World's Top Islamist Seminary to Expel 'Liberal' Head

A newly elected head of an Indian Islamic seminary, considered second in importance to al-Azhar in Egypt, is expected to quit soon because his liberal views have enraged a conservative lobby, which has the backing of an anti-American Pakistani cleric who allegedly helped create the Taliban in the 1990s.

The governing council of the Darul-Uloom Deoband seminary, which has a mass following amongst Muslims around the world, has formed a committee to look into the allegation that Vice Chancellor Maulana Ghulam Mohammad Vastanvi defied the traditions of his predecessors.

Commonly referred to as Deoband, Dar-ul-Uloom is situated in Deoband town in northern India, around 100 miles from New Delhi. It is widely believed that Deoband brand of Sunni Islam inspired the Taliban movement in Afghanistan, which seminary's leaders deny.

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Deoband's new head Vastanvi had offered to resign earlier this month after violent clashes erupted between conservatives and his supporters over a newspaper interview in which his comments were interpreted as praise for the chief minister of west Indian state of Gujarat, where over 2,000 Muslims were killed in a communal carnage in 2002.

On Jan. 19, The Times of India daily quoted Vastanvi as saying that it was time for the Muslims in Gujarat to move on as they were no longer discriminated against in the state. India's Muslim community and rights activists accuse Modi of overseeing the killings and therefore Vastanvi's statement was a good pretext for the conservative faction to seek his ouster.

The Indian news portal quoted an anonymous Deoband lecturer as saying (Feb. 17), "Evidently, the whole idea was to prevent any progressive Muslim from taking over the reins of this historic institution [Deoband]."

The portal identified Maulana Arshad Madni, a professor of Arabic at the seminary, as the leader of the "ultra conservative lobby." Madni, whose family has called the shots in Deoband's affairs for decades, was a candidate for the Mohtamim or Vice Chancellor election on Jan. 10.

But the 18-member governing council, known as Majlis-e-Shoora, gave the mandate to Vastanvi, an MBA who is known for introducing modern medicine, engineering, and allied courses at madrassas in western India.

Vastanvi's opponent Madni is considered a protégé of the Indian National Congress party, which leads the ruling United Progressive Alliance at the Center. Muslims in India have traditionally voted for the Congress party.

Traditionalist Madni is also close to Maulana Fazlur Rahman, leader of a controversial party in Pakistan, the Jamiat-ul-Ulema Islam (JUI), and an aide of former Pakistani Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto who was accused of creating the Taliban in the 1990s. JUI is a Deoband Islamic party.

A week before the governing council met on Feb. 23, Rahman arrived in India to throw his weight behind the anti-Vastanvi lobby.

'The proximity between Pakistani cleric Rehman and Arshad Madni was always an open secret. And even during his 17- hour long stay in Deoband, the two were seen together every minute," reported on Feb. 17.

The JUI led by Rahman is "a hard-line Islamist party, widely considered a political front for numerous jihadi organizations, including the Taliban," Nicholas Schmidle, Pakistan-based American fellow of the Institute of Current World Affairs, said in an article, "Next-Gen Taliban," in New York Times on Jan. 6, 2008. Schmidle was promptly expelled from Pakistan after the article was published.

Bahukutumbi Raman, former head of the counter-terrorism division of India's external intelligence agency Research and Analysis Wing (RAW), describes him as "a fundamentalist with a difference, known for his proximity to Mrs. Benazir Bhutto of Pakistan People's Party Parliamentarians (PPPP)."

In an article, "Supping with the Maulana," published by Indian think-tank South Asia Analysis Group (SAAG) on July 23, 2003, the former intelligence official wrote, "Despite his [Rahman's] fundamentalist orientation, he supported her [Bhutto's] right to become the Prime Minister and opposed the campaign of the Jamaat-e-Islami (JEI) in the 1990s against a woman heading the Government of an Islamic country. Benazir rewarded him by making him the Chairman of the Parliamentary Foreign Affairs Committee and allegedly asked the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI or Pakistan's intelligence agency) to place a large amount from its secret service fund at his disposal during his travels abroad."

Identifying Rahman as one of those who helped create the Taliban, Raman added, "The role played by Fazlur Rahman in helping Benazir and her husband in creating the Taliban led to serious differences between him and Qazi Hussain Ahmed of the JEI, who was a strong supporter of Gulbuddin [head of an anti-Soviet force in Afghanistan]."

Featuring his profile in 2002, the BBC website said that Rahman "is known for his close ties to Afghanistan's ousted Taliban regime. His is one of the most influential and resourceful organizations in Pakistan working for what is described as a 'pure, Islamic state'. When U.S. and allied forces began bombing Taleban strongholds in Afghanistan last year, Fazlur Rahman led large anti-US, anti-Musharraf, and pro-Taliban rallies in Pakistan's major cities... Maulana Rahman is believed to have supplied men [for the Taliban] from his support bases in the NWFP [North West Frontier Province] and Balochistan."

Rahman's political influence continues until today because of the numerous madrassas his party runs in Pakistan and elsewhere. His visa has never been rejected by the Indian government.

Of late, Rahman "has toned down his pro-bin Laden and anti-US rhetoric. His party is a member of the ruling coalition in Islamabad... Thus, one cannot find fault with the decision of the Government of India to issue a visa to him," Raman said in another article for the SAAG on Feb. 18, 2011.

With Rahman's interference in Deoband, the writing on the wall for Vastanvi is for anyone to read.

Vastanvi is expected to put in his papers soon after the inquiry committee submits its report within three months.

If the committee accepts Vastanvi's resignation, Maulana Mufti Abul Qasim Nomani – who was made a working Vice Chancellor on Feb. 23 – will become full-fledged Mohtamim, says a statement on Deoband's website.

Vastanvi is likely to leave Deoband back in the hands of the old guard before Ramadan.

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