Aijaz Ilmi is Chairman of the Executive Board of Siyasat Jadid, a popular Urdu newspaper brought out from Kanpur and Lucknow. He is a senior political analyst with the television channel News X, and writes on Muslim, national and international issues in various newspapers. In this interview with Yoginder Sikand, New Age Islam he reflects on the present Indian Muslim leadership.
Q: One often hears the argument that one of the principal causes of the overall marginalisation of the Indian Muslims is that they lack a responsive and representative leadership. How do you view this argument?
A: I don't see why Muslims should be led by Muslims alone, or why any other community should be led only by members of that particular community. Why must we expect only Muslim leaders to speak for and about Muslims? Muslims are also Indian citizens, and so why should their issues not be taken up by non-Muslim political leaders as well?
Very often, one hears the complaint that Muslim backwardness is a result of government neglect. The Muslim media continuously reinforces this view. I do not deny that successive governments have been neglectful of Muslims, but my point is that blaming the government alone is a convenient way to absolve the Muslim haves of their complicity in reinforcing Muslim backwardness. Our marginalisation is definitely a result of government neglect and bureaucratic apathy, but it is also because self-styled Muslim leaders and well-to-do Muslims have done precious little for the community’s economic and educational advancement, continuously harping on emotional, identity-related and what are narrowly conceived as ‘religious’ issues.
Look at the refugees who came to India from the Pakistani Punjab. They had undergone such enormous privation in the Partition, but, in a few years, with sustained efforts, they were able to stand on their feet and have prospered over the decades. There are many lessons in their experience for Muslims to learn from. What Muslims today require is, definitely, a sympathetic government and a sensitive bureaucracy, but they also need effective community leaders and social activists, and not just politicians, to make sure that government schemes—and there are so many of them, some of them specifically for minorities—reach the grassroots and their intended beneficiaries. That few Muslims have been able to access these schemes owes to bureaucratic indifference and hostility, of course, but also to the absence of Muslim organisations and groups that can link intended beneficiaries with these schemes.
The leadership that one is talking about here need not be a political leadership. Unfortunately, we have become so obsessed with politics that we quite forget the need for leadership in other spheres—economic, educational and intellectual, for instance. What I am talking about in this context is the need for a social leadership, one that is organically linked to the community at large that is able to articulate the concerns of the majority of the Muslim population—the poor—and not just at the political level. That we lack such a leadership is a telling comment on the Muslim haves and their utter failure.
Q: What you call the ‘Muslim haves’ seem, with some exceptions, quite indifferent, to wider community concerns, by which I mean substantive issues related to Muslim educational and economic backwardness. This is particularly so in northern India, where most Muslims live. Why is this so?
A: Perhaps it is because they are so engrossed with their own lives, their own careers and consumerist pursuits that they are not bothered at all about the problems of the Muslim poor. In a sense then, it is a reflection of a deep-rooted selfishness. They have reached their destination or are about to, but they don't want to help others reach the same place. It's the crab mentality—one crab manages to crawl out of the basket and then it does everything it can to prevent the others from crawling out, too. It makes sure that the other crabs are pushed back inside and that they can never escape.
The indifference of the Muslim haves could also be a result of a fear, exacerbated in these times of increased profiling of Muslims, of being wrongly branded as 'communal', 'obscurantist' or worse if they dare to speak out about genuine Muslim concerns or take more than just a superficial interest in Muslim problems. In a climate of increasing stigmatisation of Muslims, when the very word 'Muslim' is seen as synonymous with a host of negative attributes, it is not easy for them to openly identify with the Muslim have-nots. But the silence of the Muslim haves on the problems of the Muslim have-nots is also due to apathy and indifference to their plight, as I earlier said. It is easy for the Muslim haves to place the blame for Muslim backwardness entirely on the state, thus absolving themselves of their own role in perpetuating it by doing nothing, in concrete, practical terms, to address it.
Q: How do you see the willingness or otherwise of Muslim representatives in Parliament to take up substantive issues of concern to Muslims? How do you see their performance?
