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Distorted Muslim Liberalism
By Ghulam Muhammed

In the aftermath of September 11 carnage and the US attacks on civilians of Afghanistan, a call to liberal Muslims to speak out, as the true voice of Indian Muslims, has sadly resulted in the most unsavoury public face-off between Shabana Azmi and Shahi Imam. Shabana represents Left/liberals who happen to be born to Muslim parents. Their commitment to Islam is neither apparent nor claimed. As it is they have no sympathy for any organised religion per se. They do not identify themselves with the mass culture of the lungi, skull cap, the flowing beard, the slaughtering of goats, the trooping to Masjid five times a day, the Muezzin's calling of Azaan. 

Their icons are completely different. How can they be comfortable with being called a mainstream Muslim. In fact, the reason for their remaining silent and reluctance to speak on behalf of the Muslim community, is not the fear of being branded as communal; but for the fear of being labelled as Muslims.

Coming out of the same milieu, they now consider themselves, a community apart, more elitist, more liberated, more advanced. To assert their secularism, they deliberately add non-Muslim additions to their Muslim names, marry into other religions, mostly as social/economic climbers though professing to carve a different secular Muslim identity. They form close-knit groupings, holding revellers parties. The biggest attraction for them in liberalism is the easy and public co-mingling of the sexes, a distinct sign of liberation.

However, they soon realise to their dismay that Indian society is too hidebound to accept them as anything other than `Muslims'. During Mumbai riots, all liberals had hard time saving their lives. They felt they were targeted for the `sins they had not committed'. They could move around in riot torn Muslim areas, only under the patronage of and under security provided by the same Congress that was the main culprit in the demolition of Babri Masjid saga and the brutal police crackdown in its aftermath. Thus they appeared more as collaborators, rather than genuine saviours.

One of the most damaging forays they made as reformers into Muslim society was the active support of the issue of Common Civil Code, which was seen by mainstream community as joining hands with the RSS to attack Muslim's religious independence. The offshoot of their advocacy of common civil code was their strident but ill-conceived and ill-executed campaign on women's rights, which again was taken as hostile attack on Muslim affairs. The damage that they have done to any possible progress on women's rights in grass-root community interaction, is reflected in their complete isolation from the community's day to day life itself. 

Their problem is that even though they will have no qualms getting converted to other religions, but they do not believe in any religion. Why get out of the frying pan and get into the fire. Besides, the Hindu society has no place for them. Once a miyan, always a miyan. This alienation all around, works deeply into their frustrations. They have to perforce fall back on their religious compatriots for wider identification, or are forced to live in their own ghetto -within- the ghetto existence.

The severest test for them is their dread of death and how they will be treated by their compatriots. People like Asmat Chugtai are rare who will prefer cremations to burials. The majority still prefers to be given a decent and proper Islamic burial. There are instances, like Zoe Ansari, Sardar Jaffery, who returned to a religiously conformist life, at their last hours. 

Sometime they leave it deliberately to their kin, to arrange for them an Islamic funeral. Nargis was one such liberal, who had left a wish to be buried in Islamic form, though her whole life was torn between the two distinct and antagonist religions. Rahi Masoom Raza, a life long non-conformist, was forcibly given Islamic burial through the uncompromising intervention of some of his old colleagues.

The struggle they go through to decide finally, if they are Muslims or liberals, is the most dreaded psychological affliction that they go through.and it is the most traumatic of their life's tragedies. 

For 70 odd years, their paradise on earth was the Soviet Communist Russia, where organised religion was relentlessly persecuted. After its disintegration, while all religions have briskly opened the doors to their churches and mosques, Muslim liberals are still holding out and most reluctant to step in, mainly for fear of being rejected. Islam, itself beleaguered and suspicious, is not very forgiving. Shahi imam's tart rebuke to Shabana was something she had not bargained for. For the first time in her life, a sensitive soul, she must have felt thoroughly rejected and wronged. 

The question of the hour is: Why this sudden felt need to stand up and be counted as Muslims? A broad reason is political opportunity. 

Even though after the demolition of Babri Masjid and the rout of Indian National Congress from its 40 year stranglehold on power the whole political line-up is in disarray; Muslims still can forge a formidable unity on the call of a Babri or an Osama. The political strategies are more or less well defined in as much as whoever, either from the Right or Left manages to pile up largest number of Lok Sabha seats, will be able to form a nucleus for a coalition, whichneed not bother about the Left/Right appellations. In such a scenario, liberals are gathering around Mulayam Singh Yadav's banner, and will do their utmost to put a claim for power at the Center, displacing BJP. Muslim votes have now become potential gold mine that has to be claimed as liberal Muslims' own ticket to political comeback for the whole front. Sadly, the Shabana/Shahi Imam episode has put paid to any such attempt by the socialist camp to `implant' their own `Muslim' leaders on the Muslim voters. The mutual alienation of all liberals and conservatives in the community is too raw and simmering, to reach any emergency understanding. On the other hand, though a VP Singh, Dev Gowda, Mulayam Singh, all being primarily from liberal political dispension, will have no qualms in mounting the historic steps of Shahi Masjid to call on Shahi Imam; a Javed Akhtar, a Mushirul Hasan, an
Asgharali Engineer representing the `fundamentalist' fringe of the other extreme will be most uncomfortable and unconvincing to be seen in the company of Mullas.

A great churning is going on within not only Indian Muslim community; but the total world of Islam. It harks back to those golden centuries when Islam was associated with the most egalitarian, progressive, tolerant values that helped usher in a unbroken era of scientific discoveries hand in hand with liberal human standards of justice and universal brotherhood of mankind and to which even the modern technical age owes its very existence. Islam's inroads into western psyche is just beginning. The extremists on both sides of the current divide will have to take back seats, once they have exhausted their destructive drive and are repudiated for their black deeds.

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