An Interview With Koenraad Elst

By Dr. Ramesh Rao

AUGUST 2002

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[The interview first appeared in Sulekha.com on 19 August 2002]

I have reviewed one of Koenraad Elst's books for Sulekha, and Koenraad has been mentioned in passing by many people in response to what I have written. The 43 year-old Belgian author of more than 15 books on Indian nationalism, history, politics, religious conflict and such controversial topics spoke to me of his recent visit to the United States where he presented a paper at the WAVES 2002 conference, and about a wide range of issues including the Gujarat riots, the Aryan Invasion Theory, and the divide between "mainstream" scholars and "marginalized" scholars like himself.

Koenraad is an unassuming, hardworking, good-humored, and brilliant man who does his research meticulously but who has been made into an ogre by the academic and media mills both in India and in the West. His massive two-volume work The Saffron Swastika: The Notion of 'Hindu Fascism' (Voice of India Publications) and the equally painstaking and detailed Decolonizing the Hindu Mind: Ideological Development of Hindu Revivalism (Rupa Books) have been given the "silent treatment" by media reviewers and academic evaluators trying to assume that "quite burials" will take care of "mavericks" and contrarian theses. The label "maverick" itself is used by academics and reviewers as a rhetorical ploy to equally quickly dismiss views that they do not know how to counter or they know cannot be countered without acknowledging that the "maverick" has a few points to make.

Koenraad's books include Indigenous Indians: Agastya to Ambedkar, Psychology of Prophetism: A Secular Look at the Bible, Negationism in India: Concealing the Record of Islam, Ram Janmabhoomi Vs. Babri Masjid: A Case Study in Hindu-Muslim Conflict, Ayodhya and After: Issues Before Hindu Society, The Demographic Siege, Bharatiya Janata Party vis-à-vis Hindu Resurgence, Update on the Aryan Invasion Debate, Gandhi and Godse: A Review and a Critique. Some of his books are available online at http://www.bharatvani.org/books/

Enjoy the interview!

Ramesh Rao

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1. You just attended the WAVES (World Association for Vedic Studies) conference in Dartmouth, Massachusetts. On the "Religion in South Asia" e-list, some have accused the conference organizers of ignoring Muslim, Christian, Sikh and other contributions to Indian civilization. What is your take on it?

-- My paper was about the historical relation between Zoroastrianism, Buddhism and Christianity. Is that non-Hindu enough? The critics may also keep in mind that the central concern of WAVES is Vedic studies, and the Vedic corpus was complete even before Christianity, Islam and Sikhism came into being. They don't discuss the Vedas at Biblical Studies conferences, do they? So why gate-crash non-Vedic traditions into a Vedic conference? It makes sense to study the influence of the Vedas on younger religions, not vice versa. I agree that we should devote some attention to the veneration for the Vedas attested in the writings of the Sikh Gurus. Unfortunately, that still wouldn't satisfy the critics because it would confirm the Hindu essence of Sikhism, which they prefer to construe quite unhistorically as an anti-Hindu rebellion. As for Islam, we might discuss the fate of the Vedic insight "Aham Brahmaasmi" (I am Brahma) in Islam. In Arabic, Mansur al-Hallaj rendered it as "Ana'l Haqq" (I am the Truth), and he was beheaded for it. I suppose that's not what the critics would want to see highlighted either. It's always the same story: Hindus are damned if they do, damned if they don't.

2. WAVES had initially gained the attention by giving a forum to critics of the Aryan Invasion Theory (AIT). What has happened on that front?

-- The debate has moved into somewhat quieter waters. The WAVES conference contained two important papers in this field, apart from Kalyanaraman's continuing reconstruction of the history of the Saraswati river. Narahari Achar has shown how over a dozen astronomical data in the Mahabharata converge on the classical chronology for the epic's core events, viz. ca. 3100 BCE. This is coterminous with the chronology implied in the stray astronomical information in the Vedic corpus but quite incompatible with the conventional AIT timeline. The second paper was David Frawley's defence of his argument that the Vedas are rich in references to seafaring and the ocean, samudra.

3. Frawley's theory has indeed been challenged. It is said that this term was only used in a figurative sense, as the "heavenly ocean", meaning simply the heavens.

