Unfortunately, very many ‘liberals’ in India and other countries where Muslims are in minority have turned themselves into apologists of the Muslim right, a problem eloquently discussed by Meredith Tax in her book Double Bind: the Muslim Right, the Anglo-American Left, and Universal Human Rights, and this has been also pointed out by genuine liberals from the Muslim community, like Tarek Fatah from Canada, Omar Ali from the United States of America (both of Pakistani origin) and Bassam Tibi from Germany (of Syrian origin), and here’s an article by a genuinely liberal Muslim (there is indeed no dearth of them!) published in a leading Pakistani newspaper analyzing this beautifully.
There was an article in The Hindu, titled ‘Islamic difference and radicalisation’ by Suchitra Vijayan (dated 7 Jan 2015) which carries the typical melodrama and exaggerations that underlie any ‘liberal’, pro-Muslim discourse in India or elsewhere, and this article is not particularly intended as a rebuttal to that piece, but rather to strike at the basis of such a worldview, for the articulation of such a worldview by some non-Muslims makes even educated, well-to-do Muslims leading regular lives, going to educational institutions, workplaces, movie theatres or restaurants alongside Hindus, entertain rather exaggerated notions of victimhood.
We saw an example of the same in the form of the question posed by a Muslim girl with a good command over the English language and studying in LSR, among India’s best colleges, on the channel NDTV, as to whether India’s economic growth would only be for Hindu men. Those with such a ‘left-liberal’ worldview, as also religious rightists, both Hindu and Muslim, are requested to read this article with an open mind, rather than viewing it as a personal attack on themselves, and are requested to judge this piece based on facts and logic, rather than just write it off resorting to ad hominem allegations.
This piece will focus on how exaggerated portrayals of Muslim victim-hood are most harmful for Muslims themselves, but before that, we shall dwell on addressing and dispelling some anti-Muslim prejudices, so that it may be emphasized to a section of Hindu readers how and why there is a space for such dialectics in the first place.
Islamophobia is wrong, misplaced and counterproductive
I would request Muslim and unbiased non-Muslim friends to not get me wrong – I am not against Muslims, and have recently been involved in making a thirteen-episode serial on the great Indian nationalist leader Maulana Azad for DD-Urdu, which has been shortened into and screened as a film titled Aashiq-e-Vatan Maulana Azad. I have even written an e-book available for free download, namely Anti-Muslim Prejudices in the Indian Context: Addressing and Dispelling Them (I would request all those with any degree of anti-Muslim resentment to read that book with an open mind, and that book covers several dimensions not discussed in this article). The dehumanization of Muslims by some irks me as much as it apparently irks the likes of Vijayan, and in the light of the recent terrorist attack in Paris (which does not figure in Vijayan’s piece, evidently written before that horrible attack), I made it a point to highlight on the social media that the mentality which led to this attack was analogous to the mentality that led some Hindus to issue death-threats to MF Hussain (who, in my personal opinion, didn’t even have any intention to offend, but that’s irrelevant in this context), some Sikhs to attack members of the Dera Sacha Sauda when their leader dressed up like one of the Sikh gurus, some Jews to issue death-threats to have a subtitle removed from the movie The Passion of the Christ and some Christians to issue death-threats to the artist responsible for creating the exhibit Piss Christ. I also made it a point to draw attention to the fact that one of the French policemen who died fighting terrorists in that attack in Paris, Ahmed Mebaret, was a Muslim, and so was one of the magazine staff members killed by the terrorists, and in the hostage crisis that followed, a Muslim helped save the lives of many innocent civilians. Indeed, those fighting the ISIS include very many Muslims, especially Kurdish Muslims, who are secular by outlook and helped to protect many of the Yazidis, a tiny non-Muslim minority in Iraq, from the butchery of the ISIS.
Also, while terrorism by anyone can never be excusable, terrorism or even specifically terrorism in the name of religion is not a Muslim monopoly, with the Ku Klux Klan and neo-Nazis giving a Biblical basis for their racism and anti-Semitism, Catholic fanatics in the United States bombing abortion clinics and night clubs and having killed innocent civilians during the Olympic Games in 1996, the Catholic fanatics constituting the Irish Republican Army, some terrorists from the Baptist sect of Protestant Christianity in Tripura and Nagaland killing innocent civilians giving a theological justification for their actions, Khalistani terrorists killing innocent civilians acting in the name of Sikhism (though they got ISI support later, the root of the problem lay in some fanatic Sikhs’ aversion to Sikhs intermarrying with Hindus and weaning off the five ‘K’s), the Jewish Defense League in the United States and the Haganah in the Middle East having acted in the name of Judaism, organizations like the Ranvir Sena having carried out massacres of Dalits (including women and children) to avenge Naxalite attacks, justifying the same citing Hanuman burning down residents of Lanka in the Ramayan, and perhaps most oxymoronically, Buddhist monks inciting violence against those of other religions in Myanmar and Sri Lanka. Just like most Christians, Jews, Sikhs, Hindus and Buddhists are not terrorists or supporters of terrorism, and they don’t believe that their religion preaches terrorism, the same is the case with Muslims. It is possible to quote any scripture out of context to justify malpractices, like some verses in the Bible like Deuteronomy 13:12-15, 1 Samuel 15:3, Leviticus 24:16 and Matthew 10:34 seemingly advocating violence against “non-believers” and the Purusha Sukta of the Rigved to justify caste discrimination. On the other hand, there are Quranic verses like 2:256, 5:2, 5:8, 5:32, 6:108, 6:151, 49:13,60:8 and 109:6 preaching peace, religious tolerance and human brotherhood, as does the letter from Prophet Muhammad to the Christian monks of St. Catherine’s monastery and there are episodes from Prophet Muhammad’s life, as per Islamic lore (and the adherents of a religion attach importance to the lore, the historicity of which is not relevant in that context, irrespective of the religion), indicative of such an approach too, such as his allowing a woman to throw garbage at him daily and his succeeding in ideologically winning over her by way of humanitarian affection; those suggesting that peaceful verses in the Quran are superseded by violent verses (which the vast majority of practising Muslims globally regard as contextual) would do well to note that verse 109:6 appears towards the end of the book. This article mentioning an anecdote from the British parliament does make an interesting read in this context.
