Let us begin by defining who is actually a liberal, irrespective of faith. A liberal may be one who is not dogmatic in his religious, social or political views. One who is not just tolerant of others, but respectful as well. Though we plan to discuss the dilemma of a liberal Muslim, a liberal Hindu is also caught in a similar bind. So, we need to keep in mind both while discussing the predicament of a liberal or progressive Muslim in India.
An educated liberal Muslim in India is confronted with an unprecedented situation that he/she has not faced before. It is difficult to adhere to the new standards of patriotism thrown at them by the majoritarian “nationalists”. The secular space where a liberal Muslim or Hindu can prosper has shrunk dangerously. A liberal Muslim is sandwiched between two groups of extremists, one from her own community and the other, and more visibly vocal one today, the hydra-headed Hindutva’s foot soldiers and ideologues. While writing about the quandary of the liberal Muslim today, I need to take you back in history as a necessary digression. I want to do this to explain the precariousness of such a Muslim’s existence amidst the orthodox Muslims today. The threats from the Hindutva fanatics will be dealt with later.
To understand the ongoing predicament, we need to go back a little and engage with a moderate/liberal and reformist figure of 19th century India. It is essential to go back to our not-so-remote past to comprehend the dilemma of the liberal Muslim. Syed Ahmad Khan was so particularly shaken at his own community’s bleak prospects in the post-1857 context that his life’s mission changed and he became a missionary with a cause.
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He was no more content with just revelling in the past, recording the monuments of old Delhi in his Asar-us-Sanadid. Now, he was moved by the present and the future of his community, where he emphasised the urgency of seriously rethinking faith and modernity, particularly science. He famously said: “If people do not shun blind adherence, if they do not seek that Light which can be found in the Quran and the indisputable Hadith, and do not adjust religion and the sciences of today, Islam will become extinct in India.” Of course, he was using extinct only rhetorically but the idea was to convey the seriousness of the problem.
Early liberal figure
Syed Ahmad did try to put forth a liberal view of Islam and contested the orthodoxy of the time on several grounds. Many liberals within Islam today may not agree with Syed Ahmad and rightly so. He spoke in the context of 19th century India, while today the context is different. However, both reason and critical thinking were central to Syed Ahmad’s modernity project and sadly remain the most neglected and marginal features of present-day Islam as well.
Syed Ahmad, along with several other exponents of Islamic liberalism, hammered home ideas of questioning, of using critical faculties, of not getting trapped in taqlid, or tradition, which closes the possibilities of progress and the dynamism to move ahead with the changing times. With this historical background in mind, where Syed Ahmad as a liberal was mocked, condemned and more than 500 fatwas brought against him and his liberal reformist movement, we can reflect upon the dilemma of the liberal Muslim today.
The Muslim liberal today is faced with the highly charged saffronisation wave, and his progressive stance on many political, social and religious issues appears like a tame defence of the indefensible. This demonisation has broken the back of many liberals or potentially neutral characters who are now compelled to speak the language of their tormenters. Some liberals have engaged with the Hindutva ideologues on their terms, such as calling for Muslims to cease holding a supremacist view and stop calling Hindus kafir, assuming that all Muslims hold such a view.
Unfortunately, for some spokespersons of the Muslim cause, the word “liberal” has become anathema; they expect Muslims to be their own spokespersons, become Atmanirbhar Muslim, whatever that means.
We need to ponder about the constituency a liberal Muslim engages with. Syed Ahmad, or even Maulana Azad later on, engaged with the masses of Muslims and raised their concerns about the lag in education and the need for a critical engagement with their faith. A liberal today is confined to his own diminished world, with even the redundant TV debates having no space for him or her.
