Sunday, March 15, 2009

The Muslim Minority In India after 9/11

by Akeel Bilgrami

I am grateful to Syeda Imam for sending this essay by her brother. This is based on the essay published in Communalism Combat in November 2001. It should be compulsory reading for all thinking Indians (perhaps that's an oxymoron!).

The term 'minority' marked a subject of study only after statistics began to influence the governance of societies as well as influence the methodology of the social sciences. But its point and rationale was to generate a site of much more than statistical importance - such is the power of numbers. Thought of in purely descriptive terms it is intended to convey the site of ethnicities, religions, races, and less often these days, of socio-economic station. Thought of in more evaluative terms, it is often the carrier of rights, partly because it is often the target of discrimination. All of these things are absolutely central to what I am about to say, but I will approach the subject a little more obliquely: by seeing the Muslim minority in India as the site of a certain mentality.

And here is a curious thing. Even casual reflection on the subject suggests a paradoxical conclusion: that it is precisely this minority mentality which is to be found among the Muslim majority populations all over the world. We owe this paradox to the abiding power of colonial history, even after formal decolonization, a subject to which I'll return, at the end.

Though it is by now a banality to say in a general way that there are many Islams, it is worth saying that it is perhaps more true of the Indian sub-continent than of anywhere else in the world. These Muslim communities began to arrive in India as part of the elaborate maritime trade with West Asian groups well before the invasions that are usually studied by historians resulted in the Delhi Sultanate.

Apart from the sectarian distinctions between the Sunnis and Shias, and the regional dispersal of Punjabi, Bengali, Hindusthani, Mapillah, Gujarati, and Oriya Muslims, there has been much diversity in the spiritual and scholarly leadership as well, shaping an extremely differentiated religious culture in the country over the last three centuries. In the eighteenth century there were figures of influence such as Shah Wali Allah of the Nashqbandi tradition situated in the more courtly ethos of princes, to the more populist Chishti Sufi tradition of Shah Abdullah Bhitai, Bullhe Shah, and the poets Mir and Dard; then there was the later reformist strain owing to Sir Syed Ahmad Khan, Chiragh Ali, the Shia thinker Ameer Ali, the novelist Nazir Ahmad and the Shibli Numani of the Nadvatul Ulema, there was the famous Deoband school and its network for providing traditional learning of the Ulema, the even more orthodox Ahl-i-Hadith school which favoured the strict letter of Hanafi law, as well as the much more relaxed Barelwi tradition stressing very local customary practices, and the remarkable Ahmadiyyas who emerged under the leadership of Mirza Ghulam Ahmad, who claimed that he was at once the Muslim Mahdi, the Christian Messiah, and the avatar of Krishna.

The twentieth century saw figures ranging from the poet Muhammad Iqbal, to Maulana Abul Kalam Azad the refined and learned exemplar of the Congress slogan of 'composite' Hindu-Muslim culture, to the wholly different Maulana Mawdudi (and his following in the Jamaat-i-Islami, now in Pakistan), who may rightly be described as fundamentalist because of his insistence on the return to the Quran and the hadith, and who was of much influence on Syed Qutb, the Egyptian fundamentalist thinker said to be the inspiration of self-styled 'jihadi' groups today which are linked to Osama bin Laden.

Coursing through this diversity, Muslim religious life in India has been characterized by two tendencies which are preserved in a delicate balance due to the tension between them. On the one hand, at the level of ritual, ceremony, and a broad range of other quotidian practice, there is a great deal of pragmatic and syncretic ("sufistic") retention of local features that are quite continuous with many aspects of Hindu life and cultural practice. On the other, there is the scriptural and transcendental, and normative element tied to the ulema and characterized by a deferential gaze that goes beyond the local toward the Arabian lands from where the classical doctrine originated. This is hardly surprising since the Islamic faith itself arrived in India via travels through Persia and Turkey and Central Asia acquiring local accretions from there, so the ultimate and formal, bookish elements had always to be recalled in self-conscious ways at all points in the midst of often livelier homegrown and alien elements.

The tense balance created by this double movement - of form and root - has persisted in India through the centuries to this day, and though there is much integration of the two elements there is often rivalry between them, not just in the rural and poorer sections of society, but even in such highly metropolitan cultural productions of Hindusthani music or the Hindi cinema of Bombay, which for decades might quite properly have been regarded as the last, urban outposts of sufism, still to some extent resisting the narrowing doctrinal visions of Muslim (as well as Brahmanical Hindu) religious orthodoxy.

It is precisely this balance which is increasingly made precarious by developments over the last few decades, and by some striking recent events of which the aftermath of September 11th is the most spectacular. There is to begin with the relative poverty of Muslims in India ever since the more landed and educated Muslims, fearing loss of estate and discrimination in career opportunities in India, left for Pakistan during the partition. For those who stayed, those fears have largely been realized. There was also another major loss, the loss of their language Urdu (indeed the language of many Hindus in north India as well) which was given away as an exclusive gift to Pakistan because the Indian leaders, for all their avowed pluralism and secularism, were unable to withstand the nationalistic pique of Hindu ideologues in their own Congress party who put great pressure to drop Urdu altogether as a medium of instruction in the national and regional school curricula.

