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Muslim Activism and Enabling Cyberspheres

By Tabassum Ruhi Khan

In September 2008, I was in the midst of finishing my dissertation drawing on almost three years of fieldwork among Indian Muslim youth belonging to a segregated and exclusive Muslim colony situated in the heart of posh South Delhi, when a critical event occurred which put my entire perspective and argument in a quandary.

Based on my interactions with Muslim men and women between 19 to 35 years of age, I was beginning to draw a convincing narrative of how Muslim youth, notwithstanding the isolationist impression of the Muslim community, were becoming inextricably implicated in globalized consumerist materialism, which has been also seen to be driving the Indian middle class phenomenon. The idea of consumer citizenship has become salient in Indian society following removal of trade and tariff barriers in early 1990s and construction of a new free market economy. It has been bolstered by concomitant opening up of the Indian skies to receive largely Western and Hollywood based narratives peddling individualism and materialism. So much so that today there is an unembarrassed embrace of wealth and an unbidden disdain for all that would stand in the way of its realization that it is hard to believe that two decades ago this was an austere society which considered identifying with its poor to be a mark of distinction.

An extensive analytical focus has come to bear on these major developments in Indian society. And my research was bringing evidence from the ground up to argue that the new values were also being fervently adopted and internalized by the Muslims – a  community considered to be moribund and static and therefore largely overlooked in the extensive discussions on India’s middle classes.

But my research, which was exultantly reflecting on how rising ambitions among Muslims and their concerted efforts towards realizations of their dreams were creating a new consciousness within the community, challenging proclivities for withdrawal, was suddenly stupefied into silence by a police action which occurred on September 19 in Batla House, one of the many localities within the larger Jamia area.

In an encounter during broad daylight and in the midst of the heavily populated residential area, the Delhi Police’s Special Cell killed two Muslim students and arrested two others in what they claimed was an operation against terrorists responsible for bomb blasts in Delhi earlier in the month. The targeting of Muslim youth left me in petrified dismay because it pitched the hopes of the Muslim youth for upward mobility and inclusion in mainstream Indian society, which I had so focused on, squarely against the brutality of entrenched discriminatory regimes that showed no sign of abating.

The ray of hope, which Muslim youth had perceived in the culture of meritocracy, ushered in by multi-national corporations, now seemed deeply fraught, if not tragically irrelevant. The ground had almost given away under their feet because they were no longer safe even in the cloistered shuttered exclusive enclave, derisively referred to as ghettos, where they been have forced to live just to seek safety among their coreligionists. The event demonstrated the implicit and explicit might of the state and exposed the extreme vulnerability of the Muslim population.

New Activism

There was such an atmosphere of despair within the community that I could troll its dark depths from so far away in California. However, as this event was perceived as damming the tide of Muslim dreams and their desire for middle classes respectability, it both created and required a response, which emerged from their very nascent modernities. The new modernities are being shaped by embedded global presence in everyday local lives.  And this increased the potential of enhanced interconnectivity that create global sympathetic communities able to counter extremist and nationalist local media, demonizing and incriminating entire Muslim populations.

And the most sustained response to the discriminatory practices and policies authorizing incarceration of Muslims and destruction of the youth’s lives and dreams emerged from the educated middle class, situated within an educational institution, the site of Muslim regional modernity. I refer to the work of Jamia Teachers’ Solidarity Association an organization formed in the aftermath of the incident as a reaction to mainstream media’s endeavors to build credibility for the police action, undermine the questions raised about the veracity of the police’s version of truth, and criminalize the youth even before all facts were established.

The educated middle class, given its access to networks and nodes of power and their much clearer understanding of their functioning, created a social response that was not only in marked contrast to the position presented by Muslim politicians, but also represented activism of the kind not seen in Muslim community before.

While the political opportunism of Muslim ministers and parliamentarians sought to exploit the Muslim community’s fear and their hurt sentiment, members of the Jamia Teachers’ Solidarity Association, set out to document and forcefully project the community’s version of the events, which were being smothered by the mainstream media.  The power of education was put to the service of thorough investigation and systematic rebuttal of the official versions of truth.

And the possibilities of digital communication networks, including social networking sites, was effectively exploited to reach out to the larger audiences as well as to forge partnerships with other organizations focusing on civil liberties and human rights. One effective partnership is with a news organization Two whose editor based in Cambridge, Massachusetts, with a team of enthusiastic though not always highly trained reporters in India has created a website reporting on issues largely ignored by mainstream media. The news website has come to enjoy credibility not only among Muslims, but its coverage of under reported and ignored issues makes it a credible options even among journalists and activists.

The activism of these organizations protesting unjust profiling and targeting of Muslims is heavily based on forming of partnerships and cooperative relationships in cyberspaces. Given the capitalist and hegemonic agenda of mainstream news media, these organizations structure, build, and recruit converts to their arguments in alternate spheres of communication before presenting a cogent political proposal in public and political spheres.

For example, the meticulous fact finding reports generated by Jamia Teacher’s Solidarity Associations were first well publicized in cyberspheres, alerting a global audience of their relevance, even as they were released in well attended public forums and press conferences. Moreover, Jamia Teacher’s Solidarity Associations also expresses its stringent critique of institutionalized state violence by staging demonstrations and sit-ins at prominent public places, including the Parliament, often attracting attention of mainstream media.

But it is the concerted circulation of independent viewpoints challenging official versions of the truth on social networking platforms like Facebook and in global cyberspheres that has given greater visibility to the injustices suffered by Muslim, something which the traditional Urdu press has never bee able to accomplish. Moreover, the support of global communities has also secured respect and recognition for the associations’ work among Indian politicians. In fact, a Parliamentary committee examining instances of unlawful confinement and custodial deaths of Muslim youth, which have gone largely unreported and unnoticed, expressly sought the report on the issues generated by the association.

Lastly, interjections in cyber spaces have not only effectively illustrated the precarious state of Indian Muslim citizens to larger world audiences, but have also enabled participation of Muslim diaspora populations in these localized struggles. However, notwithstanding my optimism at these examples of cooperation in transnational spheres for justice, the question is: Can they survive the enhanced cyber surveillance? What will be the fate of brave new directions of activism, which have given voice to minority communities silenced by heavy-handed nationalism?

[Tabassum “Ruhi” Khan is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Media and Cultural Studies, University of California, Riverside. She received her PhD from Ohio University in 2009. Her research explores forces of globalization in localized spaces, with a special focus on youth and minority populations. She studies transnational imagery (including commodities, brands, lifestyles, professions) in the construction of emergent identities. Specifically, she is committed to a long-term ethnographic research project that explores the minority Indian Muslim youth population, living in a historically and physically segregated enclave in the heart of New Delhi, India. Her research investigates the everyday life experiences and the construction of self among the Muslim youth in relation to global media. She examines the intersecting and conflicting discourses shaped by globalization and the entrenched sociocultural and religious practices that influence the shifting identities of the youth. Dr. Khan teaches courses on media and popular culture (including a course on Bollywood cinema), globalization and identities, and the politics of representation. Prior to pursuing an academic career, she worked as a television producer and channel manager with Discovery Channels International, National Geographic International, and STAR TV, in Washington DC, New Delhi, and Hong Kong.]

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