I realize that when you read my name at the top of this page, your brain takes special notice – for a second, but it does. No, don’t feel guilty. Mine would have, too.
It’s difficult for me to define my identity under one particular label but yes, “Muslim” is one which the world around me and I seem to relate to – at least, culturally. Perhaps the markers of your standard Muslim woman can’t be found in me. I wear skirts, I don’t cover my head or pray five times a day. But I also don’t drink alcohol or eat pork. The black taveez peeping through my collar, the surahs (Quranic verses) I find myself reciting unconsciously every night before I go to sleep, my greeting people saying salam and yes, my name – the Muslim in me never leaves me.
The Muslim intelligentsia in India are arguably an elite club and I do not know how qualified I am to comment on the socio-cultural understanding of Muslim identity in contemporary India. There is no one, single path of coming to terms with a religious identity. However, for anyone interested in chronicling these paths, even having access to them becomes difficult, when very many people consciously, subconsciously or unconsciously view Muslims through a prejudiced prism. One sees supposedly urbane individuals getting severe panic attacks when Shah Rukh Khan talks about his discomfort with the current political discourse about his community, even leading them to participate in marches protesting against those voicing concerns of intolerance, and one watches painful interviews of Reza Aslan where Fox News anchors are puzzled by his decision to research on the life of Jesus Christ, who is, by the way, revered as a prophet by Muslims too, as are Moses, David, Abraham and Solomon. There is also no dearth of Muslims in India and elsewhere fascinated by non-Abrahamic lore, be it Hindu, Buddhist, Zoroastrian, Taoist, Greco-Roman or Pharonoic, usually not identifying with the same in the religious sense but appreciating them culturally. To be a “different’’ kind of Muslim becomes something surprising due to this myopic view of an entire community of geographically, economically and ethnically diverse people. And the diversity of Muslims apart, at the end of the day, as humans, Muslims have many of the same things in common with other people, be it the need to earn one’s daily bread or recreation through sport or intellectual stimulation through literature, and while some ultra-orthodox Muslims, like some of their ultra-orthodox Jewish or Christian counterparts, do have issues with music, cinema and TV shows, most Muslims love them too, just like most other people.
People have admitted to feeling uncomfortable talking about politics with me, given its inevitably identity-oriented discourse especially in our part of the world. Even so much as discussing Muslim identity is anathema for many. Their uneasiness is almost comical for me to observe. So, often, I have come across friends who go, “It doesn’t matter to me that you are a Muslim, I think of you as any other person.’’ (As a non-Muslim, imagine substituting the word ‘Muslim’ from that statement with ‘Hindu’, ‘Sikh’ or ‘Christian’ coming from a Muslim and how ridiculous it would sound!) They do not realize that I don’t mind being seen as a Muslim, who, in any case, and not despite being a Muslim, should be thought of as any other person, for I do not see anything wrong with being Muslim. With all the civility, I may clarify that I do not seek to erase the Muslim part of myself, just as you may not seek to erase the religious and/or cultural Hindu, Sikh or Christian part of yourself. However, I do mind, and indeed vehemently so, if you harbour a bias against me, or even anyone else, for being a Muslim.
When I passionately declare how much Muslim weddings bore me, a few well-meaning friends are scandalized.
“But you mustn’t say that about your own people.’’
