How Siege of Islam’s Holiest Shrine in Mecca Cast Long Shadow

The siege, Iranian revolution and Soviet invasion of Afghanistan back to back in the same year triggered a chain reaction and among other things fuelled Islamophobia, which has now escalated globally to epidemic proportions

The insurgents proved hard to dislodge as they carried advanced Belgian rifles and had planned their attack in detail.

By Sameer Arshad Khatlani

In November 1979, self-styled preacher Juhayman al-Utaybi and his 200 followers mingled with around 50,000 worshippers at Islam’s holiest shrine in Mecca before they pushed aside the imam after the dawn prayers and seized his microphone. They took out handguns and rifles hidden in coffins brought to the shrine on the pretext of funeral services while one of them, Khaled al-Yami, read a speech announcing the coming of the Mahdi, the messianic deliverer in Islamic eschatology believed to be a divinely guided man with extraordinary powers to usher in an era of justice.

Yami claimed Muslims had seen Mohammed bin Abdullah al-Qahtani, the so-called Mahdi, in their dreams and now he was in their midst. He proclaimed that the end of days was near and that redeemer would restore justice as Juhayman directed his men to close the shrine’s gates, take positions in its minarets overlooking Mecca, and shoot anyone resisting. He would first pay homage to ‘the Mahdi’. His followers followed suit amid cries of ‘God is great.’

The worshippers, many of whom were foreigners and were initially unable to understand what was going on since the intruders spoke Arabic, tried to reach any exits that were still open, prompting the gunmen to fire a few gunshots. The bloodshed that followed was unprecedented as any violence is forbidden in Mecca as per the Quranic mandate. 

Juhyman and his men blatantly violated the mandate and fully controlled the shrine in about an hour and challenged the authority of the Saudi royal family whom they blamed for the degeneration of social and religious values through a modernization drive. He had earlier gone underground when authorities cracked down his ultra-conservative al-Jamaa al-Salafiya al-Muhtasiba group and wrote pamphlets criticising the royals for their ‘decadence’ and the clerics for colluding with them.

Juhyman believed Saudi Arabia needed a ‘heavenly intervention’ for salvation when he began preaching despite being poorly educated. He was involved in drug smuggling before repenting to find solace in religion but avoided addressing educated audiences as his classical Arabic, the language of Islamic scholars, was weak. 

Juhayman’s experience as a soldier in the Saudi National Guard, though, helped him organise the shrine’s takeover after identifying Qahtani as ‘the Mahdi’ as his attributes matched that of the messianic deliverer. It is believed that Mahdi’s first and father’s names will be similar to the prophet’s and will have a large forehead and a thin nose like an eagle. For Juhayman, Qahtani matched these attributes. But Qahtani was unconvinced initially and went into isolation before he was convinced that Juhayman was right and he was the ‘saviour’. 

In the run-up to the siege, rumours spread that Meccans and pilgrims saw Qahtani in their dreams in Mecca’s Grand Mosque holding Islam’s banner. The rumours coincided with Juhayman’s preparations in remote areas of Saudi Arabia for the takeover. 

The Saudi leadership found itself hamstrung as its key members were abroad. Crown Prince Fahd bin Abdulaziz al-Saud was in Tunisia and Prince Abdullah, the head of the National Guard, in Morocco. An ailing King Khaled and his defence minister Prince Sultan, who were left to coordinate the immediate response, failed to anticipate the scale of the problem and sent Saudi police to understand the scale of the crisis. The police proved no match to the rebels. Their cars were fired upon as they drove up to the shrine, prompting the National Guard to launch a hasty operation as the gravity of the situation became evident. 

The National Guard, too, found the insurgents hard to dislodge. Juhayman’s sharp-shooters carried advanced Belgian rifles and had planned their attack in detail forcing Saudi authorities to press paratroopers, special forces, and armoured units into service. A security cordon was thrown around the shrine and artillery fire was directed towards its minarets while jets and helicopters hovered in the air. 

The rebels repelled the attacks despite getting outgunned and outnumbered over the next two days while the Saudi forces tried to gain entrance into the Grand Mosque, a two-floor building mostly of galleries and corridors spread across hundreds of meters. Casualties mounted to the hundreds as a result.

The insurgents set fire to carpets to create clouds of smoke before they hid behind columns and ambushed Saudi troops. A man-to-man confrontation followed within a cramped space. The problems were compounded when some Saudi soldiers refused to fight, citing the shrine’s sanctity and prompted authorities to seek a fatwa backing the military to use as much force. The fatwa paved the way for anti-tank-guided missiles and heavy guns to take out the rebels stationed on the minarets. Armoured personnel carriers were separately rushed to breach the gates.

Qahtani, meanwhile, thought he could expose himself but soon found his immortality was a fallacy as bullets hit him. Juhayman remained in denial telling his followers not to believe those who said Qahtani was injured. They continued fighting until Saudi forces took control of the mosque’s courtyard and the surrounding buildings on the sixth day.

But the crisis was far from over as the rebels retreated to rooms and cells at the shrine convinced Qahtani was alive. The situation worsened with the rebels pushing into the catacombs and forced the Saudis to seek the help of French President Valéry Giscard d’Estaing, who dispatched three advisers from a counter-terror unit secretly. The French team stayed at a hotel in the nearby Taif and devised a plan of flushing out the insurgents by filling the shrine’s basements with gas. Holes were accordingly dug every 50 metres to inject gas through them with the help of grenade explosions into the corner where the insurgents were holed up down in the basement.

The plan succeeded. Juhayman and his surviving followers also ran out of ammunition and food and gathered in a small room with soldiers throwing smoke bombs through a hole made in the ceiling. They were soon forced to surrender but Juhayman was unrepentant when he met Saudi officials and just asked for water. Juhayman and 63 rebels were executed across eight cities over a month later but the siege cast a long shadow.

The crisis had a profound effect on Osama Bin Laden, who blamed the Saudi ruling family for desecrating the shrine. Laden felt the crisis, which has been described as the first such transnational terrorist operation as the rebels included men from Middle Eastern countries and the US, could have been solved peacefully. The response to the siege prompted him to organise al-Qaida to overthrow the Saudi monarchy and to end western influences in the region.

The siege also strengthened the clergy and halted Saudi Arabia’s modernization. It pushed the royals on an ultra-conservative path marked by measures such as the ban on women from driving and the closure of theatres, which took four decades to reverse. The Saudi government increased the allocation for the religious establishment in oil revenues among other concessions to deal with the aftermath of the crisis. This allowed the clergy to develop a network of charities and educational institutes globally to spread its ultra-conservative ideology.

An information blackout thanks to the snapping of phone lines for the first 24 hours created much confusion. The US pointed fingers at Iran, which blamed the Americans and the Zionists and sparked anti-American demonstrations across the world. American embassies were stormed but the siege largely remained obscured. The attention remained focused on Iran, where the American embassy was overrun after the revolution two weeks earlier, and Afghanistan following the Soviet invasion a fortnight later. 

The three back-to-back events triggered a chain reaction and among other things fuelled Islamophobia, which has now escalated globally to epidemic proportions.     

