There is a widespread anger among masses against the impunity that the divisive preachers enjoy.
Kashmir Newsline Correspondent
In the 1986 Bollywood blockbuster Karma, jailor Rana Vishva Pratap Singh (Dilip Kumar) gives Dr. Dang (Anupam Kher) a cracking slap who, in an absolute state of shock, blurts out: “Rana, is thappad ki goonj ki goonj tumhen sunai degi – this slap is going to resonate in your own life.” Over three and a half decades later, a similar slap is resonating across Kashmir via social media, having already triggered hot debates and questions regarding the obnoxious temperament and behavior of clerics who are constantly at each other’s throats, handing out certificates of kufr (infidelity) and shirk (polytheism) and bringing down other schools of thought in Islam.
The controversy erupted on July 14 when a young bearded man wearing a skullcap, green sweater and shalwar kameez interrupted Nouman Nowshehri’s mosque sermon. The man introduced himself as Rayees Ahmad from Sogam, Kupwara and challenged the cleric for an impromptu religious debate, known colloquially as manazrah.
But when the preacher refused to engage with him and told him to call his mentor instead, the young man refused to disengage prompting a short fuse response from Nowshehri.
The cleric abruptly got up from his chair and dashed towards the young man and slapped him before going back to his chair as if nothing had happened. The scene was captured on mobile phone cameras and broadcast across Kashmir via social media sites. Nowshehri is a Sunni Deobandi cleric and the young man at the receiving end a follower of the Barelvi subsect of the Sunni Islam.
Three weeks later, Nowshehri dismisses the whole incident as an act of conspiracy against him. “That young man labeled scholars of Deoband as infidels. That’s why I lost it. In a similar situation, I will slap him again,” the unrepentant cleric said.
“The truth is I gave him a patient hearing and even offered him my car to bring his mentor for the religious debate in the mosque, but he acted in an unruly manner.”
However, the video footage doesn’t support Nowshehri’s claims. The young man, even after the mullah slapped him, remained calm and unanimated, as the footage shows.
The cleric’s actions were formally denounced by various sections of Kashmir’s religious clergy. Clerics from different schools of thought accused Nowshehri of acting arbitrarily besides the widespread public ire he drew on social media.
While continuing to justify his behavior, Nowshehri claims the man was sent with an intent to disrupt his religious gathering.
“I heard how Abdul Rasheed Dawoodi, Fayaz Rizvi and Shakeel Misbahi justified his actions and told people how their man had sought time to have debate with me and was slapped in return. But the fact is some 9.5 lakh people saw my video wherein the young man is clearly lying to me. He doesn’t name these scholars who are now using this incident to show me in a poor light. They are liars and all they wanted was to give me a bad name.”
Old Schism, New Technology
The schism between various sects and subsects in Kashmir has a long history, however, it was mostly confined to seminaries and mosques until the advent of social media.
There are several cases of clerics of opposing sects calling each other out disparagingly not only hurling slurs and abuses ad hominem but also attacking each other’s beliefs even if there is a minor variation. The incidents of violent takeover of mosques have also been common besides inviting each other for a manazrah and then creating a hostage situation, even if for only a few hours. Social media sites like YouTube and Facebook are filled with such manazrahs happening across Kashmir, as also in the rest of the Islamic world.
While most Kashmiris adhere to the Hanafi school of jurisprudence, the rise of Ahl-e-Hadees sect drove this schism deeper and divided family members and mosques. Similarly, divisions between Barelvis and Deobandis – both adherents of Hanafi school of jurisprudence – have also deepened.
This chasm, however, has now become more evident because of internet and hi-tech gadgets which allow these divisions and their violent reflections to be relayed into homes across the region.
As the mobile phone cameras regularly capture the rash behavior of the clergy, the long held veneration for the clerics has fallen a few notches further.
Mohi-ud-din Bhat, in his mid-sixties, is a quintessential Kashmiri who easily gets swayed by news and newsmakers. He often retreats to his room where smart phone streams a new world of realities to him. He also saw Nowshehri slapping the young man on his phone.
“Pulpits have always enjoyed certain impunity in Kashmir and with the result you could hardly criticize its lest you landed yourself in some serious trouble,” Bhat said.
“This recent slap by a loudmouthed cleric is the final nail in the coffin now,” he said. “This can’t go like this forever. These men on these sacred seats have always been given the benefit of the doubt by this oppressed society, but it’s time to separate the wheat from the chaff now.”
