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Beyond the ‘Clash Within’: Reflections on the ‘Muslim Question’ in India

By Mursed Alam

The recent riot in Dhule, Maharastra (6 January, 2013), escalating from a petty squabble over the issue of paying the bill in a food-stall, connects us with the larger picture of occasional riots between Muslims and Hindus in India. The riot in Assam and the subsequent Mumbai violence where protesters in their fury  desecrated the Amar Jawan Jyoti memorial, the massive exodus of North-Eastern people from Bangalore  (the largest exodus after the partition), and several riots in Uttar Pradesh in 2012 after SP came to power, have seriously questioned  ‘the idea of India’. These, along with the tainted past history, ranging from partition of India to Bombay blasts, from the demolition of Babri Masjid to Gujarat massacres, and  the terrorist attacks on mosques and temples,  foreground the volatility of ‘the imagined community’, that is India. Are we witnessing a ‘clash of civilizations’ in India?  Or is Huntington too simplistic and callously outmoded in his pronouncement of the ‘clash’ thesis? Where does the problem lie then?

In her book, The Clash Within: Democracy, Religious Violence and India’s Future, written in the aftermath of the Gujarat riots, Martha Nussbaum discounts the  ‘clash of civilizations’ thesis of Huntington and advances her ethico-ontological and psychological  notions of ‘clash within’, characterized by our oscillation between ‘the  self -protective aggression  and the ability to live in the world with others.’ If Nussbaum is correct, then, should we subscribe to this notion of ‘clash within’? Or should we recognize the ‘Other’ and be more hospitable to uphold the plural and multicultural ethos of India? What is the source of the Muslim sense of victimhood? How can this sense of victimhood be countered?

My occasional discussions with Muslim youth have made me realize that there is a deep sense of victimhood among them, which I often find justified. In West Bengal, after 34 years of the so-called Left Front rule, the Sachar Committee Report (2006) has exposed the miserable socio-economic condition of Muslims. And the new government compensates that by providing salary to the imams from the taxpayer’s money. There are, however, occasional initiatives by the government to improve the condition of the minorities. The Ministry of Minority Affairs has located 90 MID (Minority Intensified Districts) in India. My district, Malda, is one such. But if we look up the statistics of Malda district, we will see that, although more than 50% population of Malda comprises of Muslims, their share in government jobs does not exceed more than 5%. Most Muslims live in villages and depend on traditional agricultural occupations and, also, work as migrant laborers. The picture is somewhat startlingly telling.

The internal orientalism orchestrated by popular culture – the image of a Muslim in Bollywood movies (barring a few cases such as 3 Idiots) panders to the stereotype of a bearded, often lungi-clad, tabiz-wearing, and violent one or the stereotype of a so-called   ‘good Muslim’ who proves his patriotism by thundering, ‘there are more Muslims in India than Pakistan’ – represents Muslims as internal ‘Others.’ A recent report says that 70% of the Muslim youth, who are detained by police as terror suspects, are innocent. And when the Samjhuta Express blast occurred, the media immediately pressed the terrorist-Muslim button. In managing the Dhule riots, the police started ‘kargilli firing’ at Muslims. Often a Muslim dominated slum is termed (even by the state electricity board) as ‘Chhota Pakistan’ or ‘Laden Nagar.’ Even eminent personalities in the field of art such as Javed Akhtar and Shabana Azmi are denied house on rent in a cosmopolitan city like Mumbai. To employ Partha Chatterjee’s query somewhat differently – whose ‘imagined community’ is India? What is the place of Muslims in this imagination?

