Thursday, Jun 01, 2023

The Distortionists

A journalist of Vinod Mehta's eminence should not simplistically hold Muslims responsible for the way Hindus perceive them. But then, one is as helpless before the English media as one is helpless before Mullahs or Marxist rhetoricians -- each believ

The Distortionists
The Distortionists

In his opinion piece, Medium is the Image,(Outlook, November 1, 2004) a journalist of Vinod Mehta's eminence should not simplistically hold Muslims responsible for the way Hindus perceive them. Media images of Muslims the world over have an integral relationship with how the Indian media projects Muslims. No discussion of the projection by the Indian media and what the Muslims see it as is possible without a broader reference to Muslim societies around the world.

Clearly, Indian Muslims have two identities: one, as part of the wider Indian society, sharing all the good and bad as other Indians belonging to the same economic group or region; and second, as the leftover of other Muslim societies world over as part of a pan-Islamic community. The pan-Islamic aspect is relevant only in the case of north Indian Muslims or Muslims residing in the major cities of the country. South Indian rural Muslims and non-Bihari (read those who falsely claim Urdu as their mother tongue) Bengali Muslims of West Bengal, for example, have little to do with the broader Islamic brotherhood.

Again, lots of social ills prevalent in rural India involve members of both Muslim and Hindu communities. Hindus too carry a highly distorted image in the media the world over, particularly after the demolition of Babri Masjid in 1992 and the Gujarat carnage in 2002.

There is a newly emergent trend (dominated by the business interests of some 'number-slot-ridden' English media, which praised BJP & Co. to lofty heights and declared it as the only alternative when the party was going to polls (read doom). This media has a ready prescription for the Muslims: they must look like the members of their respective class among Hindus -- the assumption that the Muslims are reluctant to do so, by implication, suggests that the principal burden of transforming Muslims lies upon themselves.

This has somehow become a standard prescription for Indian Muslims, who have then ended up becoming a typical caricature of Hindu middle class image of Muslims. The media has so far never bothered to study the economic conditions and complexities of social problems faced by the Muslim society.

The Partition and its effect on Muslims is a complex problem for Indian Muslims (for that matter, for non-Muslims as well, but let's leave that aside). An economy resting on petro-dollars, and a new entity (based on a combination of Indo-Pakistani Muslims in Gulf countries and Saudi Arabia) has given a new shape to the psyche of sections of the Muslims in India who have been the beneficiaries of the petro-wealth. It lends support to Muslim fundamentalism and endorses the government in not opening modern educational institutions for educating Muslim children, and thereby lets the madrasas flourish.

The government for its own reasons is not interested in providing modern education to Muslims. This section of petro-wealth beneficiary Muslims detest the RSS motives for their own reasons, so it is easy to understand their psychology of, for example, supporting the Pakistani cricket team.

The judgment in the Shah Bano case was indeed detested and protested by Indian Muslims with unprecedented vigour till the Parliament was forced to reconsider it and bypass the judgment itself. This kind of sociology will never let the trauma of Partition rest in peace. And, in the given circumstances, it would never let the Hindus realize that Partition was, in fact, a complex historical event for which no single individual or community can be blamed.

I t is true that Indian Muslims are not willing to come to terms with the future vis-à-vis the situation in Kashmir, which has increasingly become an issue of Muslim separatism, fuelled by pan-Islamic proclivities. This is the hard-core reality that cannot be altered by a theoretician's rhetoric. Abusing imperialism and America will not alter the truth that Islam does not provide any space for democracy and only a Momin (a Muslim having perfect faith in God) can become the head of the state.

Maulana Maudoodi's famous and historical support to Fatima Jinnah's presidential candidature in Pakistan resulted in contradictions between the Jamaat-e Islami and other religious organisations of Pakistan and India. All versions of the Islamic state at best try to make faith the vehicle to create a civil society, if not for any other reason, at least to show that there can be no substitute for Islam, and therefore, the first duty of every Muslim is to convert all non-Muslims to the Islamic fold.

Mainly for this reason, even today, Muslim civil life is facing all kind of problems due to the mental bankruptcy and, therefore, its media image is the obvious result of this attitude. Those to be blamed for this are Muslim societies, Muslim intellectuals, and Muslim institutions whose very existences are based on hypocrisy.

Way back after the formation of Pakistan, when the first Sunni-Qadiyani riots erupted in Punjab (Pakistan) and martial law was imposed for the first time there, the Justice Muneer Commission was instituted to enquire into the reasons behind the riots. A number of leading Ulema were invited to decide whether or not Qadiyanis could be called Muslims. Which in turn led to the question of how to define Muslim. Surprisingly, there were no two Ulema who would settle for one definition.