-- Which would imply that all the Vedic references to sea-faring actually pertain to space travel* I've always disliked Sri Aurobindo's symbolic interpretation of the Vedas, and he was an AIT critic but now the same stratospheric approach is taken by the AIT defenders! At any rate, people can only think up a metaphorical ocean after they have seen the real thing, so either way the Vedic people were not cowherds belonging to a landlocked Central-Asian habitat. In my reading, the Vedas contain plenty of down-to-earth historical information, and it includes familiarity with seafaring as well as a movement from India to Afghanistan, not the reverse. That information obviously argues against the AIT, but not definitively: it could still be compatible with an Aryan invasion at an earlier date, or perhaps another as yet unsuspected scenario. From the beginning, I have been puzzled by the immense certainty on both sides of the debate. To me, it's an open-ended search.

4. The communal conflagration in Gujarat has been claiming the attention throughout the past months. Was the attack on Hindu pilgrims in Godhra pre-planned?  What kind of consequences did the planners expect?

-- Let me say first of all that I am winding up my work as an observer of Indian communalism. I think the patterns are clear, and filling in more details may be an interesting job for other people, but I want to move to more fundamental issues. Dealing with communal confrontations at face value has never solved the problem. Most secularist writings on the Gujarat riots manage to leave madrassa education unmentioned. How serious are you about weeding out Hindu-Muslim riots if you don't want to address the permanent source of religious hatred among Muslims, the very cause of Partition, of jihad? But more fundamental than the identification of sources of irrational hatred in the core texts of Islam is the question how Islam came into being, which defects of human consciousness made it possible? The problem of Islam is rooted in a universal problem of human inadequacy.

Secondly, Gujarat has not been "claiming" attention all by itself. An intensive effort by the usual suspects has kept attention as much as possible away from other scenes of communal violence. In the past months, how many people have been killed by Christian separatists in the Northeast, by Communists in Kerala or Nepal, by Muslims in Bangladesh or Jammu? As for Gujarat itself, how many Hindus have been killed by Muslims even after Godhra? The secularists have been acting as if attacks on Muslims in Gujarat are the only communal flashpoint. This is typical of hate discourse: apart from pure lies, the main technique consists in exclusively highlighting the - sometimes admittedly real - crimes of the targeted group and keeping instances of its innocent victimization out of view.

As for Godhra, I have no privileged access to the police investigation. But if you care for my speculations, I consider it merely possible that a group of Muslim hotheads recklessly vented their hatred of Hindus. They must have known that in a Hindu-majority area, they couldn't get away with more than small-scale violence. There is plenty of petty Muslim terror in Gujarat, which is how Hindus were cleansed out of entire neighborhoods of Ahmedabad, but the trick is to apply it in small doses. At any rate, whether large or small, any initiative to violence refutes the image of the Muslims as a poor helpless minority. After all, defenceless minorities, such as the Hindus in Pakistan or Bangladesh, simply don't dare to commit even the most feeble violence against the majority. A massive strike like in Godhra, courting Hindu retaliation, either was the work of foolish hotheads, or it was prepared in advance and calculated to provoke a backlash. Before Partition, the Muslim League would deliberately provoke Hindu violence against Muslims in order to drive home the point that coexistence with Hindus was impossible. But today, I don't see such a motive among any section of the Indian Muslims. Only Pakistan would have an interest in fomenting this kind of trouble in India, a new front in the proxy war.

5. Was the Hindu backlash spontaneous?  What role do you think the VHP played in the aftermath of Godhra?

-- Again, I'll mistrust the press and wait for the official findings. Home Minister L.K. Advani claims that two hundred policemen were killed, and we know of the old antagonism between Muslims and the police - not only in India, even Muslim rioters in France typically target the police. Clearly the violence was not one-sided. I just read a follow-up report about Muslim women who had allegedly been raped. Many of the women interviewed deny that rapes took place at least in their own neighborhoods, and the only woman to maintain the allegation of mass rape was obviously tutored and her story fell through upon being questioned more closely. To be sure, that Hindu follow-up report may be just as partisan as the secularists' reports aimed at exploitation of the riots. I cannot judge either version from my armchair.

