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Walker's World: India's Top Muslim

UPI Editor Emeritus

NEW DELHI, March 14 (UPI) -- The very name of Jamaat-e-Islami sounds alarming in the post-9/11 era. And the intensely anti-Jewish and anti-American rhetoric of Jamaat-e-Islami mullahs in Bangladesh and Pakistan and the terrorist links of the organization in Kashmir justify that alarm.

So it comes as a surprise to find that the head of the world's largest Jamaat-e-Islami organization is a gentle, elderly scholar who believes that Islam must adapt to the modern world and that Muslims should think for themselves rather than follow blindly all the rules laid down by medieval jurists and modern Wahhabite puritans.

Maulana Abdul Haq Ansari is the Amir, or leader, of the Jamaat-e-Islami-e-Hind, the Indian arm of the organization. And India contains the world's second largest population of Muslims after Indonesia, some 150 million. This is more than the population of Egypt, Iraq, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Palestine and the Gulf states combined.

"The sentiments that Muslims around the world now have toward the Bush administration were not there when President Clinton was in the White House. We remember that he helped to rescue the Muslims of Bosnia and worked hard for peace in Palestine," Amir Ansari told United Press International in an exclusive interview.

"Muslims are not fools, we are thinking people. If the U.S. government changes its policies and starts acting like Clinton, that will change Muslim minds and change their reaction," he went on. "If a firm timetable for withdrawal from Iraq is announced, that will make a lot of difference, because there are so many suspicions that America wants to stay forever for the sake of oil."

"It is not a question of Islam against the West, or even Islam against the United States, so much as a reaction against the Bush administration," he went on. "There is no clash of civilizations; there are no takers for that."

And even under Bush, he had taken careful note of the speech of Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice in Cairo, when she said that the U.S. had for too long supported authoritarian regimes in the Arab world for the sake of a spurious stability. He was also impressed that the Bush administration was finally talking directly to Iran and Syria, and that there seemed to be some new momentum to the Israel-Palestine peace process.

Amir Ansari is the leading representative and spiritual head of Indian Muslims, whose special character so impressed President George W. Bush when the last Indian foreign minister, Natwar Singh, told him that Indian Muslims were unique in providing not a single recruit to al-Qaida. "Al-Qaida is simply not relevant in India, and nor is terrorism, because India is a democracy and we support that democracy," the amir went on.

We were talking in Delhi, the Indian capital, in the home of a Hindu friend. And in the course of a 3-hour interview, which included a classically Indian dinner of rice and chicken and vegetables and pickles, washed down with fruit juice and tea, we spoke in English, without need of a translator.

The amir, a gentle and softly-spoken man, spoke with feeling of the need for change within the Islamic world. This reporter had asked him to comment on the theory that the Islamic world was now undergoing the same kind of intellectual and theological debate that had gripped 16th and 17th century Europe at the time of the Reformation and counter-Reformation.

"I am not sure we will have anything quite like the Reformation in Islam, but many Muslim thinkers are trying to present Islam in a way that makes sense of modern times, and seek to justify the faith rationally, and to show that Islam's basic principles are themselves democratic," he said.

"Under the sovereignty of Allah, individual Muslims can work out the details for themselves," he went on. And what did this mean for politics?

"Muslims do not like dictatorship or kingship, or what is happening in Egypt, or in Pakistan where the constitution has been suspended," he replied. "Muslims do not like monarchies, whether in Saudi Arabia or Jordan, and the longer they continue with American backing Muslims will live in frustration and anger will build.

"It is very sad that the Saudis have so much money and so much opportunity to finance education and industry throughout the Islamic world, and instead they spent it on building mosques and on imams. No faith can be propagated with money," the Amir said, adding that he had spent two years living and studying in Mecca.

The Indian tradition of Islam is markedly different from the puritanical Wahhabism of Saudi Arabia. Many Indians, including the amir, belong to the Sufi mystical branch of Islam, which reveres holy men as saints and build shrines to their memory. The Wahhabites spurn such customs as un-Islamic and even destroyed the graves and shrines of the Prophet Mohammed's relatives when they took over Mecca in 1918.

"I admire India and its democracy but I have to say that not all is good here," he said, referring both to the higher poverty and lower education rates of many Indian Muslims, and to the outbreaks of communal violence, like the slaughter of hundreds of Muslims in the province of Gujarat in 2002, after Hindu militants claimed Muslim terrorists had set fire to a train, killing 58 Hindus.

The chief minister of Gujarat, Narendra Modi, a Hindu nationalist, was widely blamed for allowing the slaughter to continue through inactivity. Modi, a highly efficient administrator who has achieved dramatic economic growth in Gujarat and fought a largely successful campaign against corruption in government, is now being spoken of as a possible future prime minister. Could he ever be elected with Muslim support?

"I don't think so," said the amir.

If he were to run for prime minister, could you work with Modi?

"God forbid," replied the amir.

Part politician, part theological scholar and part religious leader, Amir Ansari symbolizes not only the rich diversity of Indian democracy, but also the less familiar diversity of Islamic thinking in an age when the stereotypes of Islam are all too common, and all too dangerous.

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