Not to forget that secessionists in different parts of the world, like the now erstwhile Tamil Tigers of Sri Lanka (who killed civilians, bombing banks and marketplaces, and forcibly recruited children) or Bodo militants in India who recently massacred many innocent villagers in Assam (in the recent massacre, most of the victims were Hindus, just as most of the perpetrators were, and this has to do with deep-rooted ethnic conflicts), and ultra-leftist radicals in places like India (who have bombed election booths, killing innocent voters), Greece and Peru (where they attacked an economist suggesting free market solutions to poverty!). Nor is it the case that that terrorism in the name of Islam predates terrorism in the name of other religions or even that most instances of terrorism against civilians in Europe and India are carried out by Muslims. A report submitted by Europol, the criminal intelligence agency of the European Union, showed that only 3 out of the 249 terrorist attacks (about 1.2%) carried out in Europe in 2010 were carried out by Muslims, and speaking of India, a column by Praveen Swami in The Hindu (‘Terror data give lie to Giriraj Singh’s slur’, 15 May 2014) and one by Samar Halarnkar in the Hindustan Times (‘Naxal or jihadi?’, 17 Feb 2010) eloquently point that out. Alienating Muslims will only strengthen, not weaken, Muslim extremism.
There is also this wrong notion that Muslims are the only ones who stop non-Muslims from entering some of their holiest places of worship like the Kaba in Mecca, but several Hindu temples, like the Pashupati Nath temple in Nepal, too bar non-Hindus from entering them, while many mosques and Sufi shrines have absolutely no problem with non-Muslims visiting them or even praying there. Also, the conspiracy theory about the Kaba being a Shiv temple have their basis in the writings of one Mr. Oak, who was not even a historian, and he is actually not even taken seriously even by those historians, Indian or of other nationalities, who have saffron or other religious right-wing leanings, and in fact, some votaries of this theory claim that Lord Shiv has been ‘imprisoned’ by Muslims, which refutes the logic that God is all powerful! Oak also said that Christianity is Krishna-Neeti (though ‘Christianity’ as a term does not exist in Hebrew, and came about much later in history!) and many other such ludicrous things! While such propaganda (except the bit about Lord Shiv being ‘imprisoned’!) may please the Hindu chauvinist, impartially speaking, one ought to thoroughly dissect it before taking it seriously. There are websites making claims about non-existent Arabic texts to prove their point, and even if we, for the sake of argument, accept such theories, that has no bearing on judging the people we know as Muslims today, who do not believe in them.
There is also a fairly well-known website run by an apostate and basher of Islam who has offered a cash prize to anyone who can disprove his allegations against Prophet Muhammad (but there are books by apostates of other religions criticizing their former religions too, the most famous one being Why I Am Not a Christian by Bertrand Russell, and there’s also Why I am Not a Hindu by Kancha Ilaiah, leveling very strong allegations), but practically, he is the judge of the debate, or to go by what he is saying, the “readership” of the website, a rather non-defined entity. In fact, he has acknowledged that he came across a Muslim who “intelligently argued his case and never descended to logical fallacies or insults” and while that Islam-basher “did not manage to convince him to leave Islam”, that Muslim earned his “utmost respect”, which implies that practically, the Islam-basher is the judge of the debate. Likewise, that Islam-basher has mentioned with reference to a scholar of Islam he debated with, that the latter was “a learned man, a moderate Muslim and a good human being” and someone he (the Islam-basher) has “utmost respect for”. So, that Islam-basher’s critique of Islam, whether valid or invalid, has no relevance in terms of making blanket stereotypes about the people we know as Muslims. By the way, that Islam-basher bashes Judaism too. And it is worth mentioning that I have encountered several practising Muslims on discussion groups on the social media, who have, in a very calm and composed fashion, logically refuted the allegations against Islam on such websites.
Also, it may be pointed out that the consumption of meat existed in India (including sacrificing animals in the name of ‘bali’) much before the advent of Christianity and Islam in the subcontinent, and had been opposed by Gautam Buddha, much before Jesus and Muhammad were even born! That said, very many Buddhist-majority regions like Tibet, Bhutan and Japan do traditionally consume meat. Interestingly, the Chandogya Upanishad mentions Raikva, a butcher, in glowing terms as a great human being. Also, the story of Prophet Abraham relating to Id-ul-Zuha also exists in the Old Testament of the Bible (Muslims accept Jesus and all the prophets of the Jews like David, Solomon, Moses and Abraham as prophets), and the ‘halal’ dietary regulations in Islam are remarkably similar to the ‘kosher’ dietary regulations in Judaism (including the non-consumption of pork and the mode of slaughtering animals), also followed by sections of Christians, and even Jewish males undergo circumcision, just as some Christian males do, and the practice is believed to have health benefits.
Now, we will specifically dwell into what the contentions put forth by left-liberals are that I regard as amounting to exaggerated portrayals of Muslim victimhood.