I used to find it annoying that many people find my Muslim identity such a taboo, that they never want to engage with or debate on it. But it is actually just the manifestation of a very counterproductive, pseudo-intellectual and lazy impulse prevalent in many people (including many Indian Muslims) based on prevailing social trends to paint “others” in one colour. A notion of nationalism that practically undermines the moral right of a minority to harmlessly be themselves theologically or culturally or that considers the minority belief systems and cultural traits to simply not at all fit into the intrinsic national ethos is a majoritarian brand of nationalism with fascist tendencies, be it anywhere across the globe. It is indeed unfortunately prevalent as a part of the popular discourse in several Muslim-majority countries with very many liberal Muslims there rebutting such a narrative, and it sadly exists in our Indian society too, as depicted by cabinet minister Mahesh Sharma calling the late Dr. APJ Abdul Kalam a great Indian nationalist in spite of being a Muslim, for which he was rightly slammed by rational Hindus. The sacrosanct principle of unity in diversity in our Indian context, when mouthed to other Indian communities by some Indians themselves failing to wholeheartedly acknowledge and respect India’s diversity inasmuch as considering other communities’ being themselves as not intrinsically being at variance with their being Indian, is rhetorical and hypocritical. The acknowledgement of our own hypocrisy and attempting to correct it will make us more sensitive and thoughtful citizens, which is obviously not to say that all of us, Indians, exhibit this hypocrisy to start with. Maybe then, you, my fellow cosmopolitan Indian will, if you don’t already, share my anger at the deliberate misrepresentation of Mughal rulers in Hindi TV serials (like Jodha Akbar – not to be confused with the film) as pious and religious Muslims Islamically ordained to commit evil and barbaric atrocities. Maybe then, you would be, if you aren’t already, disgusted at the very explicit communalism in your aunt’s snide remarks like, “Inke yahaan toh aise hi hotey hain sab’’ (“all of them are like that”). Only once we learn to discuss, debate, question and even laugh at (I personally believe humour is a great tool to interrogate stereotypical notions about communities) the way our identities are constructed and deconstructed, do we truly understand each other’s differences and similarities.
Not to deny that many stereotypes about Muslims, like most other stereotypes, have an element of truth. The rise of global terrorism based on an extremist brand of Islam, the regressive fatwas (which are religious decrees, not necessarily carrying legal weight, to do or not do anything, and are not necessarily instructions to kill anyone; there is no such thing as a ‘fatwa on someone’ implying an instruction to kill that particular person, though fatwas by some hardline religious clerics to kill Salman Rushdie and Taslima Nasreen have created that erroneous impression, and by the way, there have been fatwas by sensible clerics against terrorism too), the theocratic legal systems of very many Muslim-majority countries (though some of them, in Europe, Africa and Central Asia, are officially secular states, and Muslim-majority countries do vary in their degree of conservatism, and one can’t equate Albania, Malaysia, Kazakhstan or the UAE to say, Saudi Arabia) and historical bad blood between Hindus and Muslims are realities of our contemporary social condition. But it is important to remember that the Muslims strongly voicing their opposition to terrorism and religious autocracy (some like Salman Taseer and Ahmad Shah Massoud paying for it with their lives, and other examples include the Kurds fighting the ISIS and protecting Arab non-Muslims like Yazidis, or even the Kenyan Muslims who recently protected Christians from a terrorist attack in a bus), the existence of orthodox and even violent factions in other religious communities (let’s not forget the insurgency in Northern Ireland and the Lord’s Resistance Army in Uganda, or closer home, the Khalistanis, Ranvir Sena, NLFT and the likes), the contribution of Indian Muslims to our nation-building, including national security, and the religious syncretism of our shared heritage, epitomized by the likes of Kabir, are also indeed equally real. And so is the fact that the texts of all major global religions have been subjected to criticism, in many cases for having violence-motivating passages (that most adherents insist are contextual), and the sanctity of the religious texts is written off by some even from within the communities those texts are associated with, but that doesn’t imply that those identifying with the texts in any capacity can be painted with the same brush, for everyone’s interpretation and application of the texts and understanding of the lived experience of following a particular faith is often very different.
I also do understand that for many well-meaning people of other communities, this unwillingness to discuss my “Muslim-ness’’ comes from their apprehension that even someone like me, i.e. a seemingly nice, non-threatening Muslim, might just take offence wrongly assuming their possibly valid criticism of some sections of Muslims to amount to generalized Muslim-bashing or worse still, be the embodiment of that stereotype they were so hoping I wouldn’t be. But as liberal and free-thinking human beings, isn’t it our duty to look beyond the superficial? Do not be afraid of Muslims being Muslim, talk to one about his/her “Muslim-ness”. I believe anyone identifying with a label should be willing to answer questions about that identity when posed to him/her. Therefore, more Muslims ought to understand, as many already do, that in order to not to be seen as that intolerant Muslim and further perpetuate a stereotype, they must go out and talk to people. The exercise might help in breaking down some preconceived notions held by both sides. I firmly believe that a politely worded question, even on a sensitive issue, should lead to polite answers.
There is nothing wrong in thinking of me as a Muslim. In fact, do accept and appreciate me, in all my distinctness, as one.