Sameer Arshad Khatlani is a journalist and the author of The Other Side of the Divide: A Journey into the Heart of Pakistan

How Manhunt Stretched Out Over Generation Ended With Zawahri’s Killing

Two Hellfire missiles with long blades meant to kill targets with kinetic energy to minimize collateral damage were fired on July 30 to take out al-Qaida chief Ayman al-Zawahri

When two Hellfire missiles killed al-Qaida chief Ayman al-Zawahri on a balcony of a house he was hiding out in downtown Kabul on July 30, it culminated months-long operation that began earlier this year. Zawahiri was in hiding for years and the operation to locate and kill him required carefully patient and persistent work. American intelligence agencies spent months determining al-Zawahri’s identity after tracking him down to the safe house following protracted intelligence collection.   

Before killing him, intelligence officials used different methods and sources to build what is known as the pattern of life confirming Zawahri’s presence in the Kabul house like in the case of his predecessor, Osama bin Laden, before he was killed in a commando raid in 2011 in Pakistan’s Abbottabad. Zawahri was watched for extended periods on the balcony within Kabul’s diplomatic quarters, which housed Western embassies until the Taliban’s return to power last year.

The operation was launched after American intelligence sources were tipped off about the relocation of Zawahri’s wife, daughter, and grandchildren to the house earlier this year. It would take more time for American intelligence agencies to conclude that Zawahri was there as well to begin executing it by firing Hellfire missiles with long blades meant to kill targets with kinetic energy to minimize collateral damage.

American President Joe Biden’s deputy national security adviser, Jonathan Fine, and homeland security adviser, Elizabeth Sherwood-Randall, were first briefed on the intelligence about Zawahiri’s presence in Kabul in April. Jake Sullivan, the national security adviser, was put in the picture later and he eventually briefed the president.

Top officials, including CIA chief William J Burns, on July 1 discussed the operation with Biden. They showed Biden a model of the house Zawahri was hiding in. Biden was briefed about factors that could influence the success of the operation including weather, construction materials as well as the risk to civilians.

The operation concluded as per the plan as the missiles killed Zawahri without harming anyone else. A botched drone strike killed 10 civilians in Kabul as the US was carrying out evacuations from Afghanistan following the Taliban’s return to power last August. The US acknowledged the error only after The New York Times reported about it and the American administration has since been cautious in ensuring civilian casualties were prevented in such strikes. It has been in talks about repositioning American forces in neighbouring Kazakhstan, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan for striking high-value targets in Afghanistan as part of an over-the-horizon strategy. It still has the capability to launch manned and unnamed attacks within Afghanistan from bases in the Indian Ocean, along the Persian Gulf, and the US even without repositioning its troops.

The Americans were aware of a network that supported Zawahiri for years and they began watching for indications of al-Qaida’s presence in Afghanistan over the past year following the American withdrawal from Afghanistan. The construction and nature of Zawahiri’s safe house were scrutinized along with its occupants to ensure the operation could be conducted to kill the al-Qaida chief without threatening the building and minimizing the risk to civilians.

Biden held a series of meetings to scrutinize the intelligence and evaluate the best course of action. He examined the model of the safe house and sought analysis of the potential ramifications of Zawahiri’s killing. Inter-agency lawyers examined the intelligence and confirmed Zawahiri was a legitimate target as he led al-Qaida. On July 25, Biden received a final briefing and discussed how Zawahiri’s killing would affect America’s relationship with the Taliban, etc before authorising “a precisely tailored air strike” on the condition that the risk of civilian casualties is minimized.

Zawahri, a key plotter of the 9/11 attacks, took over as al-Qaida’s chief after bin Laden’s death. His killing ended a 21-year manhunt that stretched out over a generation a year after Biden withdrew American forces from Afghanistan to pave the way for the Taliban’s return to power. It was the first such successful strike since the withdrawal without American forces on the ground. Biden has maintained the US can continue waging war against terrorists without major deployments of ground forces unlike in the first two decades after the 9/11 attacks even as Zawahiri was sheltered in Afghanistan in violation of the Taliban’s commitment against providing al-Qaida a safe haven.

Zawahri’s presence in Afghanistan prompted criticism that American withdrawal from Afghanistan endangered the US. But the proponents of the withdrawal maintained the successful operation to take out Zawahari vindicated the pullout and over the horizon worked by protecting American interests without a large and expensive military presence in Afghanistan.

What Reframing Of History Tells Us About Fast-Changing Saudi Arabia

Saudi ruling family’s ties with revivalist theologian Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab conferred legitimacy on its rule but they are increasingly being underplayed with an acceleration of change in Saudi Arabia

Diriyah has hosted American rapper-singer Pitbull and Swedish House Mafia’s concerts. Reuters

By Sameer Arshad Khatlani

When a restored 18th-century palace will be opened to the public for the first time later this year in Diriyah, it is expected to be among the major attractions in Saudi Arabia as it opens up to the world. The monument near the Saudi capital Riyadh is a key landmark in the country’s history. The ruling al Saud family signed its pivotal pact with revivalist theologian Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab, who advocated a narrow and literal interpretation of the Quran, at the mud and straw palace in 1744. 

The pact would have the Sauds take charge of politics and military and Salafi clerics, pejoratively known as Wahhabis, monopolise legal, religious, and social affairs. It helped Abdul Aziz, Saudi Arabia’s first monarch, to establish a viable state by the early 20th century after the family’s attempts to do so were frustrated twice. Aziz declared himself king in 1932 six years before oil was discovered and helped transform the kingdom with two of Islam’s holiest sites, Mecca and Medina, into one of the world’s richest nations. 

Al Saud’s ties with Wahhab conferred legitimacy on his family’s rule. But they are increasingly being underplayed with an acceleration of change in Saudi Arabia since its de facto ruler Mohammed bin Salman, popularly known as MBS, was elevated as the Crown Prince in 2017. MBS has championed modernisation. His calls for a more moderate Islam, an end to ban on women from driving, sidelining of religious authorities, reopening of cinemas, etc have been seen as part of efforts to undermine the al Saud’s pact with the religious establishment. There is more in-your-face evidence of this in Diriyah, where the place Wahhab lived opposite the palace has been transformed into a dining district. 

In a report in June, the news agency AFP noted a restored version of Wahhab’s mosque is open on the site but a research centre, built about seven years ago and devoted to his branch of Islam, Salafism, is not. The agency cited analysts and said they say the palace’s opening is part of MBS’s larger effort of stoking Saudi nationalism and reframing its history. It noted exhibits dotting the palace spotlight the al Saud family’s achievements with no mention of its partnership with Wahhab. 

For Kristin Diwan of the Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington, Diriyah encapsulates the new Saudi nationalism, putting the al Sauds as the primary authors of Saudi history and architects of its unity while erasing Wahhab from the national narrative. She told AFP that MBS’s father King Salman preserved a place, albeit reduced, to commemorate Wahhab when he first showed interest in redeveloping Diriyah in the 1970s. Diwan added MBS sees Diriyah, which also now features attractions such as fine dining, art galleries, and a Formula-E race track in line with his vision, as a global attraction. Wahhabism does not easily co-exist in MBS’s programme of art biennales, world wrestling, and raves, said Diwan.

American entertainment executive Jerry Inzerillo, who has been hired to transform Diriyah, told AFP that MBS approves every rendering of Diriyah and spent up to 30 hours painstakingly reviewing its street layout. For Inzerillo, Diriyah could be for Saudis what the Acropolis is for Greeks and the Colosseum is for Italians even as he dismissed the idea that Wahhab is being written out of history. Yet music, which Wahhab’s teachings saw as an abomination, has made a strong comeback in Saudi Arabia as well as his backyard—Diriyah, which has hosted American rapper-singer Pitbull and Swedish House Mafia’s concerts.

