Analysing MJ Akbar's keynote address on 'Islam in a Modern Secular State'

Freedom and Religious Identity in a Modern, Secular State – Going Beyond the Stereotypes

MJ Akbar, a veteran journalist, now a member of the BJP, is the Minister of State for External Affairs, and a Member of Parliament in the Rajya Sabha. On 28 September, in his keynote address at “Islam in a Modern Secular State” Conference in Bishkek, the capital of Kyrgyzstan, voices his misgivings about Islam being in the forefront of modernity. He accentuates the magnitude of freedom being the top priority in defining the outlook of a modern, secular state. Under the light of this imperious and cogent keynote address of his, we the members of a concerned Muslim community in India tender our discourse on what freedom and the stereotyped Islamic identity connotes today in a modern, secular state like India.

Muslim communities are still, largely, wandering through a haze of uncertainty, as they grapple with, on the one side, internal doctrinaires who have laced regressive thinking with the opium of romance…

Let us begin with this courteous rebuttal, Mr. Akbar – it is not the Muslim communities that are wandering through uncertainty; the genuine Muslim community (it’s a single brotherhood, right) upholds and believes in the modernism of Islam. It is the practitioners of pseudo-secularism and pseudo-modernism who, more often than not, willfully reject the modernist approach of Islam. To them, provisions of gender and social justice in Islam seem obsolete because Islam talks about the rights of women and other marginalized communities before talking about “freedom at the top of its priorities”. These practitioners of pseudo-secularism and pseudo-modernism fear the tenets of Islam more than anything else, because if Islam revels, it will not allow them many such freedoms that are at the top of their priorities – freedom to offend other faiths in the name of free hate speech, freedom to rupture all human ethos in the name of free sex, freedom to trample nations and generations in the name of free trade, free aggression – the list is endless…

… an external pseudo-intellectual assault that stereotypes all Muslims into images of violence and gender oppression through selective use of popular imagery.

Mr. Akbar, stereotyping of Muslims as harbingers of violence and gender oppression is done as a corpulent part of the nefarious design crafted by these very upholders of pseudo-secularism and pseudo-modernism, laced with their fear of losing their “freedom”. Islam, when contested with their repugnant definition of modernity, becomes their finest weapon to “liberate” their priority of freedom. But who cares if their liberation besieges and confiscates others’ freedom?

Mr. Akbar further says that

"Islam is a faith. West is a geography. … How do you compare the two – unless you have turned the terms into silent metaphors where West is replacement of modernity…

Mr. Akbar, the “Wild Wild West” that believes and lives by its own wretched definition of modernity laced with obscenity, prejudice, and injustice, and contests the modernity of Islam on every possible front, is a faith as well. You got the metaphor of comparing West with modernity perfectly right; except that “West” symbolizes a skewed definition of modernity that has every potential to disrupt social and political justice and harmony. This skewed definition of modernity may portray the materialization of “a revolution of ideas, science, literature, and culture;” but that it warrants individual freedom and collective achievement is as unsullied a misnomer as the comparison of Islam with repressiveness.

Modern. Secular. State. Each term has been constantly redefined by human advance, and each advance has been momentous.

Yes, Mr. Akbar, history is witness to many such momentous advancements of the modern secular state – two World Wars, biggest economic depression in the world, rise of dictatorships in the name of socialism, communism, and democracy, advent of a cacophonic and calamitous arms race and the age of nuclear weapons and weapons of mass destruction (WMD), and unprecedented massacre and ethnic cleansing of religious and social minorities (gas chambers and the Jewish Holocaust, Hiroshima and Nagasaki) that lingers to this date, to name a few. We have sure made momentous advancements…

Mr. Akbar views “…the rise of nation states” as“… a dramatic expression of popular will that sought boundaries on the strength of democratic virtues rather than armed power of the elites.” This is an exceptionally contemporary observation we must admit – the “expression of popular will” so exquisitely epitomized in the anecdotes of Palestine, Vietnam, Cuba, Lebanon, Grenada, Somalia, Bosnia, Iraq, and of course Kashmir, has left us all spellbound!

For one thing, Mr. Akbar is right in his assertion that “No religion promotes war for the sake of war; war is valid only as self-defence (sic).” … “Every morning in India begins with the pre-dawn azaan, followed by the bells of the Hanuman temple, the sonorous recitation of the Granth Sahibs and on Sundays, the peals of the Church bell.

We Indians generously and sincerely hope that the secular fabric of India that relishes in its unity in diversity is maintained in the times to come, and is not dissuaded by an exceptional few who are exceedingly disturbed by the 5-minute pre-dawn azaan (that’s called Fajr, by the way) that paints the aurora of a splendid, secular day in India. This also marks the celebration of our commitment to prioritizing freedom of religionin a modern, secular India. We believe Mr. Akbar will leave no stones unturned to ensure the legacy of this commitment.

