November  2001 

The Muslim mind

Islam seems to provide an ideological peg of dignity and resistance to hang Muslim resentments on. This is a dangerous and brittle source of self–respect but there does not seem to be any viable alternative. It is this conflicted position of many Muslims which is crucial to any analysis of our present times


My commission is to speak about the minority Muslim population of India. The term ‘minority’ marked a subject of study, only after statistics began to influence the governance of societies as well as influence the methodology of the social sciences. But its point and rationale, of course, was to generate a site of much more than statistical importance — such is the power of numbers.

Thought of in purely descriptive terms, it is intended to convey the site of ethnicities, religions, races, and less often these days, of socio-economic station. Thought of in more evaluative terms, it is often the carrier of rights, partly because it is often the target of discrimination. All of these things are absolutely central to what I am about to say, but I will approach the subject a little more obliquely: by seeing the Muslim minority in India as the site of a certain mentality.

And here is a curious thing. Even casual reflection on the subject suggests a mildly paradoxical conclusion: that it is precisely this minority mentality which is to be found among the Muslim majority populations all over the world. We owe this paradox to the abiding power of colonial history, even after formal decolonization, a subject to which I’ll return, at the end.
Though it is a banality by now to say in a general way that there are many Islams, it is worth saying that it is perhaps more true of the Indian sub-continent than of anywhere else in the world. Apart from the sectarian distinctions between the Sunnis and Shias (who comprise about ten percent of Muslims in India), and the regional dispersal of Punjabi, Bengali, Hindusthani, Mapillah, Gujarati, and Oriya Muslims, there has been much diversity in the spiritual and scholarly leadership as well, shaping an extremely differentiated religious culture in the country over the last three centuries.

In the eighteenth century there were figures of influence such as Shah Wali Allah of the Nashqbandi tradition situated in the more courtly ethos of princes, to the more populist Chishti Sufi tradition of Shah Abdullah Bhitai, Bullhe Shah, and the poets Mir and Dard; then there was the later reformist strain owing to Sir Syed Ahmad Khan, Chiragh Ali, the Shia thinker Ameer Ali, the novelist Nazir Ahmad and the Shibli Numani of the Nadvatul Ulema, there was the famous Deoband school and its network for providing traditional learning of the Ulema, the even more orthodox Ahl–i–Hadith school which favoured the strict letter of Hanafi law, as well as the much more relaxed Barelvi tradition stressing very local customary practices, and the remarkable Ahmadiyyas who emerged under the leadership of Mirza Ghulam Ahmad, who claimed that he was at once the Muslim Mahdi, the Christian Messiah, and the avatar of Krishna.
The twentieth century saw figures ranging from the poet Muhammad Iqbal, to Maulana Abul Kalam Azad, the refined and learned exemplar of the Congress slogan of ‘composite’ Hindu–Muslim culture, to the wholly different Maulana Maududi (and his following in the Jamaat–i–Islami, now in Pakistan), who may rightly be described as fundamentalist because of his insistence on the return to the Quran and the Hadith, and who was of much influence on Syed Qutb, the Egyptian fundamentalist thinker said to be the inspiration of self–styled jihadi groups today which are linked to Osama bin Laden.

It is noticeable that coursing through this diversity, Muslim religious life in India has been characterized by two broadly opposed tendencies. On the one hand, at the level of ritual, ceremony, and a broad range of other quotidian practice, there is a great deal of pragmatic and syncretic (“sufistic”) retention of local features that are quite continuous with many aspects of Hindu life and cultural practice. On the other, there is the scriptural and transcendental, and normative element tied to the ulema and characterized by a deferential gaze that goes beyond the local toward the Arab lands from where the classical doctrine originated.

This is hardly surprising since the Islamic faith itself arrived in India via travels through Persia and Turkey and Central Asia acquiring local accretions from there, so the ultimate and formal, bookish elements had always to be recalled in self–conscious ways at all points in the midst of often livelier homegrown and alien elements.

That double movement — of form and root — has persisted in India through the centuries to this day, and though there is much integration of the two elements there is often rivalry between them, not just in the rural and poorer sections of society, but even in such highly metropolitan cultural productions of Hindusthani music or the Hindi cinema of Bombay, which might quite properly be regarded as the last, urban outposts of sufism, still to some extent resisting the narrowing doctrinal visions of Muslim (as well as Brahmanical Hindu) religious orthodoxy.

It is precisely this double movement which is increasingly made precarious by developments over the last few decades, and by some striking recent events of which the aftermath of September 11 is the most spectacular. There is, to begin with, the relative poverty of Muslims in India ever since the more landed and educated Muslims, fearing loss of estate and discrimination in career opportunities in India, left for Pakistan during the partition. For those who stayed, those fears have largely been realized.

There was also another major loss, the loss of their language, Urdu (indeed the language of many Hindus in north India as well), which was given away as an exclusive gift to Pakistan because the Indian leaders, for all their avowed pluralism and secularism, were unable to withstand the nationalistic pique of Hindu ideologues in their own Congress party who put great pressure to drop Urdu altogether as a medium of instruction in the national and regional school curricula.

