Strolling along a flagstoned Byzantine lane in the Arab quarter of the walled city of Jerusalem near the Temple Mount — the Al Aqsa mosque is an imposition of later vintage — I spotted a bowl containing pieces of exquisite coral in the window of a Bedouin jewellery shop. The man behind the counter was obviously an Arab, one of the many who live and work in Israel and are far better off than the Palestinians in Gaza Strip and West Bank, although they are loath to admit it. I greeted the man in halting street Arabic and inquired about the coral. A smile broke out on his face and he asked, "Indian?"
In Egypt, the question would have been, "Indian or Pakistani?" Since Pakistanis do not visit Israel, the second option did not arise. I answered in the affirmative and tried to steer the conversation to the price of the coral, but he would not have any of it. He issued rapid-fire instructions to his assistant, asking him to get mint tea, which arrived within minutes. Meanwhile, he launched into a harangue on how India had dumped Muslims both at home and abroad to "befriend the Zionists and the Americans".
For evidence he cited the India-US civilian nuclear cooperation agreement and Israel's supply of military hardware to India. His knowledge of the twists and turns of the nuclear deal, the rejection of it by India's Muslims and the Left's ideological opposition to New Delhi forging a strategic relationship with Washington, DC, was truly amazing.
Asked about the source of his information, he said, "Arab newspapers from Misr (Egypt) and Saudi Arabia". Apparently, local Arab sheets published in the Palestinian Authority areas had been reproducing commentary and opinion articles from newspapers published from Cairo and Riyadh. As for Indian Muslims feeling agitated about India moving closer to the US, the Internet, he said, was an excellent source of information.
The shaai was good, but the coral was far too expensive for me — I had a feeling he had raised the price after sensing my unease over his diatribe and at times abusive references to how "Hindus are conspiring with Jews and Christians against Muslims". So we parted company after the customary round of kissing; I promised I would return for the coral, perhaps he knew I wouldn't.
But the halt at this Arab jewellery shop was not entirely wasted: It had provided me with an insight into the 'ummah web' — how Muslims separated by borders, land and sea remain connected, feeding on each other's anger and fuelling each other's rage with the help of conspiracy theories and imagined grievances. Much of the rage is directed at the West; most of the anger is aimed at the US. As for the Zionists, if the ummah had its way, insha'allah, Israel would cease to exist.
Months later, at an international conference on radical Islam, in which most of the participants were Muslim scholars and theologians, this perception of the ummah's worldview was strengthened as participants stopped short of chanting "Death to America!" while caustically rebuking both the Congress and the BJP for taking India closer to the US and Israel. A participant from India, by no means a fanatic mullah with hennaed beard and skullcap, asserted that if the Government went ahead with formalising the nuclear deal with the US, it would be as good as "ignoring the sentiments of 150 million Muslims at home" and "enraging Muslims abroad".
There is nothing startlingly new about such aggressive assertion of 'Muslim sentiments', which are invariably pegged to imagined grievances and inflamed by perceived notions of Christians and Jews — and, in India's case, Hindus — conspiring against the ummah. From Indonesia to Turkey, via the sand castles of Islamic states in between, the targets of Muslim ire are the same; the intensity of rage ebbs and flows depending on events as they happen and as they are seen to happen.
So, cartoons that allegedly lampoon Mohammed published in a Dutch newspaper, Jyllands-Posten, of which nobody had ever heard before, become the cause of angry street protests and threats of murder and mayhem one day; on another, jaundiced reports of torture at Guantanamo Bay, whose details pale in comparison to the horrors inflicted by the Taliban, result in violent outrage. At Friday sermons, the two disparate issues are slyly merged into one: Islam is under assault; the ummah is endangered; and, America is to blame.
It would be erroneous to trace the Muslim rage that we see to post-9/11 American policy and the war on terror being waged by President George W Bush. It is true that Muslims view the Taliban's loss of power, which Mullah Omar and his band of Deobandi fanatics wielded ruthlessly and which saw the sickening debasement of women and girls, as a blow against the ummah and their faith. It is equally true that Muslims grieve over the fall and death of Saddam Hussein, who turned to god after decades of Ba'athist atrocities that included mass slaughter and terrible torture.
Yet, Muslim displeasure with America is not merely on account of the discontinuation of the shocking spectacle of shari'ah being enforced in its purest, most pristine form in Afghanistan or Saddam Hussein getting his just desserts. It predates 9/11. Mr Zafarul-Islam Khan, editor of Milli Gazette, published from Delhi, traces the "roots of Muslim anger at the US and West to long before the illegal and unjust current imperialist crusade in Afghanistan under the guise of fighting terrorism".
The 'roots', according to him, lie in "normalisation of relations with Israel", "US role in condoning Serbian aggression in Bosnia" and "economic attrition of the Muslim world resources". The list of imagined grievances is too long to be reproduced here, but it does highlight two points: First, Muslim concerns — for instance, in India — transcend local realities and are essentially pan-Islamic issues that agitate the entire ummah; second, even if there were no India-US nuclear deal, India's Muslims, as also their co-religionists elsewhere, would have been equally angry with America and Mr Bush; they would have still gathered in frighteningly huge numbers in Delhi and rioted in Lucknow to protest against his visit to India.
Seen in this context, CPI(M) Polit Bureau member MK Pandhe was merely stating the fact when he warned the Samajwadi Party of a Muslim backlash if it supported the nuclear deal and joined forces with the Congress to push it through. The Jamiat Ulama-e-Hind's protest against the CPI(M)'s "attempt to communalise the issue" and the claim by other Muslim organisations, especially the Jamaat-e-Islami, that Muslims are opposed to the nuclear deal because they believe it is "not in the national interest", need not be taken seriously.
Unless we must believe that the Arab shopkeeper in old Jerusalem who chided me for New Delhi's increasing proximity to Washington, DC and Tel Aviv shares the 'concern' of Indian Muslims for India's national interest. If this is absurd, as surely it is, so is the Jamaatis' concern for India's national interest, which, thankfully, has not yet been supplanted by the ummah's interest.