A: I think that, by and large, elected Muslim representatives in Parliament focus on issues other than those specific to Muslims, such as larger national and international questions. Because they are members of one party or the other, they regard themselves as answerable primarily to their parties rather than to their Muslim voters, so that itself limits what they can or are willing to do as far as substantive Muslim issues are concerned. They have no choice but to work within the system. Many of the concerns of Muslims in areas are local in nature, issues that can be solved at the village, panchayat or municipality level—issues such as schools, roads, electricity, ration cards, sanitation and such like. MPs would not normally take up such issues. Yet we tend to fawn on our Muslim MPs, fondly imagining that they can solve these issues and expecting them to do so. The fact is that these issues have to be tackled at the local level, and for this Muslims should have civic organisations to build pressure on local authorities to do what they are expected to. Since most of these issues concern not just Muslims living in a certain locality but others, too, who live in the same area, it is important that such organisations or groups be multi-religious or multi-ethnic in composition. That will help build organic bonds between communities as well as make it more likely that the concerned authorities will listen and act on their demands.
I think for such issues Muslims need to focus on institution building, particularly NGOs working for the economic and educational empowerment of the poor as well as addressing local infrastructural issues. As of now, we have very few such organisations, and of the few that exist, most are run thoroughly unprofessionally. The lack of such organisations is one reason why the dozens of schemes that governments have devised for minorities or for the poor does not benefit Muslims in any substantial way—it is not only because of government indifference, as is often claimed. Then again, the few Muslim NGOs we have are mainly concerned with religious issues, which are framed in a very narrow manner, in part because the majority of them have been set up by ulema organisations. What I am trying to say here is that we need to shift our focus from an obsession with party politics to focussing on the social, economic and educational advancement of the Muslim have-nots.
Q: But are what you call the ‘Muslim haves’ willing to do this?
A: Honestly, I have my doubts. You can see how such basic, substantive issues are rarely, if ever, raised by the Muslim haves, both in the work of the various organisations that claim to represent the Muslims as well as in the demands that they make on the state. Instead, they are preoccupied by identity-related, symbolic and what they project as religious issues. And because there is little or no pressure from the grassroots to alter this and to focus, instead, on substantive issues, they continue to do so because it is in that way that their authority within the Muslim community can be sustained. It is not that the grassroots are silent and passive, unwilling to agitate. Far from it. See what a massive agitation the Muslim political elite and the ulema were able to whip up in the name of Islam being in danger on the Shah Bano affair, when they created such a terrible stir just to deny a hapless old woman, divorced after more than forty years of marriage at the age of 74 an alimony of just 500 rupees! No, the Muslim grassroots can be mobilised, but this has happened only for regressive purposes, not for substantive issues such as education, employment and so on. There is reason in this madness—the Muslim haves, by and large, want the Muslim have-nots to remain where they are so that they can control them and speak in their name by claiming to be their leaders. I want to make another point about the Shah Bano controversy here.
This situation cannot change unless the Muslim haves change their stance and begin to work with and for the educational and economic empowerment of the Muslim have-nots while desisting from exploiting them in the name of religion and community. Even a bit of sacrifice on their part can work amazing wonders for the have-nots. Of the roughly 170 million Indian Muslims, some 3 per cent, or around 50 lakh people, are tax-payers. If each of them contributes just 100 rupees a year, it would create a corpus of 50 crore rupees, which would be enough to ensure that not a single Muslim child drops out of school.
I must also add here that Muslims should also think in terms of larger national or social issues and not remain confined to issues specific to Muslims. Sadly, there is not enough of this. We need to work with people from other communities, in consonance with them, on larger issues that concern people of all communities.
Q: It is often argued that Muslims need a separate political party of their own to highlight their concerns and champion their interests because non-Muslim-dominated parties are largely indifferent to them. Do you agree with this suggestion?