Heritage and entertainment are key elements to the transformation of Saudi Arabia and Diriyah, where music virtually disappeared 300 years back with Wahhab’s rise, as part of efforts to revamp the Saudi economy. Limiting the clerical power over the affairs of the state has emerged as an important aspect of the transformative change. In 2017, MBS told global investors that they were returning to being a country of moderate Islam open to all religions and to the world. 

Saudi Arabia has been promoting entertainment and leisure as part of a drive to create jobs and end the country’s dependence on oil. In 2016, it created a new General Entertainment Authority (GEA), which aims to double household spending on entertainment to 6% percent by 2030. Music was not always taboo in Saudi Arabia, where summer festivals in cities such as Jeddah featured concerts before public musical education was confined to military academies for training bands for official marches. 

Sameer Arshad Khatlani is a journalist and the author of The Other Side of the Divide: A Journey into the Heart of Pakistan

Sri Lanka’s Troubles Far From Over Despite Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s Offer To Quit

By Sameer Arshad Khatlani

Sri Lanka is unlikely to immediately overcome the chaos as the next government faces an uphill task of addressing shortages of essentials such as food, medicine, and fuel

Embattled President Gotabaya Rajapaksa has agreed to resign as the months of discontent in Sri Lanka came to a head with thousands of protesters storming his official residence on Saturday. The country’s opposition parties were due to meet on Sunday to discuss the formation of a new government even as Rajapaksa’s whereabouts were unclear. The parties together have the 113 members required for a majority in Parliament. They are expected to request Rajapaksa to install the new government before resigning.

But Sri Lanka’s troubles remain far from over. The country is unlikely to immediately overcome the chaos as the next government faces an uphill task of addressing shortages of essentials such as food, medicine, and fuel. A peaceful transition of power is among the other immediate challenges the country faces as continuing instability could also frustrate the talks for the restructuring of debt and the raising of funds.

Sri Lanka, which needs $6 billion this year to buy essentials and to stabilize the economy, has a monthly fuel bill alone amounting to about $500 million. Suppliers have been reluctant to provide fuel as Sri Lanka has struggled to pay for it, prompting the suspension of petrol sales. The cascading impact of the economic crisis has also led to the closure of schools, and delays in medical procedures amid a shortage of drugs and equipment. The United Nations has warned of a potential humanitarian crisis against this backdrop.

Food and medicines have not been transported in many cases due to acute fuel shortages. Fresh farm produce has been unable to make it to cities and people have found it difficult to travel. The airlines have been asked to ensure they are carrying adequate fuel for return flights due to a shortage of jet fuel. The inflation is at a record high of 54.6%. The food prices have increased by five times and about two-thirds of Sri Lankans are estimated to be struggling to have enough meals.

Also Read: Sri Lankan Crises Escalates, Protesters Storm Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s Residence

A new agreement with the International Monetary Fund (IMF) for a $3 billion bailout is expected to take months even as the talks with it have suffered because of the continuing upheavals. Sri Lanka has been negotiating with IMF to restructure billions of dollars in debt it has defaulted on. The new government needs to submit a plan on debt sustainability to IMF in August before an agreement could be reached. There have been doubts about whether the new dispensation could do more than what the previous government was doing. The new government has to agree on IMF-backed economic reforms, which some opposition parties expected to be a part of it may find difficult to accept.

The negotiations with the IMF have been complicated because of Sri Lanka’s bankruptcy. In April, Colombo announced the suspension of repayment of loans due to a foreign currency shortage. Sri Lanka needs to repay $28 billion of its total foreign debt of $51 billion by the end of 2027. It has struggled to even import essential items such as fuel, food, and medicines as it ran out of foreign exchange reserves. At least 15 people have succumbed to heatstrokes as they stood in fuel lines while the country repeatedly ran out of petrol.

Rajapaksa remained defiant until Saturday in the face of calls for his removal for mismanaging Sri Lanka’s economy and causing economic ruin. He relented in May and removed his brother, Mahinda Rajapaksa, as the prime minister. Mahinda Rajapaksa’s successor, Ranil Wickremesinghe, who has been involved in talks with the IMF and the World Food Program, also failed to inspire much confidence. Wickremesinghe came to be seen as an instrument to perpetuate the Rajapaksas’ hold over power before he too was forced to announce his resignation as the protesters stormed his private residence and set it afire.

The Rajapaksas have dominated politics for close to two decades and held the top positions of president, prime minister, finance minister, and other key cabinet posts on the back of an ultranationalistic agenda. Things came to a head as the prolonged mismanagement of the economy and corruption pushed the country to bankruptcy. Protesters have been calling for the Rajapaksas’ ouster since March as the nation of 22 million grappled with a dire economic situation.

The crisis hit Sri Lanka as it was overcoming a three-decade civil war triggered over the discrimination against the minority Tamils in the 1980s. The war ended in 2009 but the Rajapaksas, who have been accused of running the government as a family business, continued their majoritarian Buddhist Sinhalese policies, which were among the causes of it. Gotabaya Rajapaksa was accused of war crimes when he was the defence secretary under Mahinda Rajapaksa’s presidency. The siblings ended the civil war through a brutal military operation, turning a blind eye to widespread rights abuses.

Gotabaya and Mahinda Rajapaksa’s father, Don Alwin Rajapaksa, was a lawmaker in the 1950s and 1960s. Mahinda Rajapaksa led the family’s ascent to the highest echelons of power. He first became the prime minister before serving as the president twice from 2005 to 2015. The Rajapaksas lost power in the 2015 elections but returned to helm the country with Gotabaya Rajapaksa as the president in 2019 thanks to his majoritarian Buddhist Sinhalese agenda and projection as the strongman the country needed. Mahinda Rajapaksa was inducted into the government as prime minister.

Basil Rajapaksa was the finance minister until last year and presided over Sri Lanka’s worst economic crisis since it gained independence from the British over seven decades back in 1948. The inflation hit a record high of 54.6% in June and was feared to mount to 70%. The COVID-19 pandemic also came as a major jolt to the Sri Lankan economy as it hit the remittances from workers overseas and the pivotal tourism sector the country has come to be heavily dependent upon. There separately was a build-up of government debt amid rising oil prices. A ban on chemical fertilisers import in 2021 damaged agriculture before it was rescinded in November.

The downward spiral coincided with high energy prices and food inflation afflicting much of the world. Sri Lanka’s woes increased further as the sanctions imposed on Russia over its invasion of Ukraine disrupted global food supply chains and increased energy prices and sparked largely peaceful protests in March. Demonstrators have been traveling to Colombo for protests over the economic ruin despite a grave shortage of fuel. Closure of schools and rationing of fuel for essential services fuelled anger in the cash-strapped country.

Sri Lanka’s options so far have been limited as oil and gas prices have skyrocketed because of the Ukraine war and prompted Gotabaya Rajapaksa to even seek the help of Russian President Vladimir V Putin, a global pariah. In a tweet, Rajapaksa said he phoned Putin to ask him for “credit support” to import fuel three days before protesters stormed his residence and sent him packing.

