We do not have the resources to successfully counter even one man, Islam-supremacist Dr. Zakir Naik, who has been the focus of our attention since early days. The Ahl-e-Hadith Wahhabi sect that supports him has massive financial resources. He runs a television station to spread his agenda of hate and contempt for other religions from Mumbai. His TV station is not even registered
I met Sultan Shahin, a Delhi-based journalist and now a friend, back in 2000 at Geneva for the first time. It was a conference organized by the UNO. I was representing RAWA (Revolutionary Association of the Women of Afghanistan) at this moot. A common friend introduced me to Sultan Shahin since he had written a book in which he had lavishly praised RAWA. Ever since I go to Delhi, his home is my shelter. Back in 2008, he launched a website New Age Islam. Though I have not been able to fully reconcile with the idea behind this project yet the way Sultan Shahin’s determination and commitment has made this project a success deserves respect and attention. In an interview with Viewpoint, he discusses his New Age Islam. Read on:
When and why the New Age Islam was launched?
I started this website in April 2008. I was based in Suriname at that time. My wife had a job but the newspaper I was working for – Asia Times Online – did not have any interest in South America. So I had plenty of free time available to me. I had wanted to do something along these lines for quite some time, and now I had the opportunity, so I decided to utilize my time running a website. However, I had not expected the website to get the kind of reception it got right from the beginning. As the subscription kept growing, I started getting more and more involved, feeling greater and greater responsibility to continue with the task.
How many subscribers, visitors or hits the website receives and from which countries readers visit New Age Islam?
An analysis of the figures shows that there are two million plus monthly readers, half of them from India. This is partly because we have targeted Indian readers mostly in our presentation. My deepest concern is that the Jihadism does not spread to India, so we keep reminding people of the dangerous radical mindset that prevails in India as much as in Pakistan or elsewhere.
But while I am happy about our reach in India, I regret not having many more readers in Pakistan, Bangladesh and other Muslim countries, as shown in these figures. However, I have thousands of readers to the daily NewAgeIslam_Newsletter from these countries. This mail is sent to nearly 124, 000 subscribers every day. But we do not know how many subscribers are from which country, as we only ask them to give their names and e-mail IDs.
We do not track age group and gender. However, from the feedback we get through comments posted on our site I can presume that they are mostly male in two main age groups, 18 to 30 years and above 55 years. We have a separate section on “Islam, women and Feminism” and keep publishing in other sections like “Islamic world news” and “Islamic ideology” or “War within Islam” news and views related to Islam and women, but most of the respondents tend to be male.
Who are your main contributors?
We regularly publish views of Indian Islamic scholars Asghar Ali Engineer and Maulana Waheeduddin Khan, Dr. Shabbir Ahmed, Professor Yoginder Sikand, Maulvi Waris Mazhari, Masood Alam Falahi,. We also publish occasionally Javed Ahmad Ghamdi, Chandra Muzaffar, Mike Ghouse, Maulvi Yahya Nomani, M J Akbar, and many other moderate thinkers who may not be considered Islamic scholars as such but have studied the religion and have considered views. We also interview a number of scholars and activists like Maulana Zahid ur-Rashidi, Maulana Mirza Mohammad Athar, Banu Mushtaq , Daud Sharifa Khanum, Seema Mustafa , Hanif Lakdawala , Aijaz Ilmi, Firoz Bakht Ahmed , Ather Farouqui, etc. who are working in various fields and seeking to uphold a moderate view of Islam. But we also publish regularly conservative views of Deobandi Wahhabi scholars like Maulana Nadeemul Wajidi and translate opinion pieces from the Urdu Press so that our readers can debate them and highlight the folly of their ways.
What are the topics most discussed or written about on the website? Or in other words, what message are you trying to give to Muslims and also to non-Muslims?
We have a long-term aim and a short-term one. In the long-term we want to encourage Muslims to rethink Islam in all its aspects. Islam has to be rethought in the context of demands that modern times place on us. It has to be rethought point by point, clause by clause. Original Islam asked us to practice Ijtihad, rethinking whenever a new issue arose, of course, in the light of the spirit of Islam. But very early on Islam was confused with Arab customs and practices. Then scholars of Islam codified Islamic teachings in a form of law, calling it Sharia. Several versions of it evolved in different schools of thought, but later Muslims were told that now there was no need for Ijtihad, rethinking, as all laws had been framed. We are saying that the ulema have no right to close the doors of ijtihad that were opened for us by God. As new issues arise, they need to be debated. A Saudi woman, for instance raised a question: Should women be now allowed to have more than one husband? Her point was that the Quran said that women cannot have more husbands as it will not then be possible to establish the paternity of the child, but now it can be done. So is it now time to change this law? Muslims need a forum to debate issues like this where no restrictions are placed on expression of views. Since this is precisely what we do, readers of all hues find it convenient to use the forum that New Age Islam provides. Most Islamic website are of an ideological or sectarian nature and restrict the expression of views. This, I think, and some readers have said, is the reason why they engage with us.
But when your house is on fire, the first thing you do is to tackle that. At the moment we are engaged in a massive war within Islam. Backed by tens of billions of dollars of Arab money, Wahhabis and their different offshoots are trying to capture the Muslim mind. The message of Wahhabi Islam has already penetrated every nook and corner of the Muslim world. What was considered despicable a few decades ago has become respectable.