Examining the Exaggerated Claims of Muslim Victimhood
The hyperbole goes to the extent of suggesting that Muslims are dehumanized by almost every Hindu (something that Suchitra Vijayan has contended), but she fails to prove her point on this score. If that were really the case, there wouldn’t be so many prominent Muslim public figures in all walks of life, including not only sports, cinema and other fine arts, academic research, politics (India has had a Muslim, Salman Khurshid, as its foreign minister) and business (this article on Indian Muslim businessmen by Swaminathan Aiyar makes an interesting read), but even in the security forces (many Muslims have won gallantry awards), intelligence agencies (did you know that the IB is currently being headed by Ibrahim Khan, a Muslim?) and among those entrusted with scientific research for India’s defence (we all know of Dr. Kalam!), nor would there be the usual harmonious coexistence between Hindus and Muslims, cutting across socioeconomic strata, in educational institutions, workplaces and recreation centres, even in BJP-ruled states. If most Hindus really dehumanized Muslims, films like My Name is Khan, Haider and pk would not have been blockbusters. Also, had Vijayan’s contention of Muslims being dehumanized, and by default assumed to be “bad” unless proved to be “good” been true, the BJP would have not fared poorly in urban areas in the national elections in 2004 (when the NDA had performed fairly well in generating jobs for the urban youth and done a good job of road connectivity, and it is widely believed that the riots in Gujarat in 2002 had a major role to play in their defeat) and 2009, when a series of blasts by the Indian Mujahidin and the 26/11 Mumbai attacks could have generated a Hindu rightist sentiment (the conspiracy theorists attributing these terrorist attacks to Hindus/Jews/Christians would do well to read this article of mine, and even if we accept their ludicrous ideas just for the sake of argument, even they can’t deny that most Hindus saw these as crimes by some Muslims, and it’s the perception that matters in electoral politics) and there was also justifiable resentment against the UPA for failing to check the attacks, both of which could have translated into a pro-BJP sentiment, but failed to do so, in large measure in urban areas owing to Varun Gandhi’s alleged hate speech against Muslims, which was certainly horribly vitriolic (I personally know some Hindus who didn’t vote for the BJP then only for that reason), and in 2014 too, we may do well to note that most Hindus did not vote for Modi (given that the NDA vote-share was 38.5%), but that majority had no consensus on an alternative, and even those voting for Modi cannot all be labelled as Hindu communalists, since many voted for him only for development, including many Muslims, for they felt the future hope he exuded for India at a time of economic crisis that could make a real difference to people’s lives was more important than his alleged communal record. In the by-elections that followed, the BJP didn’t fare that well and Hindu rightist hate-mongers like ‘Yogi’ Adityanath and Sakshi Maharaj were defeated, and subsequently, the BJP fared rather poorly in the municipality elections in Chattisgarh and in the Delhi elections. It is another matter altogether that the ultra-rightist Hindu fringe is very loud, especially on the internet, and rational Hindus often feel it’s pointless trying to debate with them (for one gets showered with abuses rather than have rational engagement), but that fringe doesn’t represent the Hindus as such. Some even say that Indian Muslims, many of whom are prominent public figures, are second-class citizens in India, which amounts to trivializing the suffering of the South African blacks under the apartheid regime, for example, who were denied representation in politics and couldn’t share the same benches as whites!
Those who do exaggerate Muslim victimhood suggest that only the nationwide religious minorities are victims of communal violence in India, that Muslims are the only ones falsely booked in terror cases, that discrimination by India’s Hindu majority has led to Indian Muslims’ economic and educational backwardness, that Muslims are the only ones subjected to slurs, that Muslims face discrimination in housing and that Muslims need to prove their loyalty to India.
Let’s examine each of these allegations one by one. Speaking of victimhood in communal violence in India, innocent Hindus have also died in riots, including the ones in Gujarat in 2002, as was reported by several leading national media houses (though not sufficiently), and this has also been documented by Human Rights Watch, and in Muzaffarnagar in 2013, and terror attacks by the Indian Mujahidin. Speaking of the riots in Gujarat, hundreds of rioters, both Hindu and Muslim, have been convicted (the anti-Muslim massacres in the Best Bakery, Naroda Patiya, Ode and Sardarpura are among the infamous ones for which convictions have taken place), including a former minister, Maya Kodnani, and also, hundreds have been convicted even in connection with the anti-Sikh riots in 1984 (though some senior political leaders believed to be guilty are yet to be convicted), but none of the perpetrators of the killings of the Kashmiri Hindus have (we observed the 25th anniversary of their exodus this year, and we shall subsequently rebut the rationalizations and conspiracy theories associated with the same), not even Bitta Karate who confessed to his crimes in a televised interview, with the judge acquitting him saying that the local Kashmiri Muslim policemen had shown no interest in arguing the case, and no, not a single conviction of any of the killers of the Kashmiri Hindus in 25 years, I am sorry to say, cannot be equated with Maya Kodnani being convicted by a district court in connection with the Gujarat riots (among hundreds of others convicted), her appeal being tried in the High Court of Gujarat and her then getting bail after being in jail for several years and having been denied bail on earlier occasions, even though the BJP was in power in Gujarat even then. Sporadic hate crimes unfortunately take place in almost every pluralistic country, and Indian Muslims indeed enjoy better civil liberties and even better security of life and property than Muslims in Pakistan and many other Muslim-majority countries. That said, I may also mention that I do not accept the bizarre implicit line of reasoning offered by very many Hindu rightists to the effect that since the violence against Muslims in Gujarat in 2002 has received more media attention than the anti-Sikh riots in 1984 or the exodus of the Kashmiri Hindus, the anti-Muslim riots in Gujarat can be condoned only on account of having received more attention!
