Wednesday, 20 June 2007

The Art of Stick Fighting

(Image copyright Dawn)

So exactly what kind of education are these 'students' of the Lal Masjid Madrassah getting? Commentators in the mainstream press in Pakistan were appalled when the government seemed to cave in to the demands of the fundamentalists without resistance. The humiliation seemed to be all the more complete given the ability of the Masjid students to kidnap policemen at will whenever they needed to put extra pressure on the government for some reason or the other. Why, they asked, is the government so reluctant to send in the police to clear the miscreants out once and for all? After all, baton-armed police were being used with impunity on various protest rallies and demonstrations in favour of the chief justice at around the same time. How much trouble would a rabble of stick-wielding fanatics be?

Quiet a lot actually. From the photograph it would appear that the students of the Madrassah are learning a one stick style of 'Silat'. Silat is the name of a family of martial arts that is predominant in South East Asia and in recent years has acquired a reputation in the Muslim world as being a genuinely Islamic martial art. (This would differentiate it from such recent developments as 'Ninjabi', which is basically modern western self-defence techniques adapted for yuppie hijab-wearing Muslim women.) Its history of use against various colonial armies, particularly those of the Spanish, Americans and the Japanese also made it more popular and relevant than the more stylised Chinese Muslim martial arts.

Here's a video of a couple of students practicing disarming techniques:

Recently various silat forms have also started becoming more popular in the west. It is particularly popular in the Netherlands, which came in to contact with the style during the colonial rule of Indonesia. This is someone's sparing video and demonstrates just how effective the silat techniques can be against other stick wielding opponents - such as the lathi armed policemen who might be expected to raid the Lal Masjid.

Silat is primarily about reflexes, speed and balance. Hence its supposed to be a good martial art for women as well. From an Indonesian silat training institution, we learn about an 104 year old female silat master who demonstrated the art at a tournament back in 2003. So these folk may well have benefited from a silak-inspired education as well (Image from the Telegraph)

The spiritual aspect of a martial art is often an important (some would say most important) component. Traditionally Islam spread through South East Asia through sufi teachers and traders. Many of the silat training institutions trace their routes to sufi orders and see the practice of silat as a path to enhancing one's spiritual consciousness and its relation to the dancing exercises of Turkic sufi traditions.

More recently, however, the spiritual traditions of Islam have been losing ground to modern, legalistic and literalist ideologies and this has been reflected in modern silat training centres which, while still emphasizing chivalric codes, don't emphasize sufi ideals. What's interesting is that sites such as these still repeat sufi traditions while de-emphasizing their more esoteric meanings. Silat and Islam are still seen as intertwined, but it seems some of the essence is lost. This story, for example, extols silat as a way to bring converts into the fold.

So going back to the question of any confrontation between the madrassah students and police, one wouldn't imagine that the police would have an easy time of it. Quiet apart from the fact that the madrassah students are trained in stick-fighting, the difference in morale would be telling. While the students believe they are fighting for God, the policemen are disaffected, poorly paid and really not too sure why they are there. Today, for example, over a thousand policemen who had been bused in to surround the Lal Masjid disobeyed orders and marched in protest, after one of their sick colleagues died of an illness. During the march they turned on their superior officers and beat up several other policemen who were trying to film them.

As the colonial edifice of the Pakistani state continues to crumble, one wonders if it wont be the highly organized and disciplined cadres of the Islamists who might carry the day in any confrontation.



kokismith said...

Wow. I had no idea. And isn't it ironic that this new discipline "silat" sounds so close to "salat," or prayer? I wonder if that's part of its appeal.

Misanthrope said...

That similarity actually occurred to me too.