Islamic Networks between South Asia and the Gulf

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Over the last fifty years, pan-Islamic ties have intensified between South Asia and the Gulf. Gathering together some of the best specialists on the subject, Laurence Louër and Christophe Jaffrelot explore these ideological, educational and spiritual networks in a book entitled Pan Islamic Connections. Transnational Networks between South Asia and the Gulf (Hurst & Co, December 2017).

Despite a traditional geographical division establishing a clear cut between the Persian Gulf countries (associated with the Middle East) and the Indian sub-continent (perceived as Asian), these two regions of the globe have been maintaining commercial and cultural links for centuries, that have notably translated into massive migration. In the religious field, which we shall explore through this work, these connections have taken the form of pilgrimage routes that have not only conducted Muslims from South Asia to Mecca, but also to Karbala, Qom and Najaf, for the Shiites. In parallel, religious education networks have developed to form clerics but more generally the religious spirits. Since the 1980s (the period this volume focuses on) these exchanges and interactions have paired up with the intensification of Islamic connections within the framework of the Afghan war and the emergence of transnational networks like al-Qaida.

What are the main historical dynamics that have triggered and are at the heart of the religious connection between the Gulf monarchies, Iran, India and Pakistan?

The transnational dynamic existing between the Gulf countries and South Asia is first and foremost overdetermined, in religious terms, by the rivalry opposing Iran and Saudi Arabia. This rivalry naturally includes the conflict between Sunnis and Shiites, called “sectarianism” in the region. Large South Asian countries—Pakistan, in particular—are for the most part Sunni yet they also have a strong Shiite minority that Iran has tried to use to export its revolution in 1979 and later in the 1980s. Saudis have immediately acted to counter the Iranian influence by supporting activist Sunni groups and by funding madrassas (Qur’anic schools). Some states, Pakistan for instance, have welcomed this Saudi presence, while avoiding to cause an escalation of the sectarian conflict.

Have these links helped jihadi groups be mobile in the zone? Is there any cooperation between countries to hold back their expansion?

The connections existing between Gulf monarchies and Pakistan have helped Islamic networks to expand as of the first Afghan war (1979-1989). Based in Pakistan where they had found refuge after the soviet invasion, the Mujahedeen who lead the jihad against the USSR as of 1979 have received support from the Saudis and other Gulf countries. This is how the Haqqani network started to have—generally personalized—ties with Gulf notables in order to fund its contribution to the Afghan resistance. In a symmetrical fashion, Middle Eastern Islamic extremists—starting with Ben Laden, to name but him—settled in Pakistan and welcomed and trained thousands of jihadists during the 1980s, with the support of the Pakistani army and the CIA.
Yet the states progressively understood the risks they were taking by allowing for such networks to increase their span, their cooperation has long remained imperfect. First, national security apparatuses have been jealous of these networks’ independence—and the states, jealous of their sovereignty. Second, these networks have often worked away from the official track—this is how within the Saudi state some families have continued to fund groups that others condemned publicly. Third, some countries’ authorities have been ambivalent: some terrorist groups, despite their being banned by the international community and officially condemned by the country could however appear as resources worth being preserved. This is how Pakistan spared the Haqqani network in order to better counter Indian influence in Afghanistan.

Is the religious and cultural influence unidirectional? In other words, does the religious culture come from the Gulf only?

The religious influence comes from the Gulf and rubs off on South Asia, mostly. Indeed, the most striking phenomenon since the second half of the twentieth century is the emergence of the Gulf monarchies—and Saudi Arabia in particular—as the new reference for Sunni Islam. Petro-dollars have allowed Saudi Arabia to become the main training center for Sunni clergy, replacing as it is the Egyptian university of al-Azhar. Wahhabism, an “ultra-orthodox” version of Sunnism is promoted, which relation to the South Asian Vernacular Islamic culture is antagonistic, the latter being profoundly syncretic because of its development in close connection to Hinduism. In the Shia world, Iran and South Iraqi holy cities—namely Najaf—have long been references in terms of religious authority and the training of clerics.
The book shows clearly the remarkable resilience of Najaf’s clerical networks faced to the activism of the Islamic Republic of Iran: these networks remain crucial in the structuration of the Shiite religious education in South Asia.
However, it would be wrong to say that the religious influence is strictly unidirectional. Mass migration from South Asia toward the Gulf monarchies has allowed Sufism, a mystical trend within Islam particularly well rooted in South Asia, to find a new breath of life in the Gulf region where it had been marginalized with the rise of Wahhabism. Additionally, religious tradition of the Gulf is never transferred as such. It is re-appropriated and translates into vernacular culture by South Asian actors who cannot be considered as mere and passive repositories of foreign influences. In the introduction of our book, we show the extent to which South Asian Islam has from the start been marked by dynamics of hybridization between middle-eastern influences and local culture. This is still largely the case today.
Does Iran play a role of interface between the two “blocs”, with the Gulf monarchies on the one side and India and Pakistan on the other? If so, has the country been able to take advantage of this position?

Iran is predominantly Shiite but comprises a Sunni minority. This minority has long been considered a problem by the Islamic Republic, in particular since Iranian Sunni live in boarder regions where separatist movements exist, as in Kurdistan and Baluchistan. In these regions, Sunni Islam has been strongly influenced by South Asian trends and movements, in particular by the reformist Deobandi school, born in India during the nineteenth century and well rooted in all South Asia today. Yet it appears that in order to better control its Sunni population, the Iranian regime has thrived to organize it by placing it under the authority of an active but loyal clergy. The regime has also understood how to use transnational Sunni networks to gain influence outside the national borders. Some Sunni religious schools and some Iranian Sunni ulemas have thus gained considerable influence outside the country, and particularly in the Gulf monarchies. This influence is made possible, for example, by the Iranian Sunni diasporas within the Gulf, who act as relays to Iranian Sunnism, itself influenced by South Asian Islam.

How do the various contributions put together in this edited volume give a global vision of the connections that you qualify as “pan-Islamic”? Would it not have been interesting to focus on Bangladesh as well, for example?

A book, be it an edited volume, cannot be exhaustive on such an issue. Some countries have not been studied, starting with Bangladesh, yet it would have been very interesting indeed to scrutinize this country through the lenses of transnational Islamic networks: the country is indeed home to a rapid expansion of these networks as well as terrorist attacks.
This being said, the various contributions of this volume tackle the field in a very complete fashion; a field that had remained unexplored for its most part. The book deals with several types of networks and the large countries of the zone. Not only do we study Islamic networks, but we also focus on the links resulting from student exchanges and roads of pilgrimage. Beside Sunni and Shia networks, Sufi networks are also studied. Even if Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, Iran and Afghanistan are in the spotlight because of the density of the Islamist networks they host, India and other Gulf countries are closely scrutinized as well.
We would also like to put forward the intellectual quality of the work presented in this volume. The subject has too often been treated in a sensationalist manner. In opposition to this, the authors of this volume have adopted a scientific approach in order to interpret the Islamist networks phenomena from a sociological, or even anthropological point of view, this without ignoring of course the link to the political—and namely the state. The historical dimension is always part of the analysis in order to render the depth/thickness of the phenomena under consideration.        

Interview by Miriam Périer