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

World Social Forum and Mumbai Resistance
Whither Indian Muslims?
By Yoginder Sikand

In the third week of January over 1,20,000 people gathered together from different parts of the world to take part in the second World Social Forum (WSF) and the parallel Mumbai Resistance (MR). Dalit activist groups from all over the country, indigenous peoples from Latin America, riot victims from Gujarat, representatives of political groups from Kashmir, Baluchistan, Sindh and Nagaland, communist activists from different countries and parties in Asia and Africa, environmentalist and anti-nuclear activists from North America, Japan and Europe….all these and more descended on Mumbai to protest against global imperialism and to issue a call for global social justice. Although the organizers of the MR and the WSF had their share of major differences—the former accusing the latter of playing into the hands of imperialist powers by accepting foreign funds, and insisting that foreign funded NGOs were part of a global imperialist nexus—overall, the mood was one of firm rejection of global and local imperialism. Banners protesting America’s occupation of Iraq and Afghanistan were strewn all over the venue grounds. Protest marches loudly decried fascism, communalism and American hegemony. 

Although the vast majority of the organizations that took part in both meetings were non-religious, there was a fair presence of Christian, Hindu and Buddhist groups. They had not come to extol their own religions or to preach, however. Rather, in the stalls that they set up they distributed literature on the work they were engaged in in mobilizing marginalised people for various causes—working for Dalit emancipation, legal awareness among factory workers, environmental consciousness among students, promoting communal harmony, speaking out against fascism and so on. In short, religion, they seemed to convey, was empty sloganeering or just plain escapism if religious people did not get actively engaged in struggling for the rights of the oppressed.

To my surprise, Indian Muslim organizations were, on the whole, conspicuous by their absence at both events. Of the hundreds of stalls set up at the WSF venue, I noticed just one run by a Muslim group—selling Islamic literature published by the Jama‘at-i Islami Hind. The books on display dealt with various aspects of Islam, extolling its virtues, but none seemed to deal with the actual social problems of the Muslims of India or about any efforts being made to address them. One could easily be forgiven for imagining, then, that Muslims were simply not interested in actually doing anything about their own plight or that there were no organizations at all working for the poor among the community. As a friend of mine who accompanied me to the WSF, a Muslim who works with a secular NGO, said to me, ‘Muslims seem to imagine that by simply preaching about Islam all the problems of the world will suddenly and miraculously vanish. No wonder that few of them seem interested at all, in contrast to Hindu and Christian groups, in doing anything concrete for the community and that’s why they are almost totally invisible here’. ‘Preaching the virtues of Islam’, he added, ‘is fine, but that is no substitute for practical action’. I could hardly agree more.

Numerous stalls set up by Christian, Dalit as well as secular leftist organizations displayed and sold literature against American imperialism, the plight of the Iraqis, the massacre of Muslims in Gujarat, the growing threat of Hindutva—in short on a range of issues that directly impinge on the lives of Muslims in India. One would have expected Muslim organizations to have taken a lead in this regard, but they seemed to have displayed no interest in participating in the MR and the WSF, thus losing a valuable opportunity of building allies with groups and organizations working for similar goals.

My Muslim friend tells me, and I am tempted to agree, that many Muslims, at least in India, are so insular that they simply do not want to participate in joint programmes with people of other faiths, tending to tar all non-Muslims as foes or ‘enemies of Islam’, rather than as potential allies in the struggle for a just society. ‘Many Muslims have such a narrow understanding of Islam’, my friend explains, that ‘they see it as simply a set of rituals and beliefs divorced from all social concerns and struggles. That’s why you hardly see any Muslims here’. He assures me that this reflects a gross distortion of Islam, for Islam, he says, places the highest worth on working for the oppressed and marginalised, irrespective of religion. But that understanding of the faith was hardly in evidence at the WSF and the MR. I noted very few Indian Muslims at both events –everyone wore a name tag and I could identify very few Muslim names. The few Indian Muslims I met were all associated either with leftist groups or with secular NGOs, and barring two, none belonged to any Muslim or Islamic organization as such.

The MR, because of its strident opposition to American and Zionist imperialism, did apparently receive the verbal support of several Indian Muslim groups. A number of Indian Muslim organisations issued a joint statement decrying America and Israel for their attacks on Muslim countries and critiqued the growing American-Zionist-Hindutva nexus. Some Muslim activists even spoke at the event. Yet, among the audience, here, too, almost no Muslims were to be seen. Not a single Muslim organization had set up a bookstall at the MR’s venue. Several stalls set up by various leftist groups displayed literature decrying Hindutva and atrocities against Muslims, and a leftist group organized an exhibition of photographs of the Gujarat carnage. No Muslim group, however, seemed to think it important to follow their example.

On my way back to my lodge from the MR venue, Abdullah, the driver of the taxi I sat in, complained as we passed a bridge draped with saffron flags and splattered with slogans hailing Bal Thackeray, ‘There’s no hope for us Muslims in India. Others are simply not bothered about our plight’. I could understand his concern, but I had to protest. I told him about what I had seen at the WSF and the MR—that many Muslims themselves were not concerned in reaching out to potential allies among other communities, that they hardly seemed interested in the problems of society as a whole as distinct from their own concerns, that many non-Muslim groups, as I had noticed at both events, were actively engaged in countering American imperialism and Hindutva, that all non-Muslims could not be dismissed as ‘enemies of Islam’, as many Muslims imagine. 

Abdullah listened to me patiently, and then somberly admitted, ‘Yes brother, I guess you are right’.    

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