Dealing with Indian Muslims’ economic and educational backwardness, while Indian Muslims have a long scholastic history in the Sultanate and Mughal periods, it is a fact that following the Revolt of 1857 in which many Muslims had fought alongside many Hindus to restore Mughal glory, for about half a century, Muslims were largely (obviously, this doesn’t apply to each one of them) reluctant to embrace modern education (even though many continued their traditional education, not of much relevance to the modern economy), unlike Hindus, who had resolved this debate much earlier, which created a huge gap, not easy to bridge, for many Hindus subsequently became well-off, while many Muslims had remained backward, and the progeny of the well-off also were well-off, while the economically backward for generations find it difficult to come at par with the well-off. Keep religion aside, I would like the readers of this piece to ponder over whether their descendants are likely to be more well-off than their maid’s or not (and for Muslim readers to particularly ponder over whether their progeny would be better off than their Hindu maid’s or not). And while I believe that poverty, like terrorism, has no religion and should be seen as a purely human problem (the not-so-well-off upper-caste Hindu should not be neglected just because many others in his community are well-off as compared to other communities), it is a fact that special schemes relating to Muslims’ education and employment have been launched in India by governments at the centre (including the current one, as you can see here and here) and in the states, and yes, while there may be corruption in their implementation, that is an issue with very many schemes, not only those meant for the religious minorities. As far as employment is concerned, while there is indeed a certain section of Hindu employers discriminating against Muslims, to make a sweeping generalization is grossly unfair, and there are Muslims at senior positions in all sectors, and there can be and are cases of discrimination in employment not only on religious but even regional, racial or caste lines in India, even by some Indian Muslim employers (for instance, since the 1980s, in Aligarh Muslim University, professors who are not Sunni men don’t practically have equality of opportunity as those who are, and in the Deoband Madrasa, South Indian and Gujarati Muslim clerics often have a tough time owing to the UP-Bihar lobby). While some have suggested that Muslim-majority areas are particularly backward as compared to Hindu-majority areas, it is easy to carry out a study only of a certain section of the society and point to its woes as though those woes are exclusive only to that section and not the nation as a whole, and interestingly, a study in Uttar Pradesh revealed that regions which were backward in terms of girls’ toilets were also, in general, backward in terms of infrastructure (including boys’ toilets), for which the local panchayats/municipalities and the state government are to blame, which negates the allegation of a specific gender bias, and likewise, another such study on access to schools can negate the allegation of communal bias, and my acquaintance Mr. Shams Tabrez from the Bhagalpur district of Bihar tells me that some Muslim-majority villages in his district are better developed than some Hindu-majority villages. Muslim politician Shehzad Poonawala, in a column written by him, points to "a report" that shows that “40 per cent of all Muslim concentration areas lack hospitals and schools” (which implies that 60% are not lacking in schools and hospitals), mentioning no corresponding data pertaining to Hindus. In Kerala, at least until recently, it was believed that the literacy rate among Muslims was higher than among Hindus.
I may also mention that some point to the migration of financially elite Muslims to Pakistan at the time of the partition as the reason for Muslims’ backwardness, but that is a flawed argument. For one, the partition riots were indeed horrendous and no one should be forcibly displaced, but the migration occurred on both sides. Further, even had the financially well off Muslims stayed back, while Muslims may not have statistically been as backward on an average, how would their staying back have necessarily helped the genuinely economically backward Muslims? Some even blame Nehru’s land reforms for making the erstwhile zamindars of UP, who were Muslims, worse off, but that fate was suffered by zamindars all over India (as beautifully depicted in the movie Lutera), most of whom were Hindus. Even many non-leftists agree that the zamindari system was a historical injustice and land reforms were necessary to undo the same. Further, it has still been possible for Muslims to rise as entrepreneurs in India and Azim Premji had even emerged as India’s richest man for some time. While I have cited a piece by Swaminathan Aiyar on Indian Muslim entrepreneurs earlier, Laurent Gayer and Christopher Jaffrelot, whose edited book Muslims in Indian Cities – Trajectories of Marginalisation, is full of exaggerated notions of Muslim victimhood by only focusing on the problems of Muslims in certain cities but not making any worthwhile study of whether these problems are universal in those cities, have this to say-
“(A) new Muslim middle class is emerging here and there, around economic niches long occupied by Muslims (near export, leather goods, Unani medicine) but also beyond the traditional Muslim economy (agribusiness, IT, pharmaceuticals, real estate). Moreover, this burgeoning middle class is no longer composed exclusively of traditional mercantile communities but, increasingly, includes successful entrepreneurs hailing from the lowest sections of the Muslim community, such as the Ansaris (a lower caste traditionally associated with weaving) and Qureshis (an ‘impure’ caste traditionally involved in butchering), as well a Silawats (masons) and Malis (fruit and vegetable sellers).”
