It takes a lot of courage and intellectual honesty to go against the dominant narrative in one's society; and for that reason, I must commend Mr Kunwar Khuldune Shahid for his Op-Ed, Disown Jihadist 'Freedom Fighters' in Kashmir, published in The Nation of July 15. While the author makes some good points in the piece and he is clearly well-read on Islamist politics in South Asia and the Middle East, the overall analysis in the opinion piece is very problematic, to say the least, because of its underlying assumptions.

It looks at Kashmiris' movement and the rise of Burhan Muzaffar Wani with a very unsympathetic and neo-Orientalist frame. A frame that makes one believe that Burhan was a part of the global jihadist movement, even though there is no evidence whatsoever pointing out that the militant commander was doing anything other than resisting against the Indian occupying forces killing, torturing and humiliating his Kashmiri brethren. Even the Indian media, which is generally highly biased, anti-Kashmiri, and jingoistic, did not connect Burhan to the global Jihadist movement. However, one may concede that Burhan’s organization Hizbul Mujahideen may have strategic ties with Laskar-e-Tayyaba, which definitely espouses some tenets of the same ideology as the global jihadist organisations such as Al-Qaeda and ISIS.

Having said that, Burhan never used Islamist idiom and ideology – an ideology that imposes one narrow and literalist interpretation of Islam as a political system in society – in his messaging. He was in favour of the resettlement of Kashmiri pundits in their homeland. Burhan categorically said that they were welcome to come back to their homes. He was a very humane freedom fighter, who even tried to empathize with the Jammu and Kashmir Police, whose highhandedness and brutality pushed him into militancy in the first place. Instead of attacking them, he warned them a number of times and they were never his primary targets in his speeches. I have listened to several of Burhan’s videos. He does not talk about the so-called “Islamic state”, he does not condone acts of terrorism inside the Indian territory and he does not instigate Kashmiris or other Muslims to attack civilians, even if they have the same nationality and the religion as the occupiers.

I am surprised that a learned writer such as the author of the said Op-Ed seems to think that he knows better as to who should be the icon of Kashmiris' struggle. He thinks it should not be Burhan. Kashmiris disagree. Kashmiris, who are one of the most educated and politically aware communities in the South Asia, have come out in tens of thousands to mourn the killing of Burhan Wani, to stand up for him, as he stood up for them. It is very easy to criticise a persecuted nation about the political choices they make; to argue who should be the icon of their struggle; how they should wage their movement and so on. But it takes much more to empathize with a nation persecuted for centuries, first by the Hindu Dogra rulers and then by the Indian occupying state. A nation that lives under the shadow of a military that has the blanket immunity in the form of a legal cover for the atrocities they commit against Kashmiris in the name of curbing the militancy.

The Op-Ed would have you believe that all the main political actors in today’s Freedom Movement in Kashmir are Islamists. If Mirwaiz Umar Farooq has issued a statement against Kashmiri Ahmadis, it is condemnable. The writer has rightly pointed that how even political leaders of minorities like Kashmiris, who are struggling against the Hindu majority, are susceptible to bigotry. But one wrong statement does not delegitimize Mirwaiz’s struggle. It does not make him an “Islamist”. If Syed Ali Shah Geelani does not believe in separation of religion and politics, unlike many of us, the secular and liberal Muslims, that does not mean that he is not a true representative and genuine leader of Kashmiris. I am a secularist, a liberal and a democrat, but I don't buy into ideas that one should delegitimize political movements just because their leaders get inspiration from religion that is very important in everyday experiences of the communities they represent. I believe in non-violent politics, but I try to empathize with those who are compelled to take up arms to defend their rights, their dignity and their lives in the face of an enemy that is bent upon depriving the protesting young Kashmiris of their eyesight by firing pellet guns into their eyes.

Before we fall prey to the neo-Orientalist binary of “primitive”, violent and “Islamist” Orient vs secular, liberal and democratic West; before we pass judgment on the “Islamist” politics in Muslim-majority countries like Turkey, we must critically analyze the follies of the Western democracy which is taken as the ideal form of state and politics that must be universally emulated. The Western democracy has given us Donald Trump and it gave us the Iraq War; a war that was unjust and illegal; a war that was primarily planned by the “defenders” and “champions” of freedom and democracy. The recent Chilcot report, or the Iraq Inquiry, is as much an indictment of Western democracy as Tony Blair.

In such an unjust world as ours, people sometimes have no choice but to resist the hegemons with force, notwithstanding the beautiful and appealing philosophy of non-violence.