It needs to be examined seriously whether Muslim leadership -- as Mr. Mehta thinks -- is really not aware of its media image and its effect. My view is that Muslim leadership in India is as shrewd as its counterparts in the RSS; they know well what their illiterate followers want or what is close to their faithful heart. Muslim leaders and intellectuals also know the effect of their image in the media in Islamic countries, but they don’t mind.

They know well that they are addressing their illiterate audience who understand only their language; and of course Muslim leaders have to keep their mentors and funding agencies in good humour as well. It will be unfair to assume that the topmost Ulema’s recent outcry against family planning was based on sheer ignorance. All this criticism was to appease their funding fathers, who have dozens of wives and who do not even remember the names of their children.

Even the most articulate Indian Muslim politician such as Syed Shahabuddin, who, well aware of present-day demands of the media, was once considered a most potential threat capable of converting the Muslim masses into political human bombs, and was in the forefront during the Shah Bano turbulence and Babri masjid movement, but now appears to be a most sensible and cool person simply because his issues are no more relevant in the changed political situation.

But he is still careful while addressing his own constituency: on the one hand he talks about modernization, and on the other he categorically denies the need for ijtihad (juridical conclusion) in civil life saying,

"…let the Muslim Indians develop their own strategy for survival, and for equality, justice and dignity….The real issue, therefore, is to find a national solution to the national problem of providing equitable space in the fields of education, information and administration to minority languages in the country as a whole as well as at the state level…. The real battle for Muslim Indians is also the battle of all religious, racial and ethnic minorities anywhere in the world…. In political terms, the essence of the problem is to find a balance between change and conservation, between rejection and assimilation, and between alienation and participation. This is imperative so that a Muslim, wherever he is, is not an alien to the nation state of which he is an inextricable part but a creative contributor to its productivity as well as its welfare.

"If the national communities accept them trust them and respect them in the world at large, Muslims will not carry the image of being the group of fanatical subversives or terrorists, ever anxious to restore Muslim rule or establish Islamic power!

"The priority for Muslim Indians should therefore be to find peace and dignity in their own motherland rather than to undertake the national project for the reconstruction of religious thought of Islam for the sake of Ummah…."

(The Pioneer, July 11, 2002)

"To me, the interpretation of the shariat--a common task for the Islamic world, as a whole--does not appear to be a top priority for Muslim Indians. . . this is nothing but an echo of our historically constructed ego. . ."

(The Pioneer, 16 Sept. 2002)

At that point of time when Syed Shahabuddin was in political demand, one could not help wondering as to why he wished to see Muslims as a backward-looking community.

So it is this bad image (which somehow remains close to most of Muslim hearts whatever may be the reason) that can pay Muslim leaders political dividends and provide an opportunity for wordplay to the dangerously ignorant English-speaking rankers, most of whom have got assignments as government servants, which, of course, has nothing to do with intellectual understanding of Muslim issues.

However, one cannot fight beyond a certain limit; and, of course, the media too is always on the lookout for something to feed upon. Since the Muslim religious leadership, which is solely responsible for destroying the image of Muslims in media, and the Muslim intellectuals are not directly concerned with votes, one cannot expect them to be as careful and shrewd as Laloo Yadav.

The reference to Manmohan Singh by Mehta is also quite out of place. For that matter, even APJ Abdul Kalam also does not carry the baggage of his community’s negative images. The point to remember is that there is a threshold beyond which individuals are seen autonomously without the image of their community haunting them. It is somehow assumed that they are different.

This does not mean that the media images of the Sikhs are not negative. If this was the case, there would have been no 1984. Nor is it guaranteed that there cannot be another 1984, just like 2002. If the presumption is that Manmohan Singh was chosen to be the Prime Minister by way of compensation against the 1984 Sikh massacre, then one would only wish that no minority should face a situation like the Sikhs faced in 1984, or Muslims had to go through in Gujarat 2002. It is just that Mahmohan Singh has crossed the barrier of being a victim of his community’s media profile.

Obviously illiteracy and poverty may be blamed for Muslim behavior resulting in negative media images, but it is not the full truth. At places where Muslims are educated and employed--for example the immigrant Muslims in Western Europe and in America (thanks to state policies)--they are more ghettoized.

Wherever they have come up, they have tried to make everything Islamic, of course, even without having the real knowledge of Islam. No consensual concept of civil life and civilization and even the translation of Islamic faith into mundane affairs seems to be available. Not even any two schools of thoughts can agree on one definition of any one issue of Islam. I am not referring to different schools of thought such as Shias and Sunnis as one entity, but there are hundreds of groups claiming even within these two schools--and, of course, having a sizable following--that they represent true Islamic philosophy. This diversity is lost in media projections of the Muslims.

