Thursday, October 09, 2008

Arab headgear as symbol of Islamism

Kaffiyeh and the kafir

Kanchan Gupta

Friends, you must have seen these images (published in newspapers) which show three Muslim boys arrested in Delhi as 'terrorists' wearing the Arab headgear usually called Arab rumal..." This is an excerpt from an e-mail circulated earlier this week by Muslims outraged by visuals of three of their co-religionists, arrested after the September 19 raid on Jamia Nagar and suspected of being members of the terrorist organisation, Indian Mujahideen, being produced in court by Delhi Police. The outrage is over the claimed 'stereotyping' of Muslims as well as identifying what has been referred to in the e-mail as the 'Arab scarf' or 'Arab rumal' with Islamic fanaticism and jihadi terrorism.The 'Arab scarf' or 'Arab rumal' is the kaffiyeh which has three variants. The white kaffiyeh, with tassels that designate the social status of an individual, is worn by sheikhs with claims to nobility and is part of the dress code that sets the Arab palace apart from the Arab street. Colonel TE Lawrence, better known as 'Lawrence of Arabia', wore one, keeping in mind his exalted status. Rudolph Valentino made a fashion statement of sorts by wearing the white kaffiyeh in the 1921 silent film, The Sheik as part of his costume. Both Lawrence and Valentino contributed to the stereotyping of the Arab sheikh who would otherwise not be seen wearing a kaffiyeh in Monaco, Cote de Azure or the sleazy nightclubs of Phuket. But this version of the kaffiyeh need not distract us.What is of interest are the black-and-white and red-and-white chequered variants of the kaffiyeh. The first gained global prominence when Palestinian terrorists adopted it as a statement of their faith, initially in Palestinian nationalism and later in radical Islamism. Contrary to popular belief, it was not Yasser Arafat who made the once humble peasant and Bedouin headgear, meant to keep the scorching desert sun out, into a badge of Palestinian identity. That honour must go to Leila Khaled, a leading light of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, who was among the hijackers of TWA Flight 840. The flight from Rome to Athens was diverted to Damascus where it was blown up in a spectacular display of Palestinian fury. That was in August 1969. Leila Khaled tried to hijack an El Al flight from Amsterdam to New York on September 6, 1970, but was overpowered and captured by Israeli skymarshals.Between the hijacking of the TWA flight and her failed attempt to hijack an El Al flight, Leila Khaled became an icon of the Palestinian movement which by then had begun to embrace terrorism to further its agenda. The celebrated black-and-white photograph of Leila Khaled the Palestinian terrorist, which became the leitmotif of PFLP posters and Arab propaganda, reproduced here, shows her wearing a black-and-white chequered kaffiyeh and holding an assault rifle, a 1960s version of the Kalashnikov. Her demure appearance is as deceptive as the Orkut profiles of the Indian Mujahideen cadre -- between the perception and the reality lurks the mind of a terrorist who can slaughter innocent people without batting an eyelid. Little or no purpose is served by pondering over appearances and educational qualifications -- Mohammed Atta was a brilliant student of architecture at Cairo University and was rated highly by his teachers at the Technical University of Hamburg-Harburg -- or sympathising with parents who are unable to accept the bitter truth about their children having grown up into pitiless monsters.But let us return to the black-and-white chequered kaffiyeh. Arafat, taking a cue from Leila Khaled, was quick to realise the potential of the kaffiyeh as a visible, photogenic statement of Palestinian aspirations. After the first intifada inspired by his belligerence and the second intifada fuelled by the deadly cocktail of anti-semitism and Islamic fanaticism that forms the core of the ideology of hate preached by Hamas, the black-and-white chequered kaffiyeh evolved into an abiding symbol of 'Palestinian Islamism'. There is nothing innocent or demure about those who flaunt it -- it is an aggressive, often terrifying, assertion of militant Islam; for good measure, the Al Aqsa mosque has been incorporated into the chequered design of the kaffiyeh as a declaration of the final objective of those who wear it. Arafat's stylish arrangement of the kaffiyeh so as to form a triangle symbolising the Palestinian state as perceieved by Fatah, now exists only in fading memories of the man who gave political legitimacy to Islamic terrorism.Which brings us to the third variant of the kaffiyeh -- the red-and-white chequered version which is referred to as an "Arab rumal" by Muslims in India. Like the burqa -- referred to as the "Arab purdah" -- it has been popularised by the Tablighi Jamaat and adopted by many of India's Muslims, especially the clergy, to announce their religious identity and their allegiance to Wahaabi Islam. In Saudi Arabia, minor clerics and the muttaween, the religious police or members of the Committee for the Propagation of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice, who patrol the streets to crudely enforce shari'ah, wear the read-and-white chequered kaffiyeh, as do commoners.But those in India who have adopted this variant of the kaffiyeh -- you will find many of them in Muslim ghettos like Jamia Nagar and the area around Jama Masjid, as also in places as far apart as Azamgarh in Uttar Pradesh and Malappuram in Kerala -- are not inspired by the Arab street. They identify it with Islam and the Arab origin of their faith. For them the kaffiyeh is a bridge that transports them from the reality in which they exist -- as a minority community of believers among the kafirs of Hindu majority India -- to that which they aspire for: An Islamic state, a Nizam-e-Mustafa, where shari'ah shall rule supreme.The kaffiyeh in India is a physical manifestation of the ongoing silent transformation of the country's Muslims. We do not get to see the changes that are taking place in their personal lives, the fanaticism that is rapidly replacing faith, the social codes that are being introduced to bring India's Muslim society in conformity with that which is held up by mullahs and maulvis as 'desirable' and 'sanctioned' by Islam, the precedence given to the Muslim ummah over the secular Indian nation. We occasionally get to read about an Imrana and a Gudiya, but such stories do not reflect the churning that is taking place, the rapidly increasing number of educated Muslims who, instead of logically pursuing the good life ensured by good jobs assured by their professional qualifications, are eager to throw it all away to serve what they are told, and convinced, is the 'cause' of Islam. For evidence, look at the profiles of the young men who have been arrested so far for their role in the horrific bombings in Jaipur, Bangalore, Ahmedabad and Delhi, and probably also the earlier terror attacks in Mumbai and Hyderabad.There are two possible responses to this reality. Like most Muslims, we can slip into denial mode and refuse to acknowledge the harsh truth. We can lash out at Delhi Police for draping the faces of suspected terrorists with red-and-white chequered kaffiyeh and denounce the 'stereotyping' of Muslims. There are those who will discover merit in the demand that there should be no police raids on Muslim ghettos without consulting the community and taking it into confidence. They would also subscribe to the view that a commission should be set up to prove that the terrorists who bomb India's cities are "not Muslims" -- in other words, an inquiry with a predetermined finding!Or we could confront the truth and work towards halting the spread of radical Islamism and preventing an entire community from lurching towards fanaticism and embracing the sordid symbols of Wahaabi intolerance, for example the kaffiyeh or the "Arab rumal", which has fetched nothing but grief wherever it has been allowed to flourish. This is a task that cannot be left to compromised individuals like the Vice-Chancellor of Jamia Millia Islamia who, to prove his credentials with the extremists, has offered to siphon public funds to defend those accused of terrorism. The state must step in with its full might, and uphold the secular principles of our republic where the kaffiyeh and all that it symbolises clashes violently with the idea of India.

The Pioneer [OPED] Friday, September 26, 2008

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