How Turki al-Faisal’s Reference To India Amid Israel-Hamas War Is Linked To Age-Old Enriching Ties

Speaking about the Palestinian right to resist against the backdrop of the Israel-Hamas War, former Saudi intelligence chief Turki al-Faisal said he would prefer civil insurrection and disobedience that brought down the British Empire in India

Speaking against backdrop of Israel-Hamas War, Turki al-Faisal said he would prefer civil disobedience that brought down British Empire in India

By Sameer Arshad Khatlani

As the Saudi spy chief (1977-2001), Prince Turki al-Faisal oversaw the support for the Afghan mujahedeen against the Soviets at the peak of the Cold War. He assumed key diplomatic roles as the Saudi ambassador to the United States and Britain over a decade after the Soviets were driven out of Afghanistan and the collapse of the USSR. As a member of the Saudi royal family and son of the late King Faisal, Prince Turki’s opinions continue to carry a lot of weight.

The 78-year-old former spymaster, an alumnus of Princeton, Cambridge, and Georgetown, was back in the news with his address at Rice University’s Baker Institute (Houston) against the backdrop of the Israel-Hamas war. His emphasis that it was a conflict with ‘no heroes and only victims’ resonated powerfully.

Prince Turki referred to the overwhelming military superiority of Israelis and the devastation the Israel-Hamas war was causing in Gaza. He condemned Hamas’s targeting of civilians and said it belied its claims to an Islamic identity. Prince Turki referred to Islamic injunctions and said they forbid the killing of innocent children, women, and the elderly, and the desecration of places of worship.

Follow MyPluralist channel on WhatsApp:

The prince condemned Hamas for giving ‘this awful [Israeli] government the excuse to ethnically cleanse Gaza of its citizens and bombing them to oblivion. He slammed Hamas for sabotaging the attempt to reach a peaceful resolution to the issue and Israel for what it has done to the Palestinian people for three-quarters of a century after stealing Palestinian lands.

Prince Turki’s preference for resisting occupation through civil disobedience like the Indian national movement particularly caught much attention in India, where the media aligned with the ruling Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party has amplified the Israeli version of the Israel-Hamas war. He underlined all occupied people have a right to resist their occupation, even militarily but he did not support the latter option in Palestine. ‘I prefer the other option: civil insurrection and disobedience. It brought down the British empire in India and the Soviet empire in Eastern Europe.’

Centuries-old Ties

The coverage of the Israel-Hamas war and the relentless Israeli bombing of Gaza is part of a staple of India’s political and media discourse amid an increasing weaponization of history through its narrow interpretation blurring lines between myths and reality. The sweeping tendency to see Muslims as the monolithic permanent enemy; a historical adversary and sustained campaign of demonization has also overshadowed India’s enriching centuries-old ties with the Arab world besides shaping antipathy towards Palestinians.

India contributed to the Islamic Golden Age between the eighth and the eleventh century, which coincided with Baghdad’s centrality to global trade, knowledge, science, and scholarship. Baghdad would draw people from around the world to the city. By the ninth century, it had Greek, Indian, Chinese, and Armenian quarters apart from Jewish and Christian suburbs.

Exchange of Knowledge

The diversity led to an exchange of knowledge that facilitated the development of some pivotal scientific ideas. A text that a merchant from India brought to Baghdad in the eighth century first introduced nine numerals and zero and changed the face of mathematics. It made multiplication and division simpler. The numerals also helped develop the decimal system and calculus, which is vital to almost all branches of science and underpins important discoveries in physics.

Scholars such as polymath al-Khwarizmi, whom algorithms are named after, built on these ideas to create what has been described as ‘the Arab hegemony’ in mathematics. The Arabs helped the new system of numerals, which Europeans called Arab numerals, reach Renaissance Europe. They continue to call them Hindsa (the Indian numeral) correctly. The Arab world’s age-old links with India have had Arabs hold Indians in high esteem. Over the recent decades, Arabs have associated India with Gandhian ideals of religious coexistence.

Indian Imprint on Arab Literature

Panchatantra, one of India’s most significant contributions to global literature, found its way to the rest of the world through its Arabic translation. Kalila wa Dimna, an anthology of Indian fables, has been among the most popular books in the Arab world for over a millennium. Ibn Mukaffa compiled the book in the eighth century from the fables sourced from Panchatantra to engage philosophers in the wisdom of its tales.

Alf Laylah wa Laylah (The Arabian Nights/One Thousand and One Nights), which has for centuries influenced storytelling and inspired generations of writers and is known as the Arab world’s biggest contribution to literature, may also have an Indian link. Novelist Salman Rushdie has argued the iconic book’s probable origin is Indian. In a New York Times piece in May 2021, Rushdie wrote that Indian story compendiums also have a fondness for frame stories, Russian doll-style stories within stories, and animal fables.

