On why Varun deserves a hug
In the hurly-burly of reactions to the hate speeches attributed to BJP leader Varun Gandhi, something has been missing: the return fire. So far, reactionary Muslim leaders have been far more restrained than is usually seen of them. To me, this silence is golden. To me, this is good news that nobody flashed, for only bad news is good news for the media that milk discords.
One does not deem it proper to repeat what Gandhi is alleged to have said.
It is enough to curdle one’s blood and fill any citizen with horror. But we do not miss the wanton fatwas and law defying rewards either, like the one announced on the head of the Danish cartoonist. It may not be too late before an enraged Muslim gunned for Gandhi’s scalp. But Muslims have not reacted in extremes so far. Those who did only demanded action under the law. Have we finally grown up?
Gandhi has disputed the video footage as tampered. It is possible that this could be a convenient explanation from somebody facing so much heat.
On the face of it, the Election Commission, India’s poll regulator, feels there is no reason to give him the benefit of doubt. However, I won’t wait for the lab results.
Regardless of what Gandhi spoke — he has not denied it’s him on that tape, but disowns the voice — I would give Varun Gandhi a big hug. If he really didn’t spew vitriol on Muslims, Gandhi deserves a hug. And if he did, he needs one.
Confronting hate with love — one of Mahatma Gandhi’s enduring talismans — is a very effective tool. A big hug to anybody who spreads hate is more than just a contrived strategy. An international campaign can potentially be built around it and we as Indian Muslims can take the lead. The Free Hugs Campaign, a social campaign that involves hugging strangers in public places, was a rage until it unfortunately ran into privacy issues.
Hate against Muslims is an element of Islamophobia, which, like anti-Semitism, is a racist process. The kind of invective that can be heard on the Pilibhit tapes closely brushes past the two hallmarks of both Islamophobia and anti-Semitism: (a) hate and (b) fear of a religion and its followers. And do not forget, a phobia means an irrational fear.
The voice on the Pilibhit tapes could well have been that of the Dutch politician Geert Wilders, the unapologetic Islamophobe and an exemplar of anti-Muslim hate in Europe. Like Wilders, the voice on the Pilibhit tapes talked about Muslims being “scary”. Like Wilders talking of stopping Muslim migration into Europe, the voice on the Pilibhit tapes talked of pushing Indian Muslims over to Pakistan.
This is an echo of what European Muslims have had to undergo. The European Monitoring Center on Racism and Xenophobia, an EU wing, had come out with a 115-page report titled “Muslims in the European Union — Discrimination and Islamophobia” in 1996. The report, among other things, mentioned a Dutch Muslim woman’s predicament. This woman would often be asked: “When are you going back?” To this, the Dutch Muslim woman would say, “I was born in Rotterdam, so where do I go?”
Yet, there is a difference between people like Wilders and opinions expressed by the voice on the Pilibhit tapes. Wilders suffers from a seemingly morbid fear of a possible takeover of Netherlands by immigrant Muslims. The voice, however, was driven by the aim to polarise votes. To that end, it sought to exploit Islamophobia politically. This was not even Hindutva speaking, because right-wing forces deny Hindutva is radical Hindu fundamentalism. It’s something far above this, greater in stature as a concept and inclusive as an ideology, according to them. So, we were sorry to hear what we did.
There is obvious anxiety about Islam today and Wilders may be under a life threat from radical Muslims in Europe. But many Muslims are already responding to Islamophobia with patience, counsel and gradual exposure to the religion.
In 1997, the Runnymede Trust, which deals with multi-ethnic compatibility, had set up the first Commission on British Muslims and Islamophobia. The commission’s landmark consultative document was released by the then British home secretary Jack Straw. Sixty recommendations were spelt out for government departments, agencies, local and regional statutory bodies, and voluntary non-profits. Muslims were exhorted to increase their stake in society. It was noted that there was considerable improvement in media portrayals of Islam as a result. That is the way forward.
Sometime ago, Pritha Chatterjee, a young mass communications student from Delhi’s Indraprashtha