The bitter truth is that there is something wrong basically with the prevailing perception that Islam can provide a model for civil life. Things went wrong from day one when the Muslims murdered three out of four caliphs soon after the demise of Prophet Mohammed. Muslims from that point onwards, i.e. from the time of the Prophet himself, have never had peace.

In the Islamic history there is no period, no country and even no city that can be produced as an ideal for anyone, whether Muslim or non-Muslim. Yet we do indulge in wordplay and rhetoric in the name of interpretation and re-interpretations in order to prove that Islam is the best religion in the world.

The reference to language in the process of image shaping is put forth with utmost sincerity by Mehta but what can one do about the sectarian politics played in the name of Urdu by political parties, and contributed vehemently by most sectarian third rate Urdu newspapers and political magazines?

Due to all these reasons, and our colonial past, unfortunately a situation is emerging where it is thought that only those who know and speak English are modern. Being a backward community, Muslims do not even fall under the category of literates, leave alone being English-speaking. In Delhi alone, the dropout percentage of school going Muslim children is 98 percent. The number of Muslim students in good English medium schools whose certificate can enable them to get admission into excellent institutions of higher education is almost negligible.

If English is one of the most important criterion for being modern --as per the principal hypothesis in a recent issue of Outlook on Muslims -- The Other Face of Muslims (October 4, '04) -- I am afraid that the Muslims in the whole of India who can speak English fluently can be counted on one's fingers. I wonder if there is any authentic data showing Muslim students in reputed English medium schools and English speaking Muslims in India. One can understand the Supreme Court’s keenness to put a limit to admissions of minority students to nearly half in minority institutions, but one fails to see the total lack of concern to ensure that students in good schools look more and more like the rest of the society which includes Muslims.

In 1994, I counted the number of Muslim students enrolled in disciplines other than Urdu, Arabic and Persian in Jawaharlal Nehru University. They were less than 25 in social sciences, international studies and science related disciplines such as MCA, but the total enrolment of Muslims in the university was more than 10 times (mainly in Arabic, Urdu and Persian where almost all the students were Muslims) which gave them a decisive say in students’ union election, holding all secular students' organizations hostage. The media never took note of these ground realities and continues to talk of the JNU as a bastion of left politics. Indeed, one is as helpless before the English media as one is helpless before Mullahs or Marxist rhetoricians. For, they hold on to the view that only they know and tell the truth.

Sooner or later Indian Muslims will have to come to terms with a uniform life-style, having conformity with their economic and regional compulsions. Minority rhetoric of left wing intellectuals living in Delhi to counter the madness of the atavist RSS is no way to educate Muslim masses properly to understand the dynamics of politics. Left parties everywhere have become victim of electoral politics; exercising populist policies vis-à-vis Muslim affairs and not taking a firm ideological stand against Muslim fundamentalism will not work. On the contrary it may take an adverse turn. To abuse America will not justify 9/11 and only encourage Muslim militancy every where, including India.

The reference by Mehta to the All India Muslim Personal Law Board is also out of place. Since its inception, it has been no more than an exclusive club of most opportunistic mullahs and self-appointed "traders" of Muslim politics, who are shrewd enough in every respect and recognize that it is their outmoded statements that invite media personnel to seek out their opinion on issues concerning Muslims. It is the media that has made the Board into the monster that it is now being portrayed as. This can be seen on TV, when their 'spokespersons' use fabulous vocabulary and jargon, in order to fool the illiterate masses and make the most provocative statements so that they are seen on the front pages of newspapers. Ironically, Mehta wishes to give the Board a legitimacy that it does not at all deserve.

Finally the Hindu majority will have to realize that they will have to live with Muslims who, for various historical and social reasons, are the most backward and ghettoised community. The government has never taken interest in educating them, and will not do this in near future also. Making a parallel arrangement for the education of their children is an absolutely impossible task for an economically backward community like the Indian Muslims.

The distorted media image of Muslims is dangerous not only for the Muslims of India but also for the majority Hindu community. One also should not forget that whether it be the demolition of Babri Masjid or the questions of a life of dignity for Muslims, these subjects remain of utmost concern for the common Hindus who have thrown out the BJP by democratic process of elections. But Muslim leadership was and is always there to manipulate and mismanage the affairs.

So the question as to how to make the Muslims understand that they will have to come to terms and eventually adopt a civilized mode of living in the common civic space, is still looking for an answer. I wish Vinod Mehta could enlighten us on these issues with greater detail.

Ather Farouqui, Ph.D. has been campaigning against governmental assistance and financial support to madrasas of religious education in order to get grants reallocated for secular education of Muslim students


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