For several Sundays now, I’ve been grappling unsuccessfully with a column on the dilemmas facing educated, liberal Indian Muslims. I first thought of writing it when there was speculation about the inroads that Al Qaeda had made into our Muslim community in the aftermath of the Glasgow/London incidents.
Then, I started on it when a (largely Hindu) uproar followed the Prime Minister’s statement about feeling sorry for the mother of one of those accused of complicity in the UK incidents. The Bombay blasts verdict — where the majority of those sentenced were Muslims — made me consider whether to revive the column.
And on Thursday, after watching the TV footage of the shameful assault on Taslima Nasreen at a book release function in Hyderabad, I knew I could hold off no longer. Certainly, hearing Akbaruddin Owaisi, described by the media as a London-trained barrister, and a political ally of the UPA, justify the assault on TV angered me beyond belief.
Shabana Azmi, who was interviewed about the violence, made the usual sensible and reasonable points condemning the attack. And she also said that Hindu and Muslim fundamentalism were two sides of the same coin.
But are they? Are the problems faced by liberal Muslims who want to speak out against the fascists and lunatics in their community the same as those faced by Hindus who speak out against extremists in our community?
I don’t think they are.
As secular liberals who regularly condemn the worst excesses of the sangh parivar, we face no real danger.
<b1>Oh yes, if you are a journo covering a riot or watching the Babri Masjid being demolished, there’s always the risk that some Bajrang Dal thug will beat you up. But apart from that, incidents of violence conducted in the name of Hinduism have been roundly condemned by Hindu commentators and nobody has done us much damage.
In my all years of writing for a Hindu-owned paper, nobody has ever stopped me from referring to Narendra Modi as a mass murderer or Praveen Togadia as a ferret-faced maniac. When the Babri Masjid came down, the loudest condemnation of that shameful event came from Hindu commentators and proprietors. And though I get frequent death threats from cranks in my mail, I can’t say that I’ve ever felt I was risking my job or the safety of my family.
Muslim liberals, on the other hand, find the going much tougher.
There is, first of all, their own position in our society. As the majority community, Hindus have a sense of belonging, ownership and entitlement. But even well-educated, successful Muslims rarely feel that secure. A friend of mine from my university days — an Indian Muslim who talks British — told me that he can feel the disdain emanating from immigration officers at Bombay airport when they look at his passport and find he has a Muslim name. Other friends — much richer and better known than most of us — will tell you how difficult it is to rent a house if you are a Muslim.
These are seemingly small things and I do not claim that the discrimination is all-pervasive. But rare is the educated Muslim who is not made aware by Indian society that he is, somehow, different. And the discrimination in the workplace is phenomenal. Muslims constitute between 12 and 14 per cent of our population, but on almost every measure of success — number of Muslims in the IAS, the police, and the army; the number of Muslim-owned companies in the top 500 Indian firms; the percentage of Muslim CEOs or even, national newspaper editors — they lag far behind their statistical entitlements.
To this sense of mild (and sometimes, not so mild) alienation from the Indian mainstream, you can now add a global sense of alienation. Even Farooq Abdullah, hardly your typical victim, told me in a TV interview that every time he went abroad he could sense the suspicion in everyone’s eyes. “You have a Muslim name and they think you are a terrorist till you prove otherwise,” he said. At least Farooq can travel as he wishes. If you are a Muslim and need a visa to go to the West, it is twice as tough as it would be for a Hindu or a Christian.
Many educated Muslims will tell you that while they understand the reasons for the West’s suspicions, it doesn’t make them any more comfortable. They will tell you also that while they despise Osama bin Laden and are bitterly opposed to Al Qaeda and all forms of terrorism, they are not fans of the West either. They could understand the invasion of Afghanistan, they say. But Iraq, which had nothing to do with Al Qaeda? And now, possibly, Iran? Isn’t there a sense in which the Muslim world is being targeted?
To be an outspoken liberal in the middle of this alienation is hard enough. It is almost as though you are siding with the enemies of your people. But Muslims also face problems within their own community that most Hindu liberals do not have to worry about.
If I say that the people who ransacked Husain’s exhibition are thugs and an embarrassment to Hinduism, nothing much will happen to me. But a decade and a half ago when Mushirul Hasan made the perfectly reasonable statement that as offensive as he found The Satanic Verses to be, he did not believe in banning books, he was roughed up by university students who had political backing. When Taslima Nasreen dares write about the position of women in Islamic societies, she is assaulted by political goons in full public view.
Muslim liberals face risks that few Hindus need take. Their problem is not only with the mainstream. It is with their own community. Sadly, Indian Muslims have the worst political leadership of any community in India.
Worse still, it is a leadership that is illegitimate. Muslims are affected by many of the same issues as Hindus or Christians: inflation, law and order, economic growth, corruption etc. So why then do they need Muslim leaders? Why can’t secular leaders represent them on secular issues?
The short answer is that, of course, they can. And Muslim leaders, fearful of their own irrelevance, needlessly whip up sentiment on religious issues to try and ensure that Muslims vote only as Muslims and not as Indians. So, an insult to the Prophet by Taslima will be manufactured; some Samajwadi thug-cum-minister will offer a reward for the death of a Danish cartoonist that his constituents have never heard of; The Satanic Verses will be burnt by people who would never otherwise have read it; and a bogus cry of Islam being in danger will be raised.
The cynical exploitation of the Muslim community by its politicians surpasses anything the BJP has ever attempted. It reaffirms the stereotype of Muslims as bloodthirsty religious fanatics who care only about beating up Taslima and not paying maintenance to their wives. And it feeds Hindu disdain. Somebody like Owaisi is God’s gift to the RSS; his interviews could be used in sangh parivar recruitment videos.
I have often written — and been criticised for writing — that, just as Hindu liberals fight Hindu communalists, so Muslim liberals must speak out against their own fanatics. I accept that it is not as easy for them as it is for me. But I still think it needs to be done.
I think also that we need to end the secular double standard where the Left abuses the BJP for its Hindu ethos but embraces Mulayam Singh Yadav despite his party’s shameful pandering to the worst kind of Muslim communalism. All communalism is as bad and Muslim intolerance is no better than Hindu intolerance.
At the start of the 21st century, we are on the threshold of a new age; of the emergence of a New India. Over 60 per cent of our population is under 25. These are the men and women who will determine the future of this country. Millions of them are Muslims eager to make their fortunes in this new frontier.
What little I have seen of their progress is encouraging. In the new sunrise service sectors — computer programming, call-centres, airline cabin crew, TV channels etc — the proportion of Muslims is far higher than in the traditional jobs.
It is up to all of us to ensure that these young Muslims nourish the dream of a new, resurgent India. If we fail them and either make them feel like outsiders or allow them to fall into the hands of the cynical fundamentalists who have hijacked the political leadership of the Muslim community, then the consequences for our country could be disastrous.
To do that, we need to do two things. One: we must end the secular double standard and speak out against Muslim communalism. It is shameful that the UPA, which holds forth on Hindu fascism, aligns with the loathsome thugs who attacked Taslima.
And two: we must both empathise with and empower educated liberal Muslims. They do not have it easy. They face alienation on all fronts. And the goondas in their own community make them feel scared and vulnerable.
But unless Muslims speak up — as liberal Hindus have — Indian secularism will fail the new generation in the new century.
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