And in general ever since the passing of Nehru, there had been a tendency in the Congress party, to adopt the most debased and cynical strategy that democracy allows, the strategy of trying to win elections by appealing to majoritarian sentiment against minorities such as Muslims and Sikhs. This strategy which culminated in two or three hideous events - the pogrom against the Sikhs after Indira Gandhi's assassination, the destruction of the mosque at Ayodhya by a mob of Hindu political activists, the slaughter of several hundred Muslims in Gujarat a few years ago-- has ironically led (until recently) to repeated defeat of the Congress party at the hands of a Hindu nationalist party which can play the majoritarian game much more openly and brazenly than can the Congress with its hypocritical avowals of secularism.

The Muslim 'minority' in India therefore has had the ideological potential to vex in at least two ways. First, it is open to perception as a minority which is descended from the Muslim conquerors who ruled for centuries over a predominantly Hindu people, and thus a good target for 'historical' revenge. Second, it is open to the perception of being a residual population, one that had its choice of leaving for the newly created Muslim nation of Pakistan in 1947, but which chose to stay, so it must now adapt in accord with the culture of the Hindu nation it opted for.

These ideological perceptions, once merely the vision of a fringe, thought of as the "Hindu Right" and opposed to the secular tendencies of the central leadership of the freedom movement and of post-Independent India --most particularly of Gandhi and Nehru-- is now very much the vision of the majoritarian Hindu ideology that pervaded the national government at the centre for a substantial period until very recently, as well as in some (but by no means all) of the states and regions in the country.

Even putting aside the dubious conceptual elements in these perceptions (i.e., the very idea of 'historical" revenge, and the restriction of choice to the options "Either go to a Muslim nation or stay in a Hindu one") there are plain historical facts which expose their falsity.

With regard to the first perception, there is the fact that most Muslims today are not descendants of a conquering people, but Hindu converts; and there is the fact that a number of the Muslim rulers of India showed a remarkable amount of religious tolerance, comparable at least to the Muslim rule in mediaeval Spain. With regard to the second, there is the fact of the essentially and helplessly sedentary nature of the poor and labouring classes which made immigration over thousands of miles no serious option at all, and there is the fact of the idealism of both this class and the much smaller but admittedly more mobile educated middle class of Muslims who thought a secular India was a better option than a nation created on the basis of religion. But these are mere, contemptible facts, and ideological perceptions, as we know, are the products of a free social imagination.

This ideological situation has made Indian Muslims deeply resentful and defensive in their mentality. And this mentality is adversely affecting the double movement I mentioned of rooted quotidian syncretic diversity on the one hand and invocation of scriptural form and fundamentals on the other, by threatening to tilt the balance in favour of the latter over the former. In a situation where material life as well as self-respect is increasingly threatened by alarming majoritarian tendencies in the polity, the absolutist doctrinal side of the double movement is holding out promise of dignity and autonomy in the name of Islam, specially among the young. The attractions are utterly illusory of course - they are manifestly undemocratic, they are deeply reactionary on issues of gender, and they are phobic in the extreme of modernity, even a homegrown and non-western path to modernity. They are 'reactionary' in every sense of the term, and one point I am stressing is that they are reactionary also in the sense of being a reaction to the feelings of helplessness and defeat, and the seeming lack of viable alternatives to cope with these feelings.

Just to give an example of reaction-formation, one response to the combination of poverty, lack of career opportunity, and the loss of Urdu has been the rise of the phenomenon of the 'madrassa', which are religious schools peppered all over the country but specially in north India, very often financed by Saudi Arabian largesse, and which offer free education in Urdu, and a place for boys from poverty-stricken families to live without cost while they train into strict scriptural doctrine, to some extent providing a recruitment ground for future careers in fundamentalist movements. (I say ‘some’ extent and mean it. The extent may well be highly exaggerated by a careless journalistic class.) This is just one example as I said, and all of it predictably leads to more backlash from Hindu ideologues, and in turn more defensiveness, surfacing in more aggressive reactions among the Muslims.

I want to say something about this defensive and reactive Muslim mentality. What is most striking is that it is precisely this mentality that is found all over the Muslim world, even where Muslims are an overwhelming majority, the only difference being that the reaction there is of course not to Hindus but to American presence and dominance. I will not catalogue the whole familiar (and what would be dreary if it were not so palpable) litany of the wrongs of American foreign policy in the Middle-East, not to mention Vietnam, East Timor, Chile and various other parts of Latin America. From the overthrow of a decent and humane leader like Mossadegh in Iran right down to the detailed support over the years of corrupt, elitist and tyrannical leaders in Saudi Arabia, Iraq, Iran, and so on, to the cynical arming and training of Muslim extremists in Afghanistan, as well as the longstanding support for occupation by expansionist settlement in Palestinian territories, America, driven as always by corporate interests, has, as is well-known, bred a resentful reaction among non-elite sections of the population all over Muslim lands. That all this follows a long history of colonial subjugation and condescension by European powers, even after decolonization, involves all of the West as the target of such reaction. For some years now, this resentment has taken on an explicitly religious, Islamist rhetoric, again because Islam seems to provide an ideological peg of dignity and resistance to hang these resentments on.

