By Sadanand Dhume
August 21, 2013
It's time for India to update its national conversation about Islam. This month alone saw the arrest of an Indian-born bomb maker for the Pakistani terrorist group Lashkar-e-Taiba, violent clashes between Hindus and Muslims in the northern state of Jammu and Kashmir, and moves by India's largest state, Uttar Pradesh, to earmark a fifth of welfare spending for Muslims.
But the bland secularist pieties of the ruling Congress Party and assorted regional administrations do little to suggest that they've understood the problem. If anything, by encouraging a culture of grievance and deepening a sense of separateness among India's 176 million Muslims, they may end up doing more harm than good.
The Hindu nationalists of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) typically fare little better in advancing the debate over Islam's future in India. The party claims it wants to reach out to Muslim voters. But to do so, India's right wing needs a new way to speak about Islam.
The BJP needs to acknowledge the threat posed by radical Islamism, but distinguish it from the faith practiced by peaceful Muslims. It should also stress policies that will create a better, more peaceful life for the vast majority of Muslims without cementing an identity that sets them apart from others.
Any honest BJP platform will have to acknowledge (as the Congress Party seems unable to) that the Muslim community has changed since the early years of India's independence. In 1951, India's 38 million Muslims comprised only about 10% of the country's population, compared to 14.4% today. At that time, secularist leaders ruled Muslim countries such as Indonesia, Iran and Turkey. Even the Anglicized elites of neighboring Pakistan saw their conflict with India in civilizational rather than strictly religious terms.
The rise of Islamism in Iran and Saudi Arabia, and the advent of modern jihadism in Afghanistan and Pakistan, created a new political and security threat to the world's democracies. Though India's Muslims remain largely peaceful, they have not been immune to broader currents of Islamism and its offshoot, terrorism.
Meanwhile India's liberals claim it as an article of faith that the country's Muslims are always the victim of ethnic conflict and never the aggressor. But in places like Assam, West Bengal and Uttar Pradesh, rapidly growing Muslim populations are no longer always a beleaguered minority. The reality of contemporary conflict is often messier, and much less one-sided, than in the past.
Or take the fraught issue of a common civil code for all Indians, as envisioned in the 1950 constitution. Hindus modernized their own laws in the 1950s, banning archaic practices such as polygamy. At the same time, politicians refused to touch Muslim law governing civil matters such as marriage, divorce and inheritance, in the belief that Muslims themselves would outgrow sharia's strictures. Six decades later, we're still awaiting such reform. But to raise the issue in polite society is considered poor form.
Meanwhile, much of India's Muslim leadership has regressed toward shrill identity politics and crude anti-Western sentiment. Where else in the democratic world can a politician trawl for votes by campaigning with an Osama bin Laden look-alike? Or a minister in a state government put a bounty on the head of the Danish cartoonists who dared caricature the prophet Muhammad?
India's first-past-the-post electoral system is partly to blame. In multiparty contests candidates are often elected with as little as 30% of the vote. This encourages crude appeals to caste or faith. Over the past decade, ideas that would have been anathema to the country's founding fathers—religious quotas in jobs and education, and separate courts for Muslims accused in terrorism cases—have rapidly entered the political mainstream.
But if Indian secularism has turned into a travesty over time, the Hindu nationalist alternative isn't appetizing either. Unlike many modern conservative parties, the BJP still has trouble drawing the line between legitimate pride in the country's majority faith and rank bigotry. Recently it admitted a politician who has called for Muslims who don't acknowledge Hindu ancestry to be disenfranchised. And though the party's de facto prime ministerial candidate, Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi, has reinvented himself as an icon of development, many people still associate him primarily with the anti-Muslim riots that erupted on his watch in 2002.
In the long run, if the BJP is to evolve into a natural party of governance, it must offer an alternative to the status quo that is rooted in individual rights and equality before the law, and divorced from Hindu chauvinism.
This means opposing special rights for Muslims, but welcoming their uplift through other means. Developing India's cities, where many Muslims live, should be a priority. So too should improving business conditions by reforming labor laws that affect self-employed artisans, many of whom are Muslim.
A forward-looking approach requires challenging Islamism in all forms, but distinguishing between Islamists and the majority of peaceful Muslims. It requires support for tough anti-terrorism laws but also safeguards against their abuse. It means ending taxpayer subsidies for the hajj pilgrimage to Mecca, but equally opposing outlays for Hindu pilgrimages.
In short, it's self-evident that the current brand of secularism no longer serves India's interests. Now it's up to India's right to come up with an alternative that does.
Mr. Dhume is a resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and a columnist for WSJ.com