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 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. He claimed wherever Muslims live, they do not like to do so in coexistence with others.

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 pretense. 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 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.

The 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 iftar 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 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 southeast Asia, a bastion of religious coexistence and home to 25 percent of 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 speaks 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 multiculturalism. 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 the ninth-century Buddhist temple complex Borobudur and Hindu temple complex Prambanan but is able to create globally-recognized 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 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 the representation of 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 a 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

Babylon Brigade: Christian Militia That Fought ISIS On Muslim Cleric’s Call

Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistanis fatwa urging able-bodied men to assist Iraqi forces in fighting ISIS was a turning point in the war on ISIS

By Sameer Arshad Khatlani

Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, the 91-year-old head of Iraq’s clerical establishment Hawza, is known to be reclusive. He mainly issues messages through his representatives and rarely appears in the public, on the television, or receives visitors. Sistani, however, made an exception when he hosted Pope Francis at his modest home on Najaf’s Rasool Street. Sistani stood outside his austere meeting room to greet the pope when Francis walked a few hundred meters to meet the ayatollah for the 40-minute meeting in March 2021. Francis, the head of the world’s 1.2 billion Roman Catholics, took off his shoes before white doves symbolizing peace were released when the pontiff entered the doorway. He cradled Sistani’s hands during the meeting as the two discussed ways of stopping violence in the name of religion.

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Sistani told Francis that Iraq’s Christians deserve to ‘live like all Iraqis in security and peace and with full constitutional rights’ as Francis thanked the ayatollah for raising ‘his voice in defense of the weakest and most persecuted.’ The meeting came amid increasing acknowledgment of Sistani’s role in unifying Iraq, which helped it defeat the so-called Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), the terrorist group masquerading as Caliphate, in July 2017.

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Sistani’s fatwa urging able-bodied men to assist Iraqi forces in fighting ISIS was a turning point in the war on ISIS. It encouraged thousands of volunteers to sign up for Popular Mobilization Forces better known by its Arabic acronym Hashd to fight the group. ISIS controlled a bigger territory than Austria and 40% of Iraq and a third of Syria at its peak when the Iraqi state almost collapsed when its American-trained forces fled Mosul in June 2014 and allowed the terrorist group to overrun the city.

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Francis’s visit would not have been possible without the bridge-building Sistani played a key role in and helped unify the country to take on ISIS effectively. ISIS’s brutality triggered a sense of urgency that helped Iraqis rise above regional, ethnic and sectarian divides to help defeat it. Rayan al-Kildani’s Christian Babylon Brigade militia was among those who fought ISIS under the Hashd umbrella. A resident of a predominantly Christian village in a mountain range with crosses even taller than lampposts every 100m near Mosul, Kildani described to BBC in 2016 how they fought side by side with the Muslim militias. Kildani added they have really good defense forces now and no one is ‘going to do anything bad to the Christians’ and that their suffering is over.

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Francis echoed Kildani when the pontiff visited Mosul as the Iraqi government rolled out a red carpet for him. Children in festive dresses lined the streets and waved Iraqi flags to welcome Francis as he arrived at Mosul’s Hosh al-Bieaa Church Square years after the city was virtually reduced to rubble in the fighting against ISIS. He said Christians received assistance from Muslims when they returned to the town. Francis underlined the need for reaffirming their conviction ‘that fraternity is more durable than fratricide, that hope is more powerful than death, that peace more powerful than war.’ His audience held olive branches as Francis led prayers in Mosul.

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The pontiff led the first prayers at the renovated Church of the Holy Immaculate Conception, which was damaged during the war, in the Christian town of Qaraqosh, where Christians trace their roots back to almost as far as Jesus’s lifetime. He visited Mosul as a pilgrim for peace and said terrorism and death never have the last word. The pope said even amid the ravages of terrorism, they can see, with the eyes of faith, the triumph of life over death. He referred to Iraq’s history of pluralism and hoped its legacy would be ensured. Francis called religious, cultural, and ethnic diversity ‘a hallmark of Iraqi society for millennia.’ He said it is a precious resource on which to draw, not an obstacle to be eliminated.

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A cross made from wooden chairs from churches across the region was also erected in Mosul’s Church Square in the honour of Francis, who visited Erbil in northern Iraq to express his gratitude to the local community for offering refuge to Christians during the war on ISIS.

