A cliché and other demons

The demonisation of Muslims in the media and civil society is a one-dimensional stereotype without an iota of analysis or truth. And the 'communalisation of foreign policy' is a cliché and a hoaxTanveer Fazal DelhiIt is a stereotypical world in which we live. This is how we negotiate our way in the life-world. Yet, there is something deeply disturbing when stereotypes are all that we propagate. Enough has been written on the communal pigeonholing that the RSS engages in, but little examined is the adherence, willy-nilly, to these cardboard constructs of communities by 'liberal' ideologues. Three incidents, and the conviction of our most prominent media personalities, the 'icons' in the field, was shaken to the core. Thus, Muslims, in their entirety, and perhaps solely, are opposed to the 123 deal with the Bush regime, to the idea that the Glasgow incidence should be a wake-up call to rethink on the linkages between 'Islam and terrorism', and the oft-repeated, tolerance among Muslims, or the lack thereof (here again Islam has some role) is a serious problem. We stand witness to the shadow-boxing between the 'official Indian Left' (conscience keepers of our polity outside Nandigram and Bengal) and the Cong-ress over the nuclear deal — a deal that we are made to believe, would solve all our energy-related woes for years to come and put us one up against all our neighbours (including the mightiest one). For all this, if we have to forsake our sovereignty — no qualms. But how do we explain the emerging opposition to this middle-class dream? Muslims! All those who are opposed to it either have a genetic aversion to America, or are pandering to an exclusively Muslim constituency. 'Communalisation of our foreign policy' is the litany of the editor of an English newspaper. Why blame him, he is only echoing what the prime minister had to say when people took to the streets to protest the presence of George Bush in India. So, it is assumed, Muslims, unlike others, are a single bloc, their politics determined by their faith. And it follows that their loyalties lie ultimately beyond India and against her interests — the opposition against the occupation of Iraq, Afghanistan and Palestine being reduced to a 'religious war'. Is the desire for a just global order only the aspiration of Muslims or the desire of all democratic peace-loving people of the world? In an apparent confirmation of the stereotyped Muslim, brothers Kafeel and Sabeel in Britain, and Haneef in Australia, were arrested for terrorist attacks. It was a moment of reckoning for a leading television anchor cum columnist, so stunned she was that a new network of fundamentalists was being drawn from the ranks of doctors and engineers. Lapsing into lessons from Samuel Huntington, she lamented our faintheartedness at the hesitation to 'use the word Islam and terrorism in the same sentence'. The same day, the editor of an English daily, one who prefers to talk while on his walk, passed a dictum, a 'suspect is not innocent just because he comes from a particular community'. The old adage 'one is innocent unless proved guilty' now needed to be altered since it was 'imprudent to profile a community (Muslims here) as permanent victim'. Are we really so utterly ignorant of the public discourse that incessantly demonises a community as a nursery of terrorism? One of the above writers trembles at the thought of the friendly professional Muslim neighbour down the road. (Hmm, could he be a Kafeel in making?) She may rest in peace; young men of this profile are unlikely to find accommodation in posh residential localities of urban India. Ghettoisation has never been so complete. Not because professional Muslims prefer the seediness of downtown mohallas, but because middle class colonies often shut their doors to them. Beef-eaters. Dirty. Now: terrorists. The Glasgow incident for both commentators alluded to above, is a grim reminder that the process of assimilation or Indianisation in the case of Muslims had failed to take off. This assimilation business is taken straight out of RSS textbooks. Not only does it expect Muslims to merge their cultural practices, rituals and traditions, their identities and loyalties into a 'mainstream' but also underlying is the assumption that they are aliens who need to be 'Indianised'. Jan Sangh leader Balraj Madhok raked it up in the 1960s but was suitably rebuffed because the buzzword of democratic polities is not assimilation but multi-cultural co-existence. How many know that the ulemas rejected Jinnah's narrow Muslim nationhood preferring to be a part of this multi-cultural state? This is what our Constitution guarantees.  And what's so new about professionals and religious violence? Have we forgotten that the frontlines of our home-grown 'terrorists' (unless the term is reserved for the Islamists alone) — the VHP, RSS or even Shiv Sena has had in its ranks professionals, including doctors and engineers, lawyers, former DGPs, retired high court judges and senior journalists, not to forget, a cartoonist? That Praveen Togadia's medical profession hardly hinders him from spitting venom against Muslims and Christians. That a suave and media-friendly Supreme Court lawyer doesn't bat his eyelids even once while rationalising the Gujarat massacre. None of them has found his way to this gallery of professional terrorists. There was no clamour to examine the basic tenets of the Vedas and Upanishads after the mass murders of Bhiwandi, Bhagalpur, Mumbai or Gujarat. Let us accept that harking back to the scriptures to understand violence in contemporary times is a doomed exercise. All scriptures, Hindu, Muslim, or otherwise, are products of their times. Their re-reading in the present context is basically political; it is this that should get primacy, not the religious.  A distinction is often drawn. The fundamentalists of the Hindutva brigade are supposedly more tolerant than those claiming to be Islamists, so does the column of a former editor of Hindustan Times imply. Hindu liberals (and he counts himself as one) can criticise the RSS and its ilk without drawing reprisals or physical violence from Hindu groups; the Muslim liberals on the other hand invariably attract the ire of the zealots of their community for speaking out against them. Do these audits of tolerance and intolerance make any sense except for sustaining stereotypes? Truly, such constructs crumble when confronted with reality. Ask Geetaben, who paid with her life for marrying a Muslim during the Gujarat genocide and at the hands of a Hindutva mob, ask Chandramohan, the art school student of Baroda, ask them if they think they could get away by defying the Hindutva storm-troopers. The Outlook office in Mumbai was vandalised by the Shiv Sena, but even this aggression on one from their own fraternity was not juicy enough to hit the media headlines. No editorial, no column, no expression of anguish. One would dare ask what makes Shiv Sena's vandalism of a lower order than the one enacted by Akbaruddin Owaisi and his cronies in Hyderabad? Every community and culture today has its own share of cultural fascists. And their claim to represent the community is usually buttressed by the patronage they receive from the State.  Taslima Nasrin was assaulted in Hyderabad by the hoodlums of Majid-Ittehad-ul Muslimeen (MIM), three legislators of the party were caught on camera and, rightfully so, this was repeatedly relayed on all the national channels. Muslim groups, ulema and the intelligentsia alike, rushed to condemn it lest they be accused of being on the same side. Jamiat-e-Ulema, the apex body of the ulema in the country, categorically declared such acts of vandalism as contrary to the spirit of Islam. So did the Maulanas of Firangi Mahal. Women's groups protested in Hyderabad as did students in Allahabad. However, for reasons quite obvious, newsworthiness of such protests was underrated. On the contrary, the protesters, for their 'silences', were accused of appeasing Muslims. An outraged Barkha Dutt, in her weekly column in Hindustan Times deplored the absence of “placard-waving protesters, irate editorials, street marches”. Paradoxically, she reached this conclusion within 24 hours of the incident in Hyderabad. Taslima Nasrin was roughed up on August 9, Thursday and her article appeared on HT online, August 10, Friday. The print version was carried in the Saturday issue of the newspaper.    This obfuscation of facts, this misrepresentation of history, and selective amnesia serves only to harden boundaries. The saddest part is that if such a discourse continues to dominate our public domain, we might end up creating the Muslim who fits this stereotype to the hilt.  Former senior consultant, Sachar Commitee, the writer teaches at the Nelson Mandela Centre for Peace and Conflict Resolution, Jamia Millia Islamia, Delhi