Trivia question for the new-year: who started the first ever global jihad? Answer: Sultan-Caliph Mehmed Reshad in November 1914, when he symbolically took the sword of the Prophet at Constantinople’s Fatih Sultan Mehmed mosque to sanctify the Ottoman empire’s war on Britain, France and Russia. The Ottoman Caliph joined with the Germans in World War I, making it the “duty of Muslims everywhere in the world to wage war on the infidels [in the opposite alliance].”
The Sultan, of course, ended up on the losing side, and the repercussions were felt all the way to India as his empire was dismembered after the Treaty of Versailles remember the Khilafat movement and Gandhi’s support for it. Less known is the role Germany played in promoting the idea of jihad and pan-Islamism.
A new book, The Berlin-Baghdad Express by Sean McMeekin, shows that from the 1890s, Germany’s leaders saw Islam and the idea of global jihad as a secret weapon which could destroy the British Empire and decide the coming war.
The spy master Baron von Oppenheim opened a bureau of Islamic propaganda in Berlin and the day after the Sultan’s announcement, German agents began distributing jihadi literature throughout the Middle East, pronouncing a death sentence on European ‘infidels’. They probably missed the irony that they were ‘infidels’ themselves and the aim was to use Islam to stoke anger and create anti-British unrest right up to India.
The Germans failed but they seem to have pioneered a tactic that the Americans used well in the first Afghan war, against the Russians. Just think of the glorified mujaheedin of the Rambo films of the 1980s.
The larger point is that today’s internal battles within Islam between liberals and the bigots who have perverted it — can only be understood if we realise that the idea of a global jihadist war dedicated to the destruction of modern civilisation is really a product of the modern age. It is intertwined with legacies of colonial policies and great power politics and not just some atavistic blast from the past.
The seeds of Punjab Governor Salman Taseer’s killing in Pakistan go all the way back to the Zia regime. The anti-blasphemy laws that Taseer was killed for, originated under the British but were made punishable by death under Zia, as he consciously Islamicised Pakistan’s polity.
It was Zia’s ISI that became the frontline for the CIA’s funding of the mujahideen against the Russians. Simultaneously, as Shuja Nawaz writes in his study of the Pakistan Army, it was Zia that began what became known as ‘Zia-bharti’ the entry of conservative elements into the armed forces.
Terrible as Taseer’s killing has been, what is scarier is the aftermath. Indira Gandhi was also shot by her Sikh bodyguards filled with religious angst but one of them was immediately killed by angry compatriots and the others were prosecuted and hanged. Taseer’s killer, Mumtaz Qadri, was not even opposed by his other guards.
Qadri was given a hero’s welcome at his first court appearance by lawyers with rose petals; Facebook pages have been created in his honour and a coalition of religious parties sent out statements welcoming his actions.
Taseer did get a state funeral but major political leaders, including from the opposition PML-N, did not even attend. Even President Zardari, described in virtually every Taseer obituary as his ‘close friend’, kept away from the funeral.
This is especially revealing in a culture where death has a way of ending ill-will. Little wonder then that the only other politician who supported Taseer’s drive to repeal the blasphemy laws, Sherry Rahman, has disappeared from public view.
Perceptive commentators have noted the enabling atmosphere that was created both before and after Taseer’s killing. Just three years ago, the media and the legal community were at the vanguard of the movement to oust Musharraf. Most of the press, especially TV commentators, bitterly opposed Taseer on the blasphemy laws prior to his murder.
The Lahore High Court even forbade Zardari from issuing a pardon to Aasia Bi, the Christian woman on death row and at the centre of the debate; and the legal community is bitterly divided.
Late last year, when asked in an interview about the danger of Pakistan turning into a failed state, Taseer dismissed the Pakistani Taliban as merely “brainwashed, illiterate tribes” who would melt away if confronted.
The aftermath of his death shows how right he was in standing up to fundamentalists and how wrong he was in underestimating the cancer that has eaten up Pakistani society.
Why should we care, some would question. After all, Pakistan is reaping the whirlwind of its own policies over the past three decades. The problem is that if Pakistan goes down or if the fundamentalists take over, India will feel the maximum impact.
Taseer’s murder is not just a lament for liberalism. It is a battle for the heart of Pakistan itself. What was once peripheral and never to be acknowledged openly has now become mainstream as the pictures of students in Peshawar demonstrating in support of Qadri show.
What is at stake now is not just abstract concepts like rule of law or freedom of speech. Make no mistake: this is about the soul of Pakistan itself. More than any other time in Pakistan’s history, silence is no more an option for any right-thinking Pakistani.