Coexistence and strife

Print edition : January 31, 2020
Europeans are far less equipped to deal with the challenge of Muslims and non-Muslims living side by side than Indians, who have a long experience of the two communities living in close proximity.

ISLAMOPHOBIA has been a major driving force behind the politics in most Western nations after 9/11, shaping a collective attitude that Islam is the only evil in the world and that Muslims present an existential threat to the rest. In Europe, this perception is growing fast and has generated enormous anti-Muslim prejudices. This was particularly evident against Syrian refugees when they began knocking at the door of Western nations once the Syrian war began escalating. Ironically, the war was a result of a power struggle between Western nations and their allies in West Asia.

The present volume explains why so much misconception about Muslims prevails among Europeans. Using the case of evolving Hindu-Muslim relations in India, the author asks, What could Europeans learn from this relatively peaceful coexistence of India’s harmonious lives? On the basis of his extensive interviews with Muslims of varied walks of life, the author reflects on this puzzle. There is a lot that Europe can learn from the Indian story, he argues.

He writes: “In the summer of 2015, I entered what ethnographers call the field as a complete stranger. This has its downside as I lacked familiarity with the terrain. But it has also its advantages.” The author visited major cities such as Bengaluru, Hyderabad, Mumbai and Delhi. His interviews in Delhi, the author claims, were not just about Indian Muslims. They further helped him in garnering insights about Muslims of Uttar Pradesh and Bihar. In a nutshell, he covered a wide range of regions relevant for a study of Muslims in India in order to synthesise varied perspectives about the heterogeneous nature of the Muslim community and its issues. A list of people who were interviewed is also added in the volume.

Europeans are far less equipped, according to the author, to deal with the challenge of Muslims and non-Muslims living side by side. That is, however, not the case with India where Hindus and Muslims have a long history of living together. This is reflected in a high degree of civilisational awareness among Indians drawn from varied backgrounds, Hindus, Muslims and secularists. In comparison, Europeans display a kind of indifference towards civilisational identity. The author considers this as part of what leads to Islamophobia.

In his words: “Not only do Europeans lack a repertoire for managing relations with Muslim minorities of various stripes and colours, they also lack raison de civilisation in shaping relations going forward.” Having argued this way, the author is cognisant of what is called communalism in India and the violence it often causes. According to him, it is only part of the story of Hindu-Muslim relations, not the whole, which is why he has chosen to visit and conduct interviews in places not known as hotspots of Hindu-Muslim riots.

While there are challenges in Hindu-Muslim relations, it would be naive to dismiss the relative social harmony in which the two communities have coexisted in India. This societal dimension of secular living is a result of multiple roles that people play. The author shares interesting insights on this question. He identifies five type of roles that people play in this domain. The first is what he calls the role of community brokers in which leaders work on the patronage for people. The second category is identity entrepreneurs, where leaders mobilise religious identities. The third category comprises committed secularists, who advocate secularism and argue for a secular society. The fourth consists of gentlemen communalists, pretentious people who mask their communal thinking behind a secular face. Finally, there are the Muslim “dhimmis” who acknowledge Hindu supremacy as part of their pragmatic perspective on life and seek to benefit from it. The author analyses how these categories operate and interact.

The analysis of Muslim dhimmis is fascinating. The concept of dhimmis harks back to the time when non-Muslims accepted Muslim supremacy and in turn sought protection in trade-related matters. They were often humiliated. One would like to agree with this formulation as many needy Muslims have made compromises under the present regime and have sought to renegotiate their positions in order to address livelihood-related issues.

The chapter titled “Quest for a Hindu Nation” presents an interesting narrative of the ideological onslaught that the Hindu Right has unleashed in various regions of India quite successfully in recent years. The electoral rise of the Bharatiya Janata Party and Narendra Modi should be seen in the larger context of the Hindu Right’s ideological campaign from the 1920s. According to the author, the Hindu Right taps on a narcissism-frustration-regression (NFR) nexus for this campaign. At the first stage, the Hindu Right frames an ideological construct of the Hindu self and argues how this Hindu self is victimised by the non-Hindu other. Then it further explains how the Other can be conquered to restore the dignity of the self and its supremacy. Remarkably, the method suggested to conquer the non-Hindu other is at variance with the idealised Hindu self. The author points out that Hindu nationalism is “as much about selfing the self as about othering the Other” (page 25).

Indian Muslims: No development

The analysis makes it clear that Hindu nationalists do not have a serious modern developmental project for Indian Muslims. That is because they believe Muslim problems or backwardness issues are self-made. Since the author’s main concern has been to extract wisdom from the Indian experience, the following observations are useful and worth reproducing: “We in the West should think hard about whether and how we might be susceptible to the NFR nexus ourselves. Like Hindu nationalists, we [Europeans] are often narcissistic in claiming the adherences to the superior moral values. For example, many of us profess a belief in democracy and human rights. There is nothing wrong with these values, but when their pursuit becomes frustrated, we start looking for villains” (page 41). This framework of analysis is useful in making sense of genocidal politics. It says that there is a set pattern that is often employed as a model by those who aspire to pursue majoritarian politics.

The chapter on the Muslim accommodation question is insightful. The author sees a parallel in the situations of Muslims in India and Europe. Muslims in India, like the Muslims in Europe, demand better access to education and the labour market.

One major difference is that Muslims in India seem to be more interested in reservation whereas as in Europe Muslims seek social justice and affirmative action. Besides, Muslims in India have a long history replete with narratives of domination, governance and contributions to art, culture and music. Muslims in Europe, on the other hand, cannot lay claim to anything like the Taj Mahal or the Red Fort as part of their heritage. Despite these differences, the author’s endeavour to make a comparison deserves appreciation.

He further distinguishes between Hindu communalism in India and Islamophobia as if they are unrelated. I would like to quibble here with the author because there is a close and organic connection between Hindu communalism and Islamophobia. This is apparent in the writings of V.D. Savarkar and M.S. Golwakar. But there are also differences between the two. Further introspection on this part of the analysis in the book would have enriched the text dramatically.

Finally, the chapter on secularism is relevant in the context of preceding discussions pertaining to the Hindu Right’s goal and vision and the predicament of Indian Muslims. Drawing a parallel between the two, the author notes: “Deep down, European liberals know that multiculturalism is rather regressive, just like Indian secularists know that minority accommodation is regressive rather than progressive.

“Nevertheless, they find ways to delude themselves that multiculturalism is compatible with liberal values—just as Indian secularists find ways to delude themselves that minority accommodation is compatible with progressive values” (page 83). This part of the analysis is a little problematic. Perhaps the author could not make sense of the complex interplay of words and phrases such as “appeasement”, which is crucial to grasp the challenges that the idea and objective of secularism presents in the Indian context.

All in all, the book is a valuable intervention for scholars who wish to understand Muslims, India and Europe, both comparatively and individually.

Shaikh Mujibur Rehman teaches at Jamia Millia Islamia and is the author of Rise of Saffron Power (Routledge, 2018).