[With reference to casteism among Indian Muslims, it may be mentioned that it was an influence of Hindu practices continuing even after conversion to Islam, with no basis in the Muslim scriptures, and equally, it is often contended that a hereditary and hierarchical caste system has no basis in the Vedas, and is a gross misinterpretation. The often-cited Purusha Sukta of the Rigveda talking of castes emerging from different body parts of the creator can be interpreted in a completely different fashion, given that God, as per the Vedas and Upanishads, like, for example, the Quran, is formless, and in that context, He has been ascribed names based on His attributes, like ‘Brahma’ for being the creator (the Quran uses the term Al Khaliq for God in the same context, and even the Quran does metaphorically refer to God as having eyes, hands etc.), and so, the creator manifesting itself in the creation of the human society meant that different occupations served as all being integral to the society as body parts, not about any being superior or inferior, and the Purusha Sukta also refers to Earth, worshipped as a mother-goddess, as having emerged from the feet of the creator! Also, the very same Rigveda also carries a verse talking of how a certain person follows a different occupation from both his parents, which shows that caste was initially neither meant to be hereditary nor hierarchical.]
Coming to discrimination in accommodation, the likes of Vijayan do rightfully condemn very strongly the Hindus doing so, but without trying to impartially evaluate the causes, though desiring that we sympathetically delve into the causes of what makes some Muslims resort to terrorism (but according to them, there’s no need to sympathetically understand Hindu rioters in the same vein, and such people even had issues with the movie Kai Po Che doing the same, where it showcased a Hindu who lost his mother in the Godhara train-burning resorting to anti-Muslim violence, even though that movie wasn’t in the least anti-Muslim). Discrimination against Muslims indeed exists in the context of being sold or rented out flats or bungalows in very many (though not all) Hindu-majority localities, but that again either has to do with a generalized sense of aversion to non-vegetarian food being eaten in their property, which is a legitimate choice for them to exercise (Hindus can lie about being vegetarian, as some acquaintances of mine did while renting an apartment in Gujarat, but given that vegetarians among Muslims are extremely few and far between, many would find it hard to believe that a Muslim is a vegetarian even if he/she really is one!) or the suspicion about terrorism, which is not to mean that such real estate holders imagine all Muslims to be terrorists, but given that all major terrorist attacks in India’s big, cosmopolitan cities (be it Delhi, Mumbai, Pune, Bangalore or Ahmedabad) have been carried out by some Muslims, they view any Muslim stranger as possibly being a terrorist (and it matters little in this context what the causes of terrorism by some Muslims are or that Muslim terrorists in India and abroad, including in Muslim-majority countries, have also killed Muslims, for a non-Muslim doesn’t wish to be bombed by a terrorist, even if that terrorist also poses a threat to his/her own co-religionists), and such a possibility of one’s rented out flat or bungalow being used to plot terrorist attacks can invite the wrath of the police or at least invite unpleasant occasions of questioning. Sikhs too faced this discrimination till the mid-1990s when Khalistani terrorism was at its peak (as pointed out by Kashmiri Muslim writer Basharat Peer in his much acclaimed book Curfewed Night), and those from the northeast, where there are secessionist insurgencies, do so too, and going by a survey conducted by the Centre for Civil Society (CCS), a globally reputed think-tank, there are actually many more landlords in Delhi averse to renting their property to live-in couples, irrespective of religion, than those averse to renting their property to Muslims, and indeed, it is not as though there aren’t any Muslims living in Hindu-majority localities. Also, given that left-liberals expect us to sympathize with, even if not support, terrorists, we can certainly do the same with paranoid landlords.
Speaking of innocent Muslims being booked in terror cases (something Vijayan delves into considerably in her piece) or being killed in fake encounters, the misuse of anti-terror statutes has to do with greed for promotions and medals (and is something we all should strongly oppose, also for it emboldens the real terrorists going scot-free) but nothing to do with communal bias, as instances of the same in the form of some Sikh police officers’ atrocities against innocent Sikhs in Punjab in the 1980s and 1990s demonstrated, as also the commendable research by Human Rights Watch on arbitrary detentions and maltreatment of innocent Hindus following the blast in a mosque in Malegaon. Innocent Hindus in Maoist areas and Assam have also been victims of human rights violations by some rogue security personnel. Whenever a terror attack takes place anywhere except a mosque or a durgah in non-northeastern, non-Maoist, urban areas in India, it is natural for innocent Muslims to be booked by rogues among the police personnel for a plausible story. And we do learn of the innocence of the accused, only thanks to the Indian judicial system. And even innocent Hindus have been killed in fake encounters, falsely connecting the victims with regular crime, even if not terrorism, as the Ranbir Singh episode in Uttarakhand demonstrates.
Coming to slurs, Bihari, Bengali, Marwari, Sindhi and South Indian (“Madrasi”) Hindus are indeed also sometimes subjected to slurs, and most Muslims I have interacted with (and on this point, I have interacted even with bearded, skull-capped ones whose religious identity is visibly evident) have told me that they have been slurred in such a fashion, if ever, only once or twice in years (indeed, you wouldn’t have seen Muslims being slurred to their faces frequently). It is totally wrong to think that anyone with any degree of anti-Muslim prejudice (it is important to note that the degree often varies) actually maltreats individual Muslims while interacting with the latter (on the contrary, even many non-Muslims with some degree of anti-Muslim sentiment, are often close friends with some individual Muslims, are fans of Muslim actors and singers, may visit Sufi shrines with reverence and may even love ghazals and qawwalis), and as many liberal Indian Muslims would tell you, there is also no dearth of Indian Muslims harbouring prejudice, to varying degrees, against Jews (in spite of usually never having interacted with, far from being maltreated by, any of them), Hindus and Westerners. I also may mention that as a Hindu, even though I come from the majority community, I have sometimes been made to feel unwelcome in some Indian Muslim gatherings, but that doesn’t mean I consider that to be oppression or that I stereotype Indian Muslims.