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Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi earlier welcomed Francis when he arrived in Baghdad. A choir was also arranged for the pope when he entered the airport. Crowds waved Iraqi and Vatican flags as Francis left for a welcome at the presidential palace. Traffic circles en route were decorated with the Vatican’s yellow and white flags. At the presidential reception, the pope spoke about Iraq’s diversity, which he said is to be treasured. He addressed leaders of several denominations at the cathedral of Our Lady of Salvation in Baghdad and held a mass at the Chaldean Catholic Cathedral of St Joseph.

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The papal visit was a major boost to inter-faith harmony in Iraq as it emerges from terrorism, dictatorship, occupation, and the civil war. As the New York Times rightly emphasized: ‘[…] in some ways [Sistani is] an ideal interlocutor for Francis: holy, credible and powerful. His decisions carry weight.’ Theirs was a meeting of the minds. It was a step towards realizing unity among the world’s major faiths. The pope made a case for it at a multi-faith gathering he addressed during the same trip in Iraq’s Ur, which is believed to be the birthplace of Abraham, whom Muslims, Christians, and Jews trace their roots to. Francis quoted a passage in the Bible in which God asks Abraham to look at the stars and imagine how countless his offspring will be. He emphasized Abraham saw the promise of his progeny in the stars. ‘[…] he saw us,’ Francis said, referring to Muslims, Christians, and Jews. The pope urged his audience to see in the stars a message of unity while underlining they illuminate the darkest nights because they shine together.

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

More Unites Than Divides Abrahamic religions Islam, Christianity, Judaism

Ur in Iraq is among myriad examples of how Abrahamic religions Islam, Christianity and Judaism, which trace their roots to and revere Abraham, are intertwined

Pope Francis listens as Mufti Rahmi Yaran reads verses from the Quran at the Blue Mosque in Turkey in November 2014. Getty Images

By Sameer Arshad Khatlani

At a March 2021 multi-faith gathering in Iraq, Pope Francis quoted a passage from Genesis, the Bible’s first book, in which God asks Abraham to look at the stars and imagine how countless his progeny will be. For Francis, Abraham saw the promise of his descendants—Muslims, Christians, and Jews—in the stars. ‘[…] he saw us,’ Francis told the gathering in Ur, which is believed to be Abraham’s birthplace. The pontiff urged his audience to see in the stars a message of unity. They, the Pontiff underlined, illuminate the darkest nights because they shine together as he appealed for unity. The Pope called Ur ‘the land of our father Abraham’ where faith was born. ‘[…] from [Ur], let us affirm that God is merciful and that the greatest blasphemy is to profane his name by hating our brothers and sisters.’ He called hostility, extremism, and violence betrayals of religion, which are not born of a religious heart.

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The Pope’s call for unity was in consonance with shared traditions of the world’s three major religions, which have more that unites rather than what divides them. Ur is among myriad examples of how Abrahamic religions Islam, Christianity and Judaism, which trace their roots to and revere Abraham, are intertwined. It is in Ur that their spiritual forefather, Abraham, whose followers account for over 50 per cent of the world’s population, is believed to have first heard the voice of God. Ur is mentioned in the Quran and Christian scriptures as Abraham’s homeland, which he is believed to have left on God’s command to found a new nation in Canaan spanning Palestine and Syria to become the founder of monotheism. God is believed to have promised Abraham that his ‘seed’—Jews, Muslims and Christians—would inherit the land. The Prophet Muhammad traced his lineage to Abraham’s first son Ishmael. Jews and Jesus are believed to be the descenders of Abraham’s younger son, Isaac.

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Around 300 km from Abraham’s birthplace, biblical prophet Ezekiel’s tomb in Kifl with Hebrew carvings is another example of shared veneration for Abrahamic religious figures. Ezekiel is known as Dhul Kifl in the Islamic tradition and Kilf, which is located at the centre of routes to Muslim pilgrimage cities of Najaf, Karbala, and Mecca, gets its name from that. A synagogue and a mosque surround the tomb of Ezekiel, who preached in modern-day Iraq in the sixth century BC and is believed to have seen God’s visions there. Mentioned twice in the Quran, both Muslims and Jews revere him. In July 2016, Kilf was designated as a Unesco World Heritage site years after the restoration work centred on Ezekiel’s tomb began in 2009. The outer courtyard of the shrine has a mosque and the inner sanctum retains the Hebrew markings to protect its Jewish heritage.

