By Haris Ahmed
Over the course of human history, one lesson that continually resonates is that societies and nations that grew stagnant were the first to fall. A bickering Rome crumbled under the might of Visigoths and Huns (how ironic, considering these were the same people often ostracised as savages across the stretches of a "civilised" and superior Roman Empire). Having innovated rocketry back in the 13th century, the Chinese could barely operate artillery without a European hand in the Opium wars of 19th century.
Fast forward, we arrive here in 21st century -- the characters have surely changed but the story still holds. Muslim society is the new victim of this self-inflicted complacency. In the context of India, Muslims are faced with the daunting task of keeping up in a liberal-democratic society while continuing to preserve their separate identity. "How do you reconcile the beard with modernity?" is one of the biggest conundrums of our times. Yes, there are an increasing number of Muslim IT professionals thronging Bangalore, but there's also no paucity of unskilled and semi-skilled Muslim workers inundating the markets of Gulf countries, many of whom feel like misfits in India. These two stories speak volumes on the growing cleavage within the Muslim community, and though they are reflective of the contradictions in Indian society at large, there's an underlying difference:
After nearly seven decades of an onerous struggle to provide the most basic amenities of life, India as a nation knows well that you pay dearly for being a perennial laggard; on the other hand, the incentives of integrating with a globalised world are immense, and one need only look at the rise of the Asian tigers (South Korea, Singapore, Hong Kong and Taiwan) to confirm this undeniable fact. Unfortunately, many of the Muslims of India are stuck with an anachronistic world view, still unable to overcome the stranglehold of orthodoxy. Post the debacles of the Sepoy Mutiny (1857) Sir Syed Ahmed Khan attempted to modernise the state of education among Muslims - his attempts would give birth to one of the finest institutions of higher learning in India, the Aligarh Muslim University. But how much of his progressive vision has trickled down on to the economically vulnerable sections of the Muslim community?
At this juncture, one could easily summon a plethora of statistical data that indicates that the condition of Muslims in India is steadily improving. There are far more Muslim children going to schools than ever before, women are increasingly becoming more assertive and the hold of the clergy is waning -- a welcome change indeed.
However, the data doesn't present the whole story. In fact Muslims continue to be at the nether end of almost every social parameter. Yes, certainly things are "improving" but, the larger truth is that these changes are slow and superficial. It isn't as if Muslims have suddenly risen out of their collective slumber and are ready to toil for change. The bitter truth still persists -- Muslim society at large continues to be impervious to change. The relative prosperity of the past two decades (a product of liberalisation of the economy) has trickled down on the wider populace and hence the result. In effect, it is the mainstream that is pulling the Muslim society towards these inevitable changes. Muslims would've benefitted tremendously had they realised the incentives of being receptive to an incredibly dynamic world.
Changes must come from within, and in the end no one else can force it to happen. It is the Muslim society which must realise the benefits of assimilating into the mainstream. They ought to realise that orthodoxy has already hamstrung their growth and continues to do so today. Orthodoxy has impeded the reformation of Muslim society.
Of course, this is not just a Muslim problem. It is ubiquitous across the developing world. Changes threaten existing order and are thus despised. However, the Muslim community (globally and in India) in particular tended to retire into a cocoon every time they were faced with onerous issues; every attempt to reform and assimilate turned into a disaster, pushing the community more towards radical philosophy. One need only look at the colonisation of Muslim lands, the world wars, the Israel-Palestine issue, the Iranian Revolution or the Bosnian civil war globally, and in India at Partition, the Kashmir conflict or the razing of the Babri Mosque and its aftermath here in India.
Sitting here lazily using a barrage of statistics and graphs of all hues (thanks to Google!), it's easy to propound measures that the state or community must adhere to for development and prosperity. However, life isn't so simple; a commission here and another there set up to propose antediluvian recommendations have already done more harm than good. What the Muslim community requires is course correction (something akin to Ataturk's Kemalism in Turkey) and nothing less. Muslims in India need their own version of Kemalism, incorporating an Islamic consciousness with secularism and progressiveness. This alone can help the Indian Muslim community overcome years of slumber.