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Published in the 16-31 Jan 2005 print edition of MG; send me the print edition

INTERVIEW: Akram Syed

"In education lies our salvation" 
Akram SyedSince Indian Muslims are not coming forward, it has now become the responsibility of American doctors, engineers, businessmen, educationists, entrepreneurs and other professionals, all Muslims of Indian origin like Akram Syed, the incoming president of the AFMI (American Federation of Muslim Indians), to uplift the falling academic level of formal education and economic status of Muslims in India. He believes that education is salvation. AFMI offered awards to 90 meritorious students at their 13th annual convention recently in Delhi. In an interview with Firoz Bakht Ahmed, he vehemently expresses that if Indian Muslims are properly educated, India can progress in socio-economic and educational spheres by leaps and bounds. 

Why educational funding only for Indian Muslims and not Hindus and others?
Don't think it that we are religiously biased. Back in America even in Dallas, we do have platforms of the Jains, Patels, Indian Catholics and even the RSS. More than 60 schools are run with the aid given by us. Our vision is holistic and we are striving to uplift the Muslims and other downtrodden masses of society with steadfast determination and vigour. We are broadminded and are closely networked with many Hindu, Jew, Sikh, Christian and even Buddhist organizations and have a good rapport with them for the educational efforts we are making.

Reports tell us that Muslims are not interested in education, so what's the use of putting money in education?

Education is our watchword but our efforts also cover relief and rehabilitation, economic empowerment and social reform programmes. Unfortunately it's true that Muslims are educationally challenged and do not give education the importance it deserves. They must understand that education is salvation and hard work in education always pays. They think that they won't get jobs and would be discriminated against. We want to make them realize that it is only through education that they can be confident and independent.

Don't you think that the Indian minorities are already pampered by the Indian political groups? 

I object to the word "minority" used for Muslims. Let's not stereotype or weave myths around Muslims. Moreover, the Muslims are in fact the "second majority" rather than being a "minority". Appeasement of Muslims, I think, is just political propaganda. Providing some subsidies to the Haj pilgrimage, cannot be taken as service to the community as the real welfare means providing equal educational opportunities to the Muslims. Indian Muslims are in the pincer grip of poverty and extreme dearth of education. There's no good education owing to poverty and unless they are well educated, poverty cannot be eradicated. Frankly speaking, Muslims as a social group, are more deprived amongst all sections of society. It's a serious matter and needs to be attended to.

Do you mean that the plight of the minorities in India has not improved for the last decade at all? 

During the last decade, India has seen tremendous economic growth and the entrepreneurs have benefited from it. Unfortunately, Muslims hardly have a share in this progress as far as benefits are concerned. Most of them have been entangled in low-productivity, self-employed and informal sectors and no platform has tried to take them out of the quagmire they have been stuck into. But there are exceptions too as we have been granting scholarships and medals to almost 100 Muslim school-going children. But of course, such examples are far and few.

Do you think your projects have really done the needful?

Frankly speaking, we began with a token effort but that actually set the educational ball rolling and created such a momentum that now there are umpteen AFMI schools in India. You see we are not a government that can work on an all India level but surely in the three states i.e., Gujarat, Uttar Pradesh and Andhra Pradesh, we have been able to raise the educational levels. Our last decade's efforts have produced a literacy percentage of 73 among Muslims whereas even the state's literacy levels stand at 69 per cent. Gujarat's Muslim girls have a literacy rate of 59 per cent better than anywhere in India. We are also thinking of providing assistance to the Urdu medium schools. But I think that for quality education, the Indian Muslim community must ensure 100 per cent enrollment in the public schools.

Do you also fund the madrassas?

No, our concern is formal education. Though the madrassas are doing yeomen service but it would be efficacious if the modernization of madrassas takes place by providing lessons in English, computers, science also etc besides the theological course so that the maulanas lead better standard of life backed by latest know how. In fact many madrassas are doing it, like the hi-tech madrassa Jameatul Hidaya in Jaipur. 

How do you ensure that your funds are honestly used for education?
Actually we give the responsibility to the local people. Either they already run a school or they adopt a school and help in various ways. Earlier it was quite difficult to gauge the progress of our some 60 institutions but now we have a network that makes our job easier. By the way, we do not provide funds for starting a school as the foundation stone never gets laid. 

Do you feel that communal forces are still at work in India, that can throw your work off track and that Muslims are discriminated against?
In a huge nation like India some negative forces of that nature will always be there with a sinister plan up their sleeve but sincere workers care a fig about those. We've been working with Hindus all our lives and my personal view is that 90 per cent of them are balanced, understanding and accommodating. It's only the 10 per cent that try to wreak havoc, create misunderstanding and indulge in pogroms like the one in Gujarat but I feel that we should forget that like a bad dream. I am of the view that Muslims in India are not discriminated against and the fact is if they are educated, they are revered and valued and people come looking for them.

By the way being highly educated and an entrepreneur yourself, you do not look like one of your community.
This is another myth. People have stereotyped Muslims as people with skullcaps, flowing beards and breeding like rabbits. Besides, there's no dearth of other political philosophies regarding them. Many Muslims are well educated and are part of the ongoing developmental activities but unfortunately not more than 2 per cent. The fact is that it is very difficult to convince Muslims of the advantage of better education as they are not interested in studying. The parents prefer their child earning Rs 20 per day at some obnoxious factory rather than attending a primary school.

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