Sameer Arshad Khatlani is a journalist and the author of The Other Side of the Divide: A Journey into the Heart of Pakistan

Sri Lankan Crises Escalates, Protesters Storm Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s Residence

Sri Lanka has faced a crippling economic meltdown and struggled to even import essential items such as fuel, food, and medicines as it has run out of foreign exchange reserves

The whereabouts of Gotabaya Rajapaksa remained unclear. Reuters

Thousands of protesters descended on the Sri Lankan capital of Colombo and stormed President Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s residence and office on Saturday demanding his resignation amid growing anger over his inability to address a worsening economic crisis. Police fired shots into the air, and used tear gas and water cannons to disperse the protesters but failed to prevent them from getting into the sea-front presidential secretariat. Over two dozen protesters and police were reported to have been injured in the clashes that followed.

The whereabouts of Rajapaksa, who has remained defiant in the face of calls for his resignation, remained unclear. His brother, former Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa, and other members of their family have resigned amid mounting public pressure over the last five months. The Rajapaksas have dominated politics in the south Asian country for close to two decades and have been blamed for the crisis. Sri Lanka has struggled to even import essential items such as fuel, food, and medicines as it has run out of foreign exchange reserves.

At least 15 people are believed to have died in fuel lines of causes such as heatstroke with Sri Lanka repeatedly running out of petroleum products. People have often been forced to line up at gas stations for hours and still been unable to get fuel.

Protests have rocked Sri Lanka for five months with the fresh demonstration being one of the biggest yet. People took to the streets on Saturday even as a curfew was imposed overnight and trains were halted to stop protesters from coming to Colombo. The restrictions were put in place as the UN asked the Sri Lankan authorities to show restraint in the policing assemblies and ensure every necessary effort to prevent violence.

The escalating crisis prompted Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe to call for an emergency meeting of top political leaders. Wickremesinghe, who took office in the middle of the crisis in May and has also been has been facing calls to resign, asked the speaker of parliament to summon the House to discuss the situation.

The protesters shouted slogans asking Gotabaya Rajapaksa to step down and held Sri Lankan flags as they broke into the president’s residence by breaking the gates to enter the colonial-era premises. The security personnel deployed there were outnumbered and could not hold the crowd back. The protesters dismantled police barricades to reach Rajapaksa’s residence. News agency Reuters quoted unnamed defence ministry sources saying the president was removed from his official residence on Friday for his safety ahead of planned protests over the weekend. It added Wickremesinghe too has been moved to a secure location.

Live visuals streamed on Facebook showed protesters shouting slogan against the Rajapaksas in the rooms and corridors of the president’s house. Some of them were seen in a swimming pool inside the house while others filled the grounds outside with no visible security.

Sri Lanka has been facing its worst economic crisis since it gained independence from the British in 1948. The inflation at a record high of 54.6% in June was feared to mount to 70%. Sri Lanka has been in talks with the International Monetary Fund for a $3 billion bailout. But the growing instability could frustrate the talks as well as the restructuring of debt and raising of funds from other sources.

The COVID-19 pandemic escalated the economic crisis as it hit the remittances from Sri Lankans overseas and paralysed the tourism industry the country’s economy has been heavily reliant on. The government debt rose amid rising oil prices. A ban on the import of chemical fertilisers in 2021 damaged agriculture before it was rescinded in November.

President Rajapaksa’s mismanagement of the economy has been blamed for Sri Lanka’s woes, which triggered largely peaceful protests in March for his resignation. Demonstrators have been traveling to Colombo for protests over the economic ruin despite a grave shortage of fuel. Closure of schools and rationing of fuel for essential services has fuelled anger in the cash-strapped country.

Misplaced Indian Exceptionalism & ‘Bad Muslim’ Myth

Misplaced Indian exceptionalism has perpetuated myths about the so-called Muslim world even as they fly in the face of facts

The tallest Hindu statue is located in Indonesia, the world’s most populous Muslim country and home to 12.7 percent of Muslims globally. Wikipedia

By Sameer Arshad Khatlani

In April 2002, Indian Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee, otherwise projected as a rare ‘moderate’ in his Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), fell back upon his core ideological characteristic—anti-Muslim rhetoric. Addressing a BJP plenary, he claimed wherever Muslims live, they do not like to do so in coexistence with others. ‘Instead of propagating their ideas in a peaceful manner, they want to spread their faith by resorting to terror and threats.’

The sweeping Muslim-bashing was seen as Vajpayee’s attempt to rescue his standing among the hardcore elements of the BJP and its parent organisation, Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS). The hardliners were angry over his public chastising of Narendra Modi, who rose to become India’s Prime Minister in 2014, for the pogrom of Muslims under the latter’s watch as the highest elected official of the western state of Gujarat. Vajpayee is also believed to have privately pressed for Modi’s resignation amid global outrage over the pogrom and angered the hardliners further.

India has changed radically since 2002 under the political dominance of Hindu nationalists. The BJP has even given up its pretence. It no longer needs the ‘[liberal] mask useful only for theatre‘, as a colleague famously described Vajpayee, with BJP’s rise as a hegemon under Modi’s leadership since 2014. Muslim demonisation and dehumanisation are par for the course. They have been a staple of India’s media and political discourse over the last eight years, not to mention mob attacks, lynching, weaponisation of laws, and open calls for genocide.

Also Read | Furore over remarks against Prophet marks shift in Arab perception of India

Much of this discourse revolves around the supposed wrongs of their co-religionists far away from the Indian shores to target India’s Muslims and unfounded demographic anxieties. The worries surround the supposed ballooning of the Muslim population and its threats to the country’s basic Hindu character. They are amplified through both the traditional as well as social media, echoing the underlying message of Vajpayee’s comments back in 2002 in far cruder terms virtually 24X7. Wherever Muslims are in the majority, they do not let others exist is the broader messaging to ensure the political status quo by projecting BJP as the only bulwark against the so-called Muslim threat.

Increasing invisiblisation of the marginalised Muslim minority, accounting for 14 percent of the population, has been one of the manifestations of India’s radical transformation under the BJP. None of the 36 Indian states or federally administered territories have an elected Muslim head or chief minister. There is no Muslim elected official in 15 states; 10 have one each mostly in charge of the insignificant minority affairs. None of the ruling BJP’s 303 lawmakers in India’s lower House of Parliament is Muslim. BJP has not re-nominated its three Muslim lawmakers to Parliament’s Upper House. This means the lone Muslim federal Cabinet minister Mukhtar Abbas Naqvi, who heads the minority affairs ministry, will lose his position.

Even the so-called secular political parties, which are dependent on Muslim voters, have been trying to avoid being identified with Muslims, and forget about speaking up for them. In an April 2022 piece, journalist Shekhar Gupta noted they cannot afford to be seen close to Muslims or a Muslim cause and called it ‘suicidal in today’s electoral politics.’ Gupta wrote there is squeamishness about calling out targeting of the poorest Muslims, which he called a pattern. He noted that BJP has psyched the secular parties out. He added they are too paranoid to even be seen to be speaking up for them, for instance, most recently in the aftermath of violence triggered following processions of ‘lumpenised’ Hindus, who carried weapons and played provocative music in Muslim ghettos. Police actions have invariably followed such violence in what Gupta called ‘a 21st-century form of colonial-style collective punishment’ of demolition of Muslim houses.

