Youthful Aspiration for Education and Jobs Means a Slow Death For Muslim Fundamentalism
By Hasan Suroor
Feb 21, 2014
Any debate on Indian Muslims invariably ends up in questions about their "fundamentalist'' mindset, a catch-all term generally deployed to describe their self-imposed isolation, obsession with cultural identity and resistance to change. Back in the 1980s, a paint company had a slogan: "Think of colour; think of us." I was often tempted to write a spoof on my own community's popular image with the strap line: "Think of negativism; think of us.''
Jokes apart, the fact was that an overwhelming majority of Muslims at the time did answer to that description. There was a mood of unremitting pessimism and dejection, compounded by an unhealthy preoccupation with purely sectarian concerns to the exclusion of wider national issues. Whatever the historical reasons (a hangover of Partition, lack of proper leadership, reaction to Hindu Right) Indian Muslims came to develop an extremely negative and defeatist outlook made worse by a whiff of separatism.
Even today, a Muslim is seen as one or more of the following: an unreconstructed fundamentalist; a potential extremist; a closet Pakistani (Muslim-dominated areas are routinely dubbed 'Chhota' or 'mini Pakistan'); or a Saudi agent paid to spread Wahhabism in a country with a history of the more tolerant Sufi tradition.
No doubt, there are Muslims whom the cap will fit.
But the good news is that increasingly this image is looking dated — as dated as any grainy footage of 1980s India would look. Just as India has moved on, so have Muslims. Except that nobody seems to have noticed. This is partly because the change is happening quietly (no banner-waving revolutionaries occupying Ramlila Ground), but also i suspect because perpetuating the Muslim stereotype serves a certain political purpose.
To be honest, though, even I was not aware of what was going on until I started researching a book on Muslim fundamentalism. To my pleasant surprise, the story staring me in the face was quite different. It was not the story, as i had assumed, of a community still stuck in a time warp, wallowing in self-pity and paranoid about anti-Muslim conspiracies.
Instead, I found a generation of young, educated, self-confident and articulate Muslim men and women keen to shed the minority tag and join the national/global mainstream. They believe that their community has had enough of what Salman Rushdie has called the "politics of grievance'', and time has come for Muslims to stop seeing themselves as victims of external factors. Rather, they should take their destiny in their own hands.
The "Muslim street'' is quietly buzzing with energy and optimism. This change is particularly noticeable among young Muslim women. Contrary to the popular notion of a typical "Muslim woman'', they are vocal, conscious of their rights and have aspirations that are no different from those of any other modern Indian woman.
In the days leading up to the collapse of communism in Eastern Europe, when people were asked what they were striving for, their answer usually was, "We want to be normal." The same is true of Indian Muslims today. They want to be "normal". For the East Europeans, to be "normal" meant to be like their West European peers in terms of individual freedoms, democracy etc. For India's Muslims, "normal" means to be like other Indian citizens focussing on "normal" priorities like education, jobs, housing and security.
Moreover, for the first time there is a willingness to acknowledge that many of their problems which they blame on others are actually self-inflicted. Much as young Muslims are wary of the Hindu Right, their most stinging criticism is reserved for the Muslim Right, a cabal of mullahs and self-styled "leaders''. It is the latter's misplaced priorities foisted on a community struggling with insecurities that, according to them, has landed it in the mess it is today.
Yet, today's Muslim youth are also extremely conscious of their religious identity and shamelessly flaunts this by sporting beard and wearing Hijab. In fact, it is perhaps the most religious generation of Muslims in independent India. Having been away from India for many years, I am struck by the growth of religious zeal among Muslim youth. Almost every other boy or girl you meet is a Namazi, and planning to go for Haj.
But they see no contradiction between being devout Muslims and well-adjusted patriotic Indians at the same time. They insist that assertion of their "Islamic identity" does not diminish their Indian-ness, and find it "insulting'' to be asked whether they are "Indians first'' or "Muslims first''. It is seen as a "bogus'' debate meant to insinuate that Muslims have divided loyalties.
Having grown up in a climate of competitive Muslim-Hindu fundamentalism and as a staunch critic of Muslim attitudes, I had given up any hope of a change in my lifetime. I'm happy to be proved wrong. But my worry is that it can still all go belly-up if genuine Muslim concerns, especially those relating to security and discrimination, are not addressed — and the Hindu Right continues to flog its prejudices. For the Muslim Right gasping for breath that would be a god send.
Hasan Suroor is a columnist and author.