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Response to an Open Letter: What India’s Muslims Really Want

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[After Chetan Bhagat, here is another 'sympathiser' of Indian Muslims who has followed the footsteps of Mr. Bhagat and wrote an Open Letter in North America's largest circulated weekly newspaper India Abroad. The 'sympathiser' gentleman couldn't muster courage ala Mr. Bhagat and preferred to conceal his identity. The gentleman has written under a Muslim pseudonym 'Zafar Shah Alam' (And, who knows he is a Muslim or not feeling the pains of the beleagured community!). The Indian Muslim Observer is reproducing the reply written by prominent U.S.-based community activist Kaleem Kawaja. The response by Mr. Kawaja is appropriate and eye-opener. -- Danish Ahmad Khan, Founder-Editor, IndianMuslimObserver.com]

About two weeks ago an article entitled "What India's Muslims Really Want" written by someone who used the pseudonym (assumed name) 'Zafar Shah Alam', appeared in 'India Abroad', the largest circulation weekly newspaper of the Indian community in North America. The article made many mischievous/ negative comments about India's Muslims and was similar to a similar recent article by Chetan Bhagat published recently in newspapers in India.

I wrote a response to that which has been published by India Abroad this week. Herebelow I am reproducing that article.

Thanks for your attention.

Kaleem Kawaja

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Letter to the Editor, India Abroad:

What India’s Muslims Really Want

The column with the above title in IA of August 2 by an individual who used the pseudonym ‘Zafar Shah Alam’ surprised me. First, I wonder why the person who wrote on such a sensitive issue has concealed his identity? Second, in contrast to the title of the essay, the writer said almost nothing about what India’s Muslims want.

The writer has completely ignored the numerous positive actions that many Muslim organizations in India have taken over the last four decades to bring the community in the national mainstream, to improve communal harmony, to improve education and skills in the youth, and has instead spent a lot of words to vent his negative view of Muslims, and to rehash several decades old derogatory allegations that have already been proved false. Today Muslims definitely do not want to go back into acrimonious public disputes of the past decades.

What India’s Muslims want foremost is help to develop the currently very poor infrastructure in their communities in various cities, namely roads, sanitation, schools, medical clinics, parks and opportunities for education and employment. The OBC Muslims and Dalit Muslims want that they should be given the same affirmative action help, like reservation in education and jobs, that their counterparts in the Hindu, Sikh and Buddhist communities have been given since 1950, but which they have been denied unfairly.

Muslims want that the government implement the recommendations of the Government’s Sachar Committee report which highlights specific areas of socioeconomic uplift that the community acutely needs. They want security from the violence of anti-Muslim forces and police brutality, and just treatment from the government institutions in their daily lives. Muslims want to enthusiastically participate in the nation’s political processes at all levels. Muslims have full faith in the nation’s secular and democratic structure and its secular citizens who are no less than at least three-fourth of the majority Hindu community.

The writer has alleged that honor killings are not uncommon in the Muslim community, but there has not been even a single instance of honor killing in the Indian Muslim community at least since 1947. The writer makes the mischievous allegation that Muslims hold themselves apart from the rest of the country, but ignores the fact that everywhere in India Muslims mingle freely with others in schools, colleges, places of work, sporting and entertainment events, government events etc.

Browse the Indian newspapers, electronic media etc. and you will find adequate number of Muslim faces in every mix of Indians in proportion to their population. In higher level positions there is a shortage of Muslims based on the fact that Muslims do not have as much access to higher education as others.

The writer makes the derogatory remark that Muslim ghettoes exist in every nook and cranny. Go to any city and see for yourself that of the poor Indians who are more than a quarter of the population, there are people of all religions. Go to the slums in Mumbai or Delhi or Calcutta or Chennai or other cities and see for yourself that no more than one-third of the population there are Muslims. Yes there are more poor Muslims in comparison to their population, but that is because of the community’s lack of access to higher education and denial of affirmative action programs to the deserving among them. It is offensive that the writer has tried to put a religious label on the face of India’s poor.

On the issue of Babri mosque the writer is again repeating the false allegation of the anti-Muslim forces that the Babri mosque was not a place of worship for Muslims; it was so until government stopped Muslims from praying there in 1949. As to the demolition of Babri mosque, the Liberhan Enquiry Commission report of 2009 has clearly indicted several senior leaders of anti-Muslim political parties for this crime and has recommended that they be tried in a court of law.

