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Between Shabana Azmi and Shahi imam
By Kaleem Kawaja

Washington: The recent verbal spat between Shabana Azmi who represents the ultra-liberal face of the Indian Muslims, and Shahi Imam who represents the obscurantist face of the community, in full glare of the mainstream media, has thrown up some interesting debate. Obviously, between these two individuals, who represent two extreme ends of the mindset of the Muslim community, one white the other black, there are many many shades of gray. It is not fair for any of these two extreme mindsets to claim that if you do not identify with one of them, you belong in the other extreme. Both mindsets represent only the fringe elements of the community, at two extreme poles; neither having significant support in the community, no matter what they may claim 

Muslims who have ultra-liberal beliefs like those of Shabana Azmi and her types are largely only cultural Muslims, people who were born in Muslim families but who abhor most Muslim customs and ways of life as being backward. Almost every day in their lives they are constantly trying to prove that they are super-secular, in a desperate effort to disprove the malicious attacks of the Hindu fundamentalists who consider any strain or practice of Muslim-ness, either religion or culture or heritage, as anti-Indian and Islamic fanaticsm.

On the other extreme are obscurantist Muslims like the Shahi Imam, whose worldview is that of the ghetto in which they have lived all their lives. These people do not know what it is to put themselves to work and adapt to achieve progress. Their failures and fears of failures make them climb back into their shell and perpetually claim that the whole world is against Muslims. Even though they know the facts about the basic egalitarian nature of Islam, they are always ready to support any extremist Muslim even if he commits the most heinous and inhuman crime, eg the terrorism of Bin Laden against innocent, defenseless civilians. Such people want to keep the Muslim community confined to its sixth century primitive beginning in Arabia. Never mind that in the centuries that followed the austere beginning of Islam, Muslims travelled far and wide, made tremendous progress in all fields of life, adapted the progressive traits of the lands where they went, and in general became an epitome of enterprise and endeavour. These obscurantists want to turn the clock back on Islam, despite the constant exhortation of the basic Islamic guidance to man to make the world a better place than before.

Both extreme elements of the Muslim community are constantly trying to polarize the community for their self-serving needs, blaming the other for giving up on the needs of the community. I was shocked to read in a recent article (MG, January 16), the refrain from someone who blamed the liberal Muslims for "not identifying themselves with the mass culture of the lungi, the skull cap, the flowing beard, the slaughtering of goats, the trooping to the masjid five times a day,..." Is not such mindless obscurantist rhetoric of the extremist Muslims an attempt to glorify the backwardness of the poor segments of the Muslim community, brand the backwardness as the mass culture of mainstream Indian Muslims, and thereby keep them chained to their backwardness for ever?

During its 1400 year existence, the Muslims community all over the globe has constantly tried to move forward, in keeping with the basic message of Qur'an. But today after 150 years of gross backwardness, when all other communities in India including the Dalits who have been backward for over a two millennium, are trying hard to move forward, the obscurantist Muslims' call to perpetuate backward attitudes in the Muslim community are nothing short of suicidal.

How would clinging to either the lungi or the skull cap or the slaughtering of goats, etc, will ensure the welfare of the Muslim community in the years ahead? Similarly, the ultra-liberal Muslims' attempts to decry the authentic Muslim elements e.g., separate personal laws, asking Muslim women to put bindis on their foreheads, give their children non-Muslim names etc are equally mindless attempts to assimilate with non-Muslims.

Today more than at any other time, it is incumbent that the moderate Muslims in India, who are a clear majority in the community, who seriously observe various Islamic practices, who are achievement oriented and who try hard to make progress, assert themselves and minimize the influence of both type of extremists, the ultra-liberals and the obscurantists.

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