Caught in the Middle

Can Moderate Muslims Be Heard Over the Radical Roar?

When Syed Ahmad Bukhari, the Shahi Imam of the Jama Masjid in New Delhi, said that Indian Muslims should join the jihad in Afghanistan, Azmi retorted that the imam should be air-dropped in Kandahar to wage his own jihad for the Taliban. Her riposte generated some lively TV drama and "mercifully short-circuited" the polarizing debate that the imam's comment would otherwise have provoked. Yet it only highlighted the fact that political patronage and media attention serve fundamentalists and work against the liberal and secular Muslims. According to Rafiq Zakaria, a former Congress Party member of Parliament, people claiming to be leaders get the airtime. "These uninformed and mischievous publicity seekers know that the more outrageous their pronouncements, the better display they will get in the press," he says.

More than 80 percent of Muslims are poor and illiterate and live in the villages, says Zakaria. The media tends to ignore their reactions to national events, just as it ignores the secular, liberal Muslims. Most reporters in the English-language media do not take note of the fact that the Urdu press, which by and large reflects the Muslim sentiment, has, with a few exceptions, "always had a robust nationalistic approach on most issues," says Zakaria. On the question of Kashmir, for example, most Urdu newspapers have supported the government's stand, he says.

Despite or perhaps because of the erosion of the secular ground in Indian politics today, Muslims must recover their moderate voice and seize the narrowing secular space, says Suroor. The waning appeal of Hindu nationalism, now no longer riding the crest of a popular wave, and the current disarray of the BJP-led national coalition are two factors in their favor. Can Indian Muslims turn the crises of September 11 and December 13 into an opportunity by repudiating the fundamentalists in their midst and at the same time silencing the Hindu hawks?

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