Speaking of Indian Muslims being seen with suspicion when it comes to the question of their loyalty to India, however intellectually unfashionable and childish this may sound, it has a pragmatic reason in some (not all) Indian Muslims actually cheering for Pakistan in Indo-Pak cricket matches (once, some Muslims in Hyderabad, Andhra Pradesh, even ventured to celebrate Pakistan’s Independence Day, which, for most Indians, is the tragic day of the partition of their country). I am not for a moment saying that generalizing Indian Muslims as anti-national is justified (and not every Indian Hindu makes such a generalization, and the BJP had to distance itself from a comment by one of its members questioning the Indian nationalist credentials of Sania Mirza, who continues to be the brand ambassador of Telangana), especially given the sacrifices of Indian Muslim security personnel fighting Pakistani soldiers and militants, but if some Indian Muslims come forward to hail Pakistan, it is only understandable that the majority community will have some suspicion; those justifying Indian Muslims cheering for Pakistan should honestly ask themselves whether they would support Indian Hindus cheering for a Nepalese Hindu tennis player against Sania Mirza or Leander Paes or an Indonesian Hindu long-jumper against Anju Bobby George only on a religious basis (then, our ‘secularists’ would express their horror at how this is yet another instance of Hindus alienating the religious minorities from the “national mainstream”), and isn’t secular nationalism all about relegating religion to the sphere of a personal belief system, with little place in public life except festivals or worship congregations? Holding one’s pan-religious fraternity above one’s country (owing to what I consider an anachronistic interpretation of Islam, as I have explained here) is not the same as Indian Hindus cheering for Brazil or Argentina in football matches only on the merit of that team (not religious affiliation, and most Indian Muslims cheering for Pakistan cheer on a religious basis, and don’t really ardently cheer for Australia or South Africa), and that too perhaps never against India (let’s await the day India qualifies to the FIFA world cup!). Also, those justifying Indian Muslims cheering for Pakistan or sympathizing with the Indian Mujahidin should not then say that Indian Muslims feel insecure, for these are not signs of insecurity.
Nor can some Indian Muslims cheering for Pakistan be equated with sections of the Indian diaspora in England or Australia cheering for their country of origin against their country of citizenship (which I also condemn, by the way), for Indian Muslims are not diaspora and they chose secular India over theocratic Pakistan at the time of the partition, and supporting Pakistan amounts to rejecting secular Indian nationalism, also given the Indo-Pak belligerence and sponsorship of terrorism by Pakistan’s military establishment (ironically, many of these ‘liberals’ would be the first to condemn any opposition to Indo-Pak trade or Indo-Pak academic exchanges, but their approach is often very different when it comes to any such ventures with Israel, though Pakistan has a poor human rights record not only in the context of exporting terror to India, Afghanistan and Iran, but also subjugating its own Baloch populace, which is mostly Muslim!). It is true that some (not all) Indian Tamils have also placed their angst against Sri Lanka owing to the problems of Sri Lankan Tamils over India’s national interests, and some (not all) Indian Jews also have a sense of extra-territorial loyalty to Israel (but then, India and Israel are not enemies but actually allies), even actually choosing to join the Israeli army instead of its Indian counterpart, but since Sri Lanka or Israel do not have the belligerence with India that Pakistan has, it is natural for Indian Muslims to stand out in this context. It is another thing, altogether, that I do not dehumanize such Indian Muslims who identify with a pan-religious fraternity more than their country (and while I do condemn that, that doesn’t make them terrorists or supporters of terrorism) and believe that they can be rationally engaged with, possibly over a period of time, to modify their standpoint, as the must-watch movie Road to Sangam, based on a true story, demonstrates, and to draw an analogy, you can see this video of a Muslim who initially wanted to become a terrorist wanting to blow up Jewish civilians but changed his standpoint about Israel drastically after visiting that country. It is not as though Muslims are another species that can’t be rationally engaged with, the way some extreme anti-Muslim rightists almost make them out to be, portraying Muslims as cruel, slimy, backstabbing and aggressive (many Muslims whom the Hindu readers would know personally would not exhibit such traits if the Hindu readers were to analyze dispassionately, rather than making baseless presumptions, and indeed, most Indian Muslims are of Hindu ancestry and so they share the same genes as the Hindus – Hindu religious lore also refers to treacherous human beings like the Kauravas wanting to burn the Pandavas in a wax palace; so, treachery was not unknown to India before the advent of Islam, as royal family feuds among the Nanda and Gupta rulers also demonstrate), but like many other communities in different contexts, some (not all) of them are in the stranglehold of anachronistic ideas like a global pan-Muslim fraternity and the upholding of Islamic law, other than having prejudiced notions of an exaggerated sense of victimhood, and I have dealt with how to ideologically combat Muslim extremism in some depth in this article.
It may also be noted that there is no dearth of Indian Muslims who are staunch Indian nationalists. I personally know several unprejudiced, humanistic and strongly patriotic Indian Muslims (including some Kashmiri Sunnis), and indeed, many such Muslims have died martyrs fighting for India against Pakistani soldiers and militants, Hawaldar Abdul Hamid and Brig. Mohd. Usman being the most prominently highlighted examples (contrast these to Hindus like diplomat Madhuri Gupta leaking national secrets to the Pakistani government for money), and I see no reason to see Indian Muslims loyal to their country as being exceptions to the general norm. In fact, a Hindu acquaintance of mine, who studied at Aligarh Muslim University (AMU), told me that while those cheering for Pakistan were quite a vocal lot there, most Muslims cheered for India, and this was in a Muslim-majority setting where the apparently pro-India majority did not have to conceal its true feelings, and another friend of mine, who is an Assamese Hindu from Guwahati and who is very resentful of the Bangladeshi Muslim influx in his state, told me that on a train journey, he overheard a conversation between two Muslims from AMU bashing the students who cheer for Pakistan. Also, another friend of mine whose father is an Indian Army officer once told me that he loves the entire Muslim community (though I don’t support any stereotyping, positive or negative!), for once, his father was fired at by militants in Kashmir and his father’s driver, a Muslim, rushed to bear the bullet to save his father’s life! He also narrated another anecdote of how a Muslim once donated blood to save his father’s life and asserted that he was not in the least ashamed of the fact that “Muslim blood” (whatever that is supposed to mean!) runs through his veins!
