Friday, August 03, 2007

Edward Lear and the Fundamentalist

Who or which or why or what is the Akhund of Swat?

So starts a very silly poem by Edward Lear. I remember reading it when I was a child, glorying in the strange sounding names - and shouting every other line. It really is quite funny.

But I am now in the position to answer the question. The Akhund of Swat was a highly revered Muslim religious leader in the mountains of Afghanistan and Pakistan who has been compared to a kind of Pope.

Bizarrely this name from a nonsense poem also has a bit part in the rise of Islamic fundamentalism known as Wahhabism which led in turn to modern Islamic extremism, and the 'war on terror'. If you ask the question who created the Islamic terrorists, unfortunately the historic answer has a lot to do with us, the British.

To cut a very long story short, in the early 19 century, the British were set on empire-building and expending their territory from India. They cynically initially did this by mercenaries from the British East India Company, largely by setting different ethnic and religious groups against each other. A small band of men set up amongst the already fairly extreme tribal groups from Afghanistan, preaching a form of Islamic orthodoxy and glorious death by jihad. Everyone who did not belong to their cult was an enemy and they were ruthless in attacking without regard for their own deaths. They were regularly declaimed as outcasts and heretics by other Muslim groups. However, their popularity grew when the British first attacked them - whereby managing to unite the ununitable tribal groups under the Akhund - and then following the great Indian mutany of the mid 19 century whereby the British autocracy took violent revenge on their participation within the mutany. In fact many religions which today claim to be peaceful were involved in that bloody tit-for-tat including Christians, Muslims and Sikhs. Who'd have thunk it?

Eventually the ideas spread across India and took by force control of root the holy sites of Islam, which are now in Saudi Arabia - where it became the powerful Saud dynasty. When oil was found, this form of fundamentalism was rewarded with great wealth and protection from the self-seeking oil-swillers of the west. There was a split in that movement, and out of it came the suicide bombing jihadis of today.

Rather than constantly complaining to the rest of Islam - which have been roundly condemning, fatwa-ing and fighting against the movement for several hundred years - we need to recognise our own responsibility for the rise of the movement, which lies partly in our own disgusting past.

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