But I will agree in general terms that this was mostly a Hindu retaliation for the Godhra massacre, and for all the earlier occasions of Muslim aggression. Gujarat and especially Ahmedabad have witnessed a sustained low-level terror campaign against the Hindus. With their Gandhian tradition of fleeing and turning the other cheek, the Gujaratis have amassed considerable resentment against the Muslims, and after Godhra it all came out.

6. Are you saying that the Gandhian mentality has paradoxically contributed to the eruption of Hindu anger?

-- Yes. I know quite a few people of Gujarati Bania background, and I am rather uncomfortable with their tough talk. As children, these yuppies were brought up on Gandhi's extreme non-violence but they are now talking very loosely about the need to "give the Muslims a good beating", things like that. The psychology behind their evolution is that they have experienced how Gandhian attitudes of appeasing the aggressor and turning the other cheek simply don't work, and then they have moved to the other extreme. In dealing with aggression, one should neither appease nor overreact.

7. In the RISA list discussion already mentioned, you were described as a defender of Gandhi's murderer, Nathuram Godse. Do you agree?

-- Why don't critics first learn to read? In my book Gandhi and Godse, I have shown how most of the arguments against Gandhi given by Godse in his speech in court were in fact very common in his day. Gandhi's erratic policies were criticized by his contemporaries like Annie Besant, Sri Aurobindo, Bhimrao Ambedkar, and many others. And none of them went out to kill Gandhi, so there is nothing murderous about these arguments per se. They correctly predicted that under his irrational leadership, the strategy of mass mobilization and "non-violence" would yield very bitter fruits, as it did during the Khilafat riots circa 1922 and again during the Partition. Indologists like Alain Daniélou and historians like Paul Johnson have also demythologized the Mahatma. One of the perverse effects of the murder was precisely that in India this criticism of Gandhi suddenly became taboo, and that the myth of his centrality in the achievement of independence became unassailable.

8. Was the English media reaction to Godhra predictable?  If so, how?  If there are cases of balanced reporting/analyses, from whom?

-- By all means, preserve the Godhra articles and columns in a special folder, one day they will be the object of a spectacular case study in the human capacity for doublethink. Though disgusting, it was at the same time quite funny to watch the extreme inventiveness of the secularists in blaming the victims. They were very annoyed that the Gujarat carnage was so unambiguously started by Muslims with their massacre of Hindu pilgrims, mostly women and children. So, they falsely started describing the victims as "extremists" and inventing stories of how these Hindu children had kidnapped a Muslim woman into their riding train. That canard was borrowed from an Islamist website. There is never much difference between secularist reporting and Islamist propaganda anyway, which is why Indian theocratic Islamists call themselves "secularists". The latest is their "report" claiming that the Hindus in the train had themselves lit the fire, in a gigantic mass suicide. Well, I suppose free speech includes the right to spread nonsense.

On the bright side, I noticed Vir Sanghvi's article pointing out the crass double standards of his colleagues in their Godhra reporting. When a white missionary is murdered by tribals in Orissa, we are expected to recoil in indignation, but when Hindus are murdered by the dozens for the umpteenth time, we are expected to agree that they had it coming. Even the wave of media hate against the Hindus and the BJP has a bright side. It eloquently disproves any suspicion that the BJP is in any way a "fascist" party. Under a fascist regime, such anti-government writing would have provoked a severe punishment. But in reality, writing against the BJP is still a good career move.

9. Kanwal Rekhi and Henry Rowen have proposed that the recipients of donations from American Hindus, meaning especially the VHP, are out to "destroy minorities", and that the Indian government should "deal a severe blow to such covert causes by labelling them simply as terrorists".

-- Even entrepreneurs like Rekhi display the typically secularist nostalgia for Soviet methods when it comes to dealing with Hindu activism. A democratic government doesn't "simply label" an organization as terrorist, it must establish proof that will stand up in court. And when it comes to proof, there is a long list of cases where much-touted secularist proof fell apart under scrutiny. What happened to the evidence for the VHP's involvement in the murder of the missionary Graham Staines? It is increasingly clear that acts of anti-Muslim or anti-Christian violence are often the handiwork of desperate but unorganised locals. Membership of an organization like the VHP, by contrast, offers them the hope of participating in a larger countersubversive strategy and thereby keeps acts of desperation in check.

10. Do you see any major changes in the RSS strategy for dealing with minority issues in India?  Any hopeful outcomes from RSS leaders who have been meeting with minority leaders?