I am not even suggesting that it is so much as possible to classify any religious grouping into watertight compartments of ‘communal’ or ‘secular’, and communalism among those we identify as communal does vary in degree. I would even assert that not every instance of Muslim communalism in India necessarily amounts to affinity with Pakistan or hostility to India, and while communalism, Hindu, Muslim, Sikh or any other, strikes at what Tagore called the “idea of India”, any communal statement from a Muslim, like Azam Khan’s ridiculous statement attributing India’s victory in the Kargil war only to Muslim soldiers (but he did indeed explicitly glorify these Muslim soldiers serving India’s national cause in the same speech), should not be seen as “anti-national” in the conventional sense of the term if Hindu communal statements are not seen in the same vein, and even Asaduddin Owaisi has ridiculed Pakistan for the partition dividing the Muslims of the subcontinent as also for being backward to India but bearing animosity towards India, making life difficult for Indian Muslims. Also, I do not believe that communalists under any banner, except arguably those actually resorting to killing innocent civilians, should be dehumanized or can never be logically made to modify their views, as I have explained above.
I may also clarify that I have absolutely nothing against the Pakistani populace in general, and fully acknowledge and respect the liberal intelligentsia among them (I even cited an article by one such person right at the outset of this piece), and I even wrote an article for a Pakistani media house condemning an attack on an innocent Pakistani student in India.
Does Exaggerating Muslim Victimhood Actually Help Fight Hindu Extremism or Muslim Extremism?
It is a fact that innocent Indians, including even Indian Muslims, have died in numerous terrorist attacks carried out in the name of Islam, ever since the militancy in Kashmir erupted in 1989 forcing the Hindu minority of the valley into an exodus from their homeland (which ex-militant Yasin Malik has acknowledged and condemned, saying that it was something that happened in the then “dark” days of Kashmir’s history, and has been acknowledged and condemned by other supporters of Kashmiri separatism, like Basharat Peer and Arunadhati Roy, and those trying to downplay or deny this tragedy should read this article by a secular Kashmiri Hindu, and this one by a secular Kashmiri Sunni, and may it be noted that Malik, a hero in Kashmir for many, is as guilty by association of what was inflicted upon the Kashmiri Hindus as Modi is apparently for the riots in 2002, and the same can be said about Jinnah with reference to the Direct Action Day riots in 1946), for all Kashmiri Hindus were seen as extensions of the Hindu-majority Indian state allegedly rigging elections and brutally suppressing peaceful protests against the same (just like in Gujarat in 2002, the Hindu rioters saw all Muslims as extensions of those who burnt the railway coach at Godhara), followed by the blasts in Mumbai in 1993 in the aftermath of the demolition of the Babri Masjid, and the emergence of the Indian Mujahidin, responsible for many terrorist attacks across urban India, following the riots in Gujarat in 2002. The Akshardham temple too was attacked in 2003, which led to the killings of hundreds of innocent civilians. Indian Muslims have also joined the ranks of organizations like the ISIS, and so, let’s not delude ourselves into undermining the threat posed by Muslim extremism.
Indeed, after Nazism, Islamism (not to be conflated with Islam) has emerged as the biggest ideological threat to a modern conception of human rights globally (think of the TTP prohibiting girls’ education and shooting Malala, the Boko Haram and the ISIS), in great measure thanks to the US government supporting radicals instead of moderates in fighting the Soviet presence in Afghanistan in the early 1980s, and this threat of Muslim extremism has to be countered in India too, as Talmiz Ahmad has rightly contended in a column in The Hindu (‘Where adventure and martyrdom beckon’, 7 Jan 2015). Also, given that Vijayan has talked of diversity among Muslims in India and elsewhere (without giving any examples) under the subtitle ‘Historicity of Islam’ where there is no reference to the history or historicity of Islam but an assertion that every family, town and district has its own history, it may be noted that speaking of terrorism, the Shia Hezbollah and Sunni Hamas are on the same page when it comes to killing innocent Israeli civilians, for instance. I do, however, agree that the ideological battle against Muslim extremism in all its forms (terrorism being one of them, but the discriminatory laws in countries like Saudi Arabia and the erstwhile Talibanized Afghanistan, and the regressive attitudes adopted by many, though not all, Indian Muslims in the Shah Bano and Imrana cases also being examples) has to be fought carefully without dehumanizing Muslims as a collectivity (this article by me delves into what such an ideological battle would entail, and I cited it earlier as well), for not only is that intrinsically unfair to the community and will inevitably strengthen Muslim extremism but also because, say, in the Indian context, dehumanizing a minority and accepting an exclusionary brand of nationalism, especially with blind hero-worship of a political leader, can, in the long run, pave the way for a breakdown of democracy, eventually proving to be violative of everyone’s human rights, for one goes down a slippery slope. We saw that in Germany, for example, and Pastor Martin’s following quote about the Nazis is famous in that regard-
“First they came for the Jews and I did not speak out because I was not a Jew. Then they came for the Communists and I did not speak out because I was not a Communist. Then they came for the trade unionists and I did not speak out because I was not a trade unionist. Then they came for me and there was no one left to speak out for me.”
