Any discussion on the predicament of liberal Muslims in contemporary India will remain meaningless if the term “liberal Muslims” is not adequately analysed. There are many creative individuals—artistes, authors, academics, and journalists—who take a stand against illiberal tendencies and religious extremism as their moral duty. The significance of their moral courage and political standpoint cannot be underestimated. Yet, one must critically analyse the sociological location of these liberal Muslims to find out the exact nature of their growing marginalisation in public life.
A clarification is necessary here. I do belong to this category of liberal Muslims—not by choice but by conviction. However, I am fully aware of my privileged location. I was educated in premier educational institutions such as Delhi University and SOAS (University of London); I work as a professor in one of the leading research institutes of the country; I mostly write in English; and I do not face any kind of communal discrimination in my everyday interactions.
Unlike an average north Indian, Urdu-medium-educated Muslim person, it is relatively easier for me to assert my progressive beliefs. The interconnection between one’s conviction and one’s status, thus, requires a careful and sensitive assessment. This article, I confess, is written in a form of self-criticism for having an honest public debate on the predicament of “people like us”.
A few questions are relevant here. Who are the liberal Muslims? What is their sociological location, especially in relation to the highly diversified and heterogeneous Muslim identity? What is the nature of the Hindutva challenge, which has destabilised the status and appropriateness of liberal Muslims in public life in recent years? And finally, what are the required qualifications for being “a good Muslim” in the Hindutva-dominated public discourse?
Who are ‘Liberal Muslims’?
There are two popular meanings of the term “liberal Muslims”. A set of individuals who adhere to certain liberal egalitarian values without giving up their cultural and/or religious identity as a Muslim are often described as liberal Muslims. These individuals stridently oppose religious fundamentalism of all kinds, patriarchal norms, and caste-based exploitations to make a case for an inclusive, secular, and democratic society.
The term “liberal Muslims” is also used very differently to underline a sense of victimhood. It is argued that these liberal individuals do not subscribe to the dominant values and religious perceptions. For this reason, they remain marginalised in their own community. This imaginary divide between “common” Muslims and liberal individuals produces an interesting social hierarchy: a few individuals emerge as enlightened thinkers while a vast majority of Muslims eventually becomes an inward-looking lot. In other words, liberal Muslims get transformed into what may be called “a minority within a minority”.
The liberal Muslim as an acceptable public expression emerged only in the 1990s. After the demolition of Babri Masjid in 1992, a new political narrative of secular inclusiveness began to take shape. The political class led by the Congress embraced secularism as an achievable political objective to reject the BJP’s Hindutva as a communal threat. At the same time, the Indian state also started advocating open market-driven globalisation as the most preferred form of economy. In this volatile context, “liberalism” as a theory of statecraft made a decisive comeback. The category of liberal Muslimsis actually a byproduct of this India-specific marker-friendly liberalism.
It is worth noting that the category of liberal Muslims has always been fluid and open-ended. It includes the “nationalist” Muslims of the Nehruvian era, the “progressive” Muslims (who used to take pride in their Marxism before the 1990s), the “socialist” Muslims (who claimed to admire Lohia and JP), the “cultural” Muslims (who describe themselves as atheist but celebrate their Muslim identity in cultural terms), and the “secular” Muslims. This rather vague and indistinctive character of this category was politically viable. One had to just make a politically appropriate gesture in public life to get legitimacy as an acceptable liberal Muslim, especially during the time of UPA-I.
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Let us begin with two inseparable yet contradictory aspects of contemporary Indian Muslim identity. Indian Muslims are addressed as a homogeneous community in public life. An impression is created that all Muslims believe in only one kind of Islam; they stick to standardised social norms and follow unchanging customs and rituals.
This Muslim homogeneity produces a discourse of Muslimness that revolves around established constitutional ideals such as freedom of religion, secularism, and minority rights.
On the other hand, Muslimness as a lived experienceintroduces us to the everyday existence of Muslims in different contexts. One finds that Muslims are divided on caste and class lines. They speak different languages; their cultural practices are different from each other; and, above all, they observe different forms of Islam as a religion. This Muslim heterogeneity is constituted in real-life situations at the grassroots level where Muslims participate as citizens and voters.