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Gupta wrote no major political party would even hold a public iftaar during the month of Ramadan, nor would many leaders be seen there. Modi has added to his appeal by shunning Muslims, publicly refusing to wear the Muslim skullcap while donning every possible Indian headgear and ending the practice of hosting receptions to mark Muslim festivals. Bigotry, once confined to private spaces, has become a badge of honour and a tool for climbing up the ladder, particularly in the media and politics.

India’s servile Muslim leaders and public figures have not done the community any favours by pandering to the majoritarianism and exceptionalism of an India invulnerable to wrongs that happen in Muslim countries. Patronisingly regarded as the ‘good Muslim’, they are expected to acknowledge Hindu largesse towards Muslims in India, and the lack of such generosity in Muslim-majority countries. Muslim countries were again in the crosshairs of the belligerent Indian media amid the diplomatic row over the derogatory comments of two BJP functionaries about the Prophet Muhammad.

Veteran lawmaker Ghulam Nabi Azad’s tone-deaf farewell speech upon his retirement from the Indian Parliament’s Upper House in February 2021 reinforced what a ‘good Muslim’ requires for majoritarian validation. He portrayed a fantasized India and attacked Muslim-majority countries saying none of them have any reason to be proud of anything. He curiously months earlier complained about being ostracised and said many fellow Hindu Congress candidates have stopped inviting him to campaign for them fearing they will lose votes if a Muslim canvassed for them.

Azad echoed a favourite trope of the Hindu nationalists, who claim that no Muslim country is secular, and claimed Muslims fight themselves when they have no one left to battle. He called India the safest for minorities, claiming religious plurality comes naturally to India. Azad got an ovation for riding a roughshod over his fellow Muslims by avoiding any mention of the troubles they faced under the BJP, whose ideological forefathers wanted them to stay in India ‘wholly subordinated to the Hindu nation, claiming nothing — not even citizen’s rights.’

Azad was way off the mark and particularly vis-a-vis south-east Asia, a bastion of religious coexistence and home to 25 percent of the Muslims globally. Indonesia and Malaysia, two of the region’s Muslim majority countries, in particular, are the biggest refutation of BJP-RSS’s standard propaganda. That the world’s tallest–Garuda Vishnu Kencana—and sixth-highest Hindu statues are located in Indonesia and Malaysia speak volumes, especially about the status of the Hindu minorities in these countries.

Indonesian President Joko Widodo inaugurated the Garuda Vishnu Kencana at a ceremony in Bali in presence of the country’s top leaders including one of his predecessors, Megawati Soekarnoputri, in September 2018. Thousands attended the ceremony, where traditional dancers performed and fireworks lit up the night sky in a grand celebration of Indonesian multi-culturalism. Speaking on the occasion, Widodo called the statue a masterpiece and a source of pride for Indonesia. He said the statue shows the nation has not only inherited extraordinary masterpieces such as ninth-century Buddhist temple complex Borobudur and Hindu temple complex Prambanan but is able to create globally-recognised cultural masterpieces such as Garuda Vishnu Kencana. He called the statue, which was completed after 28 years, a historical footprint of Indonesia.

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The 75m tall sculpture of the Hindu God Vishnu sitting astride the mythical bird Garuda, said to be his companion and vessel, atop Ungasan Hill in the Garuda Vishnu Kencana Cultural Park is the world’s largest copper statue and the third tallest. With a wingspan of 65m, it stands on a pedestal, making its total height (121m) 30m taller than the Statue of Liberty. With his eyes half closed, the statue showcases Vishnu, who is seen as the preserver and protector of the universal equilibrium, in a meditative state, riding on Garuda’s back. 

The statue is the centrepiece of Bali, a Hindu enclave in Indonesia, the world’s most populous Muslim country and home to 12.7 percent of the Muslims globally. Hindus form two percent of the country’s population and 90 percent of them—around 3.4 million—are concentrated in Bali, one of Indonesia’s developed parts, where only five percent of the people live below the poverty line against 12 percent nationally. Hindus in Indonesia also include those who converted to Hinduism in the 1960s and 1970s in Java and the Indian Hindu diaspora. In Indonesia’s Lombok, Hindus and Muslims jointly pray at the 18th-century Pura Lingsar Temple complex. 

Indonesia’s national airline is named after Garuda. Another deity Ganesh’s picture adorns the country’s currency notes highlighting Indonesia’s official promotion of syncretism. A 16-feet high white and gold statue of Saraswati, the Hindu Goddess of learning and wisdom, atop a lotus was installed on the premises of the Indonesian embassy in Washington in 2013 to honour the country’s Hindu population. President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono made blessings of Saraswati ‘in the name of Allah, the most benevolent,’ and spoke about religious tolerance when he presided over the installation ceremony. The Huffington Post reported long sleeve blouses and headscarves of observant Muslims contrasted with the brightly coloured strapless and tight sarongs of Balinese dancers at the ceremony. It noted there were some moments during the celebration where the faiths abutted but did not clash, summing up the essence of Indonesia.

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In neighbouring Malaysia, the 140-feet high gold-painted statue of Murugan outside the capital Kaula Lumpur is an emblem of the Muslim-majority country’s multiculturalism and pluralism. It is the world’s largest statue of the deity and the sixth tallest Hindu sculpture located near the base of a 272-step flight to a Hindu temple in Batu Caves. Malaysia Prime Minister Tun Abdul Razak Hussein visited the temple in 1971 to recognise Thaipusam, which commemorates Murugan’s victory over the demon Surapadman as well as the deity’s birth, as a national festival. 

The 140-feet high gold-painted statue of Murugan outside Kaula Lumpur is the world’s largest of the deity and the sixth tallest Hindu sculpture.

People of the Indian-origin, mostly Hindus, account for eight percent of Malaysia’s population. They are the third largest ethnic group in Malaysia and have held key positions in the country. Indian-origin Datuk Seri S Samy Vellu has been among one of the longest-serving ministers (1979 to 2008) in Malaysia. Gobind Singh Deo, Kulasegaran Murugeson (human resources) and Xavier Jayakumar (water, land, and natural resources), Waytha Moorthy Ponnusamy (national unity and social well-being), and Sivarasa Rasiah were ministers of Indian origin in Mahathir Mohamad’s last government (2018-2020). In 2020, Saravanan Murugan, another Indian-origin politician, succeeded Murugeson as the human resources minister. Edmund Santhara Kumar Ramanaidu is the second Malaysia-Indian minister in Prime Minister Muhyiddin bin Mohamad Yassin’s government.

Tunku Abdul Rahman, the first prime minister, ensured representation to all ethnic communities including Indians. His rule ushered in harmony and political freedoms. Rahman’s United Malays National Organisation formed a multi-ethnic coalition, which was later expanded and came to be known as Barisan Nasional. The coalition included the Malaysian Indian Congress and governed the country from 1957 to 2018.

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Misplaced Indian exceptionalism has fostered the kind of ignorance, to put it mildly, Azad’s farewell speech represented. It has perpetuated the myth of the essentially ‘bad Muslim’ in the so-called Muslim world, which flies in the face of the fact that around two dozen Muslim majority countries identify themselves as secular. The secular Muslim-majority nations include Indonesia, which embodies pluralism in every sense, and refutes the wilful inaccuracies of Vajpayee’s April 2002 speech, which have become pandemic now. And ironically he made the speech upon his return from south-east Asia.