Likewise, in Pakistan, Muslim extremists initially only targeted Pakistani Hindus, Christians, Jews and those they regarded as following deviant sects of Islam, but now, the average Pakistani Sunni going to a mosque or market too faces the threat of being bombed! Similarly, the elements in India that wish to promote undemocratic ideas like the prohibition of apostasy from Hinduism, prohibition of inter-religious marriages (for them, every instance of a marriage between a Muslim man and a Hindu woman amounts to “love jihad”, glossing over how very many Muslim women have married Hindu men and changed their religion and name, prominent examples being sitarist Roshanara Khan, model Nayyara Mirza and actress Nakhat Khan, who on getting married, changed their names to Annapurna Devi, Nalini Patel and Khushboo Sundar respectively), seek to impose their version of history on us, and often have an aversion to the English language and other cultures, should be kept in check.
However, the question that arises is whether the Hindu right in India (and in this, I refer to an ideology, not any particular political party, and I acknowledge that the right-wing under any religious label has relatively moderate and humanistic people in its fold as well) can be combated by hyperbolic portrayals of Indian Muslims’ victimhood. I contend that not only is such exaggeration unjust, but also that it is counterproductive and only deepens the Hindu-Muslim divide. This is so, for such undue exaggeration of Muslim victimhood and baseless negative generalization of Hindus by ‘secular’ people (ironically mostly Hindus) strengthens Muslim communalism, and such hyperbole even turns Hindus off the idea of secularism, making them more apathetic to what’s wrong with Hindu communalism, and Hindu and Muslim communalisms feed off each other, stereotyping the other religious grouping by pointing only to its communalists, and Muslims, being in minority, are much more threatened by such phenomena, though Hindus also are. If Muslims wish to mend fences with Hindus, supporting the minority from the Hindu community exaggerating Muslim victimhood is not going to help, just as for Hindus wishing to mend fences with Muslims, hailing Islam-bashers from within the Muslim community who have renounced and denounced their religion is not going to help (and there is a difference between hailing the Islam-bashers and defending their right to not be physically harmed).
Also, such exaggerations of Muslim victimhood dehumanize Muslims in a fashion different from the hardline Hindu rightists. To the hardline Hindu rightist, every Indian Muslim is to be seen through the prism of terrorist Yasin Bhatkal, while for the left-liberal exaggerating Muslim victimhood in India, every Muslim is to be seen through the prism of Qutubuddin Ansari folding his hands begging to not be killed during the Gujarat riots of 2002. Both are extreme ways of looking at Indian Muslims, whose day-to-day lives are the more mundane, and involve the same tasks of earning their daily bread, and for personal and professional reasons, they socialize and often even have close friendships with those of other faiths. The extreme left-liberal worldview of Indian Muslims is well exposed in this anecdote about a photographer who went to visit Juhapura, a Muslim locality in Ahmedabad, as narrated by a Gujarati Muslim in an article-
‘In March, a photographer called me from Bangalore. I admire her work and when she asked for my help to do a photo feature on Juhapura’s residents, I gladly obliged. We met outside my apartment building, where many had gathered for my neighbour Mutassim’s wedding. The photographer’s disappointment was evident when she arrived. There was no biryani or qawalli. Most men wore shiny suits. At one point, a stage was set up and the hosts invited a dwarf to dance for the guests. My neighbor’s 12-year old daughter Sifa wore heels for the first time. She cheered the loudest when the music began.
“These are not the images I wanted,” the photographer said. “I want to show the conditions of Muslims, to show how people are facing hardships under [Narendra] Modi’s Gujarat.”
I smiled. “The only suffering in Juhapura tonight,” I told her, “is that the DJ is playing far too many Enrique Iglesias songs.”
She did not laugh.’
Are Muslims, mostly largely leading regular lives like all of us and having non-Muslim friends, to be made to feel that they can achieve great heights and be loved as celebrities by Indians at large, even if they hail from the most economically backward background, like APJ Abdul Kalam, Nawazuddin Sidduqui and the Pathan brothers actually have, or are we to make them perceive themselves as a perennially victimized lot and demoralize them?
All those rightly seeking to ideologically counter the Hindu right should revise their approach, and avoid exaggerations as also their pro-minority bias and silence over the politics of minority appeasement practised by ‘secular’ parties, and such an approach of these ‘liberals’, other than being unfair, when exposed as being exaggerated and biased (silence also constitutes bias), only weakens their position and strengthens those they are apparently against. Also, they should certainly not level baseless ad hominem allegations of belonging to the other extreme camp against all those who disagree with them (centrists like myself often face flak from both sides, and it may be noted that even in the religious context, a rightist may indeed often be closer to centre rather than an extreme rightist, and can be made to change his/her standpoint if rationally and coolly engaged with, rather than be dehumanized). The ultra-conservative section of the Hindu right has, by and large, given up its swadeshi economic model that rejected foreign investment, and is now resorting to social media outreach offering oversimplifications of the truth or even blatant lies as the correct narratives; it’s high time their opponents modified themselves with the changing times, and politely and logically deconstructed the fallacies in the narratives of those they disagree with, as I have humbly attempted to do in the book on anti-Muslim prejudices I have written, rather than just only loudly shouting condemnations, that too usually one-sided, from their rooftops, and resorting to hyperbole against Hindus as a collectivity.