By Aijaz Zaka Syed
24 October 2014
In the past couple of years, there has been a regular stream of opinion pieces and special reports, most of them originating in the West, seeking clues to the big existential puzzle — the mysterious moderation of Indian Muslims. A New York Times article by Jake Flanagin this week screamed: Why India’s Muslims Haven’t Radicalized?
It’s a question that seems to trouble everyone in the big media — from Murdoch’s Wall Street Journal and New York Times to the Washington Post to their counterparts across the pond.
They almost seem to rue the fact that Indian Muslims, the world’s second largest Muslim population and largest minority, has inexplicably remained untouched and unaffected by the global phenomenon of “Islamic extremism.”
The more cautious Europeans have been equally puzzled by the meekness of Indian Muslims. It is not said in so many words but the nuanced suggestion and implication is not lost on anyone.
That at a time when their brethren elsewhere — true to their image of bloodthirsty fanatics — are going berserk everywhere, why in God’s name do they defy the good old traditions and stereotypes to retain their sanity?
The ever reasonable Economist attributed it to the thousand year legacy of Sufi Islam in the subcontinent. Generally speaking though, the ‘moderation’ of Indian Muslims is seen as an exception that stands out like a sore thumb! And there’s more surprise than satisfaction, if you know what I mean.
Our friend Thomas Friedman of the NY Times has repeatedly dwelt on the issue attributing the self-assurance of Muslims to the strength and inclusive nature of Indian democracy. There may be some merit in Friedman’s argument but it’s his patronizing, overbearing, ‘white man’s burden’ complex that gets one going.
Back in 2009, Friedman talked of a “growing trend” among Indian Muslims wherein community members refused to bury the bodies of suicide bombers.
“That’s why India’s Muslims, who are the second-largest Muslim community in the world after Indonesia’s, and the one with the deepest democratic tradition, do a great service to Islam by delegitimizing suicide-murderers by refusing to bury their bodies. It won’t stop this trend overnight, but it can help over time,” he wrote.
“The fact that Indian Muslims have stood up in this way is surely due, in part, to the fact that they live in, are the product of and feel empowered by a democratic and pluralistic society. They are not intimidated by extremist religious leaders and are not afraid to speak out against religious extremism in their midst. It is why so few, if any, Indian Muslims are known to have joined Al-Qaeda.”
In his predictable felicity with facts, the NY Times’ global expert forgets that India has so far, mercifully, been alien to the phenomenon of ‘suicide bombers.’ There have been no suicide vests even in Kashmir, bordering Pakistan, which had been rocked by insurgency and separatist movement in the 1990s with the so-called cross-border infiltration.
Jake Flanagin, however, comes across as more empathetic and understanding. “Despite the enormity of India’s Muslim community, one finds little mention of them in Western media reports on modern Islam. Perhaps because, in the wake of Sept. 11 and in the midst of the war on terror, the West’s chief concern with the global Muslim community has been its capacity for fostering extremism — and India’s Muslims remain largely un-radicalized,” notes Flanagin.
This is something that hasn’t been entirely lost on India’s leaders beginning from Dr. Manmohan Singh who proudly assured his guest, a certain George W Bush, that no Indian Muslim had joined the ranks of Al-Qaeda.
Responding to Al-Qaeda’s recent marketing pitch targeting South Asia, Prime Minister Narendra Modi told Fareed Zakaria that if anyone thought Indian Muslims would dance to the tunes of groups like Al-Qaeda, they were delusional.
“Indian Muslims would live and die for India,” declared Modi in the feel-good interview primed ahead of his US visit.
President Pranab Mukherjee, another pillar of Indian political establishment, reprised the theme during his foreign sojourns this month. In interviews to Norwegian media, Mukherjee emphasized that hardly any Indian Muslim has been involved in terrorism.
“There may be one or two out of 150 million people but all of these are imported. These are coming from outside. Indigenous terrorist activity in India is extremely negligible and whenever such signs are visible we take appropriate steps,” said Mukherjee, a former finance, foreign and defence minister under three prime ministers.
Of course, this new-found faith and confidence in Indian Muslims whose loyalty to the nation has perennially been suspect, and not just in the eyes of the PM’s Hindutva family and followers, is touching.
What makes no sense though is the special treatment that Muslims continue to receive at the hands of security and intelligence agencies and an increasingly hostile media which essentially speaks the line and narrative it has been fed by the establishment. The legend of the so-called Indian Mujahideen continues to grow with more and more young men being rounded up as the IM members.
On the one hand, you have these touching platitudes to Indian Muslim’s patriotism and loyalty insisting they are part and parcel of the mainstream. On the other hand, anything goes off anywhere, the first reaction of police and intelligence agencies, is to go for the nearest Muslim.
No wonder India’s prisons are teeming with the ‘usual suspects,’ far outnumbering their share in population. If “hardly any Indian Muslim is involved in terror activities,” as the president insists, why does he perpetually remain the enemy of the state?
We all know what happened under Modi himself in the ‘Vibrant Gujarat’ and I am not just talking about 2002.
So this exultation over Muslims’ loyalty to India and their apparent indifference to the charms of global terror is indeed touching. But why do we not see the appreciation of this reality on the ground? Why doesn’t their lot change with the rest of the country? Why do they remain permanently in the dock? These are questions that India’s leaders need to ask themselves if they indeed care for this much exploited minority.
Coming back to the Western concern, if Indian Muslims remain “peaceful and un-radicalised,” they are not an exception. Even those taking to extremist ways elsewhere were not born that way, nor did their faith force into it. It was thrust upon them by decades of injustice, wars and oppression and you know by who.
When the world is divided into ‘with us-or-against us’ battle zones and you kill and drive people from their homes and cities under one pretext or another, you can’t expect a Gandhian ‘thank you’ in return.
Still, if India’s Muslims haven’t gone that way and retained their sanity, thank God for that! However, as Pankaj Mishra argues, they have far more serious problems to deal with, than fantasize about signing up for Al-Qaeda or the IS armies.
Economically dispossessed and socially deprived on many counts, Muslims have long struggled on the margins of Indian society. Long demonized as the vote bank of the Congress and other ‘secular’ parties, the meteoric rise of Modi and the unprecedented communal polarization in the 2014 polls has reduced Muslims to a political zero.
Uttar Pradesh, with a population of nearly 200 million and 20 percent Muslim population, failed to elect a single Muslim MP. On the other hand, the hysterical targeting of the community under one pretext or another, from terror to ‘love jihad,’ continues unabated although elections are over and Modi’s party is comfortably ensconced in Delhi and in many states.
It’s as though Muslims are being deliberately driven over the edge hoping they would fall into the waiting arms of global terror. Whoever is playing this dangerous game must be prepared for its catastrophic consequences.
As Mishra warns, “the radicalization of even a tiny fraction of 180 million Muslims would not only fatally undermine India’s claims to democracy and secularism. The not-so-reluctant fundamentalists would make the country seem as ungovernable as its neighbor.”
Aijaz Zaka Syed is a Middle East-based writer.