How Not To Talk About Islam

The Indian debate on one of the world’s most pressing issues remains puerile and timid

In India, the debate about the Muslim world never rises above trivial controversies such as Chidambaram’s visit to Deoband. AP IMAGES
01 February, 2010

AT THE NEW DELHI LAUNCH in November 2009 of my book on the rise of Islamic fundamentalism in Indonesia, the panel discussion — involving three pillars of India’s journalistic establishment — quickly took a somewhat peculiar turn. Should Home Minister P Chidambaram, my fellow panelists were asked, have visited a conference of the Jamiat-e-Ulema-e-Hind in the seminary town of Deoband in Uttar Pradesh, where orthodox Muslim clerics passed a resolution opposing, among other things, recitation of the national song, Vande Mataram?

The incident, trivial in itself, nonetheless captures two truths about the national discourse on Islam. First, that there’s a marked lack of interest in the broader Muslim world. Why talk about Indonesia, the world’s most populous Muslim-majority country, when you can quibble over a prominent politician’s itinerary? Second, that the debate, such as it is, rarely rises above the banal. Should Chidambaram have visited Deoband? Is it wrong for clerics to oppose Vande Mataram and yoga? Is Shah Rukh Khan’s brief detention at a New Jersey airport an insult to Indian honour?

Contrast this with the depth and urgency of post-9/11 discourse in the West. In the US, no serious contender for the presidency can sidestep having a well-articulated position on the nature of Islamic fundamentalism and what it means for open societies. In Britain, political and intellectual heavyweights — Tony Blair, Jack Straw, Martin Amis and Richard Dawkins, to name just a few — are in the thick of a debate that ranges from the radicalisation of London mosques to the influence of hardline groups such as the Muslim Brotherhood and the Jamaat-e-Islami on university campuses. In France, Nicholas Sarkozy has sparked a fraught debate about the admissibility of the burqa in a republic that believes in the emancipation of women. Similar questions occupy the editorial pages and television talk shows in Germany, Holland, Denmark, Italy, Sweden and Switzerland.

Perhaps more tellingly, virtually every Western democracy has thrown up at least one prominent dissident Muslim intellectual willing to ask tough questions about a sensitive subject. The Somali-Dutch member of parliament, Ayaan Hirsi Ali, blames the life of the Prophet Mohammed for nurturing a culture of intolerance toward dissenting voices within the faith. The Canadian writer Irshad Manji traces contemporary problems in the Muslim world to a 1,000-year-old theological argument between conservatives and reformers. In America, former Wall Street Journal reporter Asra Nomani has spearheaded a quixotic effort to allow women to lead prayer services in mosques. The Italian writer Magdi Allam, an Egyptian-born journalist with Corriere della Serra, who converted two years ago from Islam to Christianity, has highlighted the Muslim world’s poor record of safeguarding minority rights.

Needless to say, Hirsi Ali, Manji, Nomani and Allam are all critics of Islam, or of its explicitly political offshoot, Islamism, the ideology that seeks to order 21st century life according to the medieval tenets enshrined in sharia law. But regardless of whether one agrees with their views, there’s no denying that their concerns are serious: the compatibility of divine revelation with modernity, the impact of a patriarchal belief system on women, and contemporary Islam’s ongoing struggle to come to terms with religious pluralism, freedom of expression, freedom of conscience and unfettered scientific and scholarly inquiry. In India, by contrast, the silence on these issues is deafening.

Why is this so? Some of it is explainable by the simple fact that, despite nearly two decades of closer integration with the rest of the world, in many ways India remains intellectually autarkic. The Indian debate about Islam owes more to Shah Bano and LK Advani’s Rath Yatra than to 9/11 or the ongoing Swiss brouhaha about the ban on mosque minarets. There’s also the tendency to view the issue of Islam through the starkly binary lens of the conflict between ‘secularists’ and ‘communalists.’ In polite society, secularism has come to mean an unwillingness to criticise any aspect of a minority faith. The Hindu fundamentalist predilection for tarring all Muslims with the same brush, and of failing to acknowledge that Islam, like any of the world’s great religions, is open to multiple interpretations, helps foster an intellectual climate where any criticism of the faith is tinged with suspicions of bigotry.

But the biggest reason by far that Americans, Canadians and Europeans discuss the issue in ways that Indians don’t has to do with culture. To put it simply, we are far too sensitive about hurting religious sentiments, and quick to back down when faced by an aggrieved mob—whether Muslim, Hindu or Christian. In a god-drenched land, the irate believer always has the upper hand over the agnostic or atheist. It’s hardly a coincidence that — chest-thumping about the atheistic Carvaka school of philosophy and India being the birthplace of Buddhism notwithstanding — there is no Indian equivalent of Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens or Sam Harris, non-believers who are not only unafraid of ruffling religious sentiments, but delight in doing so. Instead we get either pious homilies about the universal truths contained in all religions or venomous attacks against people who just happen to be born to a different faith from the majority.

Over the past 30 years, since the Iranian revolution of 1979, Islamists around the world have gained political and intellectual influence at the cost of their secular co-religionists. In India, the rise of the Students Islamic Movement of India (SIMI) and the successful efforts of influential seminaries such as Deoband to stave off modernity reflect the same trend. To a large degree, the failure to broaden the national discourse about Islam and Islamism means that the nature of Indian Islam will be shaped by events outside the country’s borders, by whether or not reformers in West Asia and the West succeed in fashioning a faith grounded in contemporary ideas of human rights, women’s rights, freedom of expression and freedom of inquiry. If they fail, then India’s often problematic relationship with its largest religious minority will deepen rather than disappear.