By Preeti Nalwa, Ph.D.
The month of May 2011 and the sleepy town of Abbottabad in the District of Hazara (now Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province of Pakistan) have captured worldwide attention—both will go down in history as markers for the vindication of “War on terror”.
The initiator of the jihad against the Americans, and the symbol of early twenty-first century Islamic fundamentalism, Osama bin Laden, was unceremoniously killed and consigned to the sea incognito on May 2, 2011. President Obama announced the death of Osama with the words that “Justice has been done” to the families who have lost loved ones to al Qaeda’s terror and to those who lost lives on 9/11. The month of May is significant in this region for in 1831, a historic landmark was attained against another Islamic fundamentalist when Sayyid Ahmed Barelvi was killed, north of Abbottabad, in Mansehra.
Though separated by almost two centuries, the similarities between the two incidents are worth examining. On the receipt of the news of the death of Sayyid Ahmed Barelvi, the then British Governor-General, William Bentinck, sent a rather cryptic message to his friend C.T. Metcalfe informing him of the death of the Sayyid. “I do not know to what your Lordship alludes in mentioning the ‘Sayyid’s death’” replied Metcalfe, “if Sayyid Ahmad be dead it is good riddance, for in my belief there was greatly more danger to our empire in India from that fellow than from the Russians”. Metcalfe was right. Many years later, the Wahhabis, then resident at Sitana, were to cause the British grief. Metcalfe’s response was in no way contradictory to the suspicion that the British, directly or indirectly, instigated the Wahhabis to attack the Sikhs. History had repeatedly shown that violence promoted under any guise, be it ever so righteous, invariably returned to haunt its original promoters.
Both the incidents have historic connection and reverberate with the same drive and emotion against Islamic fundamentalism, and against its spinoff—jihad. In the very month of May, 180 years ago, Sayyid Ahmed Barelvi, a religious fanatic and a Muslim radical, with as wide-spread influence as that possessed and controlled by Osama bin Laden, was killed within a radius of a hundred miles in what under the British came to be known as the Hazara District. Just as Osama bin Laden was initially the collaborator of Pakistan’s ISI and the American CIA in their war against President Najibullah’s government, so was this Sayyid a collaborator of the then dominant Western power, the British. Both Osama bin Laden and Sayyid Ahmed Barelvi were Wahhabis, both lead the Pashtuns to war and pathetically reduced them to becoming mere pawns by their so called benefactors in their stratagem for maintaining hegemonic dominance. Over centuries, Muslims have not learnt that the West plays on their divisions to further its own interest, and the Western powers have not forgotten the game learnt during their imperialist heydays—to ignite the most vulnerable link, viz., religion—to breed, nurture and advance its demagoguery and then strike with vengeance to break the very back of the challenger to their power.
Osama bin Laden had emerged from the lair of the Americans in the fight of the latter against the Soviets, while Sayyid Ahmed was bolstered by the British to check the growing influence and power of the Sikh empire of Maharaja Ranjit Singh (1780-1839). In 1809, when the British signed a treaty with the Sikhs, promising not to interfere with their conquests to the north of the river Satluj, they did so under the mistaken belief that they had contained the Sikhs. The steady, spectacular and boldly executed westward expansion of the Sikh Kingdom into the Kingdom of Kabul (as Afghanistan was then called) under General Hari Singh Nalwa’s leadership was to soon become a cause of great worry for them. The British were looking for ways to curb the rising influence of the Sikhs and to extend their own influence to the west of the Indus. The latter objective became more imperative after they lost their trade monopoly in 1813.
The Wahhabi uprising along the western frontier of the Kingdom of the Sikhs was spearheaded by a Hindustani resident of British India. Sayyid Ahmed Barelvi had proclaimed a Holy War against ‘infidels’ or non-Muslims, and had spread terror in the Sikh heartland. The Sayyid had left Hindustan for a pilgrimage to Mecca. While there, he had been greatly influenced by the teachings of the Muslim theologian Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab of Najd, Saudi Arabia. Wahhab had been dead twenty years. On his return, Sayyid Ahmed had appeared with a band of ‘Hindustani fanatics’ amongst the mountaineers of the Peshawar region, preaching a Holy War against the rich Sikh towns of the Punjab. According to Charles Masson, initially a deserter from the British army and later a British agent, his boast was that he “would compel Ranjit Singh to turn Mussulman, or cut off his head…”
On his way back from the Haj, the Sayyid had met Dost Mohammad Khan, the Barakzai ruler of Kabul. The Afghan was happy to lend his support to the Sayyid because his proposed jihad promised to keep his enemies the Sikhs and also his half-brothers, the rulers of Peshawar under Sikh suzerainty, engaged. The Barakzai ruler of Kabul could only lend support in principle; he simply did not have the funds to lend substantive support to the Musalman cause. The British rulers of Hindustan, on the other hand, had both the motive and the means to support the Sayyid’s cause.
Sayyid Ahmad ‘Barelvi’, as he popularly came to be called, is today recognised as the initiator of the revivalist movement among the Muslims of India called Wahhabism—the leading religious doctrine in Saudi Arabia. The aim of this sect was to restore Islam to its original purity as taught by Mohammed. The only emotion that ever united the trans-Indus tribes, overriding personal rivalries and jealousies, was the fear of the Sikhs and the loss of their independence at the hands of ‘infidels’. Hari Singh Nalwa successfully held the jihadis at bay for four years, having given them a resounding defeat in the Battle of Saidu where 8000 Sikhs defended themselves against 150,000 jihadis. On 8 May 1831, the Sikhs and the Wahhabis fought their most significant battle on the right bank of the river Kunar, about 61 miles north of Haripur Hazara (today a part of Pakistan’s north west frontier), at Balakot (or Mullakot).
