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Published in the 1-15 Feb 2004 print edition of MG; send me the print edition

Margot Badran’s visit to Kerala: some clarifications

This is with reference to Mukundan Menon and K Hamza’s articles about Prof Margot Badran’s recent lecture tour of Kerala and the protest demonstrations taken out by some Muslim organisations against her (MG, 16-31 January, 2004). I am pained by the image that both writers seem to create of Prof Badran as a willing accomplice of American imperialism. Prof Badran is a personal friend of mine, and we were colleagues for a while at the International Institute for the Study of Islam in the Modern World, Leiden, Holland, where I am presently based as a post-doctoral research fellow. 

As for the content of Prof Badran’s speech on Islamic feminism, I am not qualified to judge. But I do insist that when talking about the conditions of women in the Muslim world, the role of America in propping up ultra-conservative regimes in the Muslim world (Saudi Arabia is a classic example) and in terrorising hundreds of thousands of Muslim women and children (as in Iraq and Afghanistan) cannot be ignored. I do not know if Prof Badran did address these issues at all. To my mind, she ought to have, and if she did not, it was particularly unfortunate.

My name has been unnecessarily dragged into the controversy sparked off by Prof Badran’s visit after a certain Malayali professor wrote an article in a Malayalam daily accusing me, along with Prof Badran, of dubious credentials and intentions simply because I happen to be based at a research institute in Holland. For the likes of this Malayali professor, let me clarify that the institute is one of the most respected Islamic research centers in Europe. Till recently it was headed by the noted Islamic legal specialist, Prof Khalid Masud from Pakistan. 

Prof Badran had apparently announced (and rightly so) that after she had evinced interest in visiting India, it was I who had suggested that she get in touch with a friend of mine, Shah Jahan Madampat, a Malayali Muslim then working at the cultural affairs section of the American Centre in Delhi and who later arranged for her lecture tour in India. This has led to all sorts of unfair and unsubstantiated accusations being leveled against me and Prof Badran! I have apparently been accused of pretending to empathise with Muslims while secretly plotting against them! Of course, as can be expected, no proof has been adduced for this wild allegation. 

To set the record straight, let me say that I am resolutely against American imperialism and America’s foreign policy in the so-called ‘Third World’, including the Muslim world. In fact, I had written a piece critical of the American Centre’s programme for the Indian ‘ulama (and I think I can claim to be the first to have done so) well before the Malayali published his diatribe against me. 
For a student of Islamic studies from a non-Muslim family background, such as myself, writing and researching on Islam is hardly easy. One is constantly suspected of the most evil of intentions. Many Hindu friends think that I am a Muslim apologist and anti-Hindu, while several Muslim friends believe, as the Malayali professor seems to, that I am out to defame Islam or destroy it from within! I can well understand the predicament of people like the Malayali professor, and I do not hold any grudge against him. All that I wish to say is that by hurling such unsubstantiated allegations one willingly risks alienating one’s potential allies.

What pains me about how people — Hindus, Muslims or others — often look at outsiders who try and empathise with them and their problems and articulate these before a wider audience (and I include Prof Badran and myself here) is the tendency to see all others as inherently sinister and evil-intentioned. This, as far as my own reading of Islam tells me, is not only unfair but also profoundly un-Islamic.

I do agree with Menon and Hamza that the American Centre’s own agenda in organising Prof Badran’s tour might well have been to salvage America’s sagging image among Muslims. But I must emphatically state that this, as far as I know, was not Prof Badran’s own intention. It may well be then that Prof Badran has unwittingly helped the American Centre’s own agenda, but I certainly do not think she has consciously done so. Let me also state here that the American Centre has organised for trips of several Indian Muslim academics, journalists, activists and ‘ulama to the United States, but so far one is yet to hear of any Muslim protests against these. Shortly after Prof Badran’s visit to Kerala, the American Centre organised a similar lecture tour by an American Muslim academic, Omar Khalidi, to speak on ‘Islam in America’. Khalidi’s well-attended meeting in Bangalore was held in association with the English monthly Islamic Voice. Here again, there were no Muslims out on the streets protesting, and nor did the likes of the Malayali professor condemn the lecture in the press against this ‘anti-Islamic conspiracy’. In short, then, what I would like to ask is why Prof Badran has been singled out and accused of dubious intentions? Is it because she is a non-Muslim? Is it because she spoke about Muslim women’s emancipation and a gender-sensitive reading of the Qur’an? Or does it have to do with the politics of different Muslim groups in Kerala? 

In conclusion, let me state that I personally see these seemingly harmless ‘academic’ efforts of the American Centre as motivated largely by political concerns and not by any presumed charitable or philanthropic intentions (after all, one must ask, why is the Centre arranging for lecture tours of American professors to speak about Islam and not about, say, Hinduism or Sikhism or whatever?). But I would also urge that not all non-Muslims are necessarily ‘enemies of Islam’ or engaged in a sinister conspiracy against Muslims. To imagine this is to play into the hands of those who would like nothing more than having the rest of the world rally together against Muslims and Islam

Yoginder Sikand, Bangalore

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