The writer again repeats the provocative allegation that during the 600 year long Muslim rule, Muslim rulers demolished Hindu temples and built mosques on them. Research by several reputed non-Muslim historians, including Prof Richard Burton and Prof Paul Brass has proved conclusively that barring a couple of such incidents by a couple of rogue rulers in six centuries, as a rule Muslim kings did not desecrate Hindu temples. In fact the same research shows that in the era before the Muslim rule some victorious Hindu kings demolished temples of the favorite deities of the other Hindu kings whom they defeated.

The writer’s calumny against the Muslim Personal Law Board is galling indeed. This Board established in 1973 with the assistance of the Indian government simply conducts advocacy that Muslims be allowed to live their lives according to the precepts of their religious scripture. Hindus, Sikhs, Buddhists, Christians have their own religious panels to oversee the implementation of their respective personal laws. Why does the writer want to force the Muslims alone to abrogate the guidance to them from their scriptures?

The allegation that the Board supports child marriage and opposes the right of children for free and compulsory education is patently false. Why should the Board endorse Salman Rushdie who has identified the wives of Prophet Mohammad with whores in a brothel in a desert in Arabia? Have any Hindu or Buddhist or Christian organizations in India ever applauded any authors who insulted their deities in such an obscene manner?

It is strange that in applauding Narendra Modi of Gujarat, and questioning Muslims as to why they do not support him, the writer does not even mention the killing of 2000 Muslims in central Gujarat towns in 2002 abetted by the Modi administration, including several key ministers in Modi’s cabinet and his top police officials from that period, who have been convicted in Indian courts- of- law by Hindu judges and have been jailed.

Additionally, since 2002 Modi administration has systematically cut off most municipal services like sanitation, transportation, repair of roads etc. in various Muslim majority areas in various cities in Gujarat, and has throttled the previously thriving economy of the Muslim community by imposing sanctions. Does any community anywhere vote for its oppressor? So why should Muslims be an exception?

Indeed today the biggest political opponents of Modi’s attempt to revive the sectarian and divisive politics in India are secular Hindus, many senior Hindu politicians including top political leaders in more than a dozen major states in India and even senior BJP leaders like LK Advani, Yashwant Sinha etal.

Today, India’s Muslims are focusing on resolving their core issues of backwardness in education and socioeconomic status by working closely with the majority Hindus and with the government. Today, Muslims are cooperating with Hindus and others and are contributing to the building of a modern and prosperous India. They have no desire to get entangled in the relegion based politics of the past.

Kaleem Kawaja

Association of Indian Muslims of America

Washington DC

August 2, 2013

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An open letter: What Muslims really want

If you are more than your rhetoric about a strong and united country, give us our due -- treat us as countrymen, says an ordinary Muslim in this open letter.

Dear Epistolarians,

I thank you for your concern about my community, and felt it would be rude not to reply Now to be clear, I do not claim to speak for India's 150 million Muslims but of them. No doubt, my own socio-cultural and economic biases will seep in frequently, but I do hope you are not still under the illusion of perfect objectivity.

To explain the lay of the land, you must first understand that Islam is not a centralised religion -- we have no Pope, even if we do have a fixed text like the other Abrahamic faiths. Islamic law, therefore, varies widely from region to region, and there are four schools of legal thought. Decrees from our clergy are only as binding as the acceptance of the particular qadi pronouncing judgment. In personal matters, that faith is high, but in matters of geopolitics, that trust runs much shallower.

Secondly, Muslims, like every other community, come in all hues -- some are conservative, while others are orthodox; some are liberal, while yet others are indifferent; some are spiritual, while a fringe are, admittedly, radical. If this spread is not repeated in every community whether you divide people based on religion, ethnicity, or something else, I will eat your taqiyah! So when you write "Dear Muslims," rest assured, most of us are looking around wondering, "Who, me?"

Now, let us start with the question on most of your minds: terrorism. I am sure most of you will agree that there has been a spurt in Islamic militancy, particularly in the last 15 years. Now, I am not sure if you noticed, but that violence carried out in the name of religion has less to do with its stated reason and more to do with power. Most terrorists have been dismal failures in expressing their cause, but US support of totalitarian regimes in Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Iraq, etc, overthrow of democracy in Iran, Israeli treatment of Palestinians in the occupied territories, and other such political reasons have fuelled the upsurge in terrorism; tragically, its leaders use the ambiguous category of religion as a means of luring followers.

