Caught in the Middle

Can Moderate Muslims Be Heard Over the Radical Roar?

The equation of Islam with terrorism post-September 11 has had consequences for Muslims everywhere, particularly in India, home to the world's second largest Muslim population. The terrorist acts in New York and Washington and their aftermath have heightened the fears and insecurity of Indian Muslims. The community's sense of siege has grown acute since the December 13 suicide squad attack on the Parliament building in New Delhi by terrorists who, India has charged, belong to two Pakistan-based Islamic groups.

India's 120 million Muslims are in many ways living refutation of the "clash of civilizations" theory of confrontational and monolithic Islam. The widespread acculturation of Muslims in Indian society through the ages, says historian Mushirul Hasan, has come about for a number of reasons: the amorphous character of Hinduism, the rise of heterodox movements, and the inter-community alliances forged by Muslim rulers to fortify their empire. A variety of Muslim religious sites coexist with Hindu, Jain, Buddhist, and Christian places of worship, leading to a fusion of ideas, beliefs, and everyday practices. It was what India's nationalist movement described as "composite culture," says Hasan. "This is what formed the bedrock of secular nationalism, the essential feature of the Constitution, and the basis of the present secular republic," he says.

The Muslim predicament today is mainly a result of the communal polarization created by the dominant political parties, including the secular Congress Party and the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), which currently leads the national coalition government.

Muslims who chose India over Pakistan at Partition in 1947 have since felt betrayed and exploited by their leaders and the main political parties, which have used them as a vote bank. Unscrupulous politicians have encouraged a ghetto mentality among Muslims, while refusing to address the community's principal problems of illiteracy and unemployment—factors that have encouraged many Muslim youths to take to crime or fall into terrorist groups backed by Pakistan's intelligence service.

Some madrassas have also played their part in alienating the community from the mainstream. Schools close to India's international border have been suspected of indoctrinating young minds for jihad. Since the advent of the BJP brand of politics, the community has been under pressure to condemn the hawks within on the one hand and get its rightful share of development funds on the other.

The terrorist attacks are the latest in a series of cataclysmic events in which Indian Muslims as a community have been made to feel that they must stand up and be counted. The attacks are reminiscent of another flash point, the 1993 Bombay blasts, more than a dozen explosions on one day in the city, allegedly masterminded by underworld don Dawood Ibrahim at the instigation of Pakistan. Once again now, Indian Muslims are convulsed by anguish and guilt over the monstrous crimes committed by violent fundamentalists in the name of Islam, anger that the entire community is sullied by the acts of a few, and, overridingly, fear of speaking their minds.

The majority of Muslims in India, much like other secular Indians, condemn the Taliban and the September 11 and Indian Parliament attacks. They also protest the U.S. bombing of Afghanistan; American foreign policy, especially in the Middle East; the draconian new Prevention of Terrorism Ordinance 2001 enacted by the BJP-led government; and the warmongering by the militant Hindu political parties.

But they don't dare speak their protests out loud for fear of being labeled "anti-national" and Islamic "fundamentalist." The equation of Islam with terrorism by the BJP—as well as by most of the Hindu middle class—has silenced the voices of moderate Muslims who reject violence and oppression in the name of Islam. "We are very apprehensive and afraid," says Iqbal Ghani Khan, an associate professor of history at the Aligarh Muslim University in the northern state of Uttar Pradesh. "When (Home Minister Lal Krishna) Advani says, 'The enemy is within,' anyone with a Muslim name becomes a target." Those who speak out are seen to speak for the terrorists, says Khan. "We dare not say anything, and depend on our friends in the secular left to speak for us."

Yet secular Muslims and Hindus alike feel it is more urgent than ever for the moderate Muslim voice to assert itself. This is crucial, say liberals on both sides, to counter the stridency of Hindu-Muslim debates in which militant Hindu elements and BJP cohorts, with some media help, ratchet up the volume, and to isolate Muslim fundamentalists who play into their hands. The liberal Muslim majority is caught in the middle, worried by Hindu hawks who paint them as malevolent, and wary of hotheads in the community who bring them a bad name by hailing Osama bin Laden.

"I would say that the battle today is not between Hindus and Muslims," says Shabana Azmi, an acclaimed film and theater actress and outspoken social activist. "It is between the moderate, sane voice of Muslims and the fundamentalist, rabid voice. And it's very important to give prominence to the moderate voice."

Secular Muslims must save Islam from the fanatics, says Hasan Suroor, a well-known commentator on Muslim issues. Muslims rightly resent that acts of violence by Muslims are invariably labeled Islamic terrorism, whereas similar acts by people of other faiths are never Hindu terrorism or Christian terrorism or Jewish terrorism, Suroor says, writing in the left-leaning English-language daily The Hindu. "But every time a Muslim or a group of Muslims does something abominable they always choose to call it a 'holy' war, and urge other Muslims to join it, whether it is in Chechnya or Kosovo or Kashmir. For far too long, Islam has been allowed to become a license for any Muslim to do whatever he pleases in its name, and the venerable 'mullahs' look on while Islam is hijacked for plainly un-Islamic causes."

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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