If only I posted sooner…

July 8, 2007

It would feel nice to be vindicated about understanding the news better than the people on the scene investigating. Unfortunately, I usually have 60+ draft posts that I want to write more about before publishing, and there are many activities with a priority level higher than this writing so they just sit there.

After several days of reporting from neighbors and principals and teachers about how well-mannered and polite Kafeel and Sabeel Ahmed of Bangalore were, the Indian press finally spoke to the local imam, who told them that Kafeel had refused to cover his head in the masjid and had argued and fought with people there about their way of praying, and eventually been kicked out. At the same time they also reported that he was a member of the Tablighi Jamaat.

My immediate reaction was that that has to be wrong, the people must have said they were “jamaatis” and the reporter assumed they meant Tablighi Jamaat. When a non-Wahhabi (what in India and Pakistan they call a Sunni or Barelwi) calls someone a “jamaati” it could mean Tablighi, Jamaat-e Islami, or just generic Wahhabi of some sort. Indian Tablighis would almost certainly cover their heads, and those who wouldn’t wouldn’t fight about it or they’d have to be fighting their tablighi amirs all the time.

These kids grew up in Saudi, and whether they were or weren’t in SIO or Jamaat-e Islami, it was obvious to me that they weren’t tablighis (though they might have associated with tablighis or gone once or twice on a tablighi trip, or gone through a tablighi phase.) They had simply picked up one of the more contagious diseases in the Arabian Peninsula anti-topi-itis. (Topi is the South Asian term for the various sorts of caps Muslims wear.) I was pretty sure they would turn out to be active SIO from their college days.

And what do you know? Today we find out that the here-to-now shocked family is headed by a father who spent a year and a half in jail during the emergency as a Jamaat-e Islami leader. (Don’t read too much into this – anyone of any political inclination was in jail then, and his jailmates included numerous future ministers, MLAs, and MPs – and one PM – from left and right.)

Anyway the tablighi assumption was just another example of the typical carelessness shown by the media, and even by academics in reporting on these things. Rather than report what they discover, these people are expected to provide background, but their understanding is incredibly shallow, so they run with what little they now, and in the end they just muddy the water more. All evidence suggests that the ‘experts’ in the military, intelligence, and law enforcement are not much better. This worries me – as a Muslim and as an American – because when the experts can not accurately identify and describe groups, associations, and ideologies, the only recourse for policy makers is the sledgehammer approach, which affects all the wrong people and does nothing to make us safe.

So I could have posted a quick note about the tablighi mix up and had a scoop, which would have been satisfying – but bound up with the disturbing reality of media failure after failure.

The thing which delayed me was that I wanted to turn it into an essay about the phenomenon of using fiqh and aqida differences to separate the good guys from the bad guys. And I still want to write that essay, because it’s a great topic, and a real dilemma for the modern world. But it needs time and consideration and thoughtfulness. And I wish I could write something short and quick, but whatever I would say would be too abbreviated, and would probably backfire. Maybe from now on I’ll just shoot for the scoops.

Speaking of all that, the Last Translators article went up on Wired, slightly improved. It still contained the completely off-base assertion that the British ended Urdu’s reign as the court language – when it was the British who made Urdu the language of administration and required their own people as well as their Indian administrators to master it. And this from a guy with a Persian phrase about Delhi tattooed on his arm. Oh well.

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