My explanation is not a defence of terrorist methods; in fact, the version of Islamic society these monsters envision -- beheading, capital punishment, stoning, extreme gender discrimination -- is abhorrent to many Muslims and goes against the most basic Islamic tenet of social justice (remember zakaat?). All but the radicals would agree that terrorists, whatever religion they claim to fight for, are enemies of society that should be resisted and defeated. just be wary of primitive social profiling based on ungrounded suppositions.

Muslims have fought Muslims from the earliest days of Islam just as much as they have fought non-Muslims. To this day, you see inter-sect as well as inter-faith conflict involving Islam, clearly indicating that religion is not necessarily the motivating factor in everything we do. To some, religion is important and to others, less so; yet to assume it is our only identity, even our prime identity, is about as sensible as assuming that someone buying a Tata Nano is expressing his or her solidarity with Narendra Modi because the factory is in Gujarat.

To turn this around a bit, let us ask you -- are you Hindu, Tamil, or Indian? Can you be all? Can you be motivated by just one of those in certain tasks, two of those in others, and all three in yet others? I suspect you can, so why do I have to choose between being Muslim, Tamilian, and Indian?

Then comes the issue of the crude stereotypes -- if you see all Muslims as Osama bin Laden or Hafiz Saeed, then by the same logic, are all Catholics like Tomás de Torquemada, Protestants like Anders Breivik, Jews like the first-century Kanaim or Yigal Amir, and Sikhs like Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale? Are all Hindus traitors like B K Sinha or Madhuri Gupta and assassins like Madan Lal Dhingra or Nathuram Godse? Or perhaps you think A P J Kalam, Altamas Kabir, Idris Hasan Latif, Shahabuddin Yaqoob Quraishi, and Asif Ibrahim are also terrorists? You can harbour such essentialist thoughts, but do not be surprised if we treat you as quacks.

Please don't misunderstand me -- there are indeed many problems with the Muslim community, and you are absolutely right that no one is taking on the fanatics out of fear. Yet to see this as a purely Muslim problem again misses the texture of the issue. For example, honour killings are not uncommon in Islam; yet they are not unheard of among Hindus either, particularly in the case of inter-caste or inter-faith relations.

While the anti-religious lobby brigade like to find fault with religion itself, the fact is that it is a cultural problem, and there have been cases of honour killings even among atheistic families due to their cultural influence. Similarly, with female genital mutilation, it is an abhorrent custom that has tried to creep into religion but remains largely restricted to Africa more than to all Muslim lands and communities.

Some of you wonder why we hold ourselves apart from the rest of India like partially immiscible liquids; Muslim ghettoes exist in every nook and cranny of India. Yes, it is true that we have our own communities. It is also true that many of us have mingled quite freely with our Hindu and other neighbours during festivals and other occasions for celebrations such as marriages and births. Again, the reasons for this need not be religious -- people segregate themselves based on caste, class, dietary habits, ethnicity, and various other criteria. You might not know this, but some Muslims refuse to live in certain Muslim areas for class reasons!

Personally, I have enjoyed the fruits of a liberal education in England, France, and the United States. I love my Faiz and Ghalib as much as I adore Balzac and Petrarch. However, very few people in the world -- of any religion -- have that sort of fortune. Imagine an Indian family of four earning Rs 69,000 per annum -- they would probably have to rely on state welfare and poor government schools to make ends meet.

In this intellectually stultifying environment, there is the added burden of quotidian life in India -- electricity and water shortages, corruption, poor infrastructure, and all those other problems successive governments have promised to solve since 1947. In the midst of these pressures, what do you think would be the impact of being asked repeatedly to prove one's patriotism? Of being asked to officially accept that one's ancestors were Hindu? Of being put in the spotlight for refusing to sing the Vande Mataram despite an explicit religious injunction on iconography? Of having to fight to eat whatever one wants? Of all those snide, covert and not-so-covert comments about one's ancestors having voted for the formation of Pakistan in 1947 and the suggestion that perhaps one ought to go there? Does a free citizen of a democratic country have to put up with such haranguing?

Before you all collectively jump down my throat, it ought to also be conceded that the recent walkout by the Bahujan Samaj Party MP Shafiqur Rahman Barq during the playing of Vande Mataram in Parliament was deplorable -- as a country of multiple communities, the respectful thing to do would have been to stay but not sing. I am glad to see that Barq's action has been criticised by voices from most segments of the political spectrum, the BJP, Congress, as well as the Communists. Such pandering to the radical votebank must have strong negative consequences.

