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New Age Islam battles fundamentalists in


Journalist Sultan Shahins path-breaking website completes its first year.

Back in the summer of 1999, Sultan Shahin found himself being hectored by
an earnest young man outside Londons Finsbury Park mosque.
You Indian Muslims are cowards, Shahin was told but soon you will have
just two choices: either to become a true Muslim like us, or to perish.
For Shahin, the experience was transformative. It became clear to me that
the Islam that I believe in was under serious threat, he says, and that I
would have to do something if the religion I loved was not to be demeaned by
the evil that was being spoken in its name.
Last year, Shahin set up a website that has taken on the religious right head-
on. Though run on a shoestring budget and without the help of full-time staff,
New Age Islam ( > is visited by hundreds of
readers every day. Its electronic newsletter has over 29,000 subscribers.
New Age Islam provides its audience to a wide range of original theological
and political writing that does not figure in the mainstream media. In recent
weeks, New Age Islam has seen debates on Niyaz Fatehpuri, a twentieth-
century literary figure with unconventional ideas on the concept of divine
revelation, as well as the neo-conservative televangelist Zakir Naik.
In addition, New Age Islam provides access to global debates on Islam and
society, by monitoring content on websites like Germanys Qantara. Its
archives are also packed with primary resources: debates between the Islamist
scholars Israr Ahmad and Javed Ahmed Ghamidi; Maulana Arshad-ul-Qadris
critique of the Tablighi Jamaat proselytising order; and Masarat Husain
Zuberis work on the influence of Aristotle on Islamic theology.
Shahin sees New Age Islam as part of a global effort by believers to reclaim
Islam from the religious right, and address the questions and conflicts which
confront believers in the twenty-first century. Islam, he argues, is a
spiritual experience; a system of beliefs through which believers seek to live a
meaningful life. For the Islamists, though, religion is primarily a tool through
which they seek power. In practice, they worship power, not Allah.
In a recent essay, Shahin argued that the Islam of the neo-fundamentalists was
in fact a a completely new religion theologically founded on a wilful
misinterpretation of the Islamic concept of jihad.
Electronic journals like New Age Islam reach out to a small, but influential,
section of Indias Muslims: an emerging class of Muslim professionals and
entrepreneurs who are finding that the traditionalist practices of the parents
offer few solutions to the struggles of life. Islamists have been adroit at
capitalising on their anxieties. Many of Indias jihadists among them, the
leadership of the Indian Mujahideen came from urban middle class
backgrounds and had received a privileged elite education.
West and East
Shahin says he hopes New Age Islam will give this new class a progressive
voice. When the media or the government wants to understand what
Muslims think about something, he says theyll always turn to some cleric
or the other, not Wipros Aziz Premji or Himalaya Heath Cares Meraj Manal
or the eminent physicist Israr Ahmed. We need a wider Muslim engagement
with public life.
Shahins own understanding of Islam was forged in both India and the
Westmuch like the young audience New Age Islam addresses.
The son of a small-town Bihar cleric, Shahin received his early education at
his home. My father, he recalls, was politically and socially conservative.
But there was always room in his vision for debate. For example, he closely
followed the literary journal Nigaar, where most contributors had views very
different to his own.
Shahins career began in 1972, when he started working with the Jamaat-e-
Islami journal Radiance. Later, he edited a New Delhi-based community
magazine. The main thing I learned, Shahin says wryly, is that the
secularism of some of our eminent politicians was just skin-deep.
In the 1980s, Shahin moved to the United Kingdom. What he saw over the
next decade appalled him. The London-based Islamist preacher Omar
Bakri, he recalls, was attracting audiences of the size only visiting Indian
film stars had until then drawn. Young students were, quite openly, being
recruited by jihadist groups. Like Levis jeans, McDonalds burgers and other
fashions, the Islamists ideas also flowed East.
New Age Islams rapid growth shows that Shahins efforts to challenge the
tide, despite its modest resources, is making an impact. If abuse that often fills
the websites message-boards is an indication, Islamists are genuinely
alarmed by the websites success: Shahin is regularly threatened with eternal
damnation in the afterlife to physical violence in the here and now.
In the last couple of years, Shahin says, a growing number of voices have
joined the fight against the abuse of Islam, ranging from the Deoband clerics
to a number of intellectuals and artists. I see New Age Islam as a small part of
this collective effort. There is a long struggle ahead.

Editor Sultan Shahin

E-22, Indra Prastha Apts.,

114, I. P. Extension, New Delhi 110092