‘Zealot’ | Pakistan Today

‘Zealot’

  • The reactions of the defeated

When he failed to defeat the superior Western enemy on his own at one place or time, he tried to forge a united front of the Muslims all over the world under the banner of Pan-Islamism

Toynbee located “Zealotism” “in sterile and sparsely populated regions which were remote from the main international thoroughfares of the modern world” and found the “Zealots” among the puritans of the North African Sanusis and the Central Arabian Wahabbis

With the launching of the so-called “war on terror” after the unfortunate 9/11 attacks, a narrative was built that a section of the Muslim community believes in an extremist form of religion and resorts to violent means to attain its political objectives. Post 9/11 years witnessed an escalation of terror and counter-terror events which many thought were anticipated by the American scholar Samuel P Huntington in his theory “Clash of civilisations” back in the 1990s.

This explanation is contestable because almost half a century before Huntington postulated this theory, a classic British historian Arnold J Toynbee published a collection of essays entitled “Civilisation on trial” in 1948 in which he dilated upon the types of reactions usually exhibited by a civilisation (nation, community) that is humbled by another civilisation far superior in military and economic means. These reactions are not religion, nation or culture specific because a glance at history reveals that from Hellenic through Persian, Judea, Christian to Islamic eras, the defeated peoples have either reacted with “Zealotism” or “Herodianism.”

Let us take “Zealotism” first. Since the downfall of the Ottoman Empire at the beginning of the 20th century at the hands of the West, the Muslim “Zealotism” reacted in peculiar ways in its encounters with the West. Instead of taking stock of the ground realities, the ‘Zealot’ went in his shell like an ostrich who buries his head in the sand to hide from the danger. Whenever he had to encounter the superior weaponry of the West, he resorted to his traditional art of warfare trying to match machine gun with spear and shield. More often his attitude was irrational and instinctive.

When he failed to defeat the superior Western enemy on his own at one place or time, he tried to forge a united front of the Muslims all over the world under the banner of Pan-Islamism. Although Pan-Islamism, which was first given currency by the Ottoman Caliph Sultan Abdul Hamid, was a bugbear of the West, it proved nothing more than the herd-mentality in which “a herd of buffalo, grazing scattered over the plain, heads down and horns outwards, as soon as an enemy appears within range.” Although the Muslim solidarity seemed solid on paper, it could not be translated into successful practical action because the Muslim world had internal differences, vested interests and more note able is the fact that in the era of decolonisation in the second half of the last century, the idea or idiom that caught the imagination of the Muslims was not Pan-Islamism but the Western concept of nationalism. The West must have heaved a sigh of relief at the dormancy of Pan-Islamism because its sages knew that if this “sleeper” [Pan-Islamism] woke up, it could “evoke the militant spirit of Islam” that could ring bells of an heroic age—the age in which the early Muslims first defeated the Hellenic civilisation that yoked them for over a millennium and later on successfully held fort against the Mongol hordes and the marching Crusaders.

Toynbee located “Zealotism” “in sterile and sparsely populated regions which were remote from the main international thoroughfares of the modern world” and found the “Zealots” among the puritans of the North African Sanusis and the Central Arabian Wahabbis. Not all “Zealots” were alike in their conservatism: some were willing to adopt those Western ways that suited them and rejected those which they considered injurious. The conversation between the Zaydi Imam Yahya of Sana, Yemen and a British official after World War I is a case in point. Imam Yahya had taken some pains to organise his army on the Western lines so when the British official enquired if the Imam would adopt other Western institutions as well, the latter shook his head and pointing to the institution of the parliament, said that he did not like parliament as “I [he] like to be the Government myself. I might find the parliament tiresome” and then went on to justify his rejection by arguing that “I can assure you that responsible parliamentary representative government is not an indispensable part of the apparatus of the Western civilisation. Look at Italy. She has given that up, and she is one of the great Western powers.”

“Zealots” were not as naïve as they looked. They represent a mindset which is as alive today as it was about a century ago. Toynbee found it in the desolate deserts of Africa and Arabia as well as the rugged mountains of Afghanistan. If he visits the world today, he would not only be surprised to find the “Zealots” still living in the very wildernesses where he left them but would be doubly worried to see them seamlessly moving in the most advanced centres of Western civilisation in London, Paris and New York with the ease of an occident; therefore, today’s “Zealot” is a more threatening phenomenon than what he used to be in Toynbee’s time. How different was the reaction of the “Herodian” Muslim to the Western hegemony would be the focus of discussion next week.

(The writer is an academic and journalist. He can be reached at [email protected])



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