By Mosarrap H Khan
With the Sangh Parivar and the BJP’s new-found (not exactly new, if we consider that the entire Hindutva movement is built on the notion of ‘Muslim difference’) interest in Muslim affairs, I have been reading a spate of articles written by Indian Muslims themselves, countering some of the mainstream discourses and stereotypes of Muslims. Since the mainstream visual media has been mostly mirroring right-wing establishment views, it’s the print (read, digital) that has been able to offer a counterview.
Recently, I read Sabiha Farhat’s piece, “The Unapologetic Indian Muslim”, documenting the discriminations an average Muslim faces in India since one’s childhood, well into adulthood. As a Muslim growing up in India, it would be impossible for me to discount the points Farhat raises in her essay that appears to end on a note of anger, from being an incisive critique of majoritarianism to an emotive self-flagellation: “By any chance, if you feel threatened by burqa or a skull cap and beard – so be it! I’m not going to change till I want to. Deal with it.”
Take, for example, another (academically) rigorous piece by Afrin Firdaus Idrees & Heba Ahmad on triple talaq. Here I quote the conclusion to the piece, which, like Farhat’s piece, ends on a defiant note of assertion of Muslim identity: “It is essential to look past this stereotype to recognise the agency of Muslim women. If we want to move beyond ally theatre and towards true solidarity with Muslim women, perhaps it is essential to humbly acknowledge (1) that feminists did not discover equality and patriarchy; (2) that there are Muslim women out there who have evolved their vision of equality and discernment of patriarchy from the Quran and not from any feminist text; (3) that some Muslim women were reading emancipatory potential into and out of the Quran much before feminism (as historian Margot Badran has convincingly shown); 4) and it would be fallacious to assert that the Quran can be redeemed by calibrating feminism on to it. We can, however, attempt to redeem feminism of its imperialistic marauding baggage by de-secularising the venture of women’s liberation as Badran insinuates.”
While I concur with the anger and anguish that these pieces convey, there is something that makes me uncomfortable with them, not least because of my own supposed ‘secular-liberal’ belief. What worries me is the authors’ unwillingness to turn a critical gaze to their own subject-position – their ‘Muslim’ identity – the ground from which they launch these critiques.
To me, it appears that the authors (1) Are reacting to the agenda of the Sangh Parivar and the BJP (2) They take ‘Muslim’ as a monolithic entity.
Let me try tackling these two issues separately.
Reacting as a ‘Muslim’
At this stage, we must pose this question to the authors: Are identities pre-given? Since the authors end on a similar note of ‘Muslim’ assertion, it appears they are reacting exactly the way the right-wing forces want them to, eliding questions of external forces of power, political authority, and material factors that are determinants of identity. How do we draw on an essentialized ‘Muslim’ identity uncritically, when construction of such an identity is often premised on external factors? The assertion of Muslim identity in Iran during the Revolution (1979) was a reaction against Shah’s repressive secular regime. The current resurgence of Islamic identity in Turkey (of which Erdogan is a proponent) is a reaction against Ataturk’s militant secularism. So is the case in the MENA region, where the Arab Spring has unleashed the power of Islamist parties, including in Tunisia, where the Arab Spring had started. Closer home, Islamist movements such as Jamaat-e-Islami and other reform movements – including Sir Syed’s Aligarh movement – were a reaction against colonial governance.
What I take issue with is the uncritical assertion of ‘Muslim’ identity by the authors. It’s a copybook case of ‘regressive conditioning’. Because your oppressors (read, the Sangh Parivar) want you to react in a particular way, you do it, forgetting that an essentialized pre-given Muslim identity is a myth. Identity always evolves in particular historical circumstances, negating a multiplicity of other possibilities.
This brings me to the second point: Is ‘Muslim’ a monolith without multiple possibilities?
Is ‘Muslim’ a monolith?
Even if we are to agree with the authors’ assertion of ‘Muslimness’ in the face of aggressive Hindutva, we must take note of what we are negating when we assert a monolithic ‘Muslim’ identity. What if all Muslims do not subscribe to the sartorial features which are being championed as markers of Muslim identity? What if all Muslim women do not subscribe to values of ‘Islamic feminism’? What about those Muslim women who seek self-actualization within the parameters of liberal-secular values? What about those Muslim men who feel claustrophobic within the fraternity, despite their ‘fundamental commitment’ to religion (to employ philosopher Akeel Bilgrami’s formulation)?
My disagreement with these authors’ solutions stems from the fact that these authors are equally guilty of peddling Muslim majoritarianism, just like their Hindu counterparts. Those of us who have been born and in some sense retained our ties with Islam know that the tyranny of religiosity runs deep within the Muslim community. There is constant value judgement about the ‘Muslimness’ of a person. To put it in other words, ‘how Muslim one is’ is a test that Muslims constantly put their fellow Muslims through.
If one’s ‘purity’ of faith (sometimes embodied in certain outward markers of identity) becomes the yardstick for a politics of solidarity, I’m afraid we are merely reiterating the Hindutva fad, which also asks the same questions of religious sincerity of their fellow Hindus under the garb of nationalism.
Instead, let’s propose a Muslim solidarity politics which would be capacious enough (Gayatri Chakravorty’s ‘strategic essentialism’, if you like) to accommodate religious Muslims, cultural Muslims, conservative Muslims, liberal Muslims, practicing Muslims, non-practicing Muslims, Islamic feminists, Western feminist Muslims, elite Muslims, working class Muslims, urban Muslims, rural Muslims, Urdu-speaking Muslims, non-Urdu-speaking Muslims, heterosexual Muslims, LGBTQ Muslims…
In short, let us not negate the multiplicity of our ‘Muslimness’. Let us not react to the Sangh Parivar’s agenda. Let us craft a politics which is ‘progressive’, tolerant of difference, and inclusive.
Mosarrap H Khan is a founder-editor at Cafe Dissensus. Twitter: @aberration007
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