Another issue that pops us when the "M" word is mentioned is the Babri Masjid. Hindus are right that the mosque was not of particular importance to Muslims, and that it was rarely used. However, any building that is over 450 years old is a part of Indian history and it ought to be of value for at least that reason. The merits of the case can be decided by the courts, but what is hurtful is the venomous Rath yatra led by L K Advani and the crowd mobilisation for the destruction of the structure. As if that were not enough, a year later, the Bombay riots orchestrated by Bal Thackeray in celebration only added salt to the wound.

While Advani has since said that his role was unintentional in the demolition and expressed regret for 6/12 his loss of control over the crowd, the Shiv Sena was allowed to disband the Srikrishna Commission. Reconvened with a skewed mandate that included the Bombay blasts of 1993, the report it produced was nevertheless rejected and no action has been taken to punish the guilty.

Muslims might eventually come to terms with Advani's and the Babri Masjid incident, but the unabashed revelry and criminal inaction of the BJP's ally in Maharashtra casts doubt on the sincerity of their outreach to the Muslim community.

The destruction of Indic religious structures and the erection of mosques upon those very sites is, no doubt, a grievous offence Muslim rulers of yore gave local populations, and a human tragedy. Yet is there no statute of limitations on these sorts of civilisational crimes? Should we exterminate the Israelis for killing and chasing out the Philistines from Judea some 3,500 years ago, or perhaps the Europeans and Americans for their intrusion into the New World?

Even among Muslims who are not particularly attached to the Babri Masjid issue, the question arises up to what point one can go back to settle old scores. Furthermore, what does it mean to be an Indian? In a multi-cultural society like India, short of genocide, these questions will continue to haunt unless a commonsensical approach is taken.

The greatest irony in all this Hindu-Muslim acrimony is importance you give to the All India Muslim Personal Law Board. The body is a private non-governmental organisation whose views are taken as largely representing all Indian Muslims. They threatened political action against the high court ruling on Babri Masjid, objected to Salman Rushdie at the Jaipur Literature Festival, disagreed with the Right of Children for Free and Compulsory Education Act, opposed gay marriage, supported child marriage, and resisted change in divorce law for Muslim women.

Interestingly, while the government accepts this non-elected organisation's claim to represent all Indian Muslims, it is Muslims who have problems with the board -- there have already been two splinters, the All India Shia Personal Law Board and the All India Muslim Women's Personal Law Board.

For all the talk of Shariah, how many Indian Muslim men actually have more than one wife? Most Muslims, in India or elsewhere, do not apply each and every facet of of Islamic law to their lives. By focussing on the AIMPLB, in essence, the Indian government has made, as Prayaag Akbar pointed out, a more regressive faction of the Muslim community the voice of all Muslims.

For all the hungama you raise about Muslims, how many politicians have challenged the AIMPLB's position as the sole voice of Indian Muslims? Would you allow, say, the Art of Living Foundation to represent all Hindus in religious matters? More importantly, why has my personal relationship with God become a matter of national policy?

No conversation on Muslims in India, particularly around elections, ends without mentioning the other "M" word -- Modi. Many of you would like to know why we do not support Narendra Modi as a prime ministerial candidate. I am not sure if you noticed, but many did vote for him in the Gujarat assembly elections last year, and there are some Muslims in his party. So make up your minds -- did he win from Muslim-majority districts or do Muslims not vote for him? It cannot be both. As Zafar Sareshwala points out in an interesting article, (external link) most of Modi's critics are actually Hindu.

Non-support has many reasons -- disagreement with economics, distaste for others in the party, and yes, the unease many feel over the whole Godhra issue. You can score political points with the Congress about 1984 and whatever else, but as far as many Muslims are concerned, even those who acknowledge his governance record, there is a black mark against his name that will take time to fade away.

All this started with Chetan Bhagat's letter. There were issues with his letter, as many have pointed out, but the letter was really not as bad as people have made it out to be. Bhagat appealed to our better instincts, did not play up fault lines, and talked of Muslims as part of the Indian whole. Despite whatever analytical weaknesses exist in his letter, his intentions were, in all probability, noble. What we need is more reassuring Chetan Bhagats and fewer fear-mongering and hate-spouting Praveen Togadias or Subramaniam Swamys.

If you genuinely want to work towards a congruence of visions between India's two largest religious communities, learn about us with an open mind: historical flexibility and half-baked notions about civilisational friction are best left to demagogues. If you are more than your rhetoric about a strong and united country, give us our due -- treat us as countrymen.

Yours sincerely,

Zafar Shah Alam

[Zafar Shah Alam is the pseudonym of an education industry professional in the United States.]

(Published in Rediff.com, July 22, 2013 14:18 IST)
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