Interview with Dr. Koenraad Elst – Part (I)

In keeping up with my advocacy of the Hindu cause, last summer, I wished to write on Hindu issues. But I wanted to write on something new, something I had not argued previously, and something that validated convictions I have held for a long time. I wanted to get a learned opinion concerning the ideological challenges that Hindu Dharma confronts today, and what its adherents and well-wishers are doing to address these challenges. So, I contacted Dr. Elst, and he graciously agreed to answer my questions. The topics of this interview span diverse areas of concern. The common thread that binds these topics however, is the need to recognize the grave ideological challenges to Hindu Dharma.

While many Hindus unabashedly decry media bias, academic predominance of a particular persuasion, or ethnic cleansing of the Hindu population in Pakistan, in Bangladesh and in Kashmir, these same Hindus often choose to remain irritatingly silent about exploring ideological root causes of these problems. Identifying the problem, but failing to exploring its underlying causes, will not yield the desired outcome. Perhaps this fear, or reticence, or hesitation to frankly name the culprit, stems from centuries of struggle with violent imperialist ideologies and subsequent decades of dominance of the anti-Hindu fascistic forces in all important spheres. Hence, I was very keen on learning Dr. Elst’s opinions on various issues. Aside from the brilliant late historians Ram Swarup, K.S. Lal, and Sitaram Goel, Dr. Elst is one of the few historians who has boldly identified Hindu Dharma’s ideological foes, and offered pragmatic solutions on confronting and possibly defeating these formidable foes. Now, of course, I am certainly not suggesting that all challenges to Hindu Dharma have ideological causes; some of these challenges can be ascribed to innocent ignorance and/or laziness. But Hindus absolutely cannot afford to continue ignoring the ideological angle.

Who is Dr. Koenraad Elst?

Koenraad Elst is a self-described “Orientalist” from Belgium. That still is the neutral continental-European term for a graduate in “Oriental philology and history”, in his case both the Chinese and the Bharatiya section. He also studied philosophy, which explains his keen eye for ideological developments. His doctoral dissertation was about Hindu Revivalism, the ideological tendency from which the party sprang that is currently in power in Bharat, the Bharatiya Janata Party (“Indian People’s Party”, BJP). When he started his research, this was a marginal and vilified movement, its leaders even had to spend the winter of 1992-93 in prison. But when he defended his thesis, in 1998, the BJP had just come to power.

More recently, he surprised Bharatiya political observers by making the pro-Hindu case against the Hindu movement, and started focusing on ancient history and its relevance for modern politics. The Aryan Invasion Theory proved a much harder nut to crack than Hindus thought, but is nonetheless discredited among those few who have really studied the matter. Further, the ethnic components of early Hindu Dharma, the Mahabharata chronology, the genesis of Buddhism as an integral part of Hindu Dharma, etc.

THE PROBLEM OF “REAL” ISLAM

 Adity Sharma: There are those (both intellectuals and lay-persons), who vociferously condemn Islamic terrorism, and the doctrine of “armed Jihad”. These individuals openly claim that countries such as Pakistan and Saudi Arabia should be disbanded. But these same individuals fiercely affirm their Muslim identity, and aggressively assert that the terrorists have nothing to do with Islam. Do you believe that these individuals actually create hurdles in identifying Islam as the root cause of Islamic terrorism, because a devil’s advocate view can contend that the good Muslim has already identified and condemned the problem area in Islam? Hence, why denounce the entire belief system?

Koenraad Elst: They are the “good cops”, complementary with the IS “bad cops”. The other hand is a clenched fist striking, and this hand is preventing any defence against that strike. Whatever illusions these “moderate Muslims” may indulge in, they are but instrumental in the strategy of the radicals.

They make no difference to the truth of the matter, we can check the source texts for ourselves and see with our own eyes that the Jihadis strictly follow Mohammed’s precedent, which is the basis of Islamic law. No Islamic court can sentence them unless it has been bribed or forced to do so. So yes, these so-called moderates blur the picture and are eagerly believed by the non-Muslims, for reassurance about Islam is in great demand. Their personal interpretation, even if they mean it, makes no difference whatsoever to the contents of Islam.

From a human point of view, they present a special problem. There is a minority that simply practices religious dissimulation (taqiyya) and says anything strategically useful vis-à-vis the Unbelievers. But a very large group of born Muslims simply believe what they themselves are saying. They don’t know the source texts very well. From their parents and schoolteachers they have only learned a very selective and idealized image of Mohammed. They cannot imagine a conflict between the religion they have inherited from their beloved parents and the morality they have come to share with their Unbeliever neighbors. So when they hear the truth, it comes as a shock. At first they won’t believe it and react furiously. But a deeper crisis will set in once they start believing it and doubting their Islam.

But then, on the bright side, a change of religion is possible. Me too, I have come to doubt the religion of my childhood, Roman Catholicism. After some mental churning and internal struggle, and after half-way station of the type you just sketched (“the orthodox have misunderstood the founder!”), I have repudiated it altogether, as have millions of Europeans of my generation. I am not asking anything from the Muslims which I myself haven’t been through. And I can reassure the Muslims who come to doubt Islam: there is life after apostasy.

A.S.: In your talks and writings, including the Goa ‘India Ideas’ conclave in 2014, and a webinar with indiafacts, you suggested that Islam should be made unappealing to Muslims.  The question then arises, as to how exactly can Muslims be made aware of the true nature of their beloved faith?

