Muslim bogey

The book provides powerful intellectual tools to Indian secularists in the struggle against reducing Muslims to “the other” in polity.

Published : Apr 17, 2013 00:00 IST

ON the 50th anniversary of India’s independence, L.K. Advani, who still aspires to be Prime Minister of the country, wrote an article in his party’s organ, BJP Today . It was not, as you might expect, on national issues. It was on his pet hate—the Muslims of India.

A.B. Vajpayee’s style was different. But he must be the only Prime Minister in a multicultural society to denounce a section of his own people, and that too, shortly after they had been subjected to a pogrom in Gujarat in which at least 2,000 Muslims were killed. Vajpayee attacked Muslims shortly thereafter in two speeches, in Goa and while on a trip abroad. Right now deputations of Muslims wait on Ministers to seek redress against arbitrary arrests of Muslims on charges of terrorist activity, which the courts seldom uphold.

Anne Norton’s book, published on March 25, makes a very timely appearance indeed. The author is Professor of Political Science at the University of Pennsylvania. She writes: “In our time, the figure of the Muslim has become the axis where questions of political philosophy and political theology, politics and ethics meet. Islam is marked as the preeminent danger to politics; to Christians, Jews, and secular humanists; to women, sex, and sexuality; to the values and institutions of the Enlightenment.”

The West’s response to Islam reveals more about the West than it does about Islam. It reflects its own insecurities. Anne Norton calls for “the emancipation of Muslims—not for Muslims, not for Muslim societies, and not for Islam, but to ensure nothing less than the survival of Western civilisation”. The brave band of Indian secularists who fight against the BJP’s and its mentor the RSS’ plans to reduce the Muslims of India to “the other” in our polity are, in truth, battling for the survival of India’s democracy and the values cherished by its founding fathers.

This book provides powerful intellectual tools in that struggle. Anne Norton systematically demolishes Western myths which find a very ready acceptance among the chatterati in India. She tackles subjects like freedom of speech, sex and sexuality, and equality and democracy and relentlessly describes how Muslims have been repeatedly miscast as anti-free speech, as opponents of human rights; in short “the enemy”.

Even seemingly benign calls for tolerance mark Muslims as undesirable.

The author points out that “the liberal and social democratic states of our time” hesitate to include them and extend to them the rights and privileges of citizenship. “Though we maintain our belief that law is neutral, that the Constitution secures rights, and that America has true freedom of religion, American citizenship has not protected America’s Muslim citizens from surveillance, detention, unlawful searches, and the assaults of discrimination. The American confrontation with the Muslim question has exposed non-Muslim Americans to the same threats of discrimination, surveillance, detention, and imprisonment when they act as allies. Europe has furnished no stronger, surer protection of rights. France’s severe republican secularism, laicite, has not produced the promised neutrality of the public sphere. The same places that once heard calls for the expulsion of the Jews now hear demands for an end to Muslim immigration. France burns in the riots of its Muslim suburbs, the banlieues dÍslam. French society is torn by controversies over the veil.”

Prof. Robert Pape’s erudite study traced the roots of terrorism to the humiliation of foreign occupation. Ehud Barak, once Israel’s Prime Minister, publicly declared, “If I’d been born a Palestinian, I would have been a terrorist.”

Anne Norton renders a service by pointing out that while much of what Sayyid Qutb wrote on jehad is unacceptable, a lot of what he wrote on other themes deserves praise. “Qutb’s concern is most evident in Social Justice and Islam , originally published in 1949. The title will sound odd to early twenty-first century ears, for ‘social justice’ is a phrase more resonant of the Society of Friends than of the Muslim Brotherhood…. Qutb wrote that women have ‘complete equality with men’, and that the education of women is not merely possible, it is obligatory. He takes the presence of women in the workplace for granted. He recognised, long before the idea was common among Western feminists, that the workplace should be a place in which women are as comfortable as men and no one need face sexual harassment…. Qutb regarded care for the earth as reverence for God. The Koran requires that part of the profits from mining and other activities be paid into a common fund. Qutb read this as the Koran’s recognition of the need to repair the damaging effects of these activities and to acknowledge that the earth belongs in the first instance not to men but to God.

“That care extends to animals. Qutb recalls the stories of Muhammad in which he praises a man for giving water to a thirsty dog and condemns a woman who failed to feed a cat. The Muslim asks, ‘Is there a reward for us in the case of animals?’ and Muhammad answers, ‘There is such a reward in the case of every living creature.’”

It is important to understand this because the Muslim Brotherhood is in power in Egypt today. Branding Muslims “the other” serves to divert attention from one’s own failings. “In the deserts of Iraq and Afghanistan, Israel and Palestine, the harshest questions the West confronts are not about Islam, but about ourselves. We acknowledged that a few Americans had done evil abroad. We failed to acknowledge—even to see—that America as a whole does similar evils at home. We were, as a people, willing to acknowledge the evil of sexual licence, of pornography, of a culture of celebrity, narcissism, and exploitation. Acknowledging these defects served to draw the eye away from other failings we are less willing to examine.

“The United States had become a carceral society, imprisoning a large portion of its own population. The design, building, maintenance, supply, and staffing of the American prison system is a major industry. The role of former prison guards in the abuses at Abu Ghraib should raise questions about the practices of prison guards at home.”

Anne Norton deserves gratitude for her powerful contribution to the discourse on secular values all over the world, India included.

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