Imtiyaz Lone, a lecturer whose online anguish on the controversy got a lot of traction, said it was difficult to understand who allowed these unruly people to become preachers.
“These people are using pulpits to create their own sectarian supremacy and following in the society. They need to be called out for their regressive behavior and brought to book,” Lone said.
What Lone alludes to is quite a drama that netizens in Kashmir have been witnessing for some time now. While the script remains the same, the characters keep changing.
It usually starts with a cleric resorting to name-calling of his perceived nemesis — leaving his followers either in fits of laughter or in adrenaline rush.
It doesn’t stop there. In a bid to enhance his stature, the cleric then invites his adversary for a debate – manazrah – on a sensitive religious issue.
This spectacle is carefully captured on cameras for the intended online exploits.
“The whole point of these so-called debates is to create differences in the society,” says Arsalan Amin, a banker and close observer of these deliberations.
“These molvis are driven by their own madness and are only creating divisions in the society and bringing a bad name to such a beautiful religion they claim to represent. Our faith fosters an idea of semblance, not difference,” he said.
In the face of these venomous debates and pulpit polemics, the civil society is calling for a religious revamp based on some scientific and rational grounds – a proper schooling and personality development course for the man tasked to deliver religious sermons to the community.
Since most of these garrulous mullahs have their own YouTube channels, debating controversial issues and creating ruckus also brings them huge viewership. It’s ironic that the tribe that till not so many years back considered photography as a devil’s act are now all the time seen on YouTube and other social media sites spewing venom and peddling ignorance while flaunting their ritzy gadgets which are, otherwise, beyond their legal income.
The now widely condemned slap isn’t the first incident of its kind. A few years back, Kashmir’s chief cleric and former Hurriyat Conference Chairman, Mirwaiz Umar Farooq, was seen slapping a shopkeeper at a gathering. The video, in which the Mirwaiz is also seen threatening the shopkeepers of Jamia Masjid, went viral, drawing widespread condemnation and raising questions. And, this isn’t confined to mere slapping or vitriol. Many preachers don’t even hesitate from issuing a murderous fatwa–a religious decree– to put their point across. In one such video that went viral in the month of Ramadhan this year, a local mullah Irshad Tantray Al-Madni is seen endorsing the murder of a Muslim who doesn’t fast in the month of Ramadhan.
In yet another video, one of the most famous and controversial preachers from Kashmir, Mushtaq Veeri was seen glorifying ISIS when the terrorist organization was beheading and burning people alive and gaining swathes of territories across Iraq and Syria some years back. “Dekha salfiyon ka kamal – see what the Salfis can do!” exclaims the cleric in a fit of orgasmic celebration in the widely viewed video footage.
Too Little, Too Late
The current procedure for pulpit appointment merely rests on a person’s oratory skills and some religious knowledge. But following the latest diatribe, this yardstick is now being contested for the larger good of the society.
Mutahida Majlis-e-Ulema (MMU), an amalgamation of organizations of clerics and preachers, did ask the priests to refrain from creating rifts amongst different sects of Islam.
The conglomerate argued that there are many sects in Islam and everybody is allowed to follow the teachings in whatever way they want to. “But, nobody,” it said, “should be allowed to create fissures in Islam.”
“Islam is a religion of peace and nobody should be allowed to create rifts by indulging in acts that are prohibited in Islam.”
All the religious clerics belonging to different sects, it said, will be asked to refrain from giving statements that would hurt the sentiments of people belonging to other sects.
“The Ulemas are united to ensure peace,” the MMU reiterated. “Nobody will be allowed to cross the limits, which would affect the peace amongst different sects.”
But while many denounce this collective declaration as merely a reactive stance created by the public backlash, the resolve to name and shame, or even ostracize certain habitual offenders is still lacking.
In fact, when Kashmir Newsline approached a near dozen clergymen for their take on the issue, most of them either excused themselves or called the MMU’s statement as their collective take.
“You better talk to someone else,” said one. “Well, this is beyond my domain,” said the other. “What’s there to talk about it, our stand is already out,” responded another.
While all these responses clearly reflect a lack of will to call out the offenders, many believe the submissive stand is clearly encouraging some madcap preachers to grow with an itch to slap or spread sectarian bile in the society.