A: This talk of a separate Muslim political party comes up whenever there is an election round the corner. I am convinced that such a party that aspires to promote only what are thought of as specifically Muslim interests will be a non-starter. After all, politics in this country is a game of numbers, entailing accretion of diverse groups with similar interests and aspirations. So, parties have to appeal beyond a single community and need to speak of the larger good, of larger aspirations and social issues than those specific to a particular community. A party that talks only of Muslim issues cannot work politically. Issues specific to the Muslims must be addressed through non-party forums—by Muslim social activists, lobbying groups, social activists and NGOs and so on. If you see the fate of Muslim political parties in post-1947India you will realise what I am saying. They have all been decimated—by Muslims themselves. That is what happened, for instance, to the Ulema Council and the Muslim Majlis. In Assam, the Assam United Democratic Front of Badruddin Ajmal has been able to register a semblance of success precisely because it moved beyond Muslim-specific issues and appealed to the aspirations of other marginalised groups. So, to repeat, I think a Muslim political party that focuses only on Muslim interests, or what are projected as such interests, is a bad idea. Why should we isolate ourselves in this way from the rest of the country? After all, the idea of India also includes us.
Q: How and why is it that the Muslim middle-class, whose understanding about community issues and priorities might be distinct from that of the Muslim political elites, are not visible in trying to articulate an alternative leadership?
A: The Muslim middle-class, even in north India, is rapidly expanding, but it is still not very articulate. It lives in a twilight zone, with all the dilemmas and insecurities that this entails. It is stuck between their age-old respect for the ulema and a new-found loathing for them, a very paradoxical and perplexing situation. It does not want to take on the ulema, but, at the same time, it does not consider them as leaders and it detests their politicking. Middle-class, modern-educated Muslims want the maulvis to remain confined to their role as ritual or religious specialists. This is related to what I just termed as their 'new-found loathing' for the ulema, because they are tired of, indeed utterly disgusted with, their redundant and absurd fatwas and narrow sectarianism, which the media, always on the look-out for sensational news, never spares any opportunity to highlight. They are tired of Muslims being projected by the media as predatory, dirty, violent, barbaric parasites, an image that the ulema class, by their actions and statements, are doing everything to reinforce.
At the same time, the emerging middle-class among Muslims lives in two different worlds. They are faced with the modern world outside, where they study or work, and with the Muslim cultural milieu at home, in their families and communities. It is not easy negotiating these two very different spaces and contexts. It creates enormous confusion. Sometimes, it leads to cultural retreatism, especially in a context of increasing demonization and targeting of Muslims, which leads to people withdrawing into their shells, into their cultural comfort zones. It is a real challenge for many people to retain their faith in whatever they believe and comfortably negotiate with the outside, with the larger society.
Matters are made more complex by the increasing ghettoisation of Muslims, which has mounted in the post-Babri Masjid demolition period. It is very difficult now, even for affluent Muslims, to find houses in Hindu-dominated areas. They find a sort of security and comfort living in Muslim ghettos, even if these are deprived of many basic amenities. And so, the very middle-class that could have acted as a bridge between Muslims and others finds itself cut off from the wider society, ghettoised against its will. The confidence of the Muslim middle-class is greatly constrained by the demonization of Muslims, of Muslims as a whole being tarred as terrorists, so that every Muslim is, almost every day, forced to prove that he is not a terrorist. In such a situation, their ability to counter the hegemony of the maulvis, promote a progressive agenda and to reach out to people of other communities is limited.
Q: The media claims that the maulvis exercise an enormous influence on Muslims, and the maulvis do everything to sustain that image. But is the claim of the media true?
A: I think this has been grossly exaggerated, both by the media and the maulvis. It is a fallacy to claim that the Muslims are in the grips of the maulvis, although it is true that the maulvis would like this to be the case. The monopoly of the maulvis in politics is truly over, and even in terms of their control over religious interpretation, their monopoly is being challenged by 'lay' Muslims interpreting Islam for themselves, for instance through the Internet. If you do a survey of the last three general elections, you will find that Muslims have not voted as some ulema might have directed them to, except perhaps in some isolated rural pockets. Rather, they have voted in accordance with the general regional or national trend. This clearly exposes the media propaganda that the mualvis control Muslim voting patterns. It shatters the myth of a Muslim vote-bank. Muslims are now becoming increasingly politically savvy, because they know that their votes are important and that they can easily determine the political fortunes of various parties, particularly in places with a large Muslim population.
