Lessons in Islam From India

Lessons in Islam From India

Disdained by the majority culture, Muslims turn for self-respect to absolutism.


The Muslim mentality of defensiveness and reactiveness that is observable in India, where Muslims suffer at the hands of a Hindu-dominated society, is paradoxically the mentality that is found all over the Muslim world, even where Muslims are an overwhelming majority. For this reason, the Muslim experience in India has something to tell us about broader realities.

Muslim religious life in India has been characterized by two tendencies, which are preserved in a delicate balance by the constant tension between them. On the one hand, at the level of ritual, ceremony and a broad range of other quotidian practices, there is a great deal of retention of local features that are quite continuous with many aspects of Hindu life and cultural practice. On the other, there is the scriptural, transcendental and normative element characterized by a deferential gaze that goes beyond the local toward the Arab lands in which classical doctrine originated. The tense balance created by this double movement–of form and root–has persisted in India through the centuries.

In a situation where Muslims' material life as well as self-respect is increasingly threatened by alarming majoritarian tendencies–especially since the accession to power of the Hindu-nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party–the absolutist, doctrinal side of the double movement holds out a promise of dignity and autonomy in the name of Islam, especially among the young. The attractions are utterly illusory, of course; they are manifestly undemocratic, they are deeply reactionary on issues of gender and they are phobic in the extreme toward modernity, even a homegrown and non-Western path to modernity. They are "reactionary" in every sense of the term, even when considered as a reaction to feelings of helplessness and defeat, and the seeming lack of viable alternatives to cope with these feelings. Just to give an example: One response to the combination of poverty, lack of career opportunity and the loss of their language, Urdu (which was eliminated as a language of instruction from schools because the national leaders were not able to resist the pressure from the Hindu nationalist elements in their own midst to do this) has been the rise of the phenomenon of the madrassahs, which are religious schools peppered all over the country but especially in north India, very often financed by Saudi Arabian largesse. They offer free education in Urdu and a place for boys from poverty-stricken families to live without cost while they train in strict scriptural doctrine, providing a recruitment ground for future careers in fundamentalist movements. All of it predictably leads to more backlash from Hindu ideologues and in turn to more defensiveness, surfacing in more aggressive reactions among the Muslims.

The only difference between the situation in India and that in the Muslim world is that the reaction in the latter is of course not to Hindus but to the American and Israeli presence and dominance. I will not catalogue the familiar litany of American foreign policy wrongs in the Middle East, not to mention Vietnam, East Timor, Chile and various parts of Latin America. To be highly selective: From the overthrow of a decent and humane leader like Iran's Mohammad Mossadegh in 1953 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 Israel's occupation by expansionist settlement of Palestinian territories, America, driven as always by corporate interests, has bred resentment 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 the West as the target of such a 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 on which to hang these resentments.

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 that I think should be crucial to any analysis of our present times. 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 have not had the confidence and courage to criticize the absolutists openly, 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 palpably present in their lives even today. What would give them the confidence and courage to be critical of the absolutists in their midst? is a question of utmost urgency in our time, and it should be a question that is on the mind of every humane and sensitive American today.

Bombing the hell out of a starving nation is not going to do it, nor is the constant identification of the problem as being one of Islam versus freedom and modernity. It is not freedom that ordinary, nonfundamentalist Muslims are against; it is not modernity they want to shun. They oppose the naked, corporate-driven wrongs of American and Western dominance of their regions. To try to give them the confidence to see their way out of this confusion, we will have to call things as they obviously are. We will have to say that what happened on September 11 was an act of atrocious, senseless and unpardonable cruelty. But we will also have to say 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.

In doing so, we cannot forget that the confused Islamist rhetorical overlay by which Muslims' 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 of ordinary Muslims are for a future in which a radically politicized Islam has no particular place or point. It is these ordinary Muslims all over the world who in the end are the only weapons America has against its terrorist enemies.

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