For me, the dilemma of a Muslim liberal becomes much worse when he raises some essential questions that need attention. I am reminded of Mustafa Akyol, a prolific Turkish scholar based in the United States, who wrote that he had read the entire Quran at the age of seventeen. He was surprised to find that there were no such Dos and Don’ts as touted by the ultraconservatives and their “Islamic books”. I am tempted to quote him further where he touches upon practices that are rampant in the name of Islam. Akyol says: “The Quran was also noticeably silent on the issues of stoning adulterers, punishing drinkers, or killing those who abandon or ‘insult’ Islam. Nor was there mention of an ‘Islamic state’, a ‘global caliphate’, or the ‘religious police’. These same points are raised by the liberals time and again, for which they face the ire of the orthodox. The ultraconservatives need to realise that many obnoxious practices which are peddled as Islamic are simply not in Islam’s scriptures.
Liberal Muslims are trashed by the ultraconservative elements on many other issues, “such as the defence of relations with non-Muslims, the rights of Muslim and non-Muslim communities in Muslim lands, and draconian blasphemy laws in countries like Pakistan,” says the Chennai-based A. Faizur Rehman. He stresses, and I agree, that “what is needed… is a radical rethink of Muslim theology”. There is no doubt that relentless attacks on the community have rattled most of those who speak on Muslim causes. They are in no position to intellectually respond in such a way as to overcome the climate of hate and the lack of trust prevalent all around.
It is convenient to blame the liberals and make their life miserable, but look at the recent example of triple talaq. It could have been easily resolved by organisations such as the All India Muslim Personal Law Board; instead, they mocked and dismissed the cause when some aggrieved women went to them. We have seen how the issue was later communalised and criminalised, even as the Muslim liberal, like other concerned Indians, watched it unfold.
We witnessed an unnecessary and avoidable mess recently when Maulana Arshad Madani treaded into a controversial argument, ending up creating disharmony in the Jamiat-i-Ulema convention. It was an all-religion meet called to bring about happy togetherness but ended in discord.
The problems of Indian liberal Muslims are compounded when they are faced with the diabolical hatred of Hindutva forces. They find themselves sandwiched between two extremist groups, left with very little elbow room to voice concerns within the community.
A liberal Muslim becomes an Islamophobe if they voice genuine concerns about the community critically. For me, this is crucial even if it may not be as frightening as the daily travails of a large number of economically and socially marginalised Muslims who live in fear of the growing intolerance of the saffron hordes. In this context of persistent hate speeches and violence, where demonising Muslims has become a favourite and politically enriching pastime, a liberal Muslim and even a liberal Hindu are trapped in a deep predicament.
What are we faced with today? There is a relentless misinformation campaign about the historical past, fears are spread about demographic imbalance through population explosion and conversion, and the insulting supremacist views of the likes of the televangelist Zakir Naik are projected as the Muslim community’s views.
One of the most potently divisive weapons in the armoury of the Hindutva brigade is the widespread and relentless campaign about the past, particularly the medieval past. According to this narrative, there were subdued and persecuted Hindus and there were cruel and horrendous Muslims, and present-day Muslims are the progeny of these barbaric ancestors. This toxic WhatsApp propaganda being peddled as history has no concern or connection with the real past. It creates its own facts to write “history” for the present, by feeding into the political divide on communal lines.
If conversion was a state policy of all Muslim rulers for over 800 years, as the claims make it out to be, then it was a very inefficient state policy. It could convert only 14 to 15 per cent of the population in eight centuries. This does not mean that conversions did not take place. Most Muslims in India are converts but the reasons were diverse; although some were surely cases of forced conversion, many were attracted to Islam as an egalitarian and socially a seemingly less oppressive faith, which was a message spread through Sufi khanqahs as well. This hatred for the ‘other’ has peaked, or perhaps it has not yet, but we now see calls for genocide being made from the very heart of the capital at Jantar Mantar while the police remains a mute spectator.
All claims of a dialogue between communities sound hollow when such vicious calls are allowed to go unpunished. Whipping up communal strife appears to be the most potent weapon in the Hindutva armoury.