Even the maulvis, or some of them, are changing. Increasingly, some of them are, in response to public demand and pressure, incorporating English, Hindi, science and so on in the curriculum of their madrasas, though not on the scale or level that many others would desire. If the Al-Azhar in Cairo, one of the largest seats of Muslim religious learning in the world, has reformed without changing its core, and now has faculties of social and natural sciences and hundreds of professional and technical schools affiliated to it, why can’t Deoband or other big madrasas in India do likewise?
Q: The media routinely highlights absurd and patently anti-women fatwas issued by various madrasas and muftis, and in this way reinforces negative images of Islam and Muslims. What do you feel about the role of the maulvis in all of this? Have they and their organisations made any effort at all to highlight the concerns of Muslim women or to work for their empowerment?
A: I think the Muslim clergy, as well as the Muslim society generally, are totally lacking in gender sensitivity. They have paralysed half of the community—its women. So, you cannot blame the media alone. If dozens of Muslim-majority countries have reformed Muslim personal laws to provide more rights to Muslim women, why do the Indian maulvis, including the All-India Muslim Personal Law Board, continue to oppose any such reform? It is easy to see why they refuse to reform these laws. It is simply because if they permit this to happen, their own hegemony will be undermined. They fear the emergence of Muslim feminist voices that would make them socially and politically irrelevant and would also threaten male Muslim privileges, which they seek to defend in the name of Islam. I think there is a lot of hypocrisy involved in all of this. Half the top ulema send their daughters to modern schools and colleges, while, at the same time, they insist that the women of the community must remain behind veils and within the four walls of their homes. I sincerely hope the ulema will realise that in their obduracy and their defence of patriarchy, they are alienating vast numbers of Muslim women, besides further reinforcing negative images about Islam and Muslims. If they fail to understand this, they are bound to reduce themselves to irrelevance. They must also understand that no society or community can progress if half its population—women—are kept in the shadows of darkness, left ignorant of the world around them, and forbidden from realising their full potential. Muslim backwardness has much to do with the way Muslim women have thus been treated.
Q: To come back to the question of the Muslim middle-class, you said it is emerging and rapidly expanding, even in northern India, where the bulk of the Muslims are concentrated, and where most of them are poor. How is this reflected in terms of educational levels?
A: There has been a sea-change in attitudes towards modern-education, and today even humble Muslim carpenters and weavers want their children to gain knowledge of English and of modern subjects so that they can avail of opportunities that they themselves could not. In this context of rising aspirations, the Muslim haves must take the lead in setting up good quality educational institutions that provide such education at affordable prices for the Muslim have-nots. The state, too, must play its role in this regard, for it ought to know that the story of 'shining India' would be woefully incomplete if the 170 million Muslim communities continue to wallow in poverty, like an ugly sore or festering gangrenous limb. The government and the bureaucracy must be sensitised to the need for promoting modern education among Muslims, while Muslims must set up organisations to access the various schemes of the government.
Q: To return to the question of the maulvis, it is argued that they are an impediment to the spread of modern education among Muslims. Do you agree?
A: Yes, almost entirely. Many ulema, explicitly or otherwise, oppose the spread of modern ideas. They act as an impediment to the emergence of a progressive social consciousness. They fear this will undermine their hegemony. They have never taken any interest in wider social, economic or governance issues, or in helping Muslims be part of the mainstream. Nor have they encouraged Muslims in that direction. On the contrary, they have only further contributed to the ghettoisation of the Muslims. So, I would say, the ulema are equally, if not more, responsible for Muslim backwardness as government apathy. The ulema have never mobilised the community for modern education or for economic empowerment. They take to the streets and whip up Muslim sentiments only on narrowly-conceived identity related issues. They instigated mass protests all across India in the wake of the Shah Bano judgment to deny a poor woman an alimony of a measly maintenance, raising the bogey of 'Islam in danger', but they show no such enthusiasm to mobilise the Muslim masses on substantive issues such as modern education, access to resources or employment. The government of the day tried to handle the Shah Bano issue properly, but when a government panders to religious sentiments it generally opens a veritable Pandora’s Box that has long-lasting social and political ramifications that it often does not foresee. In a climate of insecurity, in a political scenario characterised by inherent anti-Muslim bias, it is so easy for the ulema to stir Muslims to agitate by scaring them about Islam being allegedly in danger, but now, I think it is no longer possible as it was during the Shah Bano controversy. This is because increasing numbers of Muslims are going in for modern education.
