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Muslim Identity in India

-- By Dr Ramesh N. Rao

What is the Muslim identity sought to be carved out in India by Muslim fundamentalists or by pan-Islamic forces and why do the ordinary and/or non-fundamentalist Muslims allow the extremists and the religious zealots to speak for them? What is the kind of identity that these groups seek in India? An adumbration of these issues and problems and public debates about them may help us in understanding the psychological and cultural barriers between Hindus and Muslims that have perpetuated conflict in India.

Hasan, a historian at the Jamia Millia University in Delhi, who was barred from entering the university by fellow Muslims for about four and a half years, from April 1992 to October 1996, because he called for the removal of the ban on Rushdie's Satanic Verses, has written about Indian Muslims and their concerns [1]. However, it is interesting to note that in his book about the history of Indian Muslims, post-partition, he both begins and ends with the destruction of the Babri mosque in Ayodhya.

He is unable or unwilling to look closely at the rot that has set in among the Muslim leadership, the lack of moderate voices among Muslims, the fundamentalist veering of Muslim education, etc. Hasan, like many other Muslim scholars, both in India and elsewhere, too easily and quickly ignore the fundamental premise upon which Islam is built and thrives: the premise being that those who don't worship Allah, or those who don't consider Mohammed the last prophet, arekafirs and that such people, either by inducement, by force, or by conversion have to be made believers.

Hasan accuses 'Hindu propagandists' (whom he doesn't name) of conjuring up images of Muslims that are untrue. He says that these 'propagandists' paint the Muslims as “aggressive fundamentalists, the descendants of the depraved and tyrannical medieval rulers who demolished temples and forcibly converted Hindus to Islam” (p. 25). He also accuses these 'propagandists' as demonizing the Indian Muslims as 'separatists' responsible for the partitioning of India. Hasan goes on to list a number of British authors who described the Muslim presence and influence in India negatively and how those descriptions somehow contributed to the negative stereotypes of Muslims. And as usual, we have the quote from Edward Said's Orientalism, the 'Bible' of Muslim and 'multicultural' apologists, to support the harm done by Western authors and commentators to Islam.

Moreover, Hasan wants us to rethink the Muslim insistence on partitioning India. His brand of revisionism will be embraced by those inimical to India and Hindus and there are numerous such both in India and outside and those who wish to play down the violence that is packaged and marketed as part of the Islamic worldview. Hasan also wants us to believe that Muslims are not susceptible to religious appeals, that they do not act as a cohesive entity and that they do not further their interests through religious and political networks. He insists that Muslims are a beleaguered minority in India and that some social scientists are merely in search of scapegoats when they blame the Muslims in the subcontinent for the partitioning of India.

What Hasan fails to give credit to is the leavening effect of Hinduism on Muslims in India and how without a Hindu presence Muslims in Pakistan have been sucked into the vortex of Islamic fundamentalism, hatred of India and of Hindus and the exporting of terror around the world[2], especially in Kashmir[3]. That they have help from some Muslims in India[4]is evident from the daily violence in Kashmir and the frequent acts of sabotage in the Northeast, in Tamil Nadu, in Kerala and elsewhere. It is a no-win situation for the Indian government, for the Muslims in India and for the Hindus as long as there are different rules used to judge different groups in the country and as long as there are sustained efforts at appeasing one group or the other for political gain.

And as long as historians like Hasan harp on the Ayodhya incident and play down the dubious role of the Muslim politicians and the Muslim clergy in India, ignore the fractured selves of the Indian Muslims, fail to condemn Pakistani attempts to destabilize and fragment India, turn a blind eye towards the pan-Islamic forces colluding around the world to make India Muslim[5], pussyfoot around some of the dangerous but basic doctrines undergirding Islam, play down the communal violence started and perpetrated by Muslims in India and make no attempt at understanding the irreconcilability of a world partitioned along secular and religious identities, then one can look forward to more of what has transpired in India these past fifty years.

Hasan's tome is yet another apologia that fails to confront head-on the cognitive dissonance[6]in the Muslim community in India. Interestingly enough, Festinger's theory was developed as a tool to interpret rumors that began making the rounds after an earthquake in India. The rumors were that there would be a severe cyclone soon, or that there would be another earthquake after the lunar eclipse, or that there was a flood rushing towards the province. These rumors were spreading in the area where people had felt the earthquake tremors but had not been otherwise affected by the earthquake. Festinger also found that those rumors were not making the rounds where the actual disaster had taken place.

