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Being Muslim in India Today: Some Reflections

By Yoginder Sikand

The Milli Gazette Online

8 September 2006


Communal prejudices, already deeply-rooted in the minds of most Indians, have been further reinforced owing to a series of events and developments in recent years, both at home and abroad. These prejudices are almost universal in India, and the state has never seriously sought to counter them except by pious proclamations of 'Hindu-Muslim Unity', 'Respect for All Religions' and so on. Being thus left largely unchallenged, these prejudices, actively promoted by various right-wing, conservative and traditionalist religious groups, have succeeded in preventing the emergence of a truly secular society.

Anti-Muslim prejudice and what is now called 'Islamophobia' are not a new phenomena, but these have received a tremendous boost in recent years. The attacks of 9/11, the blasts in Benaras, Delhi and Mumbai and the continuing conflict in Kashmir have further fuelled the flames of hatred and prejudice against Muslims among many Hindus, so much so that the claim that Islam preaches terrorism, hatred for other religions and their adherents, misogyny, disloyalty to states where Muslims are not a majority or the ruling community and so on, actively propagated by Hindutva forces, has become an integral part of the social 'common sense' of a vast number of non-Muslim Indians. This has been facilitated by ever-expanding media networks, few of which are controlled by Muslims, and many of which have clear Hindutva affiliations. The US-led 'war on terror' is only further exacerbating this, with Hindutva forces and large sections of the Hindu-owned Indian media lending support to what many Muslims see is an all-out war directed against Islam and Muslims in general. 

The recent series of violent attacks have been used to tar all Muslims with the same brush, as essentially terrorists or potential terrorists. In the case of some of these attacks the actual perpetrators remain unknown but they are somehow automatically assumed by the non-Muslim media to have been the handiwork of Muslims. In the case of certain violent attacks where certain Muslims were indeed responsible, the underlying causes for growing resentment among Muslims, a host of economic and political factors, are ignored, and Islam itself comes to be projected as the underlying reason. Thus, for instance, supposing the recent Mumbai blasts were indeed the handiwork of a group of Muslims (a claim made by the media but not as yet fully ascertained), the fact that the slaughter of some three thousand innocent Muslims in Gujarat in a state-organised pogrom might have something to do with the anger that motivated the perpetrators has been totally ignored. Rather, most newspapers claim, it is simply the _expression of an uncontrollable and blind rage, of irrepressible intolerance and hatred of non-Muslims that, they argue, Islam allegedly preaches. No such attribution to Hinduism was made, of course, when Hindu mobs embarked on that bloody slaughter of Muslims in Gujarat or in the case of innumerable cases of such violence prior to the Gujarat genocide, in which the principal victims were Muslims. Likewise, the killings of hundreds of thousands of Iraqis, Afghans, Koreans, Vietnamese and so on by American forces has never been attributed by the media to Christianity. One wonders why Muslims must be singled out as an exception in this regard. 

What of the rich contributions of Muslims to the country's composite culture? In large measure, this is now given mere lip-sympathy to, being 'mummified' and confined to museums and mushairas, and presented as a sort of exotic add-on to what is presented as 'Indian culture', which is defined in essentially Brahminical Hindu terms. But if Hindutva leaders were to have their way, even this ritual recognition would cease, and the cultural contributions of the Indian Muslims would either be destroyed or else appropriated and presented as actually 'Hindu', in the same way as, for instance, the Dravidian gods, Buddha, Kabir and Nanak later came to be heralded as 'Hindu' in order to negate their challenge to the Brahminical system. A classic case of Hindutva denial of the Muslim contribution to India's culture relates to the Taj Mahal, with Hindutva ideologues now insisting that it was actually 'Tejo Mahalya', a supposedly Rajput Hindu palace, and that Delhi's famed Mughal Red Fort was, in fact, the Hindu 'Lal Kot'.

The most effective means to dissolve communal prejudices is through close personal interaction between people of different communities, in the course of which people begin to discover their common humanity, transcending narrow religious barriers. Although such interaction does take place between many Hindus and Muslims, in some communally-mixed workplaces and schools, scope for this is contracting. Muslims are being forced, through compulsion, fear, the need for security, poverty and mounting anti-Muslim prejudice, to move into their own neglected and squalid ghettos, obviously much to the satisfaction of communal forces, both Hindu and Muslim, who thrive on such geographical, in addition to religious, separation. 