A related issue is the mindset of the ulema class, which is definitely not conducive to coming to terms with the realities of modernity. By and large, theirs is a very ritualised understanding of, and approach to, Islam. What was a very simple religion has been projected as an enormously ritualised and complex one under the watchful eyes of the ulema. I refuse to buy the argument that we need a certificate of righteousness from the maulvis to be considered to be proper Muslims. For the maulvis to claim that they have the right to issue such certificates is to arrogate to themselves some of the authority of God, which is tantamount to the crime of shirk or associationism, a blatant violation of Islamic teachings. As a Muslim, I am answerable for my faith, beliefs and actions to God alone, and not to any maulvi. I do not need his approval at all. I refuse to pander to the maulvis, who self-righteously regard all others but followers of their own sect as kafirs. This narrow-mindedness of the maulvis is really troubling. It is also responsible for the backwardness of Muslims. When the maulvis of the different Muslim sects simply cannot dialogue, and when they brand each other as kafirs and apostates, how on earth are they going to be able to dialogue with non-Muslims? If the maulvi's intolerance rules out intra-Muslim dialogue, how can we have meaningful inter-faith dialogue?
Q: In this context, how do you see the argument that Madarsas, where the maulvis are produced, are in need of considerable reform, which would also include reforming this sectarian mindset which is based on what you call a very ritualistic understanding of Islam?
A: I think the government should desist from interfering in the madrasa system. If it is seriously interested in promoting modern education among Muslims—which it should be if it really cares for the future of this country, for India cannot prosper if 170 million Muslim Indian citizens remain poor and illiterate—it must focus on setting up quality modern schools in Muslim localities. If that happens, Muslims who today send their children to madrasas as a last resort, out of economic compulsion, would enthusiastically welcome modern education and prefer to send their children there than to madrasas. But the fact is that the government has not done this all these years. In fact, in this regard, it has miserably failed.
Of course, madrasas need to reform in order to equip their students to navigate in the modern world, but I strongly feel that they should be left free to do this on their own. And this is happening. Even small madrasas have started teaching English, Hindi, and maths and so on. My point is that this sort of reform is best initiated if it comes from within, rather than being imposed from without, for that will only provoke resistance. This point is important to bear in mind particularly with regard to the Indian Muslims, whose aversion to change has to do with a host of social and historical factors, not least being the perception, which is not unfounded, of being targeted and excluded by the wider society. In a climate of growing anti-Muslim sentiment, where Muslims are being unfairly accused for each and every act of terror, there is naturally a resistance to openness and change. This is why the Indian Muslims are diffident and are definitely not the confident citizens that they should be. In this context, the government cannot thrust madrasa reform on them without their approval. Such reform is best left to the men who control the madrasas themselves. And even if many of the maulvis do not want reform, believing it would undermine their hegemony, they are actually powerless before growing insistence within the Muslim community that madrasas must reform or else they would lose their relevance. And that is happening, although perhaps not on the scale as it should be. Yet, it is a fact that at least some ulema are beginning to understand the pulse of the people. One indication of this is that some ulema are now speaking the language of constitutionalism, of empowerment of all, and so on.
Q: You spoke about the increasing demonization of Muslims and what that has meant for the sense of insecurity that characterises Muslims in the country. What role has the media played in this? Some Muslims argue that the media is itself ‘anti-Muslim’ and is engaged in what they allege is an 'anti-Islamic conspiracy'.
