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November 14, 2010

Page: 5/31

Home > 2010 Issues > November 14, 2010

Thinking Aloud

Islam has to come to terms with modernity

I have a feeling that Indian Muslims, in fact, all Muslims, everywhere, are torn within themselves by this duality - they are either Muslims or Indians, or Americans, or British or German, but never both. They are rarely or never both, Muslims and Indians. Muslims and Americans, and so on. They find it difficult to be both at the same time, unlike, say, Hindus.

IN my column last week, I wrote about a series of meetings we had with some Muslim friends right after the fall of the domes of the so-called Babri structure. They had asked for the meeting and we had promptly agreed. There were over a dozen of them and we had the meetings right in the central office of Bharatiya Janata Party in Ashoka Road.

My first impression was that our friends were trying to say something but were not sure how to say it. They were not too happy about what had happened in Ayodhya but were too polite to say so. Why this should be so I am not able to say, though we had repeatedly told them to be frank and they had in their own way tried to do so.

The minority community or communities in every society seem to think that they are at the mercy of the majority community, though this need not be the case in a democratic set-up. It is only in authoritarian societies that some communities are at the mercy of others and often dependent on them. But you are ultimately what you make of yourself. With or without the help of the society in which you live. If you keep asking all the time for your so-called "dues", you will never make it, because there are no dues, for the world doesn’t really care for anybody and you are on your own.

In such a situation, you become alienated from the mainstream, and the more alienated you are, the lonelier you become. This is the beginning of separatism - and ultimately terrorism. This is what happened in New York on 9/11/2001 and this is what is happening in Kashmir, no matter what high sounding name you give it.

The Blacks in the United States are a good example of how a minority should behave. They were also at one time flirting with the idea of going their way and many had converted to Islam. But wiser counsels prevailed and the Blacks of the United States rejected the nihilistic ideas of their misguided leaders and decided to stick to the mainstream.

If you reject the society you live in, the society also rejects you, and you become an outcast in your own society. From an outcast to a terrorist is only a small step, but once you take it, you have lost all links not only with the mainstream but with the modern world and you have nowhere to go except the caves of Bora Bora and the waste lands of Arabia, where you eke out a pathetic living as an exile.

When I was a student in London, immediately after the end of World War-II, I had many Muslim friends, though at the time, they did not advertise the fact that they were Muslims. Looking back on it, I find that most of them were from the Middle East, or what is now known as West Asia, and quite a few of them were from Lebanon, then, as now, a prosperous country, and Egypt, which at the time were colonies. Students from these countries were much more affluent than us Indians, as most of them belonged to landlord families, while most Indian students were on scholarships. Their boys spent twice as much money as we did, living in proper flats, while we had to make do with shabby bed-sitting rooms.

Our friends from Lebanon were not all Muslims, though they all spoke Arabic. There were quite a few Christians among them, which means they were Arabs as well as Christian, which we used to think very amusing. Many of them spoke and wrote French, though the Egyptians always spoke English. It was for the first time I discovered that there could be Christian Arabs, or Arab Christians, which, on the face of it, sounds ridiculous. How could an Arab be Christian, we asked ourselves, until we realised that Mohammed Ali Jinnah’s mother tongue was Gujarati, not Urdu. But the Arab Christians were indeed Arabs, spoke Arabic, dressed like Arabs and were proud to call themselves Arabs. But they were not Muslims.

Our Muslim friends at the time were in two minds about going to Pakistan. An Indian friend, who had studied with me in Bombay and Poona, and spoke the same language as Jinnah, was actually a Royist, and we all believed that he would remain in India after partition as he was quite "secular", though the word was not familiar at the time.

There was no reason for him to abandon India and run to Karachi, as his family business was also in Bombay. If an Arab Christian can live in peace with an Arab Muslim, why can’t an Indian Muslim - which is what my friend was - live with an Indian Hindu? But immediately after partition he cut off all relations with us, avoided our company, stopped visiting the Indian High Commission, and, one fine morning took a boat to Karachi. The poor fellow had never been in Karachi in his life, and didn’t know anybody there.

For a while, he used to write to me from Pakistan, but I could see he was not happy. At heart, he was an Indian, not a Pakistani. He used to be more of an Indian than Muslim, but suddenly he pulled his Indian roots and broke away from I used to think was his motherland. Unfortunately, I was wrong.

I have a feeling that Indian Muslims, in fact, all Muslims, everywhere, are torn within themselves by this duality - they are either Muslims or Indians, or Americans, or British or German, but never both. They are rarely or never both, Muslims and Indians. Muslims and Americans, and so on. They find it difficult to be both at the same time, unlike, say, Hindus, who are Hindus as well as Indians, Hindus and Americans etc. No Hindu will ever take a plane and plunge it into a skyscraper, and kill thousands of innocent people, just because he is unhappy with his lot, or feels aggrieved with something he is unable to explain properly. Hindus are quite comfortable with dual identity. Muslims are not. Why this is so, I am unable to understand and no Muslim has been able to explain it to me.

This is the real tragedy in this increasingly multicultural world, for it is its inability, for whatever reason, to straddle two cultures at the same time, that is responsible for the crisis in Islam. The Islamic world has tried to get round this problem by rejecting modernity which means it has rejected the modern world. This is a great pity, not only for Islam, but also all of us, who have to put up with Islam and at the same time come to terms with the modern world-in what is increasingly a global community. I do not know if our Muslim friends realise this.

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