Once again, the western media has been labelling the Indian Airlines hijackers as "Islamic militants" and "Islamic hijackers".
This label is odd, seeing that most of the hijacking drama was enacted in the heartland of the Afghanistan Taliban. The media are united in labelling the Taliban as "fundamentalist Islamic". According to the media logic, one would have expected this "fundamentalist Islamic" regime to have condoned an "Islamic" hijacking. But the reality has been quite different.
Far from supporting the hijacking, the Taliban have been consistent in their disapproval and condemnation of the act. Indeed, the resolve shown by the Taliban when a deadline was set by the hijackers on Monday, December 27, most probably saved lives on the airliner: "We warned the hijackers that if they take any action or kill anyone on our territory we are going to mete out similar treatment to them." (Taliban spokesman quoted on BBC OnLine, December 27, 1999)
Early on in the hijacking, Afghan Foreign Minister Wakeel Ahmad Mutawakil told reporters how the Afghans had suffered a lot over two decades of civil war, but had never resorted to such an 'inhuman act'. The targetting of innocent men, women and children has been clearly abhorrent to the Taliban leadership, who made it clear that they would not allow any innocent blood to be shed on Afghan soil.
Yet despite the clear stand taken against the hijacking by the "fundementalist Islamic" Taliban, the hijackers are still labelled by the media as "Islamic". It seems that the Muslims cannot win. Even if they condemn terrorism in no uncertain terms, still acts of terrorism are attributed to their religion.
The temptation is strong for Muslims to give up and say: "Even if we condemn terrorism, we are still labelled as terrorists. We might as well not condemn it at all." But to do this would be to fall into the media's trap. The media must now be allowed to malign Islam by giving the impression that the religion condones senseless violence and cruelty against innocent civilians. However much the media seek to present Islam in this distorted way, the Muslims must strive to present the true picture.
One aspect of the Indian Airlines hijacking has not received the attention it deserves. This has been the condemnation __ in both actions and words __ by Muslim scholars of the hijacking. For the first time, the voice of Muslim orthodoxy and scholarship, as embodied by the Taliban, has come out clearly against this act of violence, directed at innocent civilians, aimed at achieving a political cause. The Taliban have taken this position despite the fact that the cause in question is one they support.
This has not been easy for the Taliban. One should not underestimate the dilemma in which the Taliban leadership found itself. Ostensibly, the hijackers seem to come from a background not far removed from that of the Taliban themselves. Consistent in the hijackers' demands was the release of Maulana Azhar Masood. His release precipitated the end of the hijacking drama. Maulana Azhar, one should remember, has close ideological links with the Taliban.
Maulana Masood Azhar is a graduate of Jamiya Uloom-e-Islami in Karachi. Many of the Taliban leadership graduated from the same institution, set up by Maulana Yusuf Binori soon after independence.
Since the imprisonment in 1994 of Maulana Masood Azhar by the Indian authorities, he has sent back from Jammu jail a series of articles, which have been published in the Karachi Urdu newspaper, Dharb-e-Mumin. Though not officially affiliated with the Taliban, Dharb-e-Mumin has been unstinting in its support of the Afghan student militia.
It is not difficult to see the depth of the dilemma in which the Taliban found themselves. Here were hijackers who demanded the release of a Muslim cleric who comes from the very same background as themselves. The hijackers were espousing a cause close to the heart of the Taliban.
As we saw above, the school from which Maulana Azhar Masood, along with many of the Taliban leadership, graduated was set up after independence. It was one of a number of madrassahs established in post-partition Pakistan. These madrassahs __ Darul Uloom Akora Khattak in NWFP, Jamiya Ashrafiya in Lahore, Jamiya Uloom-e-Islami in Karachi, as well as countless others throughout all four provinces of Pakistan __ have one thing in common: they were all established by graduates of the Deoband school of learning in Uttar Pradesh in India.
Throughout the 135 years of its history, the Deoband school has seen some lively debates on the best approach to issues confronting the Muslims of South Asia. Some supported the creation of Pakistan; others remained loyal to a united India. Some advocated involvement in secular politics, joining parties such as Congress and the Muslim League; others avoided politics, feeling it their duty instead to promote Islamic scholarship and virtue. However, at no time in its history has the Deoband school ever been associated with violence in the name of religion. In condemning the hijacking, the Taliban are only being true to their own theological roots.
Indeed, the Deoband school was itself set up to highlight the futility of using violence as a means to achieving a political end. The school was established in the wake of the Indian Uprising __ also known as the Mutiny __ of 1857. Founders of the Deoband school such as Haji Imdadullah and Maulana Qasim Nanutvi had been in the forefront of the anti-British battles that marked the Mutiny.
The establishment of the Deoband school represented an admission that this tactic had failed. Force could not defeat the British. Instead, the Muslims should concentrate on consolidating their own system of learning. In this way, they would be able to withstand the influence of secular education, and strengthen Islamic virtue and learning in the face of the British cultural onslaught.
For nearly a century and a half now, the Deoband school has educated Islamic scholars from Central Asia and Afghanistan, as well as from Pakistan, India and other countries of South Asia. To this day, countries from Uzbekistan to Bangladesh and Burma have a network of Islamic scholars educated in schools affiliated with Deoband. It is to this school of thought that the Taliban belong.
The Taliban have been the first adherents of the Deobandi school of thought to gain power in any of the countries belonging to the Deoband catchment area. In using their power to condemn violence in the name of Islam, the Taliban have also taken a lead in reiterating the age-old position of Hanafi orthodoxy: that violence against innocent civilians cannot be justified, however justifiable the cause for which it is committed.
It is for Islamic scholars throughout Central and Southern Asia to follow this lead, and to continue to condemn acts such as the Indian Airlines hijacking. The benefits of them taking a clear stance against terrorism will be multiple: they will strengthen Muslim orthodoxy in face of sectarianism and fanaticism; they will cultivate peaceful co-operation among the countries of the region; they will counter media disinformation about Islam. Furthermore, they will help to solve the problems faced by Muslims in all these countries, for they will be helping Muslims to act in accordance with the teachings of Islam, which is the only guarantee of their prosperity and success.