A: It is true that sections of the media are definitely anti-Muslim. There are other sections that also paint Muslims in a negative light, though not a result of any such conspiracy but, rather, because they thrive on sensationalism and negative news, which make good, copy. Then, another factor to consider is the bombardment by the Western media of negative images of Islam and Muslims, wrongly tarring all Muslims with the same brush. This is playing a terrible role in fanning anti-Muslim prejudices. But that said, one also has to speak about the Muslim, particular Urdu media, that is no less sensationalist than sections of the 'mainstream' media when it comes to covering Muslim issues, although, of course, in the opposite direction.
Q: What do you feel Muslims can do to counter this?
A: Educated Muslims need to engage with the media rather than simply lament how the media, or influential sections of it, represent Islam and Muslims. But, this is easier said than done because Muslims suffer from a lack of confidence and a fear of rejection, even at the hands of the media. They feel that if they point out valid Muslim grievances in the media or in other public forums, they would be trailed by agencies of the state and come under the radar of government agencies, or that they would be unfairly branded as 'reactionary', 'communal' or 'fundamentalist', or that they would be dismissed as 'biased' and 'subjective', and, therefore, ‘unreliable’ by the media simply because they are Muslims. They fear being straight-jacketed and branded by the media as 'moderate' or 'radical' or 'fundamentalist' Muslims’ or with any other such label. That is the predicament of being an educated Muslim in India—it is certainly not an easy or comfortable one. It is not that we lack educated Muslims who can write in 'mainstream' papers or appear on TV to speak on Muslim issues. But, because of the factors I just mentioned, they prefer to be quiet. Today, a number of educated Indian Muslims are expressing their views by blogging, and though they write well, they might be diffident in approaching the 'mainstream' media to voice their views.
Another point needs to be considered here, and that is that we Muslims simply react to issues, to controversies or whatever. We have, in that sense, too, become reactionaries. We are simply reacting to agendas set by others rather than setting our agendas ourselves. In doing so, we ignore substantive issues related to the Muslim have-nots, issues of economic and educational advancement, focussing entirely on trying to rebut allegations against Muslims or Islam.
That said, I think it is heartening that in the last few years some 'mainstream' papers have begun highlighting Muslim substantive issues and concerns in a positive manner. A number of non-Muslim journalists also routinely speak out on Muslim issues in an objective and fair way. Not being Muslim, their words count much more than if a Muslim were to say the same thing. More such non-Muslims must speak up, not just for the sake of the Muslims but also for the sake of the country as a whole, for they should realise that the country cannot progress if 170 million of its Muslims wallow like a cancer-afflicted limb. I also want to add that I am against Muslims raising only Muslim issues, just as I am against Hindus raising only Hindu issues. Why can't someone born into one community articulate the grievances and genuine concerns of people belonging to other communities? And why should Muslims not write and speak on larger social or national issues, rather than focussing only on Muslim-specific subjects? In other words, a transformation in the way we issues related to communities and the country as a whole is required if we are to bring about any meaningful social transformation.
Q: What sort of leadership---political and religious---do you think young generation Muslims are looking for, and how do they see the present Muslim leadership?
A: The younger generation of Muslims is similar to the rest of young India. They too have dreams and aspirations of a successful meaningful engagement with the India story. They might be eager and lack patience but that can't be held against them.
Tired of corruption and hollow rhetoric, they are yet to participate in large numbers. Political dynasty, nepotism and rowdy-ism, along with the repressive mindset of our leading clergy, are pitfalls young educated Muslims are aware of. For obvious reasons, no community leader has a pan-India appeal. What they want is good governance and just, equitable growth which takes into account their special situation they face daily. The Indian Muslim young can only hope like the rest of India. They must prepare suitable leadership to articulate their concerns and aspirations as they will need to rapidly clear the mess the nation finds itself in today. The question is really, will the present Muslim leadership stand up to their aspirations, or, like others, use the young impressionable Muslims as climbing steps for personal grandeur?