AT THE NEW DELHI LAUNCH in November 2009 of my book on the rise of Islamic fundamentalism in Indonesia, the panel discussion — involving three pillars of India’s journalistic establishment — quickly took a somewhat peculiar turn. Should Home Minister P Chidambaram, my fellow panelists were asked, have visited a conference of the Jamiat-e-Ulema-e-Hind in the seminary town of Deoband in Uttar Pradesh, where orthodox Muslim clerics passed a resolution opposing, among other things, recitation of the national song, Vande Mataram?
The incident, trivial in itself, nonetheless captures two truths about the national discourse on Islam. First, that there’s a marked lack of interest in the broader Muslim world. Why talk about Indonesia, the world’s most populous Muslim-majority country, when you can quibble over a prominent politician’s itinerary? Second, that the debate, such as it is, rarely rises above the banal. Should Chidambaram have visited Deoband? Is it wrong for clerics to oppose Vande Mataram and yoga? Is Shah Rukh Khan’s brief detention at a New Jersey airport an insult to Indian honour?
Contrast this with the depth and urgency of post-9/11 discourse in the West. In the US, no serious contender for the presidency can sidestep having a well-articulated position on the nature of Islamic fundamentalism and what it means for open societies. In Britain, political and intellectual heavyweights — Tony Blair, Jack Straw, Martin Amis and Richard Dawkins, to name just a few — are in the thick of a debate that ranges from the radicalisation of London mosques to the influence of hardline groups such as the Muslim Brotherhood and the Jamaat-e-Islami on university campuses. In France, Nicholas Sarkozy has sparked a fraught debate about the admissibility of the burqa in a republic that believes in the emancipation of women. Similar questions occupy the editorial pages and television talk shows in Germany, Holland, Denmark, Italy, Sweden and Switzerland.