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On Being Muslim
by   Shahrukh Alam 2008/09/26/ on-being- muslim-shahrukh- alam

This afternoon, I saw on TV, the ticker advertising a Special Feature. The programme was going to be aired later in the day and was called “Young, Educated Killers”.  And for the next few seconds, I wondered who the title might be referring to: not the ‘encounter specialists’, surely? The economists who frame policies for the new, resurgent India , perhaps? People on the National Disaster Management Commission, possibly? Or since it was of topical interest, The Board of Directors for Lehman Brothers? Or even Patent attorneys for multinational Pharmaceutical companies? But then the visuals came on and I have to admit I was most embarrassed at having thought such dark thoughts about the aforementioned good people.
Most inexplicable, my wonderment. It should have been obvious whom the programme was about? Those Islamic Terrorists! Those inscrutable young people who emerge from the darkened alleyways of Jamia, who hold diplomas (and degrees), do unexciting, monotonous jobs by day and presumably plant bombs in the evening. So what might have caused that moment of insanity within me that I missed the obvious? Why was all logic abandoned, inverted? Well, I am Muslim after all. Inversion of logic is a collective legacy, I suppose. (I shall talk about that yet). There are many, many people, though, who do not even have that excuse for exhibiting inverse logic. Thank you, Lord for them.
On another news bulletin, while expressing shock that the events of September 19th should happen in the heart of South Delhi, the reporter said that the events were indicative of the fact that terrorists were now hiding in South Delhi, in such close proximity to very middle-class, normal colonies. I presumed she meant Zakir Bagh or Gulmohar Avenue (that rather posh address). But “… like New Friends Colony and Maharani Bagh”, she finished the sentence. I thought it was odd, then but now I feel that it was very clever of her. She clearly felt that if one classifies colonies not in terms of their physical closeness to the site of the encounter but in terms of how the inhabitants generally look at the sequence of events, it was likely that most people in Zakir Bagh and Gulmohar Avenue might have a different view of things. Of course, they are shocked too (as is all of Jamia), but for rather different reasons.
There are local and alternative narratives about the sequence of events. Some people (wholly or even partially) believe in them. And for that reason there are also alternative perceptions about violence and terror. There is anger too at the perpetrators of such violence and terror, much like the anger ‘outside’ at perpetrators of terror. There is hurt and disappointment that no one has bothered to engage with them – not the Home Ministry, not the babus nor the police and least of all, the media. Evidently, it is not so easy to engage. It is never easy when there is a primary logic to things and there is inverted logic to the same things.
Batla House (as all of Jamia) is a Muslim ghetto is the primary logic. It houses radical Muslim youth who think nothing of bombing cities. Batla House is violent. So it is, many would agree. Many would also argue that the violence is implicit in its present form of existence: in the fact that young Muslim professionals have found it impossible to rent houses on the market in New Friends Colony, Maharani Bagh and elsewhere for years already. Sometimes they do want to live outside of ghettoes. There is violence in the affect a Jamia address on the resume might have on a potential employer. Also, on the potential employee: professional types from Jamia choose to become completely apolitical and have no opinion on any matter for fear that it might give a wrong impression at work.
Many see violence in the branding of Jamia as a Muslim ghetto. It has created a real-estate mafia in the area as Muslims migrate there for reasons of security, familiarity and also because they are unable to find housing elsewhere. Small plots of land are sold at astronomical prices. Illegal constructions with no space between houses, minimal civic infrastructure, high rents: all of this is violence. Yousuf Saeed told us about an illegal interstate bus transport station just down the road from the site, where buses from small towns in western UP, bring Muslim migrant to Delhi . They get off – these urban migrants – with all their belongings and move into small cramped flats. These flats sell dearly for property is very valuable in any ghetto.
There is violence too in the power blocs. The real-estate holders, or those leaders of the Muslims, who are expected to – and do- treat the community as a monolith that requires no internal debate, activism or independent access to the state and the laws. They take upon themselves the role of mediators between the state and community. There are also those local gangsters, on convivial terms with the police, and keeping a friendly eye on the affairs of the community, until the time that they are gunned down to account for some crime somewhere. There is violence in the indifference of the University towards the local community at Jamia, in the absence of any intervention at the local level. In the meanwhile, piles of garbage lie undisturbed in the Batla House market area. Stony-faced men and burqa-clad women sit along the road asking for help.
There is still more violence to contend with. The further branding of the Muslim ghetto as a refuge for terrorists leads to a sense of being hounded amongst its people. There have been indiscriminate arrests in the area. Some of them may have happened for good reasons but the manner in which arrests are made (or raids and interrogations conducted) may also seem violent to some. There is aggression and also irresponsiveness to any queries about reasons for the arrest. (I suppose it is much the same everywhere). Students from Azamgarh- the place where the accused (and the dead) come from – have left en masse. They make for easy targets for the police, they say. They may or may not return to University.
It has been alienating - the way the media has described Batla House (and Jamia). News reports (often on the same page of a newspaper) variously described the boy shot dead as ‘Sajid’, ‘Sajjad’ and ‘Shahid’. “Can’t they even tell between two Muslim names? Is it all the same to them?” someone said. The delivery boys at the New Friends Colony community centre never did like to venture into Jamia, anyway. It is quite unsafe for them, apparently. Who has been violating whom, I wonder?
Terrorism (n): when Muslims cause bombs to go off in public places killing innocent people is how one commonly understands the idea. At Batla House, they use two other definitions and ask some questions: terrorism is a) the use of violence and threats to intimidate or coerce, esp. for political purposes b) the state of fear and submission produced by terrorism or terrorization. Citing these definitions they ask why it is that the vandalization and demolition of churches and the murder of Christians is not terrorism? A mass exodus of students from Azamgarh and a general paranoia in the area – a feeling of terror amongst Muslim youth that they may be picked up for questioning (or ‘encountered’) at any time and no one will ask any questions of the police if they only proclaim that the dead were ‘terrorists’ has followed from the events of September 19th. Why is the creation of such circumstances not terrorism?  They answer their own questions. In the last two cases, terror does not reach/affect most people and so they do not recognize it. They only recognize and underline (and fight) violence that affects them. For the residents of Batla House, at the moment, these circumstances of terror are more real, immediate and constant. The terror of bomb blasts is intermittent. So again, how does one engage such logic?
The papers carried a report of a statement by the police where they described how the accused had celebrated the killings after the bombs went off. The same paper had carried, some time ago, an account of what an ‘encounter specialist’ did after he came home post-encounters. There isn’t all that much difference, really. Violence is quite similar – primary or inverted.
Anger at such violence is similar too. There is anger at the perpetrators of bomb blasts – acute anger. And there is anger also at other kinds of violence, the burning of Churches, for instance. There is dismay at the apparent breakdown of trust between the state and the community. “They told the media before they told us in the neighbourhood” is a commonly heard grievance. The police had not notified the families of the dead. They heard the news on TV.
The lack of trust is so deep-rooted that the seemingly parallel worlds are not even interested in the other’s narratives (or grievances). One is either here or there. But I think that the fruit-seller outside the main Qabristan at Batla House negotiated them beautifully. He was selling bananas to the posse of policemen stationed there to keep the peace and also to the pre-iftaar shoppers. He turned to the first group and said “ Well done, Sahib. You have cleaned out the muck.” He then turned towards the other group and muttered conspiratorially “ Saale ! They are a bad omen. God knows how many more they will kill before they get out of here.”
I have not learnt to traverse the parallel worlds myself. I only managed to say under my breath: “Kambakht! Must be an informer!”
Shahrukh Alam
The Patna Collective



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