We at New Age Islam are trying to fight this trend. In essence we are telling Muslims that the version of Islam being spread with the help of petrodollars is not Islam. With the help of Quran and Sunnah we try to give them the correct message of Islam. Unfortunately what we call Petrodollar Islam has become so successful that even many moderate Muslims have begun to believe that the Petrodollar version is the correct version and that we are just apologists for a fake version of Islam. They have begun to think that the Arab-supremacist version of Islam is indeed the right Islam. People who could have become our biggest asset are becoming indifferent to the cause of mainstream Islam. This has made the task harder. But the completely unexpected success with which the website has met shows that the battle is not yet lost.
Do you think New Age Islam will revive or construct Muslim identity and community of a different sort?
The website definitely has the potential to do that. But it’s a massive task. At the moment we do not have the resources to successfully counter even one man, Islam-supremacist Dr. Zakir Naik, who has been the focus of our attention since early days. The Ahl-e-Hadith Wahhabi sect that supports him has massive financial resources. He runs a television station to spread his agenda of hate and contempt for other religions from Mumbai. His TV station is not even registered. New Age Islam has been pointing this out, apart from countering him ideologically. There was massive reader response to articles written about him, both from his many supporters and opponents. But his fan following seems to be consistently growing.
At the moment, we at New Age Islam are trying to warn Indian Muslims of an obvious Saudi attempt to promote Shia-Sunni sectarian division and conflict. The Imam of Kaaba was here with the anti-Shia message and soon after his departure a massive Sunni conference is being organized today in Lucknow, the Shia heartland of India, to basically denounce Shias, though the cover is that the conference is to praise the companions of the Prophet whom Shias are supposed to revile. Why the companions of the Prophet couldn’t be praised anywhere else in India where Sunnis are in a majority? Why go to Lucknow? Only one answer is possible. To incite the Shias. Now if Saudi Arabia comes to Lucknow, can Iran be far behind. Indeed, Iran is already there. But so far India was probably one of the few countries without a history of Shia-Sunni conflict despite a strong 15 percent Shia minority among Muslims. There have been a few disputes in the past but they were easily resolved. At least in the recent past there has been no tension at all.
Now what is in offing, we do not know. Can New Age Islam website make a difference to the situation? We have pointed this out and people are beginning to understand the real message of the visiting Saudi cleric. We will continue our struggle. We may even be able to stop the formation of an Indian version of Sipah-e-Sahaba or any massacres of Shias that may be being planned? For many in the media here and government circles read us and will get the message. Some have already called to thank for the insight they got into the Saudi cleric’s real message. Before reading New Age Islam articles they were just thinking he was praising the companions of the Prophet and how could there be any sinister message hidden in that. But now they know. We are monitoring today’s conference in Lucknow to praise the companions of the Prophet and will try to highlight its anti-Shia content. The message will again go out to the influential sections of the country who run our mainstream media or who have to look after law and order. But influencing the hearts and minds of common Muslims and reviving or re-constructing Muslim identity is a massive task that requires far more resources than we have now. We are making a difference to the extent that we are raising issues that were not being done in the past.
What response or reaction has the website received from government, from the civil society and the subscribers?
With the meagre resources with which the website was started, I should say, I am quite satisfied with the response. It has been beyond my expectations. Subscription to our newsletter is gowning and has already reached a level - 124, 000 - that it is becoming difficult for me to handle.
We are a secular country. The government tries to keep itself as far away from religious matters, particularly ideological disputes, as possible. But since we write about issues like terrorism and Jihad and radical Islamism, I imagine some sections of government do at least read it. Some officials have occasionally called in their individual capacities as readers to thank New Age Islam for its insights. Political parties keep as far away as possible from us as possible. Beards bring votes and we oppose the association of beards with Islam, so they don’t find us of any use. Politics is at its most cynical here.
Electronic media finds beards more photogenic, incendiary comments more dramatic, so they would elevate an imam of a mosque with very little following even in the area where he lives – I am talking of the imam of Jama Masjid Delhi – as the leader of all Muslims of India. However, in the print media, New Age Islam has found some influence. Early morning editorial conferences in some newspapers discuss positions taken by New Age Islam on some issues. Two of the most widely read newspapers The Times of India and The Hindu have written about the website’s fight against fundamentalism and petrodollar Arab-supremacist Islam on their editorial pages. These articles have got translated and been published by several regional language newspapers. Some blogs in the cyberspace have written about us and discussed our potential.
How important has been the Internet for your work?
Well, we are a creature of internet. I have been conscious of the need for rethinking Islam since very early in my life. All my four decades of journalistic life has been the period of the spread of Petrodollar Islam. I have been always trying to find space for engaging with the community with my views. This could only be done in something I ran and for which I did not take financial help from any interested party. This meant something that could be done only on small resources. I made several attempts to launch magazines, but the expenditure involved was so much that I could not do it without financial support. And anyone who extended support would have his own agenda. So there the matter would end. I cannot imagine being able to launch this venture, reaching out to so many people nationally and globally, without internet.
Do you consider the website as national or transnational outlet?
By its very nature, a website is a transnational venture. If you see the statistics provided by our host’s server, you will find that the website has some readers practically everywhere. Since the website started in Paramaribo, Suriname and is now running from Delhi, that too has given it a certain transnational flavour. But certainly its impact at the moment is more at the national level.
Sahar Saba is an Afghan women rights' activist. For many years, she was spokesperson of Revolutionary Afghan Women Association (RAWA). Also, she has worked with RAWA for many years in refugee camps in Pakistan and in Afghanistan in different capacities. She has traveled to many countries in the past several years to speak on behalf of Afghan women. She was born in Kabul. Her family migrated to Pakistan where Sahar Saba became active with RAWA. She has a law degree from London University and writes on issues facing Afghan women.