By A.R. in Delhi, *Even fundamentalists aren't safe* - The Economist - U.K. / India; Friday, April 8, 2011
Assassination in Kashmir
The past few months have been relatively tranquil in Kashmir, at least compared with last year’s summer of street protests, strikes and violence. On Friday April 8th the calm was shattered. A moderate leader, Maulana Shaukat Ahmed Shah, the head of the Wahhabi al Hadith organisation, was killed by an explosion as he parked his car at a regular spot while arriving at his mosque for Friday prayers.
His assassination is troubling. On a visit to Srinagar, the capital of Kashmir, late in 2010, I interviewed him at length about his organisation. Al Hadith promotes, peaceably, a conservative strain of Sunni Islam among the mainly Sufi Muslims of Kashmir. As we wrote then:
A Wahhabi welfare organisation, al Hadith, which almost certainly benefits from generous Saudi funds, is quietly emerging as a powerful welfare, religious and cultural force. As others bicker, it has gone about building community centres, mosques, primary and secondary schools and clinics. It is seeking permission to set up a university. Its genial leaders deny being extremists, pointing to their love of education and computers; they say that in the planned university, women and non-Muslims will be enrolled too.
As for claims that the group, which says it has 1.5m members, is spreading conservative values in a territory long known for its Muslims’ religious tolerance, one leader concedes only a “little, little component of cultural shifting”. A few more women are wearing burqas, or staying at home, than did in the past. More Arab-style mosques are springing up.
The non-Muslim minority in Kashmir is much less sanguine, seeing al Hadith as a proxy for Saudi interests and a powerful example of the spreading “pan-Islamisation” of Kashmir. They fret that ties may exist to Wahhabis elsewhere, including terrorists, and warn that a powerful new force is rising in the territory, filling a vacuum created by India. Just now their concerns seem overblown. But the government in Delhi would be wrong to think of Kashmir as yesterday’s problem.
In my interview Mr Shah repeatedly explained how he was a moderate, in favour of non-violence, how he opposed the stone-pelting by youths and the violence which had ensued, claiming over 100 lives in 2010—and how it was a mistake to equate Wahhabis with violent extremists. “We have been fighting the hard-core ideology, we have made them non-existent…Though we are Wahhabis, fundamentalists, we seek communal harmony”, he suggested. Mr Shah’s great goal was to set up a university in Srinagar where science and technology could be taught, where “we would allow women to study”, and also non-Muslims. This had long been blocked by a variety of Indian authorities. (This week’s issue of The Economist includes a briefing on the way that the Russian state has inadvertently pushed Sufi communities in the north Caucasus into the arms of violent fundamentalism.)
When I suggested that a Wahhabi group such as his might one day be linked to the Taliban (who are also fundamentalists, and have ties to Wahhabis in Saudi Arabia), Mr Shah rejected the idea entirely, saying that we “want a modernised society”, unlike the backward-thinking movement that is so active in nearby Afghanistan and Pakistan. He pointed out too that, at the 700 or so mosques that his group claims to have built in Kashmir, students were taught English and the use of computers, not how to live in caves and fight wars.
One possibility is that such outspoken moderation provoked hardliners to kill the maulvi. Yet it is unclear, a few hours after his death, how to interpret the killing. Against the backdrop of violence in nearby Pakistan, the murder of a moderate leader (though a Sunni one) looks sadly in keeping with the times. The death of liberals, such as Salman Taseer, who was gunned down in January, makes headlines around the world. The regular explosions at Sufi and Ahmadi shrines and mosques, and the routine massacre of Shia worshippers, presumably by extremist Sunnis, now hardly attract outsiders’ attention. Hardliners across the border seem ever more willing to get rid of other Muslim opponents through violence.
Indian-run Kashmir is not Pakistan, of course, but it too has a history of assassinated separatist leaders. Those who seem to be growing more moderate as they age are especially at risk. The assassinations get blamed on a range of potential killers—the Indian state, extremists who have crossed the border from Pakistan, rival factions within Kashmir. But in January a few Kashmiris, responding to a modest thawing of tensions over Kashmir, admitted that some of the high-profile killings, commonly attributed on Indian forces, were in fact done by Kashmiris themselves.
One question now is what happens to al Hadith. The extensive Wahhabi network was able to grow quickly in Kashmir, not only because of its generous overseas funding, but also because it was led by a moderate figure. If a more hardline leader were to take over, al Hadith might well come to be considered a greater threat to the valley’s Sufi moderates. A second question is whether the killing will provoke renewed violence in this dangerous corner of the world. As news of the murder spread, shops in Srinagar reportedly rolled down their shutters and nervous residents hunkered in their homes, fearing protests and anger.