-- My criticism of the Sangh's position regarding the minorities remains the same since more than a decade: it is both too hard and too soft. Ideologically, it is too soft. It deflects any serious criticism of Islam or Christianity into a matter of national versus anti-national loyalties: "Islam is OK, but it must be Indianized". On universal grounds of truth and morality, Islam is not OK, not even in Arabia where it is cent per cent patriotic. Recently, awareness of the hate-mongering impact of the Quran has become so widespread that VHP spokesman Giriraj Kishore felt compelled to address the issue. But instead of being logical and asking Muslims to renounce the Quran, he requested them to "amend the Quran". How can you change the Quran and still call it the Quran? And what blasphemy to change the supposed word of God Himself! The Hindu attitude to Islam, from Gandhiji to Giriraj Kishore, is one of total confusion. Meanwhile, the Sangh may well be too hard on the minorities in practice. To say, as several Sangh leaders have done, that "the Muslims' best guarantee of safety lies in winning the trust of the Hindus", implies that they would be endangered if Hindus have cause to mistrust them. I can understand if Muslims read that as a threat. The correct position is that Muslims are people quite like the rest of us, and that they should be treated equally with Hindus; but that Islam as an ideology should be subjected to inexorable criticism.

11. Teesta Setalvad, Kamal Mitra Chenory and others testified before the U.S. Commission for International Religious Freedom accusing the Modi government and the VHP of conducting a "pogrom" against the Muslims.  Should Indian citizens testify before commissions of inquiry set up by foreign governments? 

-- You mean the commission which swallowed John Dayal's long-refuted allegation of a gang-rape of four nuns in Jhabua by "Hindu activists", who turned out to be Christian themselves? And which still believes that Hindus committed a series of bomb attacks on churches, though the culprits have been caught and identified as members of the Pak-based Deendar Anjuman? Genuine social activists like Swami Agnivesh have refused to appear before that commission on the correct plea that India is a sovereign and democratic nation which needs no lessons from the U.S.

Democracy has brought the BJP to power, and the enemies of democracy try to overrule the voters' verdict by appealing to higher powers such as the U.S. The term "pogrom" applies neatly to what Muslims did to Hindus in Godhra. A retaliation, by contrast, is not normally called a pogrom, unless you want to imply that the Jews who suffered in the Russian pogroms had asked for it. But there is no doubt that Hindus have massacred Muslims in Gujarat. I for one don't need a U.S. commission to prove that to me. What remains unproven, though, and in my opinion most unlikely, is that the VHP would have organized it. The only ones with a vested interest in preventing riots are the Hindu nationalists, for they invariably get the blame. That is why in Uttar Pradesh, Congress and Samajwadi governments have seen a much higher incidence in communal violence than BJP governments. Conversely, riots are the very life-blood of secularist politics.

12. How so?

-- The secularists had made all these shrill predictions that a BJP government would open gas chambers for Muslims, throw them in the ocean, etc. But for four years, in spite of numerous massacres of Hindus by Muslim terrorists, the Indian Muslims were left alone. Islamic terrorists killed forty BJP activists, allegedly "Hindu Nazis", in Coimbatore. What would real Nazis do in that case? Well, in November 1938 a young Jew killed a German diplomat in Paris, and the Nazis reacted by attacking all the Jewish shops in Germany and killing nearly a hundred innocent Jews. So that's Nazism for you. By contrast, the BJP did not retaliate at all. Hindus were being killed with great frequency in Jammu, even the parliament buildings in Srinagar and Delhi were attacked, yet the Muslims remained unharmed. So, the secularists were losing credibility day by day. They needed the Gujarat carnage, they thanked Allah when it finally materialized. They were suddenly back in business, getting invited all the way to Washington to tell their scare stories.

13. You have avoided theoretical framing of issues.  Why?  Modern scholars, including all the talked about Indian academics use a lot of Marxist, postmodern, and feminist theory to argue their cases.  You don't. 