Sameer Arshad Khatlani is a journalist and the author of The Other Side of the Divide: A Journey into the Heart of Pakistan

Furore over remarks against Prophet marks shift in Arab perception of India

The sweeping tendency to see Muslims as a historical adversary, and the promotion of black and white history to suit this narrative has overshadowed India’s centuries-old mutually enriching ties with the Arab world

By Sameer Arshad Khatlani

The high point of Islamic civilization between the eighth and the eleventh century coincided with Baghdad’s centrality to global trade, knowledge, science, and scholarship. It drew people from around the world to the city and by the ninth century, Baghdad had Greek, Indian, Chinese, and Armenian quarters apart from Jewish and Christian suburbs. The diversity also led to an exchange of knowledge that facilitated the development of some of the 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 as well as helped develop the decimal system and calculus, which is vital to almost all branches of science and underpins important discoveries in physics.

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

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The furor over the derogatory comments ruling Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) functionaries made about the Prophet Muhammad underlines a shift in how the Arabs have perceived India. The Arabs appear to have finally begun to grasp the radical changes India has undergone since BJP emerged as a hegemon in Indian politics. The comments were a new low in what has been a staple of India’s Islamophobic political and media discourse over the last eight years. They marked a tipping point for Arab countries, where people have been trying to wrap their heads around the situation in India.

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The increasing weaponization of history in India through its narrow interpretation has blurred lines between myths and reality. The sweeping tendency to see Muslims as the monolithic other; a historical adversary and the promotion of black and white history to suit this narrative has overshadowed India’s collaborative and mutually enriching ties with the Arab world. Thanks to the collaborative ties, 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 engaging philosophers in the wisdom of its tales.

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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 Indian story compendiums too have a fondness for frame stories, for Russian doll-style stories within stories, and animal fables. He added somewhere around the eighth century, these stories first found their way into Persian. Rushdie cited surviving scraps of information and wrote the collection was 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. 

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The Arabs began acquiring Sanskrit texts before they sourced nearly all of the 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. 

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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.

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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. 

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The 8.9 million strong Indian expatriate community in the Arab world represents the continuing symbiotic relationship. The remittances they send have often surpassed India’s other sources of capital inflows. The remittances constituted 2.7 percent 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 around the world lived, was the most significant contribution to the flow of capital from a single country.

Khatlani is a journalist and the author of The Other Side of the Divide: A Journey into the Heart of Pakistan

The Truth About Prophet Muhammad’s Marriages

The incendiary comments of India’s ruling Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) leaders about the Prophet Muhammad mark a new low in their anti-Muslim rhetoric but essentially echo medieval crusade chroniclers’ distortions  

By Sameer Arshad Khatlani

For crusade chroniclers in the Middle Ages, writes historian John Tolan, the Prophet Muhammad was either ‘a golden idol that the “Saracens” [Muslims] adored or a shrewd heresiarch who had worked false miracles to seduce the Arabs away from Christianity.’ Tolan notes the depictions made the Prophet ‘the root of Saracen error and implicitly justified the crusade to wrest the Holy Land’ from Muslim control. The crusades were not just wars but a divinely argued bid to eliminate Islam and Islamic civilisation, which arose in the seventh century and made pivotal contributions to literature, learning, thought, and science. An estimated 40,000 Jews and Muslims were killed in the first crusade in the 11th century on Pope Urban II’s call.

The misrepresentations of the chroniclers persisted in modified forms in the European discourse. They have been used to justify the colonization of Muslim lands and to promote missionary activities since Europe overcame its inferiority to the much intellectually advanced Islamic world by becoming capable of original science, which Muslims dominated for over 600 years. The distortions gained a fresh currency beyond the western world in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks as demagogues globally sought to tap into Islamophobia to disenfranchise Muslims and delegitimize their genuine aspirations and grievances.

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Distortions about the Prophet and character assassination related to his marriages have been an important part of the ideas these misrepresentations shaped. Much of this has centered around his polygamy and betrothal to Aisha. The incendiary comments of India’s ruling Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) leaders, who are known for their deep antipathy towards Muslims, about the Prophet Muhammad have put a spotlight on these distortions. They mark a new low in their anti-Muslim rhetoric but essentially echo medieval crusade chroniclers’ distortions amid a shrinking space for Muslims with the emergence of the BJP as a hegemon in Indian politics.  

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The Prophet in reality lived mostly a monogamous life. He was 25 at the time of his first marriage to his employer, Khadija, who had been married twice before and had children. The union lasted for over 25 years. In a society where polygamy was a norm, Khadijah remained his only wife until her death. After Khadijah’s passing, a woman named Khawlah bint Hakim is reported to have suggested to the Prophet to either marry Aisha, who was unmarried, or Sawdah, a divorcee, to look after his daughters as he was busy with preaching.

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When Hakim proceeded following the Prophet’s go-ahead, both proposals were accepted. Since they were made on his behalf, he could not have backed out as per tradition. He married both but only consummated the marriage with Sawdah, who was of the Prophet’s age. Aisha came to the Prophet’s home years later at her father’s insistence. In his book No God but God: The Origins, Evolution, and Future of Islam, Reza Aslan notes the Prophet’s union with nine-year-old Aisha was just a betrothal. The marriage was not consummated until after she reached puberty and became eligible for marriage as per norms in Arabia.

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Islamic theologian Javed Ahmad Ghamidi has argued that the Prophet agreed to send the proposal for marriage when he learnt Aisha’s parents were looking for a match for her and that they would not have been doing so if she had been just nine-year-old. He has maintained she was aged around 20. Ghamidi notes the Prophet spent almost 25 prime years of his life in the companionship of a single wife, Khadijah, and never thought of having a second wife and remarried only when his first wife died. The Prophet’s second wife was a 50-year-old widow. According to Ghamidi, the Prophet delayed bringing Aisha home for years so that his older wife taking care of his household did not complain of any lack of attention.

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For Ghamidi, only someone with a sick mind can think that at 55, the Prophet suddenly became obsessed with multiple marriages. He argues in the last eight years of his life, the Prophet married eight more women for the sole reason of taking care of the widows of those killed in the battles of Badr and Uhud:

… [it] became a collective issue faced by the small state of Medina. The Quran, therefore, stated that if the relatives and guardians of these orphans thought that they would not be able to take care…since it was no easy a task to be able to do it alone, they should marry the mothers of the orphans. This appeal was made by God…. It was but natural that the Prophet…take the lead in responding to it.

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The Prophet married further to honour women, who were held as captives in military campaigns, and to lead by example in liberating enslaved people. In his book, Aslan notes wars resulted in hundreds of widows and orphans who had to be provided for and protected by the community even as the Quran calls monogamy the preferred model of marriage. The Quran says ‘no matter how you try, you will never be able to treat your wives equally.’

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Aslan argues the community that Muhammad was trying to build in Yathrib, following his flight from Mecca, would have been doomed without polygyny.  He writes Muhammad married nine women in the course of 10 years in Yathrib mostly for political reasons. ‘…as Shaykh of the Ummah, it was Muhammad’s responsibility to forge links within and beyond his community through the only means at his disposal: marriage.’ He married Umm Salamah to forge a relationship with the Makhzum, a powerful Meccan clan. ‘His union with Sawdah—by all accounts an unattractive widow long past the age of marriage—served as an example to the Ummah to marry those women in need of financial support,’ writes Aslan.

