Inclusive by Choice, Defensive by Nature

Perusing Amardeep Singh’s superb weblog, I found this write-up of a moving and illuminating essay posted on the Kafila blog by the writer and activist, Mahmood Farooqui - Walled away in faith’s defence.

Farooqui writes about a number of intertwining paradoxes: a secular, atheist Muslim living in a conservative Muslim mohalla (neighbourhood) of Delhi, the problem of minority belonging and the self-hatred that comes from being the ‘other’ in your own land, and the conditioning that forces Muslims to be defensive about their place in history and society.

Let me explain my locus. I am an atheist, I follow none of the Islamic taboos, but I live in a locality in the capital that can only be called a ghetto. I lived here for five years, when I was a student, when I was very self-consciously opposed to the Indian Muslim stereotype. I had grown up on Chandamama and Nandan, Holi was my favourite festival, Karna my hero, Shiva the great God, Hinduism a highly tolerant religion and I had dreams of attaining martyrdom fighting Pakistan. I was studying history and detested medieval Muslim rulers; I would expatiate on the reasons why Islam had trouble with modernity; I admired Naipaul and Rushdie; supported Mushirul Hasan during the Satanic Verses controversy — a novel I deeply admire in spite of its undoubted blasphemies — and I detested many things about Indian Muslims, except, predictably, Urdu literature and Sufism. I was, in short, a model Hinduised-Indian-Muslim, who always put India before Islam. I was desperate to leave Okhla.

But in opposition to the antagonism he feels coming from the mainstream, there are the loyalties towards his Muslim-ness that are Pavlovian in nature:

More than this, however, my views, in conformity with the rest of the academic world, about the virtues of egalitarianism, liberty and a democratic welfare state are now far less uncomplicated than they were in my youth. I still search for vestiges of the narrative of liberty in Islamic pasts, I continue to valourise streams of pluralism in Muslim sultanates and extol those Indian Muslims of the past who were ecumenical and tolerant. I would still challenge descriptions of the medieval past that underline forced conversions or bemoan the second-class treatment of Hindus. If I do not have much truck with Islam, why then do I continue to search for narratives of tolerance in the Islamic past? Why do I smart when Vajpayee says that there is trouble and violence wherever Muslims live? Why is my attitude to Islam so defensive?

Farooqui manages to pinpoint the perplexities felt by Muslims or at least those keenly felt by the more reflexive amongst us. In fact, he might as well have written an essay on the roots of the South Asian Muslim condition here, I know that for a fact.

I am eager to tell the world that Muslims of the past were different, as they indeed were, but the hidden presumption is that the current Indian Muslims are a fallen lot, in need of reform. We are not entirely sure whether it is they or Islam itself that needs reform, but we are absolutely certain that reform is needed. The West is reformation itself, Christianity has been protestantised, Hinduism has been reformed by the State, but Islam we have been trying to reform for the last 150 years and have been on the defensive for as long as well.

There are no answers to these presumptions offered by Farooqui, only insights into the paradoxes. But insight is the rarest commodity amongst Muslims today. His article should really be read in full.

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