“I’m happy to share my opinions with you, but please understand, they are informed by Islam.” I met Naseem at his office in the Department of Islamic Studies at the University of Kashmir. “In 2005 my approach to politics and religion changed.” As a student Naseem had been at the political fore. He led protests against the occupation both in Kashmir and outside in New Delhi where he was a student at Jamia Islamia University. “In 2005 I began to engage with Islam on a deeper level, and this changed my approach to politics.” At this time, Naseem said, he stopped struggling against the occupation directly and shifted his focus towards correcting the ills he believed lay at the heart of his own people. “I believe Kashmir will only attain freedom when our own people embrace Islam wholly.”
There is no doubt that the Kashmir valley has a Muslim majority, but according to Naseem 97% of these people are Muslim in name only. “Kashmiris are Muslims by culture, not by study. Do you understand what I mean?” he asked. “Even my own family disagree with me, but I have to follow my own path.” From direct political action Naseem had now embarked upon a much slower, long-term route of religious reform. He emphasised that religious change could not come about through force, but through free will as it did during the time of Prophet Mohammed (Peace Be Upon Him).
“While there are Muslim countries all over the world”, Naseem told me, “there hasn’t been a true Islamic state, a Caliphate, since the time Prophet Mohammed’s (PBUH) companions. Their names were Hazrat Abu Bakr, Hazrat Umar, Hazrat Usman and Hazrat Ali. And they led the Caliphate for 30 years after Mohammed (PBUH) passed away in the year 632CE. But we’ve had nothing since.” Naseem believed a Caliphate would bring freedom to Kashmir. “But if my own people do not respond to the study of Islam, I will leave and go some place where they will.” Naseem mentioned that he had received offers to teach in America, and it became clear that his loyalties lay with Islam before Kashmir.
“In contrast to the privacy that western secularism accords religion, under ‘Islamic secularism’ each individual would be judged in the public sphere by the laws of their own religion.” Naseem spoke of this in relation to how Kashmir’s religious minorities would be treated within a future Islamic state. “Western forms of democracy will never work in the East – the state of affairs in the world today is proof enough of that.”
But there had been moments, Naseem explained, when his emotions took precedence over logic. He told me about the day his brother died in 2007. Fuelled by raw emotion and pain Naseem joined the protests, despite his belief that it was incorrect to do so according to Islam. “The next day, my emotions cooled and I returned to my senses. I asked myself, when it is your own brother willing to take bribes, what is the freedom we are fighting for?”
Naseem spoke about the burning of Chota Bazaar (small market) in Sopore in 1996. Shopkeepers, who had gone inside their own shops seeking safety, were burnt to death by the army in their attempt to stake out militants. The whole market was burnt to the ground. One hundred people dead in one day. “I lost family in that fire. But every town in Kashmir has their own Chota Bazaar.” Naseem refused to place blame on India and instead turned in quiet reflection towards his own people.
It was a different (and controversial) way of responding to Kashmir’s occupation. For Naseem the most urgent battle lay with the ills of the self. Once people followed Islam through study and not simply ‘culture’, he believed that Kashmir’s freedom would follow, without much fuss at all.
But to me this idea of religious perfection seemed to run incongruously with the imperfections of this world and the human life within it. I found myself thinking about the urgencies of the immediate moment and looking at the flawed skin of my hands.