Sunday, April 22, 2007

A blast from the past:-)

I wrote this a while ago after the Beslan massacre. I sent it to Muslimwakeup, but never got a reply. Anyways, I was looking through my files and came upon it and thought my small readership may be interested in reading it:-) Comments are welcome as always, but I may not respond as I have a lot on my plate next week.


Terror in Allah’s Name: When will we talk to the "enemy"?

June 1, 1987, Kochi, Kerala, India: June 1 is a special day for any child in Kerala. It is the day when schools across the south Indian State reopen after the long summer vacation. Today, sitting in my apartment thousands of miles away, I was reminded of that rain-drenched day in 1987, when my long love-affair with history began. That was the day, when a very dear teacher of mine, Prema miss walked into class VII B of my school in Kochi. Why did I think of Prema Miss? Why was I reminded of the excitement with which I looked forward to classes with a teacher who was famed in my school for making history come alive? Well, I happened to watch the “Panorama” program on BBC World, the program talked of school reopening day in another school, in another city, in another country: School no.1, Beslan, Russia. The program referred to the wonderful Russian custom of students bringing flowers for their teachers as the new school year began and of how in a few hours everything went terribly, terribly wrong.

One of the interviewees told the BBC, “I begged him to let at least the babies leave” and he (the militant) said “pray to Allah, pray to Allah”. To me, a believer, that one statement represents a deep crisis, a crisis that means the glorious name of Allah ta’ala can be abused by anyone, anywhere in the world for purposes as diverse as secession from Russia, establishment of theocracy in Pakistan and the removal of occupation forces from Iraq.

Islamophobes revel in pointing out events such as Beslan and the killing of hostages in Iraq to argue that there is something intrinsically wrong in Islam itself. So an organic link is drawn between Salahddin and Osama Bin laden, ignoring the complex manner in which history, geography and politics are intertwined. As a Muslim and as a person who believes in humanity, I think this kind of argument leads to a vicious circle, where one side (the militants and their sympathizers) reacts to Islamophobic statements and actions and acts with even more dastardly, attention-grabbing acts and the other side (conscious and unconscious Islamophobes) continue to point fingers at Islam. At best, it is not productive and at worse, it leads to entrenchment of prejudice against each other.

Another manner of approaching the crisis is by examining “root causes” of this rage in the name of Islam. This is usually well-intentioned and takes a far more scholarly approach. However, in this essay, I am not interested in examining “root causes”. I believe men and women more talented than myself have and will continue to engage in that kind of work. I want to focus on what ordinary Muslims like you and me, who do not have a lot of power and who live in countries around the world should approach this issue. I do not pretend to know all the answers. I am only tracing the broad contours of a possible conversation here.

I am troubled when I meet Muslims who love the victim talk. Mind you, when I say this I am not referring to Muslims who have actually suffered oppression, rather students at ivy league universities, upper class Pakistanis, and well-educated Keralites, Muslims who have rarely encountered the damaging discrimination which marks out a human being as the “other.” This “victim” thinking goes something like this: “The Islamic Ummah is in danger from non-Muslims around the world and I am worried about my Ummah as a Muslim, so I am in danger too.” What is interesting and important to note is that this “victim” feeling goes beyond a sense of solidarity with discriminated Muslims, it is in fact a sense of disempowerment. I agree that these feelings exist on a continuum, but the distinction between solidarity on the one hand and disempowerment and victimhood on the other is crucial.

Needless to say, the exact social, political and economic reasons why say, a middle class British Pakistani Muslim man feels victimized will differ from why a Muslim engineering student in Kerala feels she is a victim. But, the common denominator is the feeling of disempowerment as a Muslim. Now why is recognizing victim talk as a problem important? Believing you are a victim of other people’s wrongful deeds is in a perverse sense an easy thing because you do not have to take responsibility. It is perverse precisely because the “victim” is actually depriving himself or herself of human agency, something all individuals, including the homeless man at the underground station near my work place, are blessed with in varying degrees. Taking responsibility and holding yourself accountable are very difficult things to do. As I try to explain below, we should replace the sense of victimhood, with a constructive engagement with the challenge of terrorism in the name of Islam.

Another approach among Muslims today is to disengage from the issue completely. The thinking that animates this sense of disengagement is as follows: “I am not personally responsible for the acts of some Muslim men who decided to fly passenger planes into the Pentagon and the World Trade Center, taking the light out of the lives of thousands of people. 9/11 and its aftermath did not affect me personally. I want to get on with my life.” If responsibility were to be understood narrowly, similar to criminal responsibility, this thinking is indeed right. That said I believe that, as Muslims, we cannot afford to dismiss the import of violence committed in the name of Islam. Why is this so? Because especially in these troubled times, being a Muslim is a 24/7 “job.” Being a Muslim is not something that springs into action five times a day, during Ramadan and at a halal restaurant only to disappear into the realm of the “private/personal” world at other times. It has a strong bearing on how many of us Muslims perceive the world around us and how the world looks at us. So, if we disengage ourselves completely from acts committed in the name of Islam, I wonder whether we at least partially deny a part of our own self.

