While all politics is necessarily pursuit of power, ideologies render involvement in that contest for power psychologically and morally acceptable to the actors and their audience. (Ideologies) are either ultimate goals of political action… or... pretexts and false fronts behind which the element of power, inherent in all politics, is concealed. They may fulfil one or the other function, or they may fulfil both at the same time. The nation that dispensed with ideologies and frankly stated it wanted power would... find itself at a great and perhaps decisive disadvantage in the struggle for power.”
—Hans J. Morgenthau, Politics Among Nations
Morgenthau, the father of the modern Western Realist school of international relations, wrote this decades ago. Nazi Germany’s quest for lebensraum that set off World War II, and the West’s banner of “freedom” during the Cold War are in this sense similar to the contemporary Islamist agenda. Islam serves to cloak what would otherwise be a naked and thus untenable quest for power.
But who is seeking power? Osama bin Laden, Al Qaeda and its various manifestations? Well, yes. Behind all the religious rhetoric lies an ambition to grab control of Islamic states. But even if Laden and Al Qaeda were put out of commission tomorrow, the global threat from radical Islam is unlikely to disappear overnight. Because of those religious tenets? Not quite. Because of Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, Iran and some others—the major states of the Islamic world. More exactly, their usurpation of religion in the struggle for geopolitical power.
It is no accident that some of the most dangerous terrorist outfits today are or used to be surrogates and proxies of Saudi Arabia, Pakistan and Iran. Before 11 September 2001, these states overtly sponsored terrorist organizations to pursue their power games directly. After 9/11, many of them have, to varying degrees of success, turned against their own creations (while claiming it is the other way around).
This is not so much a rejection of the use of Islam in the pursuit of power, but rather, just a change in tactics. The majority, including Saudi Arabia, Pakistan and Egypt, have calculated that being co-opted into the war on terror as enlightened moderates serves their purpose better than simply backing terrorists. A small minority, Iran is the principal one in this category, have calculated that confrontation offers better rewards. The decision to cooperate or confront depends both on their unique circumstances and the expected pay-offs.
The presence of Muslim minorities around the world provides the major Islamic states with unprecedented leverage. The greater part of these minorities is unlikely to respond to a call to terror. But it is quite likely to be riled by accounts of oppression of Muslims and outraged by insulting cartoons or demeaning remarks by the Pope. So it serves the interests of the major Islamic states to keep this “Islam under siege” narrative on the boil. Not only does this rally domestic support for their own autocratic regimes, but it also makes it incumbent upon the West to engage these regimes delicately. The latter gives these regimes far more international clout than they would otherwise command.
In a secular state such as India, there is little role for the state in matters of faith and religion. But the rise of a radical, intolerant version of Islam around the world is also not in its interests. Saudi Arabia, Pakistan and Iran have no self-imposed restrictions on promoting their own Islamic values. It is unlikely that India can counter these exertions of soft power by promoting the virtues of secularism to the Islamic world. But it could promote its own syncretic Islamic tradition to offer an alternative narrative to the world’s Muslims. In any case, secularism as state policy is meaningful only in the domestic context. To insist Indian foreign policy must always be “secular” would be to miss a fundamental principle of international relations— states act to maximize their relative power using any means at their disposal. If India’s Islamic values allow it to “balance” Saudi Arabia, Pakistan and Iran, it should do so.
So, is “Indian Islam” any different? Isn’t the violence of the Partition evidence to the contrary? For that matter, doesn’t the culpability of two upper middle-class Indian Muslims in a British terror plot prove that Indian Islam is not immune from radicalization? Not quite. More Muslims chose to stay on in India notwithstanding the communal bloodbath of Partition. As for the London-Glasgow plotters—the fact that Kafeel and Sabeel Ahmed had to harangue their friends and even the local mosque official in Bangalore suggests they were exceptions.
This is not to say there are no radical individuals and groups among India’s Muslims—there are, many have been involved in acts of terrorism and their numbers are growing. Nor is it to suggest that Indian Islam does not itself need reformation. Rather, that it is possible to distinguish among various strands of the Islamic religious tradition and strengthen those that can counter the more intolerant ones. Such a project will not be easy, but as one observer noted, “India is easily the best place to address the issue. Great powers solve giant problems. No other great power has both the incentive and the capability of solving this issue.”
(Nitin Pai is editor of Pragati —The Indian National Interest Review, a publication on strategic affairs, public policy and governance. Comments are welcome at firstname.lastname@example.org)