Non-governmental organizations (NGOs) have a vital role to play in bringing together people of different communities to work on issues of common concern, such as economic and educational development and empowerment, and in the process, promoting inter-community interaction and countering communal stereotypes. One would have thought that in the face of growing anti-Muslim feelings in the country NGOs would have taken up this issue with the seriousness that it deserves. This, however, has not happened on a significant scale, for several reasons. In north India especially, Muslims have few such organizations and most of them work for Muslims alone. Further, most Muslim NGOs are religious charities devoted to Islamic education. This is both a result as well as a cause of the influence of the ulama, who, given the miniscule Muslim middle class, are able to present themselves as authoritative spokesmen of the entire Muslim community. And, given the insular sort of training that they receive, the ulama and the NGOs that they run are not best equipped to promote better relations with others. On the other hand, relatively few non-Muslim NGOs work with Muslims as a community, Muslims typically not being seen by these groups as a marginalized group in the same way as as Dalits or Adiviasis are, although the living conditions of most Muslims are almost as pathetic as theirs. The work of many of the few non-Muslim NGOs that are engaged with Muslims as a community is often limited simply to promoting communal harmony, ignoring, unconsciously or otherwise, the crucial issue of Muslim economic and educational empowerment, the lack of which is responsible, in part, for sustaining the authority of conservative religious groups among sections of the Muslim community, which, in turn, further strengthens negative stereotypes about Muslims.

The implications for mounting anti-Muslim sentiments for India as a whole, and not just for Muslims alone, are frightening, to say the least. Conservative 'upper' caste Hindu forces are actively fanning these prejudices among marginalized 'lower' castes so as to use them as foot-soldiers in organized anti-Muslim pogroms. Consequently, these marginalized castes are being subtly co-opted, their attention being turned from their real oppressors onto the imaginary and carefully constructed 'menacing other' in the form of Muslims. The dangerous consequences that this has for the struggles of Dalit, Adivasis and Other Backward Castes for their rights and empowerment are enormous. As the 'Muslim question' comes to dominate media discourses, the continued oppression of the 'low' castes, the social and economic mounting inequalities in the country, the ruling classes' nexus with imperialist forces and so on, are all being deliberately displaced from public consciousness. And as anti-Muslim hatred is being so actively fanned at the same time as India is being sold to Western multinational corporations, Hindutva forces, who never tire of proclaiming themselves as super-patriots, appear least concerned about the prospects of civil war and continuous bloodshed that their actions are designed to promote.

That said, the general Muslim response to mounting Islamophobia has met with little success. Muslims are now forced on the defensive and somehow feel forced to prove their patriotism. Islam does not preach terrorism, Muslim leaders now tirelessly argue, but since Muslim organizations have few links with the non-Muslim media, and because large sections of this media have no interest in countering negative stereotypes about Muslims, these claims generally fall on deaf ears. The Urdu media, where these voices are mainly articulated, is read almost entirely by Muslims alone, and so non-Muslims are left unaware of Muslims seeking to clear Muslims of charges of 'terrorism'. Muslim organisations lack a proper media policy, being run almost entirely by conservative ulama, whose knowledge of the complexities of the real world, including the media, is limited, to say the least. The ulama's insistence that Muslims, by definition, cannot be terrorists because the Quran lays down that to take the life of an innocent is like slaying the whole of humanity has few non-Muslim takers, for non-Muslims have plenty of groups to point to, in South Asia and elsewhere, who define themselves as 'Islamic' and who seek to justify their actions in the name of Islam. Middle class Muslims, who might have played the role of countering anti-Islamic media discourses more effectively because of their different cultural capital, are, by and large, silent, content with their quest for material comfort, having little or no organic links with the community at large. 

For the general masses of the Muslims, mostly of 'low' caste background, mired in desperate poverty and illiteracy, the mounting wave of Islamophobia, occasioned, in part, by the actions of self-styled champions of Islam, has meant even less hope for their myriad social and economic problems to be addressed. The media insists that Muslims themselves are responsible for their plight and that the main cause of their 'backwardness' is not, as the case really is, the macro-structures of heavily unequal distribution of and access to resources and assets, further skewed by economic 'liberalisation' and 'globalisation'. Instead, it is argued, the fundamental causes of Muslim 'backwardness' are what are labeled as 'medieval madrasas' 'obscurantist mullahs' and radical Islamists. Hence, it is asserted, Muslim 'backwardness' does not require active state intervention, but, instead, can be 'cured' only if the ulama and their madrasas are 'reformed' and if Muslims take on the Islamists. In this way, both the cause of and the solution to Muslim 'backwardness' are sought by the media to be firmly located internally, within the Muslim community, as if state policies, international factors and anti-Muslim discrimination have nothing to do with this. This argument, tagged on to the growing indifference to the marginalisation of the Muslim masses promoted by mounting anti-Muslim propaganda in India and in the West, has made it increasingly difficult for Indian Muslims to press their claims on the state for economic, educational and political empowerment. 

To add to this is the fact that as anti-Muslim feelings grow, conservative Muslim religious forces, too, receive a shot in the arm as a reaction, presenting themselves as saviours of Islam and representatives of all Muslims. And so the vicious circle of competing brands of religious conservatism and fundamentalism feeding on each other gets continually reinforced. 

* The author works with the Centre for Jawaharlal Nehru Studies, Jamia Millia Islamia, New Delhi. He moderates an online discussion group called "South Asian Leftists Dialoguing With Religion" (



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