Festinger explained the rumors in this manner: people reacted fearfully to the tremors, but in the absence of destruction, they could see nothing to fear. Thus, the feeling of fear in the absence of adequate reason caused dissonance. To reduce the dissonance people added consonant elements -- the fear-justifying rumors[7]. This is how the Muslim population in India suffers dissonance. There are enough of their 'leaders' as well as media commentaries and analyses spreading rumors and prognostications about Hindu violence, Hindu attitudes and Hindu designs that the Muslim community fears the Hindus and feels 'beleaguered' (to use Hasan's terminology).

Festinger also theorized that people try to reduce dissonance by changing given cognitions. He gave the example of people who believe that cigarette smoking causes cancer but who simultaneously know that they themselves smoke. These people experience dissonance. In relating this aspect of dissonance to the Muslim community in India one can point out that certain acts of provocation lead to violence and that such violence usually extracts a larger price from the 'minority' community. Yet the Muslim leadership, if not sections of the Muslim community, not only know that they indulge in such provocations but in fact encourage them. The fact that they then suffer the effects of such violence more is then used to lament their status as a 'minority' and to then seek compensations.

Research using Festinger's theory has led to some modifications to the theory. The results from studies show that the theory holds under certain conditions. One is commitment and the other is volition. Commitmentis a state of being bound to or locked into a position or a course of action. It implies that people, by closing the door to alternative behaviors have to live with their decisions. And so, they need to reduce any dissonant elements deriving from their irreversible commitment. Volitionrefers to the degree of freedom people believe they possess in making a decision or choice. For people to experience dissonance, they must believe they acted voluntarily so that they feel responsible for the outcome of their decisions. The example above that I have given regarding the violence initiated by some in the Muslim community can be extended to understand this aspect of the dissonance theory. I believe that there should be research on the identity issues and concerns of Muslims in India and I believe that such research would shed more light on the Muslim “condition” than the kind of research undertaken by historians and political scientists in this regard[8].

Indian Muslim identity is inextricably tied with Pakistani and sub-continental, if not global Islamic movements and especially with the nineteenth century, pre-independence history of Islamic groups in the sub-continent. For example, the activities of the Jama`at-i-Islami (which is banned in India now) in the sub-continent were instrumental in transforming Muslim politics into an Islamic one. The Jama`at is the most powerful radical Islamic organization not only in Pakistan and Bangladesh but also in India. These fundamentalists differ with the conservative Muslims, like the Tabligh movement. The Jama`at leader Maulana Maududi, for example, dismissed the mission of Shah Waliullah, the eighteenth Islamic ideologue from Delhi, as irrelevant for modern-day situations. The Jama`at also challenged the validity of religious views of orthodox Muslims. Maududi, who wanted an ideal Islamic polity, which he termed as theo-democracy, was rigid in his views and believed that there should be no compromise on fundamental Islamic principles.

The Jama`at-i-Islami was launched on August 25, 1941 by Maududi with the aim of institutingShari`arule. Maududi wrote several articles against the Congress Party and the Muslim League. He saw Islam as a worldwide revolutionary movement and according to him, the problems of Muslims could not be solved by a separate Muslim state but instead through the establishment of Islamic rule. When the Muslim League in March 1940 passed a resolution demanding the establishment of a separate state for Muslims, Maududi opposed it -- a logical step as he saw Muslims as an organized community of believers rather than as a national entity. However, after partition the Jama`at joined with the Muslim League and accepted them.

The Jama`at wanted to abolish all 'unIslamic' laws in Pakistan and it started publishing a variety of articles by various authors about these matters. Maududi did not protest the elections in Pakistan, though elections are 'unIslamic'. He found elections and politics as a way of establishing the Islamic society he dreamed about. For the establishment of Islam, Maududi advocated certain activities which he called jihad and which included writing, propagation and donations. However, violence remained the ultimate form of jihad. Part of the jihad plan was recruiting young men, called soldiers of Islam, who would fight the 'infidels', inside and outside the Muslim world.

Soon there was a tremendous increase in the size of this Islamic 'army' as funds poured in from the oil-rich Arab countries. The Jama`at members were involved in the war against East Pakistan and Yahya Khan, the military dictator called upon the Jama`at to defend Islam and Pakistan. The Jama`at presence and power has increased continuously in the sub-continent. Ahmed says that the growing militancy of the Jama`at has long-term political consequences for the sub-continent. He believes that the Jama`at has the ability to survive adverse conditions since the members are fanatically dedicated to their cause of Islam. The influence of this militant Islam on the identity of Muslims in the sub-continent has mostly been ignored in the analyses of Hindu fundamentalism and nationalism.