The liberal Muslims are imbedded in the discourse of Muslimness. Their uncompromising position on secularism and minority rights and their criticism of Jehadi Islam and radical Hindutva contribute significantly to the established images of Muslims as a religious minority. This might be the reason why the liberal Muslim assertions always remain restricted to secularism and the protection of Muslim cultural heritage (Ganga-Jamuni tehzeeb!). They are usually confused about issues such as caste discrimination among Muslims, their economic marginalisation, and the substandard living patterns.
Let us take an example to elaborate this point. Naseeruddin Shah, one of the most talented actors of Indian cinema, wrote an article on Indian Muslims in 2017. His sermon style autobiographical note reflects Shah’s elitist, upper-caste mentality. He wrote: “Indian Muslims’ indifference, particularly among the economically weaker sections, to education or hygiene need not be reiterated nor the fact that they have no one but themselves to blame for these ills…. But till the length of Sania Mirza’s skirt causes more agitation than the lack of modern education and employment opportunities for our community, as long as we hesitate to condemn the sadistic madness of the ISIS… we only help reinforce the belief so easily held that we support or at least condone violence and regression… to get over the feeling of victimisation they are in now; …we must determine to stop feeling persecuted, …we must stop hoping for salvation from somewhere and take matters into our own hands—not least of all to take pride in our Indian-ness and assert our claim on our country.”
No one can deny the fact that Muslim communities, like any other religious group, do have serious problems. However, the manner in which Naseeruddin Shah glorifies his “liberal Muslim” identity is deeply problematic. His emphasis on “hygiene” as a Muslim problem underlines his upper-caste Ashraf background, which does not allow him to envisage the hardship of Muslim Dalits and Pasmanda Muslims. In fact, all Muslims are held accountable for their perceived minority syndrome and victimhood, except liberals like Naseeruddin Shah.
Shah’s appeal to Muslims that they must assert their Indianness is highly awkward. The enthusiastic and overwhelming participation of Muslim communities in electoral politics shows that common Muslims do not always find any contradiction between their religious identity as Muslims and their political identity as voters and citizens.
Hindu nationalism has always been uncomfortable with the idea of constitutional secularism. The Jana Sangh wanted India to be declared a Dharma Rajya (righteous state). This conception was revised in the 1990s. Leaders like L.K. Advani began to use the expression “pseudo secularism” to argue that the BJP’s vision of cultural nationalism represented “real secularism of Indian kind”. The BJP’s electoral success in the post-2014 era has forced the political class to almost abandon the term “secularism”. This political decline of secularism as an acceptable feature of Indian public life has posed a challenge to liberal Muslims in at least three related ways.
First, the conventional binary between liberal Muslims and the religious/ traditionalist Muslims has become completely insignificant. Hindutva politics relies on the assumption that Islam and Hinduism represent two different and historically conflicting world views and civilisational ethos. Hence, Hindus and Muslims are to be identified purely on a communal basis. There is no scope for liberal Islam or, for that matter, for liberal Muslims, in this framework.
Second, liberal Muslims’ adherence to secularism and liberal values empowers them to speak on behalf of all “concerned citizens” irrespective of their class, region or religion. This liberal-progressive position goes against Hindutva’s claims that Muslims do not and should not represent Hindu interests. The “liberalism” of liberal Muslims is seen as a kind of communal conspiracy to establish Muslim supremacy over Hindus.
“The “liberalism” of liberal Muslims is seen as a kind of communal conspiracy to establish Muslim supremacy over Hindus.”
Finally, and perhaps most importantly, liberal Muslims in India do not have any direct political patronage. They do not fit in the Hindutva-driven electoral schema of the BJP. It is, therefore, obviously beneficial for the party to ignore them completely. Other parties have also not shown any interest in liberal Muslims’ version of secularism, fearing that any direct reference to Muslims/secularism/minority rights, and so on, will affect Hindu majoritarian sentiments.
This clear abandonment of liberal Muslims by the political class must also be seen in a wider perspective. In this post-ideological era, “winnability” has become the unwritten norm of politics. Consequently, winning elections has become more important for a political party than protecting its stated ideological principles. This has been one of the crucial reasons behind the hostile and indifferent attitude of all political parties towards the intellectual class in contemporary India.
