Reinventing the Muslim Ordinary
By Mosarrap H. Khan
When did you last watch a Bollywood film in which a Muslim woman/man walked their child to school in the morning? Or saw a young Muslim couple sipping coffee in one of the swanky malls? Or for that matter, watched an elderly Muslim couple strategizing the future of their children in an Ekta Kapoor TV soap opera? Such questions come to mind as I watch the spectacle of violent orgy in Mumbai and the exodus of people from the North-East on the TV screen and read about it on social media, and in some of our esteemed news dailies. From Assam to Kashmir, from New York to Chechnya, from Kabul to Paris suburbs, from Thailand to Malaysia, the image of the violent Muslim man has become so commonplace that it hardly requires any extraordinary conceptual apparatus to interpret it. The mad mullah, the jihadi, the pedophile worshipper, the primitive – you have heard and read it all.
First, those images of the supposedly massacred Rohingyas popped up on my facebook wall. A well-meaning friend put up Faraz Amhed’s piece challenging their authenticity. I shared Ahmed’s write-up on my FB timeline with the words, ‘great stuff!’ without realizing the severity of the Rohingya massacre. In came the images of riot-affected Assamese Muslims in make-shift camps and their severely sick children. An appeal to contribute to the funds set up for the riot victims soon followed. The tenor of public discourse in the cyber-space had, meanwhile, changed: the ‘ch**ks’ overnight became ‘our Bodo brothers and sisters’! But trending has its temporal limits – an hour of trending in cyber-space is a long time. An event loses its spark and the tweeple move on to the next excitement…
Then Mumbai happened. And in came those images of bearded, topi-clad, stick-yielding youth. Rioting, vandalizing media OB vans, molesting women cops, snatching police weapons and – the most shocking of all – kicking the Amar Jawan memorial. Suddenly the niggle in Assam had come home to roost in India’s financial capital. Our visual media pundits swiftly got into the act. Since the Mumbai attack in 2008 and, most recently, Anna and Baba’s fast against overfed politicians, our media knows the worth of a great spectacle. Didn’t Guy Debord anticipate a long-time ago in France the consequences of the convergence of late capitalism, mass media, and a willing political regime? That in a society of spectacle, public opinion can be manipulated and reality can be inverted are no nuggets of wisdom any more. The uniqueness of this phenomenon lies in the fact that a people can still be willing to believe what they see or, indulge in a willing suspension of disbelief.
From the ‘morphed’ images of massacred Rohingyas to the rioting Muslim youth in Mumbai to the fleeing North-East people in crowded trains in Bangalore station, the spectacle has upstaged the ordinary. We are told that the whole country is choking with the fear of an unknown menace. Unknown but not unseen, or as-yet-unseen. There seems to be a trump-card up the sleeve of our image-managers who ask the government to expose the source of the anonymous SMS which started it all. Off-camera, are they hoping that the source remains a secret? Well, if the source is revealed, the spectacle will lose its appeal, much like God appearing in flesh and blood. The spectacle makes the great Indian middle-class feel outraged: a sense of moral righteousness at the boorish behavior of backward Muslim youth.
As some media experts pointed out, the misguided leaders of the community fed the Muslim youth with a feeling of victimhood. A prominent online Indian news portal editor elaborated on the false sense of Muslim victimhood with great élan. A point well-made and-taken. And I personally agree that a sense of victimhood is very seductive. After all, human beings thrive on self-pity. Who does not like to view herself/himself as the most wronged in the world? Yet, are Muslim youth the only ones to suffer from this real or imaginary persecution?
After all, as Arjun Appadurai has persuasively pointed out, our modern nations are built on the fear of small numbers and we inhabit geographies/spaces of anger. The most well-known example of anxiety over numbers and the purity of the national space is the Nazi cleansing of the Jews. And the Zionists have, in turn, employed the rhetoric of anti-Semitism at the most opportune moments, often effectively silencing legitimate criticism of the Israeli state. Closer home, how often do we read of Hindus ending up as minorities in India? Or that Hindu rule is the most logical conclusion for India after years of foreign aggression – British as well as Muslim. A sense of victimhood or, potential victimhood, generates fear and anger prompting us to seek refuge in the certitude of numbers. The image of hordes of Muslim youth going on a rampage in Mumbai is the latest example of this fear of numbers.
So far my effort has been to show how the convergence of an ethos of spectacle and fear of small numbers can cause havoc. How about undermining the regime of spectacle and reinventing the Muslim ordinary? Or, for that matter, how about reinventing the Naga, Mizo, or Bodo ordinary? When sections of society drift apart, the spectacle plays its part by negating what Edward Said had termed ‘human destiny’. That is: we should never lose sight of people’s destiny and their ordinary practices. Beyond the spectacle, people live their daily lives and struggle with dignity. If we are to lure people away from fear, violence, and insecurity, we must be acquainted with each other’s ordinary practices.
By way of a suggestion, I would like to propose that Bollywood and TV soaps, with their pan-Indian appeal, can contribute meaningfully toward reinventing the Muslim ordinary and hold a mirror to its youth as well as to the other communities. I can recall only three prominent films in recent times with a Muslim protagonist. Shahrukh Khan’s Chak De India, My Name is Khan, and Raj Kumar Gupta’s Aamir. Unfortunately, all these films weave their narratives around the spectacular. In all, we have either wronged or ‘good’ Muslim heroes. The first one is inextricably linked to the project of proving one’s patriotism; the second one thrives on exporting the image of a ‘good’ Muslim to the west; the third one provides us with the image of a self-sacrificing ‘saintly’ Muslim blowing himself up to save a bus.
Where are those Muslim socials that once captured the ordinary, lived experiences of people, although in an elite setting? Or, when do we have films that do not merely glamorize Muslims as a feudal lord, effeminate poet, underworld mafia, or as minor friends willing to die for the hero? Of course, there is Zoya Akhtar’s Zindagi Na Milegi Dobara, a feel-good film catering to the potentially globe-trotting upwardly-mobile. The real exception is Shyam Benegal’s Well Done Abba, depicting the everyday life of a Muslim family caught in the struggle to derive the benefits of a government scheme for drinking water. As one expects, Benegal remains an exception than the rule. While a considerable amount of Bollywood wealth is stacked in Muslim hands and the technical expertise of film-making is managed by Muslims, the owners of the means of film production have played it safe for fear of commercial failure.
The result: the spectacle usurps the legitimate space of the ordinary leading to violence and vilification.
P.S. When I first suggested that a positive Bollywood representation can contribute toward reinventing the Muslim ordinary, many felt I was trying to divert attention away from the severity of the violent events at Azad Maidan and was trivializing it by attributing enormous power to Bollywood. However, after the tragic rape and killing of a Delhi girl, a significant part of the anti-rape discourse has centered on the representation of women in Bollywood. Now I feel a sense of vindication vis-à-vis the need for Bollywood representation of mundane Muslim life.
[This piece was first published in Newslaundry in August, 2012 in a slightly modified form.]
[Mosarrap H. Khan is a doctoral candidate in the Dept. of English, New York University. He researches in the area of Muslim Everyday Life in South Asia. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org]