Monday, April 13, 2020

Should All Internal Criticism Stop in Times of Muslim Phobia?

By Arshad Alam, New Age Islam

13 April 2020

I recently spoke to one of my former students based in Jharkhand. He confirmed that the overwhelming understanding within the Hindu society there is that Muslims are responsible for the spread of coronavirus in India. People are cautioning fellow Hindus not to buy fruits and vegetables from Muslims. The situation has become so odious that some Hindus are no longer just sharing videos about Muslim conspiracy to spread the virus, but calling fellow Hindus to inquire if any Muslim lives in their area and discussing how to deal with them. Certainly, this is not just happening in Jharkhand alone. Posters and announcements have been made in different parts of the country to shun contact with Muslims. Videos are circulating on the social media purportedly showing Muslims strategizing on how to spread the virus. Some of these videos show Muslims spitting on fruits, others cautioning fellow Hindus not to pick up virus laced currency notes left at their doorsteps by Muslims.

Indeed, "Star of Mysore, a daily evening newspaper from Mysuru in Karnataka has referred to the Muslim community as “bad” and “rotten apples” in its editorial dated April 6th, 2020, and has called for getting “rid” of the community.”

We must be very clear that this is not just happening in BJP ruled states but also in states which have different political dispensations. It seems that hatred of Muslims has now acquired a certain autonomy and is cavorting on its own independent momentum. The middle-east based Indian scholar, Shajahan Madampat is absolutely right when he writes that for the first time in human history, a virus has been circumcised by the Indian majority.

The roots of such anti-Muslim prejudice go way back in our history, but the current wave is definitely related to the Tablighi Jamaat (TJ) event which is being singularly held responsible for spreading the virus in India.

Almost all political parties (barring a few exceptions), leading bureaucrats and policy makers of the country have accused the TJ of almost wilfully spreading the virus. We know for certain that TJ was not the only irresponsible transmitter; that at the same time there were other events which were equally irresponsible.

But then, when a whole community is pre-judged as guilty, then all appeals to rationality becomes useless. Villains keep getting invented, as we saw recently when a media house’s ‘investigative journalism’ tried to showcase how madrasa kids were being kept hostage by their teachers and how great a threat this was to the health of the nation. The truth of the matter is that because the lockdown was announced so suddenly, students in different campuses got stuck for no fault of theirs. This is not just the case with madrasas alone. But then, in this age of rampant Muslim bashing, the focus will be just on poor madrasa teachers who have no way to fight back this malicious mis-representation.

The Muslim response to this deliberate witch hunt has been understandable: they have patiently tried to debunk majority of the false claims made by the anti-Muslim brigade. In the process, most of them have even defended the TJ, an organization which, in normal circumstances they would be very critical of. Two sets of argument have been put forward by Muslims while defending the Tablighis: first, they argue that there were other organizations who were not practicing social distancing so why should we single out the Jamaat for this lapse? The second argument is that the time is not suitable for criticising the Tabligh as this will be used by the anti-Muslim brigade to further their nefarious agenda. Under the weight of these arguments, even those Muslims who have no love for the TJ, either chose to remain silent or ended up defending the Jamaat by pointing fingers at other similar lapses.

Both arguments seem to be valid. But as Muslims who have to trudge very cautiously, there is a need to think deeper as to whether these positions will help the community in the long run. It is certainly true that not just the Tablighis but a whole host of players are to be blamed for not paying heed to government’s advice. But this argument does not absolve the TJ for their irresponsible conduct. Blaming others will not whitewash the criminal negligence of the Jamaat, both of its members and the organization.

As a trans-national organization, the TJ was fully aware of what was happening in terms of the dangers that this virus posed. Not only did the organization pay no heed to this but its Chief Maulana Saad Kandhalvi kept telling its followers to pray in congregation. He even argued that the request to pray at homes was a grand conspiracy hatched by the enemies of Islam. Should he not be criticised for taking this position and risking the lives of thousands of his followers? Should this organization not be censured for being stubborn to the point of hurting the interests of Muslims?

What is wrong if the TJ is called out for what they are: orthodox, medieval and mindlessly conservative? One is not saying that the TJ issue was not used to target Muslims, certainly it was. But to argue that sections of Muslims did not make any mistake is perhaps taking it too far.  

But then again, as some have argued, this is not the time to indulge in such criticisms. There is no denying that Muslims have been under attack for many years now. But does this mean that all criticism internal to the community must stop? Certainly not. This will only help the Muslim orthodoxy, both political and religious, to entrench themselves further.

Those who argue that such criticisms should be done in the ‘right context’ do not realise that for so many years, that context has never come (or is never allowed to come) under one pretext or another. There is certainly no need to wait for a right context when one wants to critique a dystopian worldview. When internal critique ceases, communities stagnate. The resultant cesspool becomes a fertile ground for moribund and antediluvian ideas which only sinks a community. One cannot fight the anti-Muslim prejudice of others without at the same time struggling against similar vitriol within ones’ own community.

The many liberal Muslims defending the TJ must also understand that the organization does not need their support. The TJ is a trans-national movement and has through decades devised strategies to deal with various kinds of governments and political orders. From democracies to authoritarian states, its decades of practice have never been questioned by any state. Rather, they have been welcomed wherever they have gone.

Surely, there must be something that different governments appreciate in this movement. Surely there must be some quid pro quo which allows this movement to flourish in parts of the world, under very different political dispensations.

The way mercenaries of certain media houses went after the TJ, any other organization would have seen its chief functionaries behind bars by now, especially given the current political climate. It should not be lost on us that despite the look-out notice for Maulana Saad (the TJ chief), the man has not even responded to questions posed to him by the government. This not only tells us about the political clout of Maulana Saad but also how deeply embedded the TJ is within the patronage network of the state. The TJ cares two hoots about receiving any support from any quarter. They know that they are firmly entrenched within the system and that nothing can happen to them.

Moreover, the liberals must also understand that no matter how much they defend the TJ, this empathy will never be reciprocated. For the TJ, liberals will always remain the enemies of Islam because, like any other orthodoxy, they firmly believe that only they (the TJ) are on the right path and everyone else not following their path of Islam are destined for hell fire. These are extraordinary circumstances, and it is indeed fathomable that liberals are forced to defend even those with whom they do not agree. However, these liberals should be under no illusion that organizations like the TJ will also abide by the same principle. They have never supported liberal voices, and they never will. Liberals will do good to be conscious of this non-reciprocity of values and dissimilarities of principles. Calling out the thuggish regime of our times should not mean that we end up defending the very obverse of what we are struggling for.

Arshad Alam is a columnist with

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