This does not mean that there is no scope for middle-class, English-educated, urban, elite Muslims in the Hindutva-dominated public life of today’s India. Zafar Islam, Mukhtar Abbas Naqvi, Shah Nawaz Husain, Shazia Ilmi, Najma Heptulla, and Arif Mohammad Khan are some of the known Muslim faces associated with the BJP. These individuals do have cultural capital of their own, which helps them to carve out a space for themselves. Like the Muslim leaders of the Congress era, they, too, adhere to the BJP’s official line.
However, with one difference. They do not want to be recognised as liberal Muslims. This is for two obvious practical reasons. First, they have to abide by the given programme of political correctness. It is expected from these Muslims to contribute to the Hindutva thesis that Islam is a foreign religion and therefore Indian Muslims have not yet fully adopted Indian cultural values.
Zafar Islam’s argument that Muslim must give up self-imposed isolation; Najma Heptulla’s claim that Muslims should look at their own problems first; and Shehzad Poonawala’s enthusiastic assertion that India is no country for appeasement and victim card politics any more stem from the Indianisation thesis of the RSS.
In other words, Hindutva’s Muslims have to take a given position: that Islam must be nationalised and Indian Muslims should be Indianised. Secondly, the Hindutva discourse does not allow this set of “right kind of Muslims” to step out of the set boundaries or take an independent moral position. They have to show their complete devotion to the Hindutva discourse. The public debate on the Bilkis Bano case is a good example of this.
BJP’s spokesperson Shazia Ilmi wrote a moving piece when the rapists of Bilkis Bano, a victim of gangrape during the 2002 Gujarat riots, were released from jail. Illmi criticised the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP) for felicitating these convicts. In order to create a sense of balance, she underlined a crucial difference between the VHP and the BJP. She wrote: “The felicitation of the remitted convicts by members of the VHP. To attribute this to the BJP is particularly strange given the intense acrimony between the Gujarat BJP and Prime Minister Narendra Modion the one hand and the VHP on the other… VHP is, on record, carrying out a campaign of vilification and defamation against PM Modi…. That this felicitation was depraved is undeniable but the question is what exactly did this have to do with the BJP, given the history of acrimony between the two organisations?”
Ilmi’s thoughtful and, in a way, vigilant internal criticism was refuted by the VHP in an interesting manner. In a rejoinder, VHP’s spokesperson Pravesh Kumar Choudhry criticised Ilmi for being a “Lutyens elite”. He argued that “so-called ‘secular’ people like Ilmi do not have compassion for Hindu agony. They belong to the cabal of pseudo-seculars—specialists in raising selective outrage.” As expected, no one from the BJP defended Ilmi and eventually the controversy died down. This example shows that Hindutva’s “right” kind of Muslims are not expected to behave like liberal Muslims. Their sphere of operation is restricted. The moment they try to break this established fault line, they will be reprimanded.
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Ilmi’s episode is also useful to understand the reshaping of Muslim intellectual sphere in contemporary India. The decline of direct political patronage for liberal Muslims has forced them to rethink their own privileged position. Hasan Suroor’s book Who Killed Liberal Islam is a good example of this internal intellectual self-criticism.
The Pasmanda critique of caste-based Ashraf hegemony and the emergence of Muslim women as independent political stakeholders have also widened the scope of this critical discussion on Muslim identity. The present vibrant Muslim intellectual sphere, I argue, provides space for democratic deliberations, discussions, criticisms, and even self-criticisms. The role of liberal Muslims in liberalising the Islamic intellectual debates in a Hindutva-dominated environment cannot be ignored.
Hilal Ahmed, associate professor, Centre for the Study of Developing Societies, New Delhi, writes regularly on the nature of Muslim political discourse. He has published many books including, Siyasi Muslims (2019), and is associate editor, South Asian Studies, the journal of the British Association for South Asian Studies.
- Indian Muslims are a heterogenous community, although the conventional binary between liberal Muslims and the religious/ traditionalist Muslims has become increasingly insignificant.
- Liberal Muslims in India do not have any direct political patronage. Neither do they fit in the Hindutva-driven electoral schema of the BJP nor has any other political party shown any interest in their version of secularism. This has forced them to rethink their own privileged position.
- Any debate on Muslim identity today therefore has to include the Pasmanda critique of caste-based Ashraf hegemony, the emergence of Muslim women as independent political stakeholders, besides the role of liberal Muslims in liberalising the Islamic intellectual debates in a Hindutva-dominated environment.