In 2010, the tomb’s Muslim caretaker, Sheik Aqil, told journalist Steven Lee Myers of The New York Times that they take care of both the Islamic and the Jewish sections of the shrine as they are both part of Iraq’s history. ‘It’s a Muslim’s duty to protect it,’ Aqil told Myers. In 2019, writer Alex Shams wrote Ezekiel’s Tomb ‘is one of those rare, beautiful places where Arabic and Hebrew flow freely into each other.’ The Arabic calligraphy on Ezekiel’s tomb wishes peace upon him. Shams wrote the shared veneration for Abrahamic religious figures is common across the region, citing examples of Daniel’s tomb in Shush and Esther and Mordechai in Hamedan (Iran). The reverence is rooted in Muslim beliefs perhaps best reflected in the 13th-century Persian poet Saadi’s poem which likened Adam’s children to valuable limbs of one body:

When the world gives pain to one member, the other members find no rest. Thou who are indifferent to the sufferings of others does not deserve to be called a man. 

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Muslims have considered Jews and Christians as allies since the days of the Prophet. When Muslims faced persecution in Mecca, the Ethiopian Christian kingdom offered asylum to them. Christians from Najran (modern-day Saudi Arabia) were allowed worship in his mosque when the Prophet ruled Medina. The Prophet signed the Charter in Mount Sinai in 628 pledging the freedom of worship, movement, and protection during war for Christians. The prophet promised ‘there shall be no interference with the practice of their faith. … No bishop will be removed from his bishopric, no monk from his monastery, no priest from his parish.’ This was in line with the Quranic mandate, which says God protects ‘monasteries, churches, synagogues, and mosques in which the name of God is much mentioned.’ The Quran, which calls Jews and Christians the ‘People of the Book’ 31 times, also refers to them as alladhīna ūtū al-kitāb (those who have received the Book), ahl al-dhikr (the people of remembrance). The Quran also addresses the Christians as ahl al-Injīl (the People of the Gospel), and mentions the Jewish holy book Torah 18 times as a true revelation and source of guidance and wisdom.

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Medina Charter, which was adopted when the Prophet Muhammad founded the first Muslim state in the seventh century and is considered its constitution, sought to end conflicts and maintain peace among Muslims, Jews, Christians, and pagans. It underlined ‘a believer will not kill another believer for the sake of an un-believer.’ The charter outlined the political rights and duties of all inhabitants of Medina, which is also the Prophet’s final resting place, irrespective of their faith. Medina was governed under the principles of socio-political justice enshrined in the charter.

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The charter, which is perhaps the first such document to have incorporated religious and political rights, provided for means for conflict resolution by promoting mutual respect, tolerance, and pluralism. Based on the commitment to human lives and religious minorities, it drew inspiration from the Quran, which mandates Muslims to respect all previous messengers, including Abraham, Moses, and Jesus, and to honour their followers. The charter, which said ‘no Jews will be wronged for being an unbeliever,’ recognised equality to all residents, their rights to peaceful coexistence. It gave all tribal, religious and ethnic groups protection and the right to live as per their beliefs. The charter’s Article 30 said ‘the Jews will be treated as one community with the believers.’

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When Caliph Umar ibn Al-Khattab conquered Jerusalem in 637, he offered security for Christian possessions, churches, and crosses as the commander of the faithful. He declared the churches ‘shall not be taken for residence and shall not be demolished … nor shall their crosses be removed.’ Umar declined Jerusalem patriarch Sophronius’s invitation to pray at the Church of the Holy Sepulcher saying he did not want Muslims to use this as an excuse later to lay claims over the holiest Christian shrine. 

It has, however, been a slippery slope since the Crusades sought to eradicate Islam in the name of religion. But there have been attempts to revive the spirit of the Medina Charter to end the violence for political ends in the name of religion, which has created havoc since the West brazenly used it in the 1980s to defeat the USSR. In January 2016, Muslim scholars put their heads together at a conference in Morocco and reaffirmed the values of the charter. Moroccan King Mohammed VI, who hosted the gathering, recalled the charter affirmed unity by promoting pluralism and religious freedom while seeking the revival of its spirit for a peaceful and inclusive world. 