And, in general, ever since the passing of Nehru, there had been a tendency in the Congress party, the party which led the national freedom movement and which has dominated government until very recently, to adopt the most debased and cynical strategy that democracy allows, the strategy of trying to win elections by appealing to majoritarian sentiment against minorities such as Muslims and Sikhs.

This strategy which culminated in two hideous events — the pogrom against the Sikhs after Indira Gandhi’s assassination and the destruction of the mosque at Ayodhya by a mob of Hindu political activists — has ironically led to repeated defeat of the Congress party at the hands of the BJP, a party of Hindu nationalist ideology which can play the majoritarian game much more openly and brazenly than the Congress which, with its hypocritical avowals of secularism, could not.

The Muslim ‘minority’ in India therefore has had the ideological potential to vex in at least two ways. First, it is open to perception as a minority which is descended from the Muslim conquerors who ruled for centuries over a predominantly Hindu people, and thus a good target for ‘historical’ revenge. Second, it is open to the perception of being a residual population, one that had its choice of leaving for the newly created Muslim nation of Pakistan in 1947, but which chose to stay, so it must now adapt in accord with the culture of the Hindu nation it opted for.

These ideological perceptions, once merely the vision of a fringe, thought of as the “Hindu Right” and opposed to the secular tendencies of the central leadership of the freedom movement and of post-Independent India — most particularly of Gandhi and Nehru — is now very much the vision of the majoritarian Hindu ideology that underlies the national government at the Centre, as well as in some (but by no means all) of the states and regions in the country. (Indeed regionalism in politics may at present be the only check on rampant Hindutva self–assertion at the Centre).

Even putting aside the dubious conceptual elements in these perceptions (i.e., the very idea of ‘historical” revenge, and the restriction of choice to the options “Either go to a Muslim nation or stay in a Hindu one”) there are plain historical facts which expose their falsity. With regard to the first perception, there is the fact that most Muslims today are not descendants of a conquering people, but Hindu converts; and there is the fact that a number of Muslim rulers in India showed a remarkable amount of religious tolerance, comparable at least to Muslim rule in mediaeval Spain.

With regard to the second, there is the fact of the essentially and helplessly sedentary nature of the poor and labouring classes which made immigration over thousands of miles no serious option at all, and there is the fact of the idealism of both this class and the much smaller but admittedly more mobile educated middle class of Muslims who thought a secular India was a better option than a nation created on the basis of religion. But these are mere contemptible facts, and ideological perceptions, as we know, are the products of a free social imagination manipulated and nourished as distorted abstractions away from plain facts such as these.

This ideological situation has made Indian Muslims deeply resentful and defensive in their mentality. And this mentality is adversely affecting the double movement I mentioned, of rooted quotidian syncretic diversity on the one hand and invocation of scriptural form and fundamentals on the other, by threatening to tilt the balance in favour of the latter over the former. In a situation where material life as well as self–respect is increasingly threatened by alarming majoritarian tendencies in the polity, the absolutist doctrinal side of the double movement is holding out promise of dignity and autonomy in the name of Islam, specially among the young.

The attractions are utterly illusory of course — they are manifestly undemocratic, they are deeply reactionary on issues of gender equality, and they are phobic in the extreme of modernity, even a homegrown and non–western path to modernity. They are ‘reactionary’ in every sense of the term, and one point I am stressing is that they are reactionary also in the sense of being a reaction to the feelings of helplessness and defeat, and the seeming lack of viable alternatives to cope with these feelings.

To give just one example of reaction–formation, one response to the combination of poverty, lack of career opportunity and the loss of Urdu has been the rise of the phenomenon of the madrassa, which are religious schools peppered all over the country but specially in north India, very often financed by Saudi Arabian largesse, and which offer free education in Urdu, and a place for boys from poverty–stricken families to live without cost while they train into strict scriptural doctrine, providing a recruitment ground for future careers in fundamentalist movements.
This is just one example, as I said, and all of it predictably leads to more backlash from Hindu ideologues, and in turn more defensiveness, surfacing in more aggressive reactions among the Muslims.

These reactions have surfaced in the pro–Taliban statements of religious leaders such as Imam Bukhari in Delhi, and the student group SIMI, which the government in a predictable display of double standards has banned, even as it actually encourages the inflammatory activities of Hindu activist groups. Recently, the police in Jaipur have attacked Muslim meetings and in Bombay they have even disrupted sermons in mosques to arrest religious leaders for making politically dangerous statements, while routine acts of terror by the Shiv Sena and Hindu RSS-sponsored groups are tolerated, partly at least because they have infiltrated the police.

I want to say something about this defensive and reactive Muslim mentality.

What is most striking is that it is precisely this mentality which is found all over the Muslim world, even where Muslims are an overwhelming majority, the only difference being that the reaction there is of course not to Hindus but to American (and Israeli) presence and dominance. I will not catalogue the whole familiar (and what would be dreary if it were not so palpable) catalogue of the wrongs of American foreign policy in the Middle–East, not to mention Vietnam, East Timor, Chile and various other parts of Latin America.