-- What real knowledge of the religio-political situation have those theories ever added? Read those books and you will see that "constructs" and "conceptual tools" fill the pages that should have contained real information instead. Such scholars collect just enough primary information to prove that they did get in touch with their topic, or more often they borrow even that minimum of information from like-minded publications, and then they put these raw data through the theory machine, yielding a theory sausage peppered with a few data selected for their fitting into the theory's expectations. Most of them borrow not just data, but also opinions and judgments without critically examining them. At the same time, they manage to disregard pertinent data which stare every normal observer in the face. Thus, practically every Hindu activist whom I have interviewed between 1990 and 1998 brought up the plight of the Kashmiri Pandits, murdered or expelled from their homeland, as a telling illustration of the true religio-political power equation in India. But most publications purportedly analysing Hindu nationalism in the 1990s manage to overlook this expulsion of Hindus from a part of India. They have to if they want to uphold the image of India as dominated by an overbearing Hindu majority threatening a hapless Muslim minority.

14. Some scholars like Thomas Blom Hansen and Ashis Nandy have been dismissive of your work.

They would, wouldn't they? If I am right then they are wrong, so their prestige may stand or fall with the elimination of my position from the debate.

15.  Nandy ("Creating a Nationality", p.5) and his co-authors write: "For the moment, we bypass the dishonesty and moral vacuity of the likes of Koenraad Elst on this issue". How do you respond?  Are they contemptuous because you don't do fashionable theorizing?

-- That is one element which stamps me as an outsider. Another is that I don't belong to their institutional network. In my young days, anti-authoritarianism was all the rage, and I have retained some of that scorn for arguments of status and authority. In the communalism debate, however, the snobbish argument of status is the one most commonly used. Remember the "eminent historians"? But most importantly, Nandy simply disagrees with my general position, which is OK. Only, when he cannot prove me wrong with arguments, he resorts to name-calling. In the present power equation, he doesn't risk a reprimand for stooping to that level. By the way, don't you admire Nandy's rhetorical cleverness? He pushes the allegation of "dishonesty and moral vacuity" all while "bypassing" the burden of proof.

As for "dishonesty", I try to avoid uttering that allegation, at least against individuals. I have taken a number of viewpoints in succession, from Catholic to New Age to Skeptical, from Karl Marx to Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, so I know from experience that you can espouse a mistaken view without therefore being dishonest. Most important Hindu thinkers have gone through several conversions, especially into and out of Marxism: Ram Swarup, Sita Ram Goel, Arun Shourie, Swapan Dasgupta et al. Most Indian secularists, by contrast, never once changed their minds after learning from their Nehruvian teachers whom to hate and whom to venerate. Their intellectual culture is quite poor and so they easily resort to sermonizing and finger-wagging rather than arguing things out with facts and logic. But I will accept in every individual case that they may be honest in their beliefs. By contrast, secularism as a movement must be branded as a unique achievement in dishonesty.

16. What is your basic criticism of India's so-called secularism?

-- That it isn't secular. As a political framework, secularism requires that all citizens are equal before the law regardless of their religious affiliation. That is a definitional minimum. An Indian secularist would therefore first of all be found on the barricades in the struggle for a common civil code, against the existing legal apartheid between Hindus, Muslims, Christians and Parsis. But the only major party to demand the enactment of a common civil code, as mandated by the Constitution, happens to be the BJP. On election eve, the others run to the Shahi Imam to pledge their firm commitment to the preservation of the Shari'a for Muslims. In the West and in the Muslim world, the upholding of religion-based communal legislation is rightly called anti-secularist.

I have often discussed this point with Indian secularists. Their usual argument is that, you see, India is a peculiar case, the uniform civil code issue has been "hijacked" by the Hindus, and for now the country needs these separate civil codes. I am not convinced, but even if we concede that India is better off with the present system, that still doesn't make it secular. The opponents of the common civil code, the upholders of discrimination against the Hindus in education and temple management, the defenders of a special status for states with non-Hindu majorities -- they should have the courage of their conviction and call themselves "anti-secular". Incidentally, this is one thing you have to concede to Ashis Nandy: he has criticized the very notion of secularism.

17. Don't you think that secularism is more than just an institutional arrangement, that it is also an intellectual attitude?

-- All right, as an intellectual movement, secularism means that religion is treated as a human construct rather than the product of a divine revelation. It implies a frank and critical investigation of the claims of religion. In this respect, the failure and dishonesty of Indian secularism is even more complete. Its discourse on religion is extremely and wilfully superficial. It shields from criticism even the most obscurantist religious beliefs or institutions, provided they are non-Hindu. For instance, almost every self-styled secularist, from the exiting president to the editors of the newspapers, has sworn by the story that Christianity was brought to India by the apostle Thomas. In the West, not just secularists but even Catholic universities like the one where I studied have dropped this myth. But in India, the secularists are its most determined upholders.

