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Can Muslims become more secular?

Can Muslims become more secular?

Author: T Thomas
Publication: Business Standard
Date: April 26, 2002

Introduction: In a secular country, there should be no special laws based on religion.

What was happened in Gujarat has once again brought into bold relief the two unfortunate characteristics of India society. Firstly there is the latent but strong anti-Muslim feeling among Hindus in several parts of this country. It erupts into cruel violence from time to time in several states. The antipathy towards Muslim is shared even by other minorities, like Christians and Sikhs. Secondly the Gujarat incidents and the reactions to them show how isolated the Muslim community has become. There has been no rush of voluntary agencies to go to the aid of the Muslim victims of genocide in contrast to the response to last year's earthquake.

The purpose of this article is to examine with sympathy the steps the Muslim community can take to change the national perception about itself. My views are based on my experience as a member of another minority (Christian) community.

The first steps is to put an end to the separation of Muslim children from children of other communities while in school Muslims should ensure that their children go to school with children from other religious groups. That is where we all get to know about the beliefs and practices of other religious group. It is through the friendship we make in school and college, and through teacher of other faith whom we respect, that we begin to understand and respect the beliefs and practices of other groups. It does not mean that Muslim children should not learn the Koran. These can be taught in a special class for Muslim children either in the school itself or in the mosques. It will be like the scripture or moral science lessons in Christian school. It is not a compulsory subject but in many Christian school Hindu children join such classes out of intellectual curiosity. As a matter of fact, the scripture prize in Cathedral school in Mumbai is often won by Hindu students! Muslims should consider opening up their School for the general education of children from all communities, and restrict classes on Islamic subjects as an optional item.  This change in the conduct of Islamic schools will go a long way to integrate the community.

Another useful step will be for Muslims charities to establish charitable hospitals accessible to members of all communities.  They present a face of compassion to the community in general.  Rich Muslim countries like Saudi Arabia should be told by Indian Muslim leaders to direct their funds to building such hospitals rather than building more opulent mosques in India.  In fact the building of such affluent mosques in poor Muslim mohallas and fitting them with elaborate loudspeakers that blare out at odd times of the day and night are a source of irritation to many non-Muslim neighbours. Islamic funds from abroad can be more usefully directed to less obstructive use.

A third step will be for Muslims to adopt in their business and professional life a dress code that does not mark them out as being different from the rest. Is it really necessary for men to have a beard or wear caps and long shirts or for women to wear a burqa or head scarf to show that they are Muslims? These dress and appearance codes were at one time probably appropriate for people who lived in the Arabian peninsula and in a community where women had to hide their form for their own safety.  Beards as a symbol of religious identity also belong to that era.  Is it relevant today in this country?  Equally, is it not necessary for a Christian to wear a cross so prominently that everyone can recognise him as Christian, or for a south Indian Brahmin to wear a caste mark on his forehead to proclaim that he is a Vaishnavite or a Shaivite.  One could argue that Sikhs are recognisable by their turbans and that they do not face the same hostility and isolation as Muslims. This may be because 1. Sikhs are much more integrated in many other ways with the rest of the community and 2. They are a much smaller community whose presence is mainly in and around Punjab.

A fourth step will be to disabuse the rest of the India that imams and mullahs do not represent or speak for the Hindus or Christians of this country. There should be cadre of secular leader who will represent their views along with views of other communities.

Namaaz several times during the day is another habit which sets Muslims Apart, and can prove to be an irritant where office team work is involved. Can Muslims not offer their prayers briefly in silence without having to interfere with the activities of their team mates?

Flights to Mecca with concessional fares for Muslim pilgrims going on Haj is an irritant to others who do not obtain such concessions to go to Mansarovar or Tirupathi or Bethlehem.  It may be advisable for Muslims voluntarily to give up this discriminatory privilege.  Let the intending pilgrims save and pay their way as others do for their pilgrimage.

Another major step will be the voluntary adoption of the uniform civil code by Muslims, while at the same time campaigning for the abolition of special laws for other communities-like the Hindu Undivided Family provisions, or the Christian Marriage Act. If we are truly a secular country there should be no place for such special laws based on religious divisions. The perpetuation of such laws will only lead to communal divisiveness. What we need is the freedom to practice each one' s religion in a peaceful manner that does not interfere with other communities. Since that is guaranteed under our constitution, what is the need for civil laws that perpetuate divisions along religious lines?

Muslim women need to organise themselves more forcefully to demand greater freedom in their personal lives. Women are the best instruments for reforming any community because of their innate ability to influence children, husbands, brothers and parents. Leading activist among Muslim women should try and focus on this issue within their own community.

Lastly there is the question of religious conversions, which applies to Muslims as well as Christians. It is resented by Hindus because of the fear of being diminished in numbers. I believe it is wrong for any religious group, either through compulsion or through inducements. Christ was born a Jew and died a Jew. In fact he never founded a religion called Christianity. This was created by his disciples well after his death. He never asked anyone to convert his fellows Jews to Christianity. Coming nearer home, Mother Teresa never converted any one; she merely set an example for others to follow.

I am Christian through accident of birth, not out of choice or after studying all available options. I am sure this applies to most of us - whether we are Hindus, Muslims or Christians. Once we recognise and accept this fact, viz that we belong to particular religious group (just as we belong to a particular racial group) purely by accident of birth, then our ability to tolerate others from a different religious affiliation will be much greater.  The majority Hindu community cannot wish away or even suppress 130 million Muslims.  If they try to do so they will create domestic Al-Qaedas.  Nor can the Muslims live forever as an embattled community that isolates itself through its superficial symbols of education, mode of worship and appearance - all of which have nothing to do with one's innate beliefs.  With enlightened secular leadership these communities can exist peacefully.  And that is essential for the progress and longer term prosperity of our country.
 


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