To understand India’s ‘Muslim Question’, one must move beyond the immediacy of Mumbai violence and see things in a historical context. The founders of modern India and the reformers – such as Rammohan Roy, Vidyasagar, Tilak, and others – who initiated renaissance in India in the 19th and 20th century, had nothing to say about the evil practices in the Muslim community. They eagerly faced oppositions to reform the evils within the Hindu community but remained silent about the problems facing the Muslim community, which was often referred to as ‘them.’ This contributed to a perceived sense of backwardness among Muslims, despite the efforts of such Muslim reformers as Sir Syed Ahmed Khan. The supposed gulf between the communities has engendered an ‘us’ versus ‘them’ feeling (sometimes conscious and, at other times, subconscious) in the minds of the majority Hindu community.

 But are we to blame others for our backwardness? Will a better representation of Muslims in media solve the problems of the community? How far can we play the card of victimhood? Even if one feels a sense of victimhood, is there any other means of protest than the one we witnessed recently at Azad Maidan? Have there been enough competent social reformers within the Muslim community?

We have not been able to conceptualize alternative ways of being a Muslim in the present times – one who can straddle between religiosity and worldly curiosity. And that vacuum has been hijacked by religious entrepreneurs like Zakir Naik and political opportunists like Akbaruddin Owaisis, whose obvious rhetoric does not go beyond the traditional slogans of religious purity being the only solution for Muslims or peddling a rage born out of victimhood. Zakir Naik and others like him, doubtless he has huge takers, created much furor initially and I will not deny that it fuelled an expectation in me. I expected a reformed and mature response from a Muslim theologian ready to start a dialogue with other religious communities. However, he only turned out to be a revivalist of ritualistic religion and sloganeer of ‘my religion is the best.’

 Why does it become impossible for us to read our scriptures metaphorically and for their aesthetic and ethical values? We have completely ignored such scholars as Ziauddin Sardar, who engages in an internal critique of Islam and Muslim societies. A practicing Muslim, Sardar believes that not all of the verses/ messages of the Quran are universally applicable – some of the verses are contextual, revealed for a particular context and cannot be applicable in the changed socio-cultural context, while others are universally applicable. And the prophet himself advised people to interpret his messages keeping in mind the changed scenario. We have forgotten this vital message.

What we need is an intellectual and cultural revolution in the Muslim community. A sincere attempt should be made to move beyond what Ziauddin Sardar terms the ‘ghetto mentality’ to encourage plurality and diversity, in order to strengthen progressive and critical thinking and encourage an engagement with the modern world. Modern and liberal education is mandatory (Madrassa system must be modernized) so that the community can learn to co-exist peacefully with others and can come up with politically mature and constitutionally approved responses beyond what we witnessed in Mumbai. Why should we allow people like Saeed Noori to hijack the protests and  Owaisis to speak for all Muslims in India? Can we not come up with such democratically sanctioned politics of rights as proposed by Partha Chatterjee?

Apart from responsible administration and positive government policies to address the problem of Muslims, we need to create a public culture that harbors plurality (social medias can be of help) and tolerance and helps us go beyond the ‘miniaturization of people’ that Amartya Sen talks about in Identity and Violence. Only then will we be able to overcome the narrow sectarian divides and learn to value human beings as human beings.

[Mursed Alam currently teaches as an assistant professor in the department of English, Gour Mahavidyalaya, Malda, West Bengal. Before joining the college, he was engaged in research work as a JRF in the Department of English , University of North Bengal. His areas of interest are cultural studies, postcolonial studies, and folk culture. He has presented papers in many national seminars and published in journals such as Asian Journal of Research in Social Sciences and Humanities. He is currently engaged in a Minor Research Project  funded by UGC on the folk form, Gambhira. His co-edited book on American Identity after 9/11 is in press. Email:]

One Comment Post a comment

    Mama, acknowledging the periphery of my knowledge I cant supplement a single assertion except articulating the dignity, urgency, necessity, vitality, and magnanimity of such type of study. This is the time to take such type of study before youths, and intellectuals of ‘majority’ and especially to the minority and the chauvinists who misinterpret their pluralistic religion which not only take them to backward but cause disaster. You have logically brought the instance of Ziauddin Sardar who can be the present model of Muslim or Islamic intellectuals.

    March 4, 2013

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