Have Muslims been cast as the ‘Other’ in contemporary discourse – four writers from the community wrangled with this and other questions on the last day of the Jaipur Literature Festival. Moderated by researcher Ornit Shani, the panelists discussed the perception of Islam, inter-faith dialogue, Islamophobia and challenges within the religion itself.
Writer Tabish Khair, author of Just Another Jihadi Jane, among other works, was of the opinion that every one creates an Other – a community or ideal that is diametrically opposite to our own selves, an entity to be hated or feared. “Just like Muslims are othered by the West, many of them living abroad are engaged in the same process of othering Western ideas and people,” he said. For example, in the minds of certain Muslims, there is no differentiation between Israel, the Israeli government, Zionism and Jews.
Sadia Dehlvi, who has written extensively about Sufism in India, thought one of the reasons why Muslims are labeled the Other is because Islam has been hijacked by a certain interpretation of it. “Islam does not force you into cultural apostasy; you can be Muslim and still follow your own cultural ideals,” she said.
Within the religion, there is an insistence on rigidity. “We focus too much on laws, without compassion or love. We forget our spiritual traditions,” said Dehlvi.
Veteran journalist Saeed Naqvi, from whose book Being the Other: The Muslim in India the session borrowed its central theme, challenged the idea of Muslims as a monolith. “A Kerala Muslim has to find his salvation within his Malyali framework, different from Muslims from other cultures,” he said.
Naqvi stressed that India had a strong culture of syncreticism, of the coming together of people of different faiths, but this has been disrupted by politics.
Novelist Qaisra Shahraz said that as a Pakistani living in the United Kingdom, she has had to deflect misconceptions about Islam as well as the growing Islamophobia. “I tell people that extremists are in every religion. Because of the actions of a minority, how can you tag almost 2 billion people as extremists?” she said.
Shahraz, who has authored stories such as A Pair of Jeans that unpack the experiences of Pakistani women grappling with ideas of religion, sexuality, feudalism and modernity, said that we have to confront the entrenched patriarchy within religious and social structures. “But what is happening in France is absolute nonsense, the whole business of forcible removing veils,” said Shahraz. “Who has a right to tell a women that she should wear a veil or remove her veil?” she asked.
One thing that all panelists found themselves agreeing with was that we need to reclaim the space for moderates, that is shrinking day by day. As if to prove this point, a very angry elderly man in the audience got into a shouting match with Naqvi, declaring that Islam was never a religion of peace. Khair had the best advice for the gentleman: Organise your own panel next year.
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