as a defensive action against the rapid inroads that missionaries, Christian schools and Christian ideas were making in India, combined with a more generalised fight for freedom from occupation and western interference.

Although the great majority of the sepoys were Hindus, in Delhi a flag of jihad was raised in the principal mosque, and many of the insurgents described themselves as mujahedin or jihadis. Indeed, by the end of the siege, after a significant proportion of the sepoys had melted away, hungry and dis pirited, the proportion of jihadis in Delhi grew to be about half of the total rebel force, and included a regiment of "suicide ghazis" from Gwalior who had vowed never to eat again and to fight until they met death at the hands of the kafirs, "for those who have come to die have no need for food".

One of the causes of unrest, according to a Delhi source, was that "the British had closed the madrasas". These words had no resonance to the Marxist historians of the 1960s who looked for secular and economic grievances to explain the uprising. Now, in the aftermath of the attacks of 11 September 2001 and 7 July 2005, they are phrases we understand all too well. Words such as jihad scream out of the dusty pages of the Urdu manuscripts, demanding attention.

There is a direct link between the jihadis of 1857 and those we face today. The reaction of the educated Delhi Muslims after 1857 was to reject both the west and the gentle Sufi traditions of the late Mughal emperors, whom they tended to regard as semi-apostate puppets of the British; instead, they attempted to return to what they regarded as pure Islamic roots.

With this in mind, disillusioned refugees from Delhi founded a mad rasa in the Wahhabi style at Deoband, in Delhi, that went back to Koranic basics and rigorously stripped out anything European from the curriculum. One hundred and forty years later, it was out of Deobandi madrasas in Pakistan that the Taliban emerged to create the most retrograde Islamic regime in modern history, a regime that in turn provided the crucible from which emerged al-Qaeda, and the most radical Islamist counter-attack the modern west has yet had to face.

A fascinating tale, but there is nothing uniquely sub-continental about this story: every country in Asia, Africa, and South America has a similar tale to tell. China and Korea suffered unbelievable horrors in the same period. General Gordon became a martyr to Victorian England when the Sudanese mahdi killed him at Khartoum.
It may be possible to trace the origins of today's Islamic jihads to events that are over a century old, but I am not sure that it helps. They were a negligible presence until a bare 20 years ago, and they the origins of today's terror are equally close to hand: the U.S. armed and trained the mujahideen to battle the Soviet infidel, Pakistan gave them succor in an effort to win American kudos (and arms with which to confront India) and the Saudis funded them to appease their own people.
The fuel that feeds this constant skirmishing is the evident illegitimacy of the governments of every Islamic state from Islamabad to Casablanca- it is not only the British who parted ways with the people they ruled. Their unfortunate people, growing more impoverished by the year, and repressed by their political masters, are seeking to escape into an imagined past of Islamic purity and potency.
I am sure Dalrymple's book will illuminate the 19th century, but will cast only an indirect light on the early 21st century.

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