Rushdie wrote somewhere around the eighth century, these stories first found their way into Persian. Rushdie cited surviving scraps of information and wrote the collection known as Hazar Afsaneh (A Thousand Stories). Rushdie referred to a 10th-century document from Baghdad and added it describes the Hazar Afsaneh and mentions its frame story about a king who would kill a concubine every night until one of them manages to delay her execution by telling him stories.

The Arabs began acquiring Sanskrit texts before they sourced nearly all Graeco-Roman philosophical and scientific works to usher in the Islamic Golden Age. In 771, an Indian delegation visited Baghdad carrying a library. The brilliance of its texts is believed to have prompted the commissioning of their translations into Arabic. Indian mysticism was among the subjects the Abbasids, who helmed the Golden Age from the eighth century onwards, tapped into.

The Spiritual Realm

A courtyard at the tomb of a Sufi saint in Baghdad signifies Indo-Arab links in the spiritual realm. It commemorates Sikhism founder Guru Nanak’s stay there during his 16th-century journey through Arabia for inter-religious dialogue. Nanak, who is believed to have gained deep insights into Islam thanks to the journey, founded Sikhism as a monotheistic religion drawing from Islam as a synthesis between two of India’s major faiths.

In Kerala, the Cheraman Juma Masjid, believed to be the oldest mosque in the southern Indian state, also attests to deep India-Arabia links. Linked to mythical ruler Cheraman Perumal, who, the story goes, saw the moon splitting into two either in his dream or from his palace. Arab traders are believed to have told him how the miracle was associated with the Prophet. This is said to have prompted Perumal to travel to meet the Prophet in Mecca, where he is believed to have died as a Muslim. A friend of Preumalis is said to have later built the Cheraman Juma Masjid in the seventh century.

The Continuation

The 8.9 million-strong Indian expatriate community in the Arab world represents the continuing mutually beneficial India-Arab relations. The remittances they send have often surpassed India’s other sources of capital inflows. The remittances constituted 2.7% of the country’s GDP in 2017 and double the spending (1.15% GDP) on healthcare.

Over $30 billion from the region accounted for nearly half of the total remittances of $69 billion India got in 2017. Remittances of over $10.5 billion in 2017 from Saudi Arabia, where almost a quarter of 17 million Indians worldwide lived, were the most significant contribution to the flow of capital from a single country.

Part of Popular Memory

Bollywood, the Indian film industry, has defined India’s soft power in the Arab world in recent decades. Shah Rukh Khan, India’s biggest film star, defines the potential of Indian soft power in unlikely places such as Iraq where hardly anyone even understands the language of his films. His appeal cuts across barriers and signifies how art knows no boundaries.

Indian films were once very popular in Iraq along with Arabic and Western movies screened at Baghdad’s cinema halls in the 1960s. They also did good business as some cinemas were dedicated solely to showing Bollywood movies. In 2012, the French news agency Agence France-Presse (AFP) profiled Iraqi trader Adil Hamid Khalaf, 65, whose store in Baghdad stocked Bollywood VCDs and DVDs. It noted he could extol in halting Hindi he learned by watching Bollywood films the glory of 1950s Bollywood classics, which set Khalaf apart.

Khalaf charged as much as $10 for new movies while others offered knock-offs of the films for just 40 cents. He stocked Bollywood VCDs and DVDs unfazed by a decline in interest in old Indian films and fewer sales. He relayed anecdotes to AFP from his latest meeting with Indian film superstar Amitabh Bachchan referring to him as a good friend while recalling what he thought was a better era for Bollywood and Iraq. Khalaf described six-foot, two-inch actor Bachchan as lambu (tall in Hindi) at his shop across the walls of his shop in Baghdad’s Najah cinema complex plastered with blown-up photographs of meetings at the actor’s Mumbai home.

AFP said Khalaf showed off a Rado watch he said Bachchan gifted him before pulling out a fading photograph of him standing with the actor and his son Abhishek, who is also now a film star. Khalaf told AFP he first met Bachchan in 1978 after convincing someone working for another actor to take him there. AFP said Khalaf visits Bachchan as often as he can and speaks to him in Hindi.

Khalaf, whose shop was also adorned with photos of other top Bollywood stars Rajesh Khanna, Dharmendra, Mithun Chakraborty, and Amrish Puri, lamented the Indian cinema had suffered by becoming too Westernized. He told AFP that old Indian movies taught him how to behave with others, manners, build character, be good to parents, to touch the feet of their mothers and fathers.

Sameer Arshad Khatlani is a journalist and the author of The Other Side of the Divide

Leave a Reply