By Hasan Suroor
Oct 9, 2014
Et tu Brutus?
I always rather admired Bhopal’s Muslims for their cheery liberalism and a culture of tolerance not often found in many other north Indian Muslim cities. But that old Tehzeeb now seems to be in the danger of being trumped by a new-found hypersensitivity over Mazhab (religion).
Last week, in an incident more typical of Meerut or Aligarh than Bhopal, a mob shouting Allah- O'- Akbar and Mazhab Mein Dakhal-Andazi Band Karo” (don’t interfere in religious matters) attacked a group of women animal rights activists appealing for a "Vegan Bakra Eid", and urging Muslims to consider other forms of charity this Eid than paying for the slaughter of goats and sheep.
It is important to stress that all were women activists—and mostly Muslim. Imagine the consequences, if a non-Muslim team had been subjected to such an attack. More to the point: they were simply making an appeal in a rather good-natured way with one woman joyfully dressed as the “lettuce lady”. Nothing they did could be construed as a provocation to anyone’s religious sensitivities.
The attack happened outside a mosque as the campaigners carrying placards with the message, Make Eid Happy for All: Try Vegan, approached it while on their way to the city centre for a rally as part of an animal protection awareness campaign.
It is alleged that they were chased, pelted with stones, and abused. One woman activist, Benazir Suraiya, who was wearing a Hijab made of leaves was physically roughed up. Police had to be called to rescue her, and restrain the mob.
In photographs and video clips, released by the People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA), which organised the campaign, Suraiya is seen crying and looks traumatised while police throw a protective cordon around her.
“As the police tried to intervene and help the activists, three police vehicles were smashed, and several of the officers were beaten by the mob while they attempted tried to diffuse the situation…. Some of the locals – apparently affiliated with the mosque – charged the women with ‘outraging religious feelings’”, reported the BuzzFeed website.
And the cause of so much Muslim anger? The PETA campaign, they claimed, amounted to “interfering” in the religious affairs of Muslims.
“This is the first time they are interfering in religious issues of any community. Issuing an appeal is different and standing in front of a mosque to change the way we celebrate our festival and observe faith is different”, one protester told The Hindustan Times.
Shahid Ali, a prominent local leader and member of the local municipal corporation, accused PETA of deliberately targeting Muslims’ religious beliefs.
“I am myself a vegetarian. Let them campaign for vegetarianism and protection of animals. But, they can’t target a religious belief and tradition and that too outside a shrine held dear by the local community. How can one tolerate such a thing?” he told The Hindu.
According to PETA, some in the mob called for women activists to be “stoned and stripped’’. It insisted that its drive was completely peaceful and there was no intention to hurt anyone’s religious sentiments. It was a secular campaign driven solely by concern for protection of animals. The fact that so many Muslim women were part of the campaign was enough proof that it was not motivated by any desire to target the Muslim community, its officials said.
“PETA organises peaceful animal protection awareness programmes for Christmas, Easter, Diwali, Janmashtami and other holidays, as well as Eid…it is shameful that in working to stop violence, our volunteers were made to suffer violence,” said PETA’s India CEO , Poorva Joshipura.
Compared to some of the previous incidents of such intolerance, both by Muslim and Hindu bigots, the Bhopal episode might not measure terribly high on the Richter scale of religious fanaticism. But it confirms how difficult it has become to have a civilised conversation in India on anything remotely to do with religion.
To be honest, I myself am a bit wary of animal rights movement’s tactics. In Britain, they ran a virtual terror campaign against Cambridge University scientists engaged in experiments on animals. It was an extremely distasteful operation which included firebombing labs, harassing not only the scientists but also their families, and inciting violence against them.
But Bhopal campaigners were not terrorising anybody. Yet, if some still took offence, was resorting to physical violence against a group of peaceful women the answer?
I spoke to many Muslims who expressed outrage over the attack. One pointed out that there was a Hadith (Prophet Mohammed’s saying) which tells Muslims to respect women, to never attack non-combatants, and to honour difference of opinion within the community as a “blessing”.
Some do believe that it was not very “smart’’ of PETA to “invite Muslims to become veggies on Eid’’, as a reader wrote on New Age Islam website, but he said the “reaction to it should have been a counter demonstration and not attacking the opposite party’’.
Another, Mohammed Yunus, wrote that PETA may “not have been wise enough” to stage such a stunt on the eve of Eid but the Muslim reaction was typical of what their critics had come to expect from them. Whether it was “a book, a cartoon, or a comment’’ they found offensive, the only response is: “attack, attack, attack’’.
Kaif Mahmood, a young Delhi-based academic who himself is a vegan (full disclosure: he is my nephew) , said:
“I am not an Islamic scholar but I am not sure how far sacrificing animals is essential to the religion. If the impulse behind sacrifice is to offer something that is precious to God - as can be derived from the story of Abraham being called to sacrifice Ishmael - then perhaps we should wonder if the animals we eat are any longer precious to us as they were to the desert dwellers among who these traditions arose 2000 years ago. Would giving our wealth to the poor in the name of God, rather than buying the latest iPhone, not be a better sacrifice?’’
In the current climate, whose causes are too well known to be repeated, I can understand if some Muslims get somewhat paranoid and wish to be left alone to celebrate their festivals without being told how or how not to practice their faith. But countering any perceived interference with violence is not just absurd, but a sure way of playing into their critics hands.
Besides, next time, when a right-wing Hindu mob goes berserk will Bhopal's Muslims have any moral right to question their behaviour?