By Amulya Gopalakrishnan
November 24, 2019
How little it takes for a Muslim to be called an extremist.
Look at Aatish Taseer, who once thrilled to Sanskrit word-roots and the glories of Benares, and had fond hopes from this government in 2014. He wrote about his disappointment with PM Modi in an international magazine. Now his overseas citizenship status stands revoked, and the right-wing has promptly dubbed him a Jihadi.
Take Firoz Khan, the BHU professor of Sanskrit literature, whose father was also steeped in cow-welfare and Bhajan-singing. But ABVP activists were enraged that a Muslim dares to “teach us our religion”, and alleged that he would want a holiday every Friday. Some Hindu nationalists are more charitable, allowing that Khan’s interest in “Indian” culture is to be encouraged.
Clearly, melting yourself down to Hindutva specifications isn’t enough if you have a Muslim name.
But forget the Hindu right, who are ideologically committed to their position. What is remarkable is how even liberals buy into similar suspicions.
Our prejudices about Muslims are not even original. Our language and images are borrowed. Through the last millennium, the West constructed the Muslim as a threat, as Christianity and Islam competed for power. Nineteenth-century European scholars of the Orient, obsessed with classifying and differentiating, with racial and civilisational theories— instilled the idea that the Muslim mind is one, unchanged from the deserts of Arabia, sexist and violent and fanatical.
These colonial storytellers gave us our H&M history — Hindus were cast as indisciplined and soft, Turks and Afghans and Persians were all made into generic ferocious Muslims, medieval warfare on all sides was recast as running religious enmity. This British-made history didn’t just set off Hindu nationalists — you hear it everywhere. Then the American Islamophobia industry after 9/11, which cast specific political conflicts as an enduring struggle with a malevolent, medieval other, fed perfectly into Indian politics and majority common-sense.
This stuff is not always about memories of trauma; it is mass-manufactured mythology. Someone I know in Kerala, who has inherited no psychic injury from any invasion or riot, is a library of Islamophobic stereotypes. He quotes cherry-picked bits from the Quran that abound on the internet, gives no quarter to context. He forgets his real schoolmates and acquaintances, as he frets about this abstract Muslim terrorist.
This allows people like him to blank out the violent hate-crimes, the insecurity and denial of rights that the NRC threatens, the majoritarian tilt of the Ayodhya judgment. It makes it impossible to see the facts of subordination and exclusion that the Sachar committee showed. It makes them reduce democracy-as-usual — i.e., responding to interest groups, as every party does — as suspect ‘vote bank’ pandering when it comes to Muslims.
Some liberals are not much better; accepting Hindutva terms like “appeasement” for basic cultural protections given to minorities in a multicultural nation. They hold pity-parties for Muslim women, as though non-Muslim women are much better off, affecting not to know that sexist societies make for sexist practices, whatever the faith.
To them, just being a believing Muslim is a sign of “indoctrination” or orthodoxy. Just speaking strongly for yourself, in this embattled situation, makes a Muslim a “Musanghi” in their eyes. The only acceptable Muslim is the post-faith Muslim, or someone willing to run down their community. Think of everyone clucking over Zaira Wasim’s choices, or liberal feminists bemoaning the Hijab without respecting the rationality of the wearer. Remember how Nusrat Jahan’s Sindoor was gloriously Indian, but Hadiya’s choices were about ISIS mind control? Most of us know little; ask little, but judge with an airy superiority.
Religion is a source of selfhood, a personal journey and a community, a refuge and a practice. But when it comes to political Islam, we make a point of the Islam rather than the politics. Even liberals divide things into a grid between good or bad, Sufi or Wahhabi, moderate or fundamentalist, syncretic or scarily alien. But Sufism has inspired fighters too; a better approach might be to see totalitarianism and violence as what they are, whether under the banner of Islam or class struggle or anything else.
As Hindus, we can see the distinctions between our quietly praying grandmothers, people who loudly talk up their faith, those who have a political view of religion, and those accused of violent acts in its name. So let’s be consistent in our standards.
This is not to rule out criticism of any religious or social system or practice, but to see it more sharply, locate it in its context, even to criticise more accurately. As the anthropologist Clifford Geertz metaphorically put it, Morocco and Indonesia both bow to Mecca but in opposite directions. The upside of unlearning these biases is obvious — the sooner we rid ourselves of phantom fears, the better we can focus on our common welfare, on things that will truly make our lives easier.
DISCLAIMER: Views expressed above are the author's own.
Original Headline: Liberals need to watch out for their own careless Islamophobia
Source: The Times of India