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Aslan notes that Jewish patriarchs Abraham and Jacob; the prophets Moses and Hosea; the Israelite kings Saul, David, and Solomon; and nearly all of the Christian/Byzantine and Zoroastrian/ Sasanian monarchs, all Shaykhs in Arabia had either multiple wives, multiple concubines, or both. In the seventh century Arabia, a Shaykh’s power and authority were largely determined by the size of his harem. Aslan writes the most shocking aspect of Muhammad’s marriages is not his 10 years of polygamy in Yathrib, but 25-year monogamy in Mecca, which was almost unheard of at the time. Yet medieval Popes of the crusades, the European Enlightenment philosophers, and American evangelical preachers alike have subjected the Prophet to vicious attacks over hundreds of years over his marriages, especially with Aisha.

The distortions are a legacy of the Dark Ages when Europeans languished in the intellectual darkness mired in barbarism after squandering ancient Greece and Rome’s achievements while the Muslim world carried the light of learning, which eventually paved the way for the Renaissance and Enlightenment. It is high time that they are dispensed with for a more inclusive world when Abrahamic religions in particular have more that unites rather than divides them.

Khatlani is a journalist and the author of The Other Side of the Divide: A Journey into the Heart of Pakistan

How Hindu Statue, Temple Became Emblems Of Pluralism In Malaysia

Murugan’s statue and temple at Batu Caves are key emblems of multiculturalism and pluralism in Muslim-majority Malaysia, where Indians (eighth percent) are the third largest ethnic group

By Sameer Arshad Khatlani

Batu Caves, a major tourist attraction outside the Malaysian capital of Kaula Lumpur in Selangor, were little-known except to the locals until American naturalist William Temple Hornaday came to know about them during a hunting trip in 1878. Hornaday drew the attention of western archaeologists to the hitherto obscure but important site. He discovered the locals would catch bats in the caves within a limestone outcropping dating back to prehistoric times, and retreat into them when wild animals overran the woods. The caves’ popularity grew after British explorers found aboriginal drawings made of charcoal, which have since disappeared, at their entrance.

Over a century and a half after Hornaday popularised the Batu Caves, they are better known for a Hindu temple built there in 1891 and the 140-feet high gold-painted statue of the chief Tamil deity Murugan. The world’s largest Murugan statue and sixth tallest Hindu sculpture is located near the base of a 272-step flight to the entrance to the largest of the Batu Caves, where Tamil trader K Thamboosamy Pillay built the temple. Pillay chose the site to build the temple after finding a similarity between the shape of the entrance of the caves to the tip of vel, the spear Murugan wielded. He is said to have dreamt of the Hindu Goddess Sakti requesting him to build the shrine for her son, Murugan.

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In 1888, Pillay placed a vel before a consecrated idol of Murugan was installed at Batu Caves. The Thaipusam festival, commemorating Murugan’s victory over the demon Surapadman with his vel and the deity’s birth, was first celebrated at Batu Caves in 1892. The Hindus continued praying there until the British rulers stopped the prayers in 1916 and ordered the vel’s removal. The vel was reinstalled and the Hindus were allowed to resume prayers at Batu Caves after a court ruled in their favour.

Tunku Abdul Rahman, the first Malaysian prime minister after independence, visited Batu Caves during Thaipusam in 1959. His successor Tun Abdul Razak Hussein followed suit in 1971 to recognise Thaipusam as a national festival. When Tun Hussein Onn, Malaysia’s third prime minister, visited the shrine in 1978, he advised the temple management to take legal action against the companies involved in quarrying activities at Batu Caves. The quarrying continued until Indian-origin Datuk Seri S Samy Vellu became Malaysia’s works minister. Vellu ordered an end to the quarrying activities and relocated them to an alternative site with the help of the Selangor state government. 

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Murugan’s statue, the centrepiece at the site, was added at the foot of the stairs to the caves in 2006 as the world’s tallest statue of the Hindu deity in Muslim-majority Malaysia. One of the caves lined at the site with dioramas, representing scenes from the Hindu epic Ramayana, is known as Ramayana Cave. The cave’s entrance is marked with a statue of Lord Hanuman, one of the heroes of the epic. 

Hundreds of thousands of Hindu pilgrims annually visit the site. The main celebrations of Thaipusam in Malaysia are held at the Batu Caves. Hindu devotees from all over the country, carrying kavadis or symbolic burdens including body piercings, pay annual homage to Lord Murugan after climbing the 272 steps to his temple.

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Murugan’s statue and Hindu shrine at Batu Caves are key emblems of multiculturalism and pluralism in Malaysia, where Indians (eighth percent) are the third largest ethnic group after the majority Malays and the Chinese (26 percent), the dominant economic force. Tamils account for a bulk of the Indians, mostly Hindus, in the country—81 percent—numbering about 1.5 million. They trace their roots to the Southern Indian state of Tamil Nadu and began arriving in the region in the 15th century mostly as textile and spice traders. The British rule in Malaysia accelerated their migration in the 18th century when Tamil labourers were brought to the region to build roads, and railways and to work on plantations. Other Indians in Malaysia include a sprinkling of Sindhis, Bengalis, Telugus, Gujaratis, and Malayalis.

Malaysian Indians, who otherwise lag behind other communities, have risen and held key positions in the country. They have served in the Malaysia Cabinet since independence with Vellu being one of the longest-serving ministers from 1979 to 2008. Vellu was appointed as the special envoy on infrastructure to India and South Asia after demitting office. Gobind Singh Deo became Malaysia’s first Sikh Cabinet minister when he was named as the communications and multimedia minister in Mahathir Mohamad’s government in 2018.

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Kulasegaran Murugeson (human resources) and Xavier Jayakumar (water, land, and natural resources), Waytha Moorthy Ponnusamy (national unity and social well-being), and Sivarasa Rasiah were other ministers of Indian origin to serve in Mahathir’s seventh Cabinet. Saravanan Murugan, another Indian-origin minister, succeeded Murugeson as the human resources minister in 2020. Edmund Santhara Kumar Ramanaidu is the second minister of Indian origin in the current Prime Minister Muhyiddin bin Mohamad Yassin’s government.

Tunku Abdul Rahman-led Malaysian ruling alliance set the tone for an inclusive system in the country. He ensured representation to all ethnic communities including Indians as nation-building overshadowed divisions. His rule coincided with harmony and political freedoms in the country, where the Constitution’s Article 3 guarantees the freedom of religion. Rahman’s United Malays National Organisation worked with Chinese and Indian political parties and formed a national coalition, which later expanded and was renamed National Front (Barisan Nasional, or BN). The interethnic coalition, which included the Malaysian Indian Congress, governed the country from 1957 to 2018 when BN, which delivered robust economic growth, lost power for the first time.

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There was a rupture in Malaysia after 1969 when the alliance lost its two-thirds majority in parliament for the first time. The racial riots and the 18-month emergency rule that followed led to a rise in Malay nationalism. In 1971, the government launched New Economic Policy as an affirmative action plan favouring Malays as the democratic space narrowed and sparked ethnic tensions. Over a decade later the Malaysian Consultative Council for Buddhism, Christianity, Hinduism, and Sikhism was established in 1983 to promote harmony among Malaysians. There have since been efforts to address Malaysia’s polarisation and to adopt an inclusive Malaysian national identity with civil society groups playing a key role in bridging differences through dialogues among different faiths and ethnic groups. 