In the midst of this blatant communalism, we hear a call for peace and for all religions to be respected from the Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh chief Mohan Bhagwat. Bhagwat also said that everyone who lives in India is a Hindu, as Hinduism is a way of life and Sanatana Dharma is a religion.
I see this merely as a façade to promote majoritarian politics. For me, as a liberal, anyone born in India is an Indian, he/she may later be a Hindu, Muslim, or even an atheist.
Nationalism by exclusion
Hindutva’s engagements with the past also redefine nationalism by excluding a section of India’s population. A liberal Muslim or Hindu who inherited a composite nationalism as part of the legacy of the freedom struggle is today being asked to replace it with Savarkar’s idea of pitrabhumi and punyabhumi, which leaves Muslims and Christians out of the ambit. This brand of Hindu nationalism failed in 1947, when the larger and more inclusive idea of Gandhi, Patel, Nehru and Azad prevailed and India was declared a secular nation vis-à-vis Islamic Pakistan. Those who wanted a Hindu rashtra to match Pakistan in 1947 waited for many decades, and unfortunately now is the time for them to relaunch that campaign and spread a vicious otherness against their fellow citizens.
While indulging in this devious campaign, Hindutva’s foot soldiers revel and celebrate iconic revolutionaries such as Bhagat Singh. But they limit themselves conveniently to their martyrdom and nationalism while ignoring their intellectual legacy. Bhagat Singh had a vision of India where there was no space for the hate-mongering revellers of today. He was indeed a nationalist par excellence but what was the nationalism he espoused? He has left behind a huge corpus of writings, which can help us comprehend his nationalist vision. This is necessary to do in the current context where nationalism is touted as an all-encompassing ideology. This unbridled nationalism uses religion as a pivot to define it, often using majoritarian religion and nationalism interchangeably.
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Thus, hate-filled communalists venerate Bhagat Singh as a nationalist but seldom care to ponder that religion for him was irrelevant. Singh shared Dr Ambedkar’s vision, who once said “I do not want that our loyalty as Indians should be in the slightest way affected by any competitive loyalty whether that loyalty arises out of our religion, out of our culture, or out of our language. I want all people to be Indians first, Indians last and nothing else but Indians….” Bhagat Singh stood for an inclusive nationalism, which did not mean just politically inclusive but socially and economically and religiously inclusive as well.
I brought history into this discussion simply because our current political discourse is embedded in our past. In the ecosystem of hate and lies around us, the dilemma of a liberal Muslim turns even more acute. To be an assertive liberal in the midst of this alienation is a tough task. A liberal is perceived as a detractor within the community, while the Hindutva hatemongers pejoratively dub him or her as a “sickular”. They see the liberal as the stumbling block in their project to declare India a Hindu rashtra. But the onus to defend the Constitution and all the cherished values of the freedom struggle is on the liberal Muslim or, indeed, anyone else, even those with no faith at all.
S. Irfan Habib is a historian and author who recently published the biography Maulana Azad: A Life.
- A liberal may be one who is not dogmatic in his religious, social or political views.
- A liberal Muslim and a liberal Hindu are caught in the same bind.
- An educated liberal Muslim in India is confronted with an unprecedented situation that he/she has not faced before. It is difficult to adhere to the new standards of patriotism thrown at them by the majoritarian “nationalists”.
- A liberal Muslim is sandwiched between two groups of extremists, one from her own community and the other, the hydra-headed Hindutva’s foot soldiers and ideologues.
- The dilemma of a Muslim liberal becomes much worse when he raises some essential questions that need attention.
- One of the most potently divisive weapons in the armoury of the Hindutva brigade is the widespread and relentless campaign about the past, particularly the medieval past.
- A liberal Muslim or Hindu who inherited a composite nationalism as part of the legacy of the freedom struggle is today being asked to replace it with Savarkar’s idea of pitrabhumi and punyabhumi, which leaves Muslims and Christians out of the ambit.