By Saif Shahin,
Nov 19, 2008.
Indian Muslims must give up their minority mindset and reach out to the larger India around them
EVER SINCE that icy Iowa evening 10 months ago, when an unheralded black American burst on to the global consciousness by turning the tables on the front- running wife of an ex- president in the first Democratic caucus of the US presidential election 2008, Muslims in India — and around the world — have been awaiting their own Barack Obama. With Obama’s election victory on November 4, that wait should now be over.
Even a not- so- close scrutiny of his campaign shows that despite being black, Obama chose not to run as a ‘black candidate’. He rarely raised the concerns of the blacks and presented himself as someone who cut across community lines, focusing on national issues such as the economy, unemployment and bringing troops back from Iraq.
He even distanced himself from those friends and aides — such as Reverend Jeremiah Wright — who unwittingly brought attention to his ‘blackness’ by ridiculing the ‘whiteness’ of the opposition.
Indeed, so thick was this tenor of his campaign that it led many black Americans like Reverend Jesse Jackson — who has him run for president twice — to accuse Obama of “talking down” to black people. But Jackson was reduced to tears — of joy, of course — on Election Day in Chicago as he heard Obama deliver his victory speech.
Obama saw, at the very outset, that black Americans could not overcome racial discrimination by endlessly crying hoarse over their victimisation by the whites and leaving it at that, as the professional protest leadership of Jackson et al has been doing since the civil rights era.
Blaming the whites for all their problems was just that — blaming the ‘other’ community and thereby reinforcing the divide.
He realised it was the blacks who first needed to go beyond racial discrimination — by viewing themselves not primarily as blacks but as Americans.
One example of that would be for a coloured presidential candidate to contest, not for scoring a point over the whites or even for simply solving the concerns of the blacks, but for taking on the challenges that face the nation as a whole.
In attempting so, in hoping that if he made the call across the racial barrier, it will be answered, Obama obviously displayed an extraordinary leap of faith in the basic goodness of human nature. He succeeded, succeeded, and his election is being hailed by many not as a victory for multiracialism but as the dawn of a ‘post- racial’ America.
It’s a message that Indian Muslims should not miss.
They are not entirely wrong in blaming communal discrimination for many of their ills, including illiteracy, indigence and debilitating unemployment — the lowest among all religious communities. The same discrimination that shuts the doors of schools and offices to them has also seen them targeted in countless riots and pogroms since Independence. But they are wrong in blaming the majority community and leaving it at that — as they have also been doing since Independence.
Where has this attitude of professional minority- ism led the community to? Reacting to their discrimination by ‘Indians’ on account of their Muslimness, at least some Indian Muslims have reacted by obliging themselves to become more Muslim — nudging themselves towards extremism. As is to be expected, the religion that these Muslims or their children are born or bred into is not as much Islam as a reactionary version of it.
That religion is, in turn, giving birth to psychos who take pleasure in murdering and maiming innocents.
Quite obviously, in turning away from their Indianness, these ultra- Muslims in truth turn away from Islam as well. They ruin their own lives and, alongside, reinforce the communalism they had set out to conquer.
Such fanatics are thankfully still just a few. However a less radical but much more widespread manifestation of the minority mentality is Muslims’ insulating themselves from the rest of society and shoving themselves into residential, cultural and even intellectual ghettos. No one is sure if Atif Ameen and Mohammad Sajid, the two boys killed by Delhi Police and blamed for perpetrating serial blasts, were indeed guilty of terrorism. But they were surely guilty of living in Batla House — a teeming locality of tens of thousands in south Delhi where you would be hard put to find a single non- Muslim. Such ghettos exist in virtually every city, town or village with large or even average Muslim populations, and create a very physical dimension for the country’s communal divide.
Even until a couple of decades ago, many Muslim households — especially children — used to celebrate at least larger Indian festivals like Holi and Diwali with as much zest as anybody else. Today, Muslims’ cultural ghettoisation means that children who burst firecrackers on Diwali or play with colours on Holi are frowned upon or castigated by their elders [many of whom must have enjoyed the same celebrations in their own childhood]. Intellectually too, a number of Muslim families have turned away from mainstream education,
Preferring to send their children to madrassas and Urdu/ Arabic schools instead. Indeed, there are those who believe that reading and memorising the Quran by heart is all there is to education in this world.
Some are of course forced into these physical and mental ghettos, but many other Muslims have turned to them by choice. What they do not realise is that in doing so, they are being no different from those multitudes of black Americans whose ghettoisation has mired them into a vortex of crime and degeneration.
But minority- ism and mainstream- ism are matters of choice, as Obama’s rise has proved. Indian Muslims too can choose to remain the discriminated against minority they are, or they can give up their mentality of victim-hood and reach out to the rest of the country. It is only then that the fault- lines will begin to disappear.
Many Hindus actually believe that all Muslim men keep four wives, that they breed like rats in a bid to overtake India’s Hindu population and become the majority, that they have vowed to kill every non- Muslim they encounter and so forth. These myths will not be busted unless Muslims meet Hindus cordially and invite them to their households, where Hindus can see Muslims for what they really are.
Muslim ulema have made a beginning by urging the community to shun terrorism as not just un- Islamic but anti- Islamic.
They must also go a step further by calling upon Muslims to eschew their insularity and proactively engage with the India around them. Only then will they conquer communal discrimination.
Of course it won’t happen in a day, just as no one expects racial discrimination in the US to suddenly turn history after Obama’s victory. But that victory has shown that this is the only way forward.
Obama’s victory has also given Indian Muslims their very own Barack Obama.
And that is Obama himself, insofar as he is an everyday man with a notoriously “funny name” from a minority community who defied almost impossible odds to mark a giant leap in inter- community relations.
The medium is the message. If Obama can, then so can every Indian Muslim — if he dares to hope and pushes for a change.
Saif Shahin can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org