Sameer Arshad Khatlani is a journalist and the author of The Other Side of the Divide: A Journey into the Heart of Pakistan

Indonesia: Beacon Of Hope In Times Of Bigotry 

The Indonesian state promotes the coexistence and diversity needed to keep together a country of multiple languages, geographies, and faiths

Indonesia is the world’s most populous Muslim country and home to 12.7 percent of Muslims globally.

By Sameer Arshad Khatlani

From a backwater to one of the world’s most popular tourist destinations, Indonesia’s westernmost Island of Bali has come a long way over the last four decades. It is also no longer just a beach destination for around 20 million tourists, who visit the island annually. Bali has emerged as a lifestyle destination; a gourmet getaway with an array of gastronomic delights. Babi guling, traditionally served on special occasions such as weddings, is among the most sought-after dishes at open-air restaurants dotting Bali. Literally meaning ‘turning pig’, babi guling is the roasted suckling pig dish made with garlic, ginger, and turmeric. Tender and juicy, the delicacy is cooked on a hand-turned skewer over the fire.

Foodies relishing the pork dish is a rare sight in Indonesia, the world’s most populous Muslim country and home to 12.7 percent of Muslims globally. Pork is forbidden in Islam and Muslims consider pigs unclean. But Muslim dietary restrictions are not applicable in Bali, a Hindu enclave. Hindus account for Indonesia’s two percent population. Around 90 percent of them or around 3.4 million Hindus are concentrated in Bali. Virtually every street has a temple dedicated to Hindu gods in Bali, which is among Indonesia’s most developed parts with just under five percent of the people below the poverty line compared to 12 percent nationally.

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The world’s tallest Hindu statue of the God Vishnu sitting astride the mythical bird Garuda, said to be his companion and vessel, is also located in Bali and is one of the region’s centrepieces. The 75m high sculpture is known as Garuda Vishnu Kencana. Atop Ungasan Hill in the Garuda Vishnu Kencana Cultural Park, it is the world’s largest copper statue and the third tallest. With a wingspan of 65m, it stands on a pedestal, making its total height (121m) 30m taller than the Statue of Liberty. The statue showcases Vishnu, who is believed to be the preserver and protector of the universal equilibrium, in a meditative state, riding on Garuda’s back with his eyes half closed. 

President Joko Widodo inaugurated the sculpture in September 2018 at a gathering of thousands of people including the country’s top leaders and one of his predecessors, Megawati Soekarnoputri. Traditional dancers performed and fireworks lit up the night sky in a grand celebration of Indonesian multi-culturalism at the inauguration ceremony of the statue. Widodo, in his address at the event, called the statue a masterpiece and a source of Indonesia’s pride. He said the statue shows his country has not only inherited extraordinary masterpieces such as ninth-century Buddhist temple complex Borobudur and Hindu temple complex Prambanan. Widodi said they are capable of creating cultural masterpieces such as Garuda Vishnu Kencana. He called the statue, which took over 28 years for its completion, a historical footprint of Indonesia.

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Hindus in Indonesia also include converts who adopted Hinduism in the 1960s and 1970s on the neighbouring Java island and over 100,000-strong Indian Hindu diaspora community, mostly Tamils and Sindhis, in places such as the capital Jakarta and Sumatra’s Medan. In the Muslim-majority island of Lombok, both Hindus and Muslims, adhering to the Waktu Telu tradition, pray at the Pura Lingsar Temple complex. Built in 1714, the complex nestled in rice fields is a multi-denominational site for Hindus and the followers of Waktu Telu and includes a lily-covered pond devoted to Lord Vishnu.

Indonesia, where the national airline Garuda is named after the Hindu god Vishnu’s vehicle and the country’s currency notes carry another deity Ganesh’s picture, promotes the coexistence and diversity needed to keep together a country of multiple languages, geographies, and faiths. Its moderate and syncretic approach to religion complements its belief in Islam. The ceremony for the installation of a white and gold statue of Saraswati, the Hindu Goddess of learning and wisdom, to honour the country’s Hindu population on the premises of the Indonesian embassy in Washington in 2013 illustrated this. Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono presided over the ceremony on the Jewish New Year. He made blessings of Saraswati ‘in the name of Allah, the most benevolent,’ and spoke about religious tolerance. 

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Hindus account for Indonesia’s two percent population with around 90 percent of them or around 3.4 million Hindus concentrated in Bali. Alamy Stock Photo

Yudhoyono also participated in the ceremony for the statute’s purification. Mayor Anak Agung Gde Agung from Bali’s Badung and the sculptors of the statue performed the ritual for it. They burnt incense and offered palm leaves and fruits to the deity. The holy water needed for the ritual was transported on Yudhoyono’s plane from Bali to avoid restrictions on carrying liquids on regular flights. Agung sprinkled the statue at the ceremony, where Yudhoyono underlined Islam as a religion of peace while denouncing the so-called Islamic State and calling for ‘more love, tolerance, and knowledge.’

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Dino Patti Djalal, the then Indonesian Ambassador to the US, told news website npr.org that the 16-feet high statue atop a lotus in front of the embassy of the country with the largest Muslim population says a lot about the religious freedom in Indonesia. Sculptors were flown from Bali to carve the statue on-site of the goddess worshipped on Basant Panchami as the embodiment of learning. Yellow is Saraswati’s favourite colour. Basant Panchami is celebrated at the onset of spring when yellow flowers of the mustard crop bloom.

Basant Panchami is celebrated as Hari Raya Saraswati (the great day of Saraswati) in Bali, marking the beginning of the Pawukon calendar. Prayers are organised at homes, educational institutions, and public places to mark the festival. Teachers and students dressed in brightly coloured clothes carry cakes and fruits to schools for temple offerings. 

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The installation of the statue was not decided on religious grounds alone but more for what it symbolised. The Hindu goddesses represent education, creativity, and music. A swan and a peacock flanking Saraswati represent beauty and pride sans ego and vanity. Saraswati idol holds a book depicting learning. A stringed instrument (veena) of the goddess represents the harmonising of mind and body. Prayer beads of Saraswati depict spiritual knowledge. Saraswati represents simplicity and elegance. She is depicted wearing a white dress representing knowledge for overcoming darkness and ignorance.

The statue was installed over a decade and a half after the 9/11 attacks globally sparked a virulent form of Islamophobia. Indonesia remains a beacon of hope as state-sponsored bigotry tears apart large parts of the world with Muslims being mostly at its receiving end. The statue is among its best reminders. Djalal told npr.org that the goal of installing it was to have the sculpture as a symbol of religious tolerance. Busts of national heroes and flags otherwise adorn the embassies in Washington’s Embassy Row. Sculptures of Winston Churchill, the UK’s Prime Minister in the 1940s, Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, the founder of the Turkish secular republic, and Mahatma Gandhi, in loincloth and sandals, adorn the British, Turkish, and Indian missions nearby.

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At the Saraswati statue installation ceremony, long sleeve blouses and headscarves of observant Muslims contrasted with the brightly colored strapless and tight sarongs of Balinese dancers at the event. In its report on the ceremony, the Huffington Post noted this and added that there were some moments during the celebration, where the faiths abutted but did not clash, and in essence summed up what Indonesia is about.

Sameer Arshad Khatlani is a journalist and the author of The Other Side of the Divide: A Journey into the Heart of Pakistan