Social backwardness: As recently as last October, at the two-day 14th Muslim Personal Law Board convention in Bangalore, Muslims failed to make any changes in their personal law. The Board said that it had failed to arrive at a consensus on standardizing then ikahnama, which would have helped Muslim women in matters of marriage and divorce. The women members of the Board, who are in a hopeless minority within the Board, expressed disappointment. The tripletalaqtoo was discussed, but again no decision was reached.

Unless Muslim intellectuals and leaders address the reasons and causes for Muslim backwardness in India, it will be very easy for the likes of Ahmad Bukhari of the Jama Masjid to blame India and Hindus for the ills afflicting his community. Feeding the frenzy of such leaders is the writing by journalist/politicians like Seema Mustafa and Syed Shahabuddin who continuously and persistently raise the bogey of Muslim fear and loss and the perceived threat from the BJP and the RSS (read Hindus). And many Muslims still hark back to the past and to the 800-900 year Muslim dominance in the sub-continent and so suffer from a combination of lassitude about the present condition of Muslim communities and a barely hidden desire to go back to those 'glory days' of Islamic rule and dominance.  

Lance Brennan, of Flinders University in Australia and a South Asia specialist, says in his paper: 'The Illusion of security: The background to Muslim separatism in the United Provinces' that because of British policies Muslims were given an almost fixed share in recruitment to the Indian Civil Service despite the fact that many Muslim candidates could not score grades equivalent to their Hindu competitors. Such treatment by the British, in pursuit of their strategy of “divide and rule” merely reinforced the feeling among many Muslims, after independence, that they now had a raw deal and that they were being denied what was due them. But a comparison of Muslim accomplishment and life in other countries, where there are no Hindus to stymie their progress, will show the real price that Muslim fundamentalism has extracted from its own followers[9].

According to a recent New York Times report more than fifty percent of Moroccan citizens are unemployed and the majority is uneducated, poor and backward. In Afghanistan, from where the U. N. recently withdrew, the condition of the ordinary Muslim and every Muslim woman is abysmal. The Taliban has come to represent the most oppressive kind of religious fundamentalism. And in England, where there is a sizable Muslim population (with a large majority from the sub-continent), a report by the independent Policy Studies Institute published in The Daily Telegraph (May 22, 1997), found "Pakistanis and Bangladeshis live in serious poverty". The study went on to observe they are “easily the poorest group in Britain with more than 80 per cent living in households with income below half the national average. The men are more than 2 1/2 times as likely to be unemployed as whites, few women have a job and most live in crowded homes containing twice as many people as white households.” The same report observed of people of Indian origin: “Well represented in professional and managerial occupations and among prosperous small business. Average earnings have not yet caught up with white population but the gap is narrowing.”

In August 2000, the British Department for Education and Employment revealed that children from the Indian community are much more likely to continue in school at the age of 16 and are more likely to aspire to enter college than other students. At the age of 18, 80 percent of Indian students were studying for university qualifying exams, compared to only 50 percent of white students.

The report noted that Pakistani and Bangladeshi students were the most likely to skip these exams. Thus the backwardness or lack of educational opportunity for Muslims in India most probably has nothing to do with Hindus and the alleged and perceived discriminatory policies of the Government of India and Indian Muslim intellectuals and politicians should look elsewhere for the problems plaguing Indian Muslims. May be, they should pay heed to what the Muslim fundamentalist still believes in: Talab il ilm ba'di wosule ma'loom madmoom-- meaning “the search of knowledge after gaining it is foolish” and after having gained the knowledge of the Koran what else is there to learn? “The rest is pernicious.”

What Marxism and Islam share in common is a kind of idealism, which in fact has close relationship to other forms of idealism, religious and political. But what makes both Marxism and Islam dangerous is not just the negation of or the wish to overcome restricted and restrictive identity (regional, national, religious, linguistic, etc.) but to try and achieve that through violence and with the belief that only they know best what is good for humankind. No doubt then that both Marxists and Islamists in India wear the kind of blinkers that allows them to see only and nothing but Hindu and RSS deviousness. And as long as these academics and politicians and mullahs spread their canards, Indian Muslim identity will continue to be fractured and fractious.

Originally published on Monday, March 12, 2001.

 
     
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