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November 9, 2021 7:24 am

South Asia Replaces the Middle East as the Epicenter of Ultra-Conservative Islam

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avatar by James M. Dorsey


People standing on a vehicle hold Taliban flags as people gather near the Friendship Gate crossing point in the Pakistan-Afghanistan border town of Chaman, Pakistan July 14, 2021. REUTERS/Abdul Khaliq Achakzai

As Middle Eastern states attempt to manage their political and security differences, Muslim-majority countries are regrouping along a fault line that separates proponents of varying concepts of an authoritarian but religiously/socially “moderate Islam” — and those advocating stricter adherence to intolerant, non-pluralistic strands of the faith.

The fault line gains significance as various Muslim-majority states compete with one another in their efforts to define Islam in the 21st century. This is as much a geopolitical as an ideological struggle.

The battle’s importance is further magnified by the fact that diplomacy, economics, public affairs, and soft power are increasingly taking center stage as countries like Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Turkey, and Iran seek to manage their differences in a bid to prevent these disputes from spinning out of control.

This fault line shifts the epicenter of religious ultra-conservatism in the Muslim world from the Arab to the non-Arab Middle East, and expands it into South Asia.

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The Taliban victory in Afghanistan — cemented by the US withdrawal, and coupled with multiple steps by the government of Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan  — is a case in point.

Concern that Afghanistan could emerge as a hub for cross-border and trans-national political violence and drive militancy and bloodshed in Pakistan — coupled with a surge in attacks in Kashmir in recent weeks — compounds South Asia’s positioning.

Analysts fear that Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s discriminatory Hindu nationalist policies will encourage radicalism elsewhere in India, home to the world’s third-largest Muslim population.

What the religious fault line does not do is denote two blocs. Rivalries play out on both sides of the divide. These include competition between Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and Qatar, as well as mounting tension between Turkey and Iran. That tension manifested itself last month in rival military exercises along the Azerbaijani-Iranian border. In addition, relations between Iran and the Taliban are fragile, given Iranian concerns about the plight of persecuted Hazara Shiites in Afghanistan.

What the religious divide does mean is that the Taliban are in good company in a swath of land stretching from Istanbul to Islamabad, when it comes to restricting social behavior like their preventing girls from getting an education, banning music and Western hairstyles, and forbidding men to shave their beards.

Similarly, Khan, the Pakistani prime minister, made waves earlier this year with his misogynist assertion that the mounting number of attacks on women took place because they were wearing “very few clothes.” Khan has since welcomed the Taliban victory as “breaking the chains of slavery.”

Education is one major marker of the different worlds reflected in the religious divide. Restrictions on girls’ and women’s education in the Taliban’s Afghanistan, and Pakistan’s introduction of a single national curriculum that fuses secular and religious education together and seeks to Islamicize it, are in stark contrast with the Gulf’s emphasis on modern science-based education and the creation of local campuses of major Western universities.

Pervez Hoodbhoy, a nuclear scientist, human rights activist, and frequent commentator on educational issues noted that Ottomans and others had failed in their attempts to put regular schools and religious seminaries in one system.

A study published earlier this year suggested that Turkish schoolbooks had replaced Saudi texts as the bullseye of criticism of supremacist and intolerant curricula in the Muslim world.

The study found that Turkish curricula, once a model of secularism, with an education system that taught evolution, cultural openness, and tolerance towards minorities, had increasingly replaced those concepts with notions of jihad, martyrdom in battle, and a neo-Ottoman and pan-Turkist ethnoreligious worldview.

“The idea that jihad[i] war is now part of the Turkish curriculum, that martyrdom in battle is now glorified, might not be surprising given what we know about Erdogan … But seeing it in black and white is quite a shock,” said Marcus Sheff, CEO of Impact-se, the group that sponsored the study.

Dr. James M. Dorsey is an award-winning journalist and scholar and a Senior Fellow at the National University of Singapore’s Middle East Institute.

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