In the early 1990s, as the world was changing with atlases being fast updated, I spent prolonged months in Paris, travelling across Europe and studying its communities. One thing I noticed was that Indians as a whole were much hated for who they were, but even more hated were Muslims, not necessarily from India. My Pakistani colleague at the institute where I was pursuing a mid-career course for journalists was stopped at the immigration counter by British authorities when, in reply to the question “how long do you propose to stay in our country?’’, he came up with a smart-alecky answer: “That depends upon your wine, your weather and your women!’’ The quip was vintage British humour but the British cops were not amused. So while they smiled appreciatively when an African colleague came up with a somewhat similar quip and waved him through, Asif (name changed) was detained until he sort-of learned the value of humility and deference to the British authorities.
When I travelled to Athens, Greek bureaucrats wouldn’t speak to me until I answered the first question everybody asked: “Are you Moslem?’’ After the initial umbrage at having to lay my religion bare, I understood where they were going and felt odd proclaiming to Orthodox Christians that I was Hindu. They then opened up with the problems they were having with their ethnic Muslims on the Turkish border — “it is exactly like your problem with Muslims in your own Kashmir’’. What rattled them most was that the lone member of Parliament from the border region referred to the Turkish PM as “our prime minister’’ ( who was Muslim) and had no sense of that belonging with the Greek PM”(who was Christian). When I said “he should then be charged with sedition’’, the reply I got was “that would unnecessarily turn him into a martyr. We have to find other ways of changing his mind’’.
In my demographics class at the Paris institute, where Asif was also a student, our professor stressed that it would be very difficult for the Muslims to integrate with other populations wherever they migrated. Asif challenged that premise but then could say nothing when the professor said, “Men, maybe. But women, never. Not out of their choice but their community leaders impose many restrictions on them. In terms of dress and friendships.’’ Which would have to be sorted out through legislation, he added. When I mentioned this to my Algerian housemate at the Maison de l’Inde at the Cite Universitaire, he bitterly disagreed. He thought this was typical French hegemony. My Algerian friend hated France but there was no Islamic ideology behind that hatred. France had occupied many Islamic nations, particularly the Maghreb (Algeria, Tunisia and Morocco), and his hatred for the country where he was studying was much like we Indians hate the British for colonising us - and then have no qualms migrating to the UK, anyway..
But when France banned the wearing of the hijab in public places some years ago, my Algerian and Tunisian friends from Paris, whom I generally knew as liberal, were furious with the French government’s action, reminding me of my demographics professor’s warning that sooner or later France would have to pay for its liberalism in both the occupation of the Maghreb and for allowing free entry to its citizens.
He had grumbled about the skyline in Marseilles dotted with mosques preaching rebellion just as a Greek Orthodox priest had lamented to me about the silencing of church bells in ‘Constantinople’ (Istanbul).
It is a fight then between modern liberalism and medieval Islamic orthodoxy as Hussain Haqqani, former Pakistani ambassador to the US, so well put it this week.
For the sake of Paris and Bombay, my two beloved cities that faced similar terrorist strikes, I hope liberalism wins the day.