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

Imperial Past Drives Russia, China’s Territorial Claims in Ukraine, Taiwan

Both Chinese President Xi Jinping and his Russian counterpart, Vladimir Putin, have invoked nostalgia for Russia and China’s imperial past to justify their expansionism

Beijing’s rise has given it leverage to isolate Taiwan. Photo courtesy scmp.com

By Sameer Arshad Khatlani

Beijing has threatened to reunite Taiwan with the Chinese mainland since the nationalists relocated their government to the Pacific Ocean Island after losing to the communists, who established the People’s Republic of China in 1949. The spotlight was back on Taiwan when Russia invaded Ukraine in February 2022. Parallels have been drawn between Russia and China’s territorial claims amid fears that Beijing could be encouraged to forcibly reunite ‘the rebel region’ of Taiwan it has claimed sovereignty over since the 1950s.

Russian nationalists believe people who speak their language as well as ethnic Russians in Ukraine, which was a part of the USSR and where separatists seek to be part of Russia, are under threat. Vladimir Putin, the Russian President, sees Ukrainians and Russians as ‘one people’ and Ukraine as an extension of Russia. Imperial Russia considered Ukrainians as Little Russians and Russia as Great Russians. Mainland Chinese similarly consider Taiwan as part of China; their languages overlap, and they are also culturally similar. China ceded Taiwan, which has emerged as a major Asian economy and a top producer of technology worldwide, to Japan after the 1894-95 war. It got the territory back decades later following the Second World War in the 1940s.

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Both Xi Jinping, the Chinese President, and Putin have invoked nostalgia for Russia and China’s imperial past to justify their expansionism. Days after the Russian invasion of Ukraine began, China reiterated its commitment to ‘resolving the Taiwan question.’ According to the New York Times, Xi appeared more concerned about Taiwan’s fate than the war in Ukraine in a call with his American counterpart, Joe Biden, about the Russian invasion.

The US made it clear it has no intentions of intervening militarily in Ukraine. This came as Russia and China appear to have sensed an opportunity to assert themselves amid a void left on the world stage as a result of the West’s pullback after its failures in Iraq and Afghanistan. Taiwan, which has faced diplomatic isolation as China opposes its recognition and has regular relations with a handful of countries, has for long counted the US as its most important partner and protector. The US and Taiwan, an island of 24 million inhabitants which allows same-sex marriages, are liberal democracies, unlike authoritarian China. Taiwan may have built a modern economy, but its military of about 88,000 million ground troops is no match that of China— about a million.

Unlike its clear stand on refraining from intervening in Ukraine directly, the US has taken a vague line on Taiwan. It is expected to deter China from attacking Taiwan. Status quo also benefits China, which has made most of relative global peace over the decades. Its position as an economic power in an increasingly integrated world could be at stake in the event of a conflict. This could possibly prevent Chinese aggression against Taiwan as well. A lack of progress in Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has lessons for China and could help maintain the status quo in the Pacific region.

Beijing’s rise has ensured it has the leverage to isolate Taiwan, which occupied China’s UN seat till the 1970s over two decades after Mao Zedong-led Communists captured power from the nationalists. Generalissimo Chiang Kai‐shek, the President of Nationalist China, fled to Taiwan with his forces and led a government there in exile for 25 years. He was also recognized as China’s legitimate ruler before the communists began to assert themselves globally. Chiang dreamt of recapturing the mainland until he died in 1975. In his political testament published hours after his death, he urged his supporters to fulfill his dream and restore China’s national culture.

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Chiang, who received military training in Japan, participated in the uprising that overthrew the Qing Dynasty and led to the formation of the Chinese republic. Chiang would became a Chinese Nationalist Party member and build its army. He spearheaded the reunification of much of China and suppressed the communists. Chaing would become one of the Big Four leaders of the Allies in the Second World War against Germany, Italy, and Japan along with US President Franklin D Roosevelt, British Prime Minister Winston Churchill, and Soviet leader Joseph Stalin. While his global stature increased, his position weakened at home with communists overthrowing him after the three-year Chinese civil war, which broke out in 1946. He would spend the rest of his life in Taiwan with his dream of reclaiming mainland China unfulfilled.

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