Indian secularism is systematically dishonest in its assessment of the religions hostile to Hinduism. Thus, after the Staines murder, which apparently resulted from the well-attested resentment of the tribals against the divisive effect of conversion on their communities, the secularists massively denied that the Christian missionaries are in India for purposes of conversion. In reality, the project of converting all mankind is intrinsic to the Christian religion. In Catholic school, I always learned that the missionaries provide medical and educational services primarily in order to make the targeted communities receptive to conversion. Staines' own bulletin to his Australian sponsors proved he was doing conversion work. The Southern Baptists reconfirmed in 1999 that Hindus are doomed unless they become Christians. The Pope himself came to Delhi to say in so many words that the Church intends to "reap a harvest of faith" in India. Yet this self-evident fact is still dismissed by vocal secularists as a figment of Hindutva paranoia. In parenthesis: since my critics are fond of misquoting me, let me say explicitly that I disapprove of murder as a way of protesting against the nuisance of conversion campaigns.

Or take a more fundamental item, the core belief of Islam: that Mohammed is God's prophet. Suppose one of your colleagues told you one day that henceforth you have to obey his every word, as he has become God's spokesman receiving exclusive messages from above. Presumably you would guess he had developed a serious mental problem. Well, that's exactly what Mohammed's contemporaries thought, as the Quran itself testifies a dozen times. It is also what modern psychologists have said: Mohammed suffered of a classic case of paranoia, a grand delusion about himself nurtured with audiovisual hallucinations. A real secularist is sceptical of the defining belief of Islam and feels sorry for all those Muslims trapped in it. So there you have a properly secularist point to take up with the Muslims: do you want to continue regulating your lives after the injunctions of a 7th-century Arab businessman who heard voices? Do you want to base wars, states and laws on the non-secular belief in Mohammed's deluded claims? Instead, the only thing the secularists ever discuss with Muslims is a joint strategy against the Hindus.

18. Is that your view of Islam: that Muslims had better be talked out of it?

-- Here I agree with V.S. Naipaul: the non-Arab Muslims suffer from the conflict between their ancestral cultural roots and their imposed religion. Every Muslim is an abductee from the civilization in which he once belonged. Where I differ with the Nobel-winning author is that I would apply the same diagnosis to the Arabs. Though they did not have to adopt foreign customs and language, which made the transition to Islam less disruptive, they too were cut off from their original culture. Either way, Muslims would do well to take a critical look at the basics of their religion. I don't think anyone else can do it for them, and I expect little from VHP conversion campaigns among them. I expect more from state policies ensuring that Muslim children are exposed to a wide spectrum of ideas rather than being locked up in the Madrassas which have produced the Taliban. But ultimately, the Muslims have to come out of the mistaken belief system of Islam themselves. They will then enter the same vacuum where post-Christians like myself are struggling to see the light. But that uncertainty is quite all right. I can personally testify that there is life after apostasy.

19. You yourself said that conversion has a divisive effect in tribal villages. Do you imagine the conflict in the Muslim world, nearly 1.5 billion people, if a good number among them turned against Islam?

-- The proper comparison is not with the Christian conversion campaigns, nor with Communist campaigns against religion, but with the spontaneous secularization which has taken place in ex-Christian Europe. I can see the beginnings of de-Islamization already. For example, I invite your readers to take a look at the www.golshan.org website. Maintained by Muslim-born Iranians, it tells Muslims all about the good reasons for outgrowing Islam. And think of writers like Anwar Sheikh, Ibn Warraq or Taslima Nasrin, who are showing the Muslims the way out towards Enlightenment. Of course, many such writers have been murdered, but their voice is penetrating ever deeper. The information revolution has a big role to play here. Even in the harems in the remotest parts of Arabia, TV and the Internet are breaking open the narrow horizon of Islam.

20. Many Hindus take an alarmist view about the numerical growth of Islam through high birth rates and migration. In support of that doomsday scenario, some of them cite your 1998 booklet The Demographic Siege. What are your views about that now?