Mr. Akbar is rightfully concerned about “a pernicious and extremely dangerous phenomenon that has arisen among some Muslim communities: the doctrine of faith supremacy, with its barbaric overtones of terrorist violence, ethnic cleansing and as a collateral disease, gender oppression.” Albeit with a disclaimer – these communities that believe in installing faith supremacy through violence can hardly be called Muslim communities. If it were so, Ku Klux Klan (KKK) should be seen as part of the larger Christian community, Zionists should be seen as part of the larger Jewish community, Maoists should be seen as part of the larger Communist community, Burmese military involved in the genocide and ethnic cleansing of Rohingyas should be seen as part of the larger Buddhist community, and the people involved in the demolition of Babri Masjid and lynching and massacre of religious minorities in India should be seen as part of the larger Hindu community. Mr. Akbar, we believe being an advocate of modernist Islam, you should not contaminate the term “Muslim community” with terrorist violence endorsed in the name of faith supremacy. “Let us be clear. There are no ifs and buts to justify this” –  terrorism has no religion, and you know it better than many of us.

Today, our most urgent responsibility is democratisation of secular knowledge. If we fail in this, we fail our children. We snatch the 21st century out of their grasp.

Mr. Akbar, we, the members of the larger Muslim community, are equally concerned about the democratization of all knowledge, not just secular. If we are committed to freedom as the topmost priority, we must also collectively ensure freedom of religious knowledge for religious minorities in a secular state like India. However, this seems to be receding at a treacherous rate in India, because today educational institutions of religious minorities are getting stereotyped with images of repression, regression, violence, and most importantly, of breeding antinationalism the same way as the larger Muslim community is, through selective use of popular imagery. On the other hand, the religious identity of the Muslim community in India is also at stake in secular educational institutions in India – many secular educational institutions forcibly endorse other religious doctrines that confront the Muslim identity, be it in the name of Saraswati Vandana or any other such means.

If we fail in this commitment to safeguard the freedom of religious knowledge, we fail our children. We snatch their identity as a religious (minority) citizen of a secular state out of their grasp – a secular state that guarantees this right through its “Constitution infused with freedom as a living right”. You, being in the capacity of a member of the ruling party in a secular, modern state, we strongly believe we can look up to you for this.

Finally, we must understand why faith-based terrorists are anti-modern. They challenge the nation state, which is the principal building block of the architecture of contemporary stability.

Mr. Akbar, you are right; terrorists are anti-modern. But not all faith-based groups are terrorists. Some are offshoots of the oppression and threat to their religious identities; a religious/social minority. In such cases, the agencies and principles that tender fear, threat, and retribution to any minority and their religious/social identity in a secular, modern state are equally guilty. They are also terrorists by their own definition. “They use fear, induced by havoc, to build walls of fear in societies that live by civilizational values of harmony across differences of faith and ethnicity”– walls that help them pursue their own nefarious and reprehensive interests. Terrorism is not a respite for all this, we agree. “It is a war that must be fought not just on the ground, but also in the mind.” The majority community in a modern, secular state must learn to acknowledge and appreciate the differences in the religious/social identities of the minorities. The majority community must allow them the freedom to coexist with their distinctive identity, just like they take pride in flaunting their own religious identity; and not live in fear of being lynched to death for sporting a beard or dressing in an abaya. If we don’t do so, it shall abrade the concept of a modern, secular state, and our commitment to prioritize freedom.

Mr. Akbar, we congratulate you on presenting a bold and distinguished stand on the priority of freedom in a modern, secular state, like India, and commend your commitment to holding it. Commensurate with this commitment, we the concerned members of the Muslim community in India would like to draw your attention towards an ongoing assault to this freedom, which is getting rampant across our beloved secular state these days, a convulsive assault on the religious and social minorities, framed along binaries heavy with prejudice. With all its might and power, India is in the midst of a revolution of ideas, science, literature, culture that will make the 21st century into the golden age of individual freedom and collective achievement. But of what use will it be to us if the revolution sweeps through the streets outside our homes, but we remain trapped in political/social/religious binaries heavy with prejudice, and we refused to open doors to freedom of religious/social identities of minorities and conversing the secular and modern fabric of India?

Sharjeel Ahmad is MBA and an Economics graduate. He is an instructional designer by profession and is presently based in Saudi Arabia. He has keen interest in social, economic, and political issues facing Indian populace, with special emphasis on minority issues.

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