In referring to the “victim” mentality and the sense of disengagement, I have traced positions taken by Muslims today that lie at two extremes. I admit that there are of course various other ways in which each of us try to deal with complex challenge thrown up by terrorism in the name of Islam. The next question then is, how should we engage ourselves positively with this challenge? It is now well understood in Muslim circles, especially in North America and parts of Europe that this means we have to reach out to non-Muslims. However, I do wonder whether this reaching out is limited to a certain group – left leaning religious and religion friendly folk. I do not think that reaching out to the rabid Islamophobe is going to be easy. In this regard, let me quote what Mahatma Gandhi, the father of the modern Indian nation, said ages ago:

“You may be astonished to learn that I continue to receive letters charging me that I have compromised the interests of Hindus by acting as a friend of Muslims. How can I convince the people by mere words, if the last sixty years of my public life have failed to demonstrate that by trying to befriend the Muslims, I have only proved myself a true Hindu, and have rightly served Hindus and Hinduism. The essence of true religious teaching is that one should serve and befriend all. This I learnt in my mother’s lap. You may refuse to call me a Hindu. I know no defence except to quote a line from Iqbal’s song, Mazhab nahin sikatha aapas me bair rakhna meaning ‘religion does not teach us to bear ill will towards one another. It is easy enough to be friendly to one’s friends. But to befriend the one who regards himself as your enemy is the quintessence of true religion. The other is mere business.” (emphasis mine).

While on the topic of Gandhiji, my mind goes back to the state where he was born in 1869, Gujarat. In 2002, in Gujarat, a train carrying Hindu piligrims and Kar Sevaks[i] was burned down in the town of Godhra. In the following retaliatory violence, unspeakable atrocities were committed on Muslims. I lived in New Delhi at that time and was in deep shock at the events happening in my country, a country which in 1947 on independence from British colonial rule, accepted secularism and recognized minority rights in the Constitution, long before multiculturalism became fashionable in the West. As a Muslim, it was heartening to see how several non-Muslims came together to condemn the violence, organize demonstrations, and monitor and report human rights violations.

But, there is one question often asked by right wing commentators and politicians in India, (the mischievous motive behind it is irrelevant to our discussion), which caused me to ponder. The question was this “Where are the samaj sevaks[ii] when Islamic militants burn down the homes of Kashmiri Pandits (Hindus) forcing them to flee and spent their whole lives in refugee camps in Jammu and in Delhi?” Indeed where was I? Barring one extremely gracious Kashmiri Pandit woman and the Pashmina shawl sellers at the Dilli Haat market, I do not know any Pandits. I hardly thought of their plight in having to leave their homeland because they belonged to the “wrong” faith. I guess the point I am making is simply this: Muslims like you and me have a duty that goes beyond focusing on Islam and the Muslims who commit violence and restricting dialogue to people with relatively open minds. We should also be willing extend support and be able empathize with non-Muslims who have suffered due to violence committed in the name of Islam. What indeed is the difference between the Kashmiri Pandit living in a refugee camp in Delhi and the Palestinian Muslim living in a refugee camp in Gaza? The “other” is us in another place and another time.

Allah knows best.

[i] The literal meaning of “Kar Sevak” is a person who performs voluntary services in a place of worship. However, in India from the mid-80s onwards this term has taken on a political meaning. Kar sevaks were mobilized by the far right in India to demolish the Babri Masjid in Ayodhya.

[ii] Samaj Sevak is a Hindi word for social activist


PixelChick said...

Karuthamma, came here from Shabana's blog. I loved this essay. "The other is us in another place and another time" - what a wonderful way of putting it.

I felt numb when I woke up on Dec 3rd, and found out the Babri masjid had been demolished. I felt the same sense of outrage when the Bamiyan Buddhas were blown up by the Taliban. It seems to me as if around the world, fear of the other is being peddled, as movements across nations becomes more fluid.

And so what do we do?

To paraphrase what you said, being a "moderate" is a full time job. Sometimes at parties and other gatherings, when people are being overtly racist (it's amazing what people will say when we imagine we're surrounded by people who think like us), I don't know how to react. I often keep silent, simply because I don't want to rock the boat. But like you said, even being silent is not an option.

Anyhoo, great post! Hope to read more of your writing.

Anonymous said...

Well said