K.E.: Yes, that is the million-dollar question. Some creative thinking and some practical initiatives among the younger generation will be needed. But I can already say this – brave ex-Muslims are showing them the way: people like Ibn Warraq, Ayaan Hirsi Ali, Wafa Sultan, Taslima Nasreen, Hafid Bouazza etc. At least the latter two, independently of each other, and no doubt others, have said: “What we need now is not moderate Muslims, but ex-Muslims.” So, Muslims will have to do it themselves, nobody can change their mind for them, but they already have a number of examples from their own ranks to follow.

The internet can greatly accelerate this process of increasing insight and liberation from Islam. You might object that today it is still successfully used by the orthodox to spread their beliefs and popularize Islamic teachings to a level unheard of in premodern days (when many nominal Muslims only knew a few rituals and Arabic phrases). But let me make a comparison from my own country. In the late 19th century, freethinkers set up the Boy Scout and Girl Guide movement. The Church was against this, considering it a crypto-worship of Nature, a form of Paganism. But seeing it was irresistible, it took control by founding the Flemish Union of Catholic Boy Scouts and Girl Guides. The “godless Socialists” set up trade unions, and seeing trade-unionism as unstoppable, it co-opted the movement and set up its own trade-union. So the Church remained in control even when new social phenomena arose, and by the 1950s, Church penetration into all layers of society was greater than ever.

Yet, they could not stop it when most members lost the faith and walked out of the Church. Their youth movement and their trade-union still exist, but have not been Catholic anymore since decades, and don’t even call themselves Catholic anymore since ten years or so. Similarly, the Muslims succeed nicely in capturing the internet and use it as an instrument to keep their flock together, but in the long run it will be their undoing. The proper scientific information about Islam is now readily available, and soon it will have more influence on the Muslim mind than the orthodox rearguard actions.

Another promising factor is material: the shift in energy winning and energy cost. The oil wealth is running out. I hesitate to highlight this factor, because it usually triggers two deplorable reactions. One valid for every optimistic sound concerning Islam, is passivity: “See, we don’t have to do anything, it all takes care of itself.” The second is that a frequently heard escapist explanation of the Islam problem is seemingly vindicated: “See? It’s all about the money. Religion has nothing to do with it, only the money.” Barroom philosophers feel very clever when they pontificate like this, but history has numerous cases where people act out of conviction against their monetary interests. Billionaire Osama bin Laden gave up a life of comfort and pleasure with his five wives in order to live as a fugitive in an Afghan cave because of religion.

Nonetheless, his convictions would have been less harmful if he hadn’t had the finances to support his terrorism. Islam has been punching above its weight because of all the free money it could invest in supporting Islamic causes the world over. This also ensured it of Western support, especially to Saudi Arabia and its cat’s paw, Pakistan. Being flush with money but not very creative, the Muslim world became an excellent market for Western products. Contrast this with Bharat: not rich but creative and development-oriented, and therefore seen as a rival.

Since the US has to displease the Muslims with its support to Israel, it compensates this by support to Islamic causes elsewhere: the Bosnian and Kosovo wars, the Turkish bid to enter the EU, or the Pakistani claim on Kashmir. Barack Obama even won the Nobel Peace Prize for his pro-Islamic speech in Cairo 2009. But with all this dwindling of the oil wealth, the political stature of the Muslim world is diminishing, and probably the pampered Saudis will rather use their bottom dollar to keep their fast-growing population happy than to finance mosque-building or terrorism.

Falling without natural resources need not be a drama, see South Korea. But the Islamic states’ record in creativity and inventiveness is such that they will probably have no answer to this inevitable impoverishment. So, most young Muslims will understand that Islam (as opposed to American imperialism or the “Zionist world conspiracy”) is keeping them back. Well, at least let’s hope so, for if everything continues as it now is, including the demographic differential between Hindus and Muslims, Islam will be Bharat’s majority religion by the end of the century. And what that would mean, you can ask the Hindus in Bangladesh.

A.S.: Late historians such as K.S. Lal, Ram Swarup and Sita Ram Goel have made invaluable contributions to understanding the threat posed to Hindu Dharma by the monotheistic belief systems. Aside from your own outstanding analysis on the subject, are there any Hindu scholars who have followed in the footsteps of these historians?

K.E.: Yes and no. The work of a Bharat Gupt, Meenakshi Jain or a Michel Danino is more technical, more academic, less disruptive or visionary, but also much harder to ignore. SR Goel’s work was formidable, but easy to pigeon-hole: he was an MA of History alright, but not holding an academic post, making his living as a publisher, and he was a “Hindu communalist”. The corpus of scholarly work that is not anti-Hindu is growing, but it is still marginal.

Being an academic isn’t everything. If you are ideologically on the wrong side, your status is not going to help you. KS Lal was a proper academic, but at the end he was boycotted by all other publishers than Voice of India, and among academics, nobody quotes his work, though it was path-breaking. A towering personality in Bharatiya history-writing was of course RC Majumdar, and for long his work was required reading in all History Departments. But as the Marxist dominance became deeper, even this icon was challenged and boycotted as a fount of communal views of Bharatiya history. So the taunt that “you’re not an academic” is only a first, forward line of attack, made possible by a systematic policy of exclusion of non-Nehruvian viewpoints. Once you have manage to cross that hurdle, the real concern comes out: “You’re a communalist!”

I currently see better equipped young Hindu intellectuals come up, availing of the opportunities generated by the internet and creating alternative Hindu quality media, thus getting around the boycott of pro-Hindu views still observed by the mainstream media. But I can see as yet no reason to report that this welcome tendency has already percolated into the History Departments.

To be continued…


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About the Author

Adity Sharma
Adity Sharma is a student at St. John's University School of Law in New York. She has previously written for India Facts, Vijayvaani, Chakranews and Beliefnet.