To be highly selective, from the assassination of a decent and humane leader like Mossadegh right down to the detailed support over the years of corrupt, elitist and tyrannical leaders in Saudi Arabia, Iraq, Iran, and so on, to the cynical arming and training of Muslim extremists in Afghanistan, as well as the longstanding support for occupation by expansionist settlement in Palestinian territories, America, driven as always by corporate interests, has, as is well–known, bred a resentful reaction among non–elite sections of the population all over Muslim lands.
That all this follows a long history of colonial subjugation and condescension by European powers, even after decolonization, involves all of the West as the target of such reaction. For some years now, this resentment has taken on an explicitly religious, Islamist rhetoric, again because Islam seems to provide an ideological peg of dignity and resistance to hang these resentments on. All this is familiar, though what perhaps is less so, is that initially anti-American Islamism was much more prevalent in Iran than in client- states such as Saudi Arabia. But as a result of Al–Jazeera and other forms of communication made possible by new technologies, ordinary Muslims even in client–states like Saudi Arabia have been exposed to some of the political and economic realities around them and have been able to detach themselves from the cognitive clutch of the royal family and elites, to join with anti–American groups in neighbouring and even far–flung lands, from the caves of Afghanistan to cells in Hamburg and New Jersey.

The point of importance however is this. That this Islamist rhetoric is a dangerous and brittle source of self–respect is obvious to most Muslims in these countries, but there does not seem even to them to be any viable alternative, and it is this conflicted position of many Muslims which I think should be crucial to any analysis of our present times.

I think it can safely be said that as a matter of ubiquitous empirical fact — whether in Mumbai or Cairo, Karachi or Tehran, Afghanistan or Saudi Arabia, New Jersey or Bradford, most Muslims are not absolutists at all, and are in fact deeply opposed to the absolutists in their midst. This is evident in the fact that whenever there have been elections the ‘fundamentalist’ parties have failed to gain power, whether in Iran or in Pakistan. Even those who do not oppose the fundamentalists are too busy with their occupations and preoccupations to be seduced by any absolutist fantasies about an Islamic revival worth fighting for.

Yet these ordinary Muslims who form the overwhelming majority in Muslim nations have not had the confidence and courage to come out and openly criticize the absolutists and this is because they too are affected by the defensive mentality that pervades these regions. To be openly critical seems even to them to be a capitulation to Western habits and attitudes of arrogant domination, going back to colonial history and, as I said, palpably present in their lives even today. What would give them the confidence and courage to be critical of the absolutists in their midst? This is a question of the utmost urgency in our time, and it should be a question that is on the mind of every humane and sensitive American today.

What is perfectly obvious is that bombing the hell out of a starving nation is not going to do it, nor is the constant pinning of the problem as being one of Islam versus freedom and modernity. It is not freedom that ordinary non–fundamentalist Muslims are against, it is not modernity which they want to shun, it is the naked corporate–driven wrongs of American and western dominance of their regions which they oppose; and if they confusedly sit silently by as Islam is invoked in grotesque distortions by the most detestable elements in their society to be the ultimate source of resistance against this domination, it behooves those of us who are more privileged in having escaped these resentments and their causes, to try to give them the confidence to see their way out of this confusion.

To do so, we will have to call things as they obviously are, obvious to everyone except some insular American citizens unaware of the effects of their government’s actions in the world, and much more culpably, journalists who speak and write in the mainstream media, and mandarin intellectuals in university forums such as this one. We will have to say that what happened on September 11 was an act of atrocious, senseless, and unpardonable cruelty. But we will have to say also that the bombing of a parched and hungry nation with the effect of quite possibly creating genocidal levels of starvation is an act of utter immorality, merely the last and among the worst in a century filled with such immoral interventions.

All that can only be the first step in working towards addressing the deep historical and contemporary sources of this defensive mentality. We should not be so foolish as to expect that there is any chance whatever that it will be addressed by this or any realistically foreseeable American government of the near or even middle future, but that does not absolve us here of our responsibility as intellectuals to write and speak out in these ways.

In doing so, we cannot forget that the confused Islamist rhetorical overlayer by which this defensive mentality presents itself to the world is a reactionary rhetoric of the supposed pieties and glories of an Islamic past, but the hopes and aspirations not of fundamentalists but of ordinary Muslims who have succumbed to their rhetoric, are existential hopes and aspirations for a future in which a radically politicized Islam has no particular place and point at all.

If we see that with clarity, our own efforts need not fall into the confusions that the rhetoric encourages, as some writers (Hitchens, Rushdie, Sontag, Sullivan to name just a handful) clearly have when they write articles in leading magazines and newspapers with titles such as “Who Said It is Not About Religion!” These sleek writers with their fine phrases are buying into the very confusion of those whom they are opposing and in doing so they are letting down the millions of ordinary Muslims all over the world who in the end are the only weapons America has against its terrorist enemies.

(The writrer is Johnsonian Professor of Philosophy in the Department of Philosophy, Columbia University, New York). <[email protected]>


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