All this is familiar, though what perhaps is less so is that initially, and even until a very few years ago, specifically anti-American (or what are sometimes called "anti-imperialist") versions of Islamism were much more prevalent in Iran than in client states such as Saudi Arabia; but as a result of Al-Jazeera and other forms of communication made possible by new technologies, Muslims even in Saudi Arabia who had hitherto been uncritically pro-American in their sympathies have been exposed to some of the political and economic realities in Arab nations, and have been able to detach themselves from the cognitive clutch of the royal family and elites.. And some of the most volatile and restless among them have (again as a result of the new communicative technologies) been able to join with similar anti-American groups in neighbouring and even far-flung lands, from the caves of Afghanistan to cells in Hamburg, London, and New Jersey.

The point of importance however is this. That this Islamist rhetoric is a dangerous and brittle source of self-respect is obvious to most Muslims in these countries, but there does not seem even to them to be any viable alternative, and it is this conflicted position of many Muslims which I think should be crucial to any analysis of our present times.

I think it can safely be said that as a matter of ubiquitous empirical fact - whether in Mumbai or Cairo, Karachi or Tehran, Afghanistan or Saudi Arabia, New Jersey or Bradford-- most Muslims are not absolutists at all, and are in fact deeply opposed to the absolutists in their midst. This is evident in the fact that before September 11, whenever there have been elections the 'fundamentalist' parties have failed to gain power, whether in Iran or in Pakistan. Even those who do not oppose the fundamentalists are too busy with their occupations and preoccupations to be seduced by any absolutist fantasies about an Islamic revival worth fighting for. Yet these ordinary Muslims who form the overwhelming majority in Muslim nations have not had the confidence and courage to come out and openly criticize the absolutists and this is because they too are affected by the defensive mentality that pervades these regions. To be openly critical seems even to them to be a capitulation to Western habits and attitudes of arrogant domination, going back to colonial history and, as I said, palpably present in their lives even today. What would give them the confidence and courage to be critical of the absolutists in their midst? is a question of the utmost urgency in our time, and it should be a question that is on the mind of every humane and sensitive American and European today.

What is perfectly obvious is that bombing the hell out of impoverished nations such as Afghanistan and Iraq is not going to do it, nor is the constant pinning of the problem as being one of Islam versus freedom and modernity. It is not freedom that ordinary non-fundamentalist Muslims are against, it is not modernity which they want to shun, it is the naked corporate-driven,geo-politically motivated wrongs of American and Western dominance of their regions which they oppose; and if they confusedly sit silently by as Islam is invoked in grotesque distortions by the most detestable elements in their society to be the ultimate source of resistance against this domination, it behoves those of us who are more privileged in having escaped these resentments and their causes, to try to give them the confidence to see their way out of this confusion.

To do so, we will have to call things as they evidently are, evident to everyone except some insular American and European citizens unaware of the effects of their government's actions in the world,, and much more culpably, journalists who speak and write in the mainstream media as well as mandarin intellectuals in universities. We will have to say that what happened on September 11th was an act of atrocious, senseless, and unpardonable cruelty. No effort to understand Muslim mentality, as mine is, should (or could) muffle the sound of this criticism. But we will have to say also that the bombing of a parched and hungry nation like Afghanistan, of creating what seems like almost permanent insurgent mayhem in Iraq, which was already devastated by years of a cruel and immoral embargo, and then sitting back and allowing the destruction of Lebanon first, and now Gaza, are merely the last and among the worst in a century filled with such immoral interventions. All that can only be the first step in working towards addressing the deep historical and contemporary sources of this defensive mentality.

In doing so, we cannot forget that the confused Islamist rhetorical overlayer by which this defensive mentality presents itself to the world is a reactionary rhetoric of the supposed pieties and glories of an Islamic past, but the hopes and aspirations not of fundamentalists but of ordinary Muslims who have succumbed to their rhetoric, are existential hopes and aspirations for a future, in which a radically politicized Islam has no particular place and point at all. If we see this very important dialectical point with clarity, our own efforts need not fall into the confusions that the rhetoric encourages, as some writers (Christopher Hitchens, Salman Rushdie, Michael Ignatieff, Niall Fergusson, Thomas Friedman to name just a few) clearly have when they write articles in leading magazines and newspapers with titles such as "Of Course Its About Islam" or "Who Said It is Not About Religion!" These sleek writers with their fine phrases are buying into the very confusion of those whom they are opposing and in doing so they are letting down the millions of ordinary Muslims all over the world who, in the end, are the only weapons America and Europe have against their terrorist enemies.

Akeel Bilgrami is Johnsonian Professor of Philosophy and Director, Heyman Centre for the Humanities, Columbia University.

Photo: © Herbert Wong

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