By Arshad Alam, New Age Islam
01 January 2019
It is not an uncommon sight. Scores of Muslim faithful every Friday block roads including highways and reclaim other public spaces like parks to offer prayer. The Friday prayer is a special prayer where the idea is that the ritual should preferably be performed in a congregation.
But then this obligation becomes a kind of a performance where attestation of faith also becomes some kind of a political statement. What many others, who do not share the same faith do not understand is why this could not be done in private without disturbing the peace or obstructing the movement of someone else. There is no disagreement about the fact that other religious communities also do the same things: of course they do. Therefore there is a need to debate this practice within different religious communities. Likewise, it is up to Muslims themselves to have an internal debate over the issue and chalk out a strategy which puts an end to this problem once and for all.
The problem is not just limited to India. Muslim faithful have been doing this across the world which makes one believe as if this is part of some grand strategy. Recently, France banned the performance of Muslim prayers on its street which had become a regular feature. Not just in France, but Muslims have been doing this in other European countries also. It is almost as if the inherent politics is to make the presence of Islam felt in these countries. Muslims have been living in different parts of Europe since many decades now but such a public proclamation of faith is something new. Earlier generation of Muslims used to pray in the private confines of their homes, but the new generation is more assertive and wants recognition of the public character of Islam in these countries. This naturally makes many Europeans nervous since they used to think that they have put the spectre of religion behind them and feeds into the right wing narrative of Islamic takeover of Europe.
The situation in India though has been different since the beginning. The public character of most religions have been recognised not just by communities but also by the state. Different governments have shown deference to this public character of religion by organizing and facilitating religious activities.
The largest gathering of humanity, the Kumbh Mela for example has been organised by the state for many decades now. With considerable costs, the state also organizes Hajj and many Hindu religious pilgrimages. Of course Muslims have been praying on Fridays in public spaces for centuries now. Not just parks but also highways have not been off limits to them. And it must be said that at times it causes a lot of problems for those who have to witness this performance every Friday. People face traffic chaos and diversions which leads to a feeling of resentment against Muslims. Why is it that Muslims do not think in their own self- interest and take a decision not to pray in open spaces any longer? We must understand that parks and other such public spaces are for the general public which are maintained by their taxes. In India, there are religious rituals associated with all religions and most do not mind to display them publically. Given this context, it is imperative that certain spaces should be made free of any religious ritual. Parks provide citizens of this country as neutral spaces which can be accessed by anybody.
It is in this context that the recent order of the NOIDA police should be read which prohibited Muslims from praying inside public places like parks. The notice also requested companies that they should make prayer provisions for their Muslim employees inside their offices. The Muslim objection to this order is unreasonable yet understandable. It is unreasonable because the Muslim argument that they have an inalienable right to pray wherever they wish is ridiculous.
It is true that the constitution gives minority communities the right to profess and practice their faith in any which way they like. But this does not mean that the state cannot interfere in its religious practice when it thinks that pubic order or morality is at stake. The state has all the right to stop a religious practice if it thinks that it is unworthy. Causing public discomfort by taking away their space even for some minutes should definitely fall within the purview of state regulation. Muslims do not have a special right to pray publically and cry victim when they are stopped from doing so.
And yet the Muslim reaction is understandable because of the perception that Muslims are being singled out for such action. As argued above, Muslims are not the only religious group who have a proclivity of public affirmation of their faith. Hinduism also makes similar claims. So we have public celebration of different kinds of festivals within Hinduism. But any question about their usurping of public spaces and causing problems to other citizens seldom gets raised.
Why is it then that we are selective about civic virtues with regard to one religion only? Are Muslims to be blamed if they think that their religion is put too much into the negative spotlight? More importantly, we have a government in Uttar Pradesh which is run by a known anti-Muslim baiter. Therefore when his government issues a proclamation, even if it is for the general good, it is perceived as being tainted with an anti-Muslim bias. If there is a law which prohibits religious use of public spaces, then it should be equally applicable to all religious communities. Otherwise, Muslims will always think that this government is working overtime to suppress their religious practice.
Arshad Alam is a columnist with NewAgeIslam.com
New Age Islam, Islam Online, Islamic Website, African Muslim News, Arab World News, South Asia News, Indian Muslim News, World Muslim News, Women in Islam, Islamic Feminism, Arab Women, Women In Arab, Islamophobia in America, Muslim Women in West, Islam Women and Feminism