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Inspirations for Indian Muslims from the American model
By Usama Khalidi

Usama KhalidiAmerican ruling elites like to think of their country as ‘the indispensable nation.’ While there may be an element of chauvinism, or even imperialism, in this claim, it is nevertheless worth examining because the idea is not without a kernel of truth in it. It is an undeniable fact that America cuts a large figure in the imagination of the rest of the world. It exerts very real power in many countries, either with the use of weapons and money, or their transfer to areas of conflict, or through other unenlightened and short-sighted policies. But in the minds of ordinary people almost everywhere, it also stands for certain values in the public sphere. Chief among them is the right of individuals and minority groups of all kinds to live in peace, to receive equal treatment from authorities without regard to race, religion, gender or ethnic origin. American society may not fully live up to its own standards, but it is hard to think of any other society that ranks as high as the United States in this respect.

The way American society functions and the recent history of American civil rights movement should be of great interest to Muslims of India because the New World is showing the way how to evolve into a multi-cultural, multi-ethnic and multi-everything society in this new century. Rightly or not, consciously or not, America is being viewed as the political, social and economic model for growth and progress as much by India as by the rest of the world. 

Muslim Indians have been advised to become a ‘model minority’ like the Asians in America. While this advice is basically sound, it ignores America’s nearly ideal social conditions that allow all its citizens to compete for economic opportunities on an almost equal footing. In terms of equality of opportunity, India today probably is where America was 50 years ago, when black American professionals and businessmen were a rarity, and comedians and other such entertainers were common, not unlike the Muslim situation in India today.

The experience of minorities in America is highly relevant to all minorities struggling for equal opportunity in a relatively democratic and pluralistic society such as India. A review of the political climate in which American minorities, mainly black, gained their rights in the previous half century would yield many insights for Indian Muslims. 

Historians are pretty much in agreement that the great American civil rights leader, Martin Luther King, achieved a breakthrough in his movement mainly because he framed his argument for equality in terms of the values Americans themselves believed in: equal rights and justice for all. In the same vein, historians have also agreed that Gandhiji’s nonviolent movement proved effective against the British because he argued for freedom in terms of the values the British claimed to uphold. The same arguments would not have worked for the Jews against their Nazi oppressors. 

The power over public policy Jews acquired in America owes as much to their economic gains as to the role Jewish intellectuals played in defining -- and thus modifying to their advantage -- aspects of American ideals as enshrined in the U.S. Constitution. For example, American Jewish professors advanced what is known as the interest group-theory of politics. According to this theory, every group has a right to advance its interests, and to acquire a share of power to shape public policy. Thus all groups are little inverted pyramids with their leaders collectively constituting the elites in society. Each group advances its interest by participating in the public discourse. The arguments that have the greatest chance of being accepted by the majority are the ones that frame their objectives in terms of what is good for the whole society, not just in the interest of the group advancing it. National interest is defined as whatever the majority decides, either by actively voicing its support to a particular policy, or by giving in to a demand by a minority group. In this way of thinking, every group is a minority group. It gains power by persuading the majority to its point of view. These groups in effect form coalitions acting just beneath the surface. Basically, this is how a democracy is supposed to work. 

How do the Muslim Indians fit into this theoretical framework? Not very comfortably, and hardly at all at the national level. Their role in the state-level politics does have a better fit in the theoretical model. They are making successful policy coalitions, as best as they can, in states such as Tamil Nadu, Andhra Pradesh, Maharashtra, Karnataka, Kerala, Bihar and Bengal. In India’s most populous state of Uttar Pradesh, Muslims have made significant progress in the electoral process. If their situation remains dismal and disheartening, it is because the cultural and historical currents have not spent their force yet, but the long-term trend is toward a political accommodation. The Hindutva forces represent cultural nationalists who have their counterparts in all contemporary societies, almost without exception. Their denial of other people’s humanity, their bigotry and their backward-looking ideology all can be seen in the world views of the ruling classes in Saudi Arabia, the Taliban, the anti-Shia Muslim fanatics in Pakistan, the Iraqi and Syrian thugs who hide behind the label of Ba’thists, not to mention the fascist elements in Russia, Turkey and China.

Keeping the American model in mind, what can the Muslim Indians do to improve their political situation? The most important long-term issue to deal with is the Muslim definition and acceptance of secularism. In the United States, committed and practicing Muslims will find it difficult to embrace secularism in theory, but in practice, when they step outside their private spaces, they are as secular as anyone else. They do not organize themselves politically in the name of Islam, perhaps because their individual rights are secure. Their right to wear hijab at work or in public is not in question, nor is their praying in public places. They do recite the American Pledge of Allegiance, which is a one paragraph statement binding the citizens to defend the U.S. Constitution and the values of justice and liberty which it enshrines. They also accept the restriction on polygamy without a murmur of protest. It is the theory of the separation of church and state with which Muslims have a problem. This is an issue of far greater importance for Muslims of India, where they have had a long history, than for Muslims of America. 

Another area where Muslim opinion leaders need to focus their attention is in finding common ground with the non-Hindutva forces and joining hands with them. Muslims must participate fully in political debate at all levels in every one of the available media and public forums. They need to frame their arguments in terms of what is good for all the citizens, not just the minorities. Keep a sharp eye on the anti-Muslim articles in newspapers and magazines and write to them. Demand equal time and equal space from the media for an opposing point of view. (Of course, this is being done by Muslims in many places). Make an enlightened response to the nationalist/ exclusivist sentiments with patriotic and celebratory ideas. (How about Muslim schools conducting a competition in singing songs like Iqbal’s Tarana-i Hind?) Make imaginative and gentle protests against police assaults in Muslim neighborhoods. Abandon isolationism as a coping mechanism, realizing that by isolating themselves from the rough and tumble of politics at every level, Muslims leave the field open to their enemies. Loud and repeated assertion of patriotism has become necessary because of the kind of political climate that exists in India today.

The relatively new phenomenon of globalization is making an impact on the way people think of themselves in relation to their neighbors and to people in other cultures. The era of cultural nationalists and super-patriots will end sooner or later in India as well as in Saudi Arabia and Turkey. In neighboring Pakistan, whose destiny is enmeshed with India’s -- and vice versa -- also the dominance of short-sighted chauvinists will come to an end. India’s accelerated pace of economic development will impose its own demands on the way people treat each other. The phenomenal growth of films and mass media in a highly competitive economy is leading toward Western-style consumerism, one of whose side benefits is that it promotes respect for human rights and individualism. Scarcity of resources is, of course, a major limiting factor in this regard. 

A new generation of Muslims of India needs to re-evaluate their situation and help bridge the gap between them and society at large.

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