By Saif Shahin
25 August, 2014
Most Muslims turn to extremism because they see it as the “normal” or “natural” thing for a Muslim to do. They are wrong. But in suggesting that progressive Muslims’ condemnation of ISIS is not representative of the broad Indian Muslim community, we end up implying that they might be right—that extremism is indeed the norm among Muslims. Willy nilly, we start doing ISIS’s bidding.
I recently posted on Facebook a news report that “[a] section of Indian Muslims” had met and issued a statement condemning “the violence being perpetrated in the name of Islam by jihadist group Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) against minorities in Iraq.” The report was headlined ‘ISIS action is worse than genocide: Muslim intellectuals.’ A Hindu ex-colleague shared the link on her wall, and one of her friends sardonically commented on it: “What are Muslim intellectuals?” My friend concurred in her reply: “I know what you mean.” Their implication was that being a Muslim and being an intellectual don’t go together: Muslims cannot be intellectuals.
I then read a NewAgeIslam.com editorial about the same meeting, which told me that Muslims, or at least Indian Muslims, also cannot be “progressive, secular, liberal.” Or maybe they can, but in being so, they cannot expect to represent the “Indian Muslim” community. Such Muslims, the editorial said, constituted a “miniscule” section of their society. It added: “Among participants [at the meeting which denounced ISIS] were cinematographers, photographers, university and college professors, and filmmakers, representatives of NGOs and human rights activists who do not have much of a following among the Muslim masses.” Instead, it is Deobandi “religious leaders” and the Urdu press which, according to the editorial, “wield the most influence.”
I completely agree with NAI’s editorial stance that Muslim religious leaders in India and the unduly sensationalist Urdu publications should vehemently and vociferously censure ISIS and its abuse of the name of Islam. I hope they do. But I am perplexed by its suggestion that progressive, secular, liberal-minded Muslims cannot represent the community at large. And I am bewildered by its attendant implication that Indian Muslims are typically religious zealots who blindly follow an orthodox leadership.
Firstly, India has hundreds of thousands of Shias, Dawoodi Bohras, Barelvis, Ahmadiyas and other minority Muslim sects—the very people who are being persecuted by ISIS. Shias alone form nearly a third of the Indian Muslim population. Surely, they cannot be expected to follow the “mainstream” Deobandi leadership that the editorial criticises.
Secondly, there is little evidence to believe that most “mainstream” Muslims are fundamentalists just awaiting a nod from a Bukhari or a Nadvi before joining the ranks of terror groups such as ISIS. A CNN-IBN-Hindustan Times survey in 2006 found that an “overwhelming majority” of Indian Muslims disapproved of practices such as polygamy and triple-Talaq, which the Deobandi leadership never speaks against. Three-fourths of Muslims favoured democratic governance, which ISIS is clearly not aiming to provide. Perhaps most significantly, 98% of Muslims—even more than Hindus—said they were “proud” or “very proud” of being Indian. And if you thought that these were mostly urbanized, professional class Muslims—the kind of Muslims, in short, who issued the anti-ISIS statement—think again. Two-thirds of the survey participants were from rural areas.
As for India’s Urdu publications, a 1994 study by Ather Farouqui found that “[t]heir circulation is…vastly restricted; and so is their area of influence.” In the two decades since, it could have only declined further.
But do we really need surveys and studies to know all this? India has the world’s third-largest Muslim population. Indian Muslims fare worse than any other social group in the country on almost every socio-economic indicator and many of them experience discrimination personally, especially in urban areas. If only a miniscule percentage of Indian Muslims adhered to progressive, secular, liberal values, India should have surely seen hundreds of thousands of Muslims turning to extremist violence.
The fact that Muslims and Hindus, even today, coexist peacefully in every part of the country is the best evidence possible of Indian Muslims’—and Hindus’—inherently secular and liberal inclinations. And they don’t simply dwell passively; their continued participation as citizens in the country’s electoral processes reflects their belief in the idea of Indian democracy and multiculturalism. As does the common knowledge that communal violence, when it occurs, is invariably instigated by self-serving politicians, typically close to elections. The exception proves the rule.
None of this is to deny that extremist and fundamentalist doctrines exist among Indian Muslims. Deobandi religious leaders’ and the Urdu press’s explicit or implicit support of such doctrines encourages them further. But it is they who form a miniscule minority—not the secular, liberal, progressive-minded Muslims. It is important, even vital, to criticise the extremist fringe, but such criticism shouldn’t lose perspective or its sense of proportion when talking about its influence.
It is my view, based on the research of psychologists, sociologists and political scientists such as Marc Sageman, Olivier Roy and Robert Pape, that most Muslims turn to extremism because they see it as the “normal” or “natural” thing for a Muslim to do. They are wrong. But in suggesting that progressive Muslims’ condemnation of ISIS is not representative of the broad Indian Muslim community, we end up implying that they might be right—that extremism is indeed the norm among Muslims. Willy nilly, we start doing ISIS’s bidding.
Saif Shahin is a regular columnist for New Age Islam and a doctoral research scholar in political communication at the University of Texas at Austin, United States