Haripur was built in 1822 by the legendary Hari Singh Nalwa, its jagirdar. The British cantonment of Abbottabad was built 22 miles from Haripur, following the British annexation of the Kingdom of the Sikhs many years later. Just as Haripur was named after Hari Singh Nalwa the jagirdar/governor of this region, Abbottabad was named after the first British Deputy Commissioner of the District of Hazara, Major James Abbott. At the time of the British annexation of the Kingdom of the Sikhs, Haripur was the capital city of this region. The British built Abbottabad to assuage the feelings of the Pashtun tribes and the fear that Hari Singh Nalwa’s name evoked in their hearts.
It was at Balakot that Sayyid Ahmed Shah Barelvi was killed by Khalsa Sher Singh, son of Maharaja Ranjit Singh. The Maharaja received a letter from Sher Singh’s Diwan with details of the death of the “wicked Khalifa”, stating how his corpse, shrouded in a doshala, had been given a dignified burial. However, another report indicated that the Sayyid had been given a water burial. William Bentinck, the British Governor-General of India, sent his congratulations to Maharaja Ranjit Singh on hearing of the event. Two centuries on, Balakot became the hotbed of jihadi terrorist training camps. These were eventually raised to the ground not by any human effort, but by a natural calamity—the devastating earthquake of 2005.
In order to further its colonial interests, the British had stoked the most virulent and reactionary sect of Islam, Wahhabism to create conflict within the Muslim world and to destabilize the Ottoman Empire. The British agenda was systematically launched when they extended financial help in the establishment of a small Bedouin army formed in the wake of the Saudi-Wahhabi political, religious and marital alliance of 1744, which eventually succeeded in creating the first Saudi-Wahhabi State. Since then, this sect has found friends among the British and the Americans for their revival and survival. In its objective to thwart the Soviet Union, the US literally destroyed all vestige of secular education in Afghanistan by sponsoring religious schools, and establishing camps for the recruitment and training of the mujahedeen, which subsequently became virtual centres for Islamic radicalism. The madrassas that mushroomed in the Pakistan-Afghanistan region were heartily financed by Saudi Arabia, teaching how to make war on infidels.
The USA has not let its tryst with the Vietnam syndrome go in vain; it presented the very prototype of the Vietnam debacle to its enemy. The bogey of Islamic fundamentalism was crafted and let loose to wreak havoc on the Soviets with a clear objective to bleed and break the Republic to its death by locking it into a fatal enmeshment with the Afghans, in the Afghan landscape, notorious for being the ‘graveyard of empires’. The CIA aid to the Mujahedeen, the opponents of the pro-Soviet regime in Kabul, was begun at the behest of the first directive of the President Carter, signed as far back as 3 July 1979, nearly six months before the Soviet intervention. This covert action was designed to provoke the Soviet entry into war in Afghanistan. The Soviets had justified their intervention by asserting that they intended to fight against a secret involvement of the US in Afghanistan.
At the very outset, when the US had sponsored jihad in 1979, it had begun to aid Osama bin Laden. The America’s bogyman was trained in a CIA sponsored guerrilla training camp. In a Machiavellian move, the US had knowingly increased the probability of the Soviets scripting their own death by inducing them to move into the Afghan abyss. For almost 10 years, Moscow had to carry on a war unsupportable by the government, a conflict that brought about the demoralization and finally the breakup of the Soviet empire. The USA achieved the aim of the collapse of the USSR, liberation of the Central Europe and the end of the Cold War. The euphoria of the ‘unipolar moment’ has not ended but has been extended with the victory over Osama bin Laden.
The Taliban was initially patronised by the US, and then it was enthusiastically supported by Al-Qaeda under the aegis of Osama. Taliban had pushed the social fabric of Afghanistan back to medieval times. Today, Afghanistan is as divided and backward as it was nearly two centuries ago. The network of opium trade, acquisition of modern weaponry, private armies and militias of local warlords, personal enmities and power-brokering, political agendas of foreign powers like Saudi Arabia, Iran, Pakistan and the US has left it bereft of the dynamics of state-building, despite its experimentation with democracy. The rise of the Taliban was of no consequence to the US when compared to its avowal to dismember the Soviet Union. The Taliban was appropriated to be a regional nuisance by the US under the impression that “some stirred-up Moslems” could well be taken care of. The USA scripted a global war on terrorism, but it did not believe in any notion of global Islam, and truly so because despite being the leading religion of the world with 1.5 billion followers, Islam remains deeply factional, devoid of shared identity among fundamentalist Saudi Arabia, moderate Morocco, militaristic Pakistan, pro-Western Egypt that professes Central Asian secularism.
In the absence of a pan-Islamic identity, the interpretation that the war in Afghanistan or the war on terror was the fructification of the theory of clash of civilization, enunciated by Samuel Huntington in 1993, is a faulty one. But today, the progressive side of the civilizational vigour of the Muslim world stands in askance. However, the “Arab Spring” is a hope wherein the people themselves are attempting to rescue their faith from the clutches of the tyranny of military dictatorships and obscurantist Islamic theocracy. With the US having achieved its aim of crushing the bogey it created, the rest of us are still wondering whether the world is a safer place in the same way as it was being questioned by people when Sayyid Ahmed Barelvi was killed in 1831. Islamic fundamentalism did not die with the death of the Sayyid nor will it die with the killing of Osama bin Laden.
Preeti Nalwa is a Ph.D Scholar at the Department of East Asian Studies in the University of Delhi, India. This article first appeared at Global Politician and is reprinted with the author’s permission.