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The Muslim cause

The Muslim cause

Author: Pran Chopra
Publication: The Hindustan Times
Date: December 4, 2001

Introduction: Muslims are indeed victims of social prejudice. But it's not as simple as a clash of stereotypes

It is wrong to take a distorted view of Islam or of Muslims. Or of any religion or community. To do so deliberately is vile, and an invitation to trouble. Unfortunately, this happens most when it is most important to avoid it. That is, in times of tension and anxiety, when the broad brush of prejudice is most often used to paint those we disagree with. When the issue is big, prejudice gets a bigger brush.

The prejudices of some then become the prism through which whole communities begin to see other communities.

But before adding another word, I must express solid sympathy with Amar Farooqui's complaint about the media in his article Clash of stereotypes (HT, October 30). With him I fear that many a media room is cluttered with misperceptions or worse. Professional values fly out of the window when figures of revenue and circulation come in by the door.

But the issue here is not why 'someone' should be 'stereotyped' merely because, as Farooqui's article implies, he "adhere(s) to religious rituals fanatically". The issue is whether most people in a community agree that all religions have the right to their rituals in a multi-religious and multi-cultural world (or country). If some agree but many don't then the rational few get stereotyped along with the dominant trend. Farooqui shares this failing.

He speaks of "the real precursors of the Taliban State" and among them he names "Mussolini's Italy, Franco's Spain, Salazar's Portugal, Tojo's Japan, Ian Smith's Rhodesia, the apartheid State of South Africa, and above all Hitler's Germany". All of them are blots on history books. But in all of them the rational spoke out loud and clear until they were silenced, and spoke out again when they could.

But can it be claimed that at least in the countries they rule and where they have the trumpet voice of the majority, Muslims have spoken out against "the Taliban State"? He has rightly said the Taliban are "as ruthless and undemocratic in their pursuit of absolute power as the Nazis were". True. But from how many Muslim platforms in Muslim majority countries have the Taliban been denounced as such? From how many has Pakistan been cautioned against building them up, or Saudi Arabia against financing their training grounds?

It was a well-publicised fact that Pakistan was rearing the Taliban behind the shield of Islam as the future sword of its imperial ambition. Yet, so little was said against that by recognised platforms of the faith that the Taliban became a stereotype of the faithful.

This collective silence has become a towering prism through which the collectivity is seen by others despite the many Muslims who, like Farooqui, "have dedicated themselves to combating communal politics." The dominant trend, attitudinal or "on a specific issue", becomes the rule in the eyes of the observer and the exceptions get identified with the rule. Those on the other side of the prism return the compliment, and misperceptions multiply. That is why the Taliban, and what they have done to Afghanistan, to some other countries also, and threaten to do to still others, figure so much in the current debate in many countries, and also in Farooqui's response to the article by Vir Sanghvi ( HT, October 14).

Farooqui is right in deploring that a wrong view of Muslims is spreading among non-Muslims. But this ailment has its causes. They should be faced and cured, not brushed under a carpet of side-issues and definitions. The main cause is the process by which a dominant trend becomes the prism of perception.

The dark events enacted on September 11 are a good illustration. No responsible person has accused any Muslim community or country of condoning those events, because most of the authentic Muslim voices have condemned them. A positive image of the Muslim has thus stood out clearly on that issue. But his pre-September 11 image was far from clear and positive, because he was ambivalent about the image of the Taliban as the ugly Muslim.

If a "wrong view of Muslims" has grown - and it certainly has - then the main reason is that on the whole they are generally seen to have condoned the Taliban phenomenon and many are seen to have even idealised it.

Individual Muslims have spoken, with courage and eloquence, even about the role being played by the Imam of Jama Masjid, to whom Farooqui also refers, and he must have seen historian Mushirul Hassan's open letter to the Imam.

But are they candles in the wind or "a broad-based political campaign" which Farooqui says "liberal Muslims" are waging in "the cause of secularism"? Or are they more like footnotes written in fine print, which can elucidate or qualify a point in the thesis to which they are appended but which cannot replace the thesis?

As for example the scholarly annotations which seek to explain the Quranic meaning of Islam or of jehad. That meaning is wonderful. But the Taliban rejects the footnotes. The real life jehadi does not even read them. "The campaign" is worthy of support, and must be continued despite the mirrors of the media failing to reflect it. But can it demolish the deceiving prism? The answer is negative yet. Hence the danger of the 'Hindu backlash' in Vir Sanghvi's article.

What can make the answer less negative? In the reality of mass politics, images are made by momentous issues, and these should not be left to the mercy of "the rabble rousers" who, as Farooqui rightly laments, "make it to the headlines". Such issues constitute occasions when "articles/rejoinders" strike a cord and the media cannot but "care to have a look". The world would have paid attention if the distortions of Islam which were being manufactured in Afghanistan with Pakistani technology had been exposed in time in and by the countries which profess truer Islam. That opportunity is now slipping.

Some years ago, someone approached me in the respected name of 'Ali Mian' (the late Maulana Abul Hasan Ali Nadwi) to support and join an organisation, Muslim by name and predominantly so by composition, in a campaign for secular solutions to the Babri masjid and Kashmir issues. I joined it, both in public appearances and private discussions, but soon found myself running into a devious game. What was accepted in private discussion was frustrated in public debate.

In private the organisers accepted my plea that while many Hindus, like me, questioned the wisdom of New Delhi's approaches on many Kashmir related issues, they rejected the argument heard from Pakistan that since the Kashmir Valley had a Muslim majority, it belonged to Pakistan because India had been partitioned on the basis of religion. The organisers agreed that Pakistan was falsifying history, and that it could have dangerous consequences. But they always suffocated a public debate on that issue, while I believed that such a public position by a noted Muslim organisation on such an urgent issue would help to remove misperceptions about the stand taken on it by Indian Muslims.

This difference persisted, and I left the organisation. But this is only a minor illustration of a major phenomenon: that just as misperceptions get forged in the public mind in a heated debate, as since September 11, they are best removed when clear stands are taken on matters of urgent concern. An Islamic plea on behalf of Kashmir can sharpen the profile of the faith in the mind of the faithful, and perhaps make some of them more fanatical. But it will do little good to the cause of Kashmir or the cause of Islam. Or to the Muslim cause, which Farooqui rightly describes as the cause of "the vast majority of ordinary Muslims who go about their daily business", however fanatically they may "adhere to their religious rituals."

In happier times, the procession of events would have gone differently. The fair face of Islam would have reflected well on the Muslims of both India and Pakistan, shown the bonds of affinity between them in much better light to India's non-Muslims, enhanced the glory of India's 'Muslim period', and in the process would have eased relations between the two countries.

But when Pakistan clamped the mask of the Taliban on the face of Islam, its shadow fell on the relations between the two countries, and also, alas, on relations between the two communities in India.

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