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Qaum or country?

The liberal Muslim exists but has been unable to make himself publicly relevant, writes Sagarika Ghose.

india Updated: Oct 27, 2006 02:19 IST

In 2005, Imrana Bibi of Charthawal village in UP was raped by her father-in-law. A year later, a Muzaffarnagar sessions court has now sentenced her rapist, Ali Mohamad, to 10 years in jail. In Charthawal village, the court judgment is more or less irrelevant. Neighbours say the rape incident was a property dispute. Others say Imrana was of ‘loose character’ and even entertained her brother-in-law. Still others allege that there was an inappropriate relationship between Imrana and her father-in-law. In the cacophony of voices, the loudest in the Imrana case has been, as usual, the voice of the clergy. In 2005, the Deoband Dar-ul-Uloom said that since Imrana had been raped by her father-in-law, she was now her husband’s mother and could not return to her husband. Today, some clerics still say that a raped woman is a criminal, she is haraam, and cannot, under any circumstances, return to her husband. And there is no one to oppose this ridiculous pronouncement.

The stranglehold of the Islamic clergy on the Muslim population remains one of the persistent reasons why the liberal, thinking and educated Muslim seems to have no future within his own community. The helplessness of the liberal Muslim, caught between a backward-looking clergy and sections of Hindu opinion, descending into vicious prejudice, is a tragedy for inter-community relations.

Ten years ago, when Mushir-ul Hasan was professor of history at Jamia Millia Islamia, he made the mistake of saying that although he thought Salman Rushdie’s book The Satanic Verses was offensive, yet he didn’t think the book should be banned. Jamia, at that time, erupted in violent protest and one of the student leaders even said that “rivers of blood will flow if Hasan dares to enter the campus”. Even Syed Ahmed Bukhari, the Naib Imam of Jama Masjid, said secularism does not mean that you can insult the Prophet. At that time Mushir-ul Hasan’s position within the Muslim community reflected how difficult it was for Muslims to show any form of public dissent towards current interpretations of Islam. Today, in the context of the politics of revenge, the rising numbers of young men who have given up on India and opted for azaadi and the demagogues who take to the streets to whip mob fury against cartoons in a Danish newspaper, the Muslims who argue for democracy and secularism seem to be yelled out of the arena on the charge that they are not ‘Muslim enough’. The liberal Muslim is heard in educated circles, his thoughts echo on the editorial page and television studios, but he is simply irrelevant on the Muslim street. The Muslim equivalent of a Laloo or a Mulayam or a Mayawati, the plebian electorally powerful opponents of orthodox religion, are absent among the Muslims.

By contrast, for the moment at least, the liberal Hindu has defeated the orthodox Hindu. The communalists in the Hindu community have been laughed out of the arena by a powerful lobby of ‘pseudo secularists’ who have mounted a challenge to the voices of Praveen Togadia and Acharya Giriraj Kishore. Sure, Narendra Modi continues as Chief Minister of Gujarat, but the BJP’s defeat in the 2004 general elections was, to some extent, a slap across its face for the politics of hate that the BJP was trying to use for electoral gain.

In fact, the 2002 Gujarat riots became a horrible illustration of the failures of the BJP government in the eyes of both the Muslims and Hindus. The chief enemies of Hindutva have been Hindus themselves, those who have insisted that it was impossible to link Hinduism with hatred and terrorism.

Yet, voices within the Muslim community, which insist that Islam should have nothing do with hatred, terrorism or backward laws, still find themselves marginalised. The All India Muslim Personal Law Board hedges, it hums and haws, it refuses to withdraw grotesque injustices like the triple talaq. It still uses language such as a woman should be ‘obedient’ and be allowed to return to her husband’s family. It has still not been able to prevent multiple marriages or the marriage of minors. Poor destitute Muslim women suffer daily at the hands of regressive laws. But the Muslim cultural elite is hesitant when it speaks up against the clerics who hand out these laws, for fear that it may damage their identity as ‘Muslims’. At this point of time, the liberal and democratic Muslim is not seen to be confident enough to want to be heard, nor raise his voice, nor step out of the comfort of the elite cocoon and into the maidan of public opinion. While the liberal Hindu has actually managed to create a public constituency, has managed to make himself publicly relevant, the liberal Muslim has been unable to speak a language that strikes a chord with the wider community and been unable to be popular within his own community.

When it came to the singing of Vande Mataram, why did even modern educated individuals like Asaduddin Owaisi of the All India Majlis Ittehad-ul Muslimeen feel compelled to loudly argue that he would never sing the said song? When a faraway Danish newspaper published offensive cartoons, was there any need for the leaders of the agitation to launch a demonstrations of mob fury similar to the worst types of Hindu mob fury? How then is the Muslim mob any different from the Hindu mob? Where, instead, were the voices that could have enlightened us on the magnificent democratic traditions of Islam and its humanity and rationality?

The liberal Muslim exists, but is somehow fearful to frontally challenge those who claim to speak on his behalf. How much safer to always bash that very eminently bash-able entity: the media. Attack the media and then the prickly battle of actually creating a new anti-orthodox identity is safely and comfortingly postponed.

Today, communalism is becoming horrendously pervasive. It is a slap across the face of our Constitution that Muslims are so terribly represented in organisations like the R&AW, the CBI, IB and the SPG. There is not a single Muslim officer in the R&AW and the SPG, while the IB has two and the CBI has only one Muslim officer. According to the 2001 census, only 55 per cent Muslim males are literate, the condition of Muslim women is far worse. The systematic, violent and silent persecution of Muslims in today’s India is also an inescapable reality. It is a community that lives in fear of being ostracised, injured and humiliated at every turn. It is precisely in this situation that it becomes crucial to find the bridge-builders, the negotiators and the true leaders.

Today, the vulnerabilities of the Muslims are such that slogans of ‘Islam in danger’ are far more evocative than slogans like ‘Hindu Muslim bhaibhai’. Yet, India needs Muslim voices that can ring out as loudly against the clerics as the Hindu voice rang out against the VHP. We need a Muslim voice that can move beyond the trap of victimhood and the constant blame-game and actually harness the positive energies of the community into a new optimistic partnership with Hindus.

The language of hatred and elitism must be junked. Instead, the liberal Muslim identity must strive for relevance in the public space and try to find a public anti-orthodox constituency just as the liberal Hindu has been able to do.

Sagarika Ghose is senior editor CNN

First Published: Oct 27, 2006 02:19 IST