-- This alarmist view is even stronger in Europe, with its low birth rates, than in India. The impressively higher Muslim birth rate is a plain fact, which is why the secularists are so zealous in denying it. Admittedly, birth control is now catching on in countries like Iran and Turkey (not in Pakistan), but Iran's population is still expected to double before reaching zero growth. If you extrapolate present trends, it is certain that Islam will take over Europe in fifty years, India and the US in a hundred at most. And yet, it is even more certain that the threat of Islam will disappear even faster. Firstly, there is the intellectual effort of the school of writers just mentioned. Secondly, Muslims are increasingly aware that Islam is a factor of failure. Look at Malaysia, where the Chinese and Hindu minorities have achieved an economic breakthrough which the Muslim majority can only skim off with forced redistribution.

The recent UN report on the Arab world has confirmed what any visitor there can see for himself: a stifling atmosphere and a lack of dynamism. Secularists always blame Muslim backwardness in India on some kind of invisible Hindu conspiracy, though the Muslims actually enjoy a number of privileges tending to reinforce their Islamic identity. The Arab case, with Muslims in a majority and in power, and with an immense affluence to support any policy they may choose to pursue, shows that Muslim backwardness is due to Islam itself. In the oil monarchies, most of the labour is done by Western and Asian guest workers, and the available capital is not used to build self-reliant industries. The day oil loses its value they will have to go back to tending camels, unless they shake off their religious obscurantism. I am confident that the Arabs and other Muslims will understand this in time. It will probably happen in two phases: a vanguard disowns Islam entirely, and the masses follow at a distance with attempts to reform Islam and water it down to conform to modern values.

Am I too optimistic? I admit that in 1920 already, Bertrand Russell and others diagnosed the young Soviet Union as bound to fail, yet it took a whole human lifetime before it actually collapsed, and the Russian born in 1920 is now an old man suffering the lingering after-effects of the Soviet experiment. So likewise, the mathematical certainty that Islam too will implode need not exclude that it can still cause serious problems. But I have a hunch that Islam will end the way it began: with a bang.

21. What is the view in Europe about Islam?

-- Let's scan the political spectrum. The extreme Right cherishes fantasies of a Euro-Islamic alliance against the American-Zionist world hegemony. The fast-growing populist Right, by contrast, takes an alarmist view of Islam, though in many cases this is only a rhetorical cover for an anti-immigration drive regardless of the religion of the immigrants. The declining Old Left with its militant secularist tradition is in no mood to make concessions to Islam, witness the recent anti-Islamic statements by Leftist journalist Oriana Fallaci. In the extreme Left, some see Muslim immigrants as a substitute for the proletariat as a force capable of destroying the system. But the important factor is the centre, the business Right and the fashionable multiculturalist Left. In the 1990s, they blocked all criticism of Islam. Careerwise, the rare active critics of Islam, including myself, paid a heavy price. In Amsterdam, the Pakistani Islam critic, the Muslim-born Mohamed Rasoel, was even sentenced to a heavy fine for "anti-Muslim racism", whatever that may mean. In the last two years, the mood has changed considerably, witness the open dismissal of Islam as backward and inferior by Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi and postmodernist writer Michel Houellebecq. September 11 confirmed that change of mood. Recently, the Syrian-born German professor Bassam Tibi spoke for most Europeans when he stated that he didn't want to see Europe Islamized.

22. How do you rate the American government's reaction to September 11, particularly regarding South Asia?

-- After that event, general Perwez Musharraf seriously counted with an Indo-Israeli attack on its nuclear capability, even with the destruction of the Pakistani state. So he saw no way out but to offer his services to the US. But he made it clear, in an Urdu speech to his people, that he was not becoming America's friend. He related how the Prophet Mohammed had used alliances as stratagems in order to eliminate other allies: using the Jews to eliminate the Pagans of Medina, than befriending the Pagans of Mecca to eliminate the Jews, and finally breaking his treaty with the Meccans to defeat them. But since the CIA has explained that none of its employees know Arabic, I guess they didn't pick up those Urdu hints either. Imagine, in the war on terrorism they don't care to learn the two languages most commonly used by terrorists. Musharraf is taking the Americans for a ride. I understand that president Bush wants to keep the Muslim world divided by enlisting some Muslim regimes in his own crusade, but I doubt he will outwit them. I think he is in for a serious humiliation. I admit this sounds like the old European armchair scepticism of American interventionism. But let's face it: American foreign policy is utterly confused, and mere muscle-flexing cannot be a substitute for a coherent vision.

23. Abdul Kalam is now India's president.  Rafiq Zakaria wrote an op-ed piece in the Asian Age arguing that Kalam is not a "true" or "real" Muslim.  Will Kalam help in liberating the Indian Muslim from the mental-ghettoes constructed by the likes of Zakaria?

-- Along with the secularists, I used to laugh at the BJP notion that Indian Muslims should see themselves as "Mohammedi Hindus". But I was wrong: the BJP has at long last discovered its Mohammedi Hindu. And because he is such a rarity, they have at once given him the top post. I certainly hope he serves as a guide for the Indian Muslims out of their ghettoes and into the bright daylight of India and the modern world.

24. How do you compare Atal Behari Vajpayee with other Prime Ministers?

-- My favourite among Indian Prime Ministers is definitely Narasimha Rao. He undid the Nehruvian legacy and stemmed the rising tide of the fateful consequences of Nehru's follies. He actually implemented the BJP programme, just as Atal Behari Vajpayee is now implementing the Congress programme. Rao started liberalizing the economy, lifting the stifling socialist controls. He opened diplomatic relations with Israel. He defeated the Khalistani terrorists, nipped the beginnings of Tamil Tiger separatism on Indian soil in the bud, and pushed back Kashmiri terrorism to the point where the Kasmiri people stopped supporting it so that it is now manned entirely by foreign mercenaries. And he allowed the demolition of the Babri Masjid.

25. Are you saying that the demolition was a good thing?

-- At the level of historic justice, I consider it perfectly normal that a Hindu sacred site is adorned with a Hindu temple. Hindus shouldn't overemphasize the history of Islamic destruction, the current victimhood culture is quite foreign to the Hindu spirit, but for once this focus on a temple forcibly replaced with a mosque has been instructive. At a more pragmatic level, from the viewpoint of saving lives, certainly a more pressing concern than the rights and wrongs of history, the demolition was a good thing, on balance. In the preceding years, India was tormented by communal riots over all kinds of issues, most of them unrelated to Ayodhya. The demolition led to a brief round of Muslim revenge actions plus the Shiv Sena retaliation in Mumbai, but then rioting stopped for nine long years. The demolition clearly had a cathartic effect on the rioters. To be sure, Islamic terrorism has continued, but Hindus refused to be provoked. They did not take out their anger on their Muslim neighbours after the Mumbai blasts of March 1993, nor after any of the numerous massacres of Hindus and Sikhs in Jammu and Kashmir, nor after the bomb attack in Coimbatore, nor after the attacks on the parliament buildings. Hindus have shown remarkable restraint.

At the most fundamental level, however, I am not too enthusiastic about the whole idea of campaigning for the liberation of historical temples sites from Muslim occupation. It is a well-attested fact that most historical mosques were built on the site of non-Muslim places of worship. This is true of thousands of mosques in India, but also of the Ummayad mosque in Damascus, the Aya Sophia in Istanbul, and even the Kaaba itself, where Mohammed smashed 360 idols venerated by the sanctuary's rightful owners, the Arab polytheists. But trying to pull these sites out of the hands of the Muslims is the wrong approach. The Ayodhya campaign had the merit of drawing attention to this historic injustice, but henceforth the energy spent on it had better be redirected to a more fundamental objective. We should help the Muslims in freeing themselves from Islam, and then they themselves will release these places of worship. Every Muslim is a Sita, an abductee who must be liberated from Ravana's prison.

26. In hostile writings, you are routinely classified among the Hindu nationalists.

-- I am neither a Hindu nor a nationalist. And I don't need to belong to those or to any specific ideological categories in order to use my eyes and ears. So I noticed for myself that the legitimate Hindu nationalists are thoroughly misrepresented in the journalistic and academic literature about them. I never planned to. The anomaly between their image and the reality on the ground struck me by surprise when I was in India to study philosophy. As I said, I am phasing out my involvement with communalism studies. The subject is really very simple, the problem as well as the solution. It isn't all that challenging and interesting, it only seemed that way because of the artificial obstacles thrown up by the secularists.

~*~

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