Don's Diary: travels with islam

February 22, 2002

Spend half a day in Blackwell's, catching up on the latest books on jihad . I wonder at how terms such as jihad , terror and Islamic fundamentalism have overtaken the serious debate on political Islam.

In early August last year, while sitting on a charpoy on the Pak-Afghan borders in the Khyber Pass and munching on Afghani pilau, I marvelled at the rugged terrain of a forlorn world that has seen so many invaders. Just a few yards away in the forbidding pass were the concrete battlements erected by the British in the 1940s to forestall a feared German tank assault on India. Sitting around me were Pushtuns, Hazaras and Tajiks, sporting turbans of diverse hues and sizes, and speaking Pushto and various dialects of Dari. Soon, a muezzin gave a call for afternoon prayer and they all filed together facing Mecca behind a hawk-nosed, bearded elderly Afghan.

A few weeks later, the same mountains and these rugged Afghans were witnessing the thunderous arrival of the American bombs.

In a rather too modernist room, hidden away behind the graceful quad at Trinity College, Oxford, I join another speaker in trying to reconstruct the Muslim medieval past. The listening Muslim students, anguished over the pains and pangs of their co-religionists, barrage us with questions: how can Islam achieve its former glory and how can we avoid the tragedies? I wish I had the answers.

A flurry of changing trains and ruffling endless notes as I make my way to a seminar on political Islam and contemporary South Asia at the Institute of Development Studies, in Brighton. The turnout is overwhelming. It is refreshing to find that the economists, amid their piles of statistical charts and overflowing binders, can still find discussion on Ibn Khladun, Gellner, Shiites, Sunnis and Sufis so engaging.

A cold crisp evening finds about 60 of us huddled on Afghani rugs in an old seminar room at Corpus Christi, a portrait of Shakespeare overseeing the Urdu mushairra (poetry recital) in progress. We all sit in traditional South Asian style, ready to offer our eulogies and wah , wah (praise) to the poets on their eloquent ghazals . Masterly wordsmithery calls us to chase the khayyal (imagery). As we all file out of the quad early on Sunday morning, the sky is still bright with stars, although our poets' long sought-after moon has already disappeared.

The train journey to London gives me the chance to review my notes for this evening's lecture on post-September 11 Pakistan. Certainly, I have mixed feelings about General Musharraf as I would like to see democracy fully restored in the country and the army sent back to barracks, but his stance on jihadi elements is commendable.

I find myself at Wilton Park engaged in a timely and immensely exciting international conference on Islam and the West. Friends from Bosnia and Palestine are here; so are the Americans, Europeans, young British diplomats and researchers from the Commons. A Sarajevan intellectual finds problems with modernity and tradition; John Esposito is angry over common US indifference to the pervasive Muslim anguish; and the Iranian professor uses his Persian notes to deliver a sustained attack on western double standards.

The Israeli colleagues are at daggers drawn with some eminent names from the Palestinian Authority, but to our happy surprise, Majeed the Bahraini exile, announces the democratic changes in his country and his own elevation to a cabinet post. He has an endless supply of political jokes, which we eagerly devour with our meals. A retired deacon from Cambridge offsets this worldly bunch, offering to lead us all in a daily mirch-misalah of peace prayers.

The conference ends on Friday and I hurry to Oxford to hear Olivier Roy on the clash of civilisations at St Antony's.

Iftikhar H. Malik, FRHisS, is a senior lecturer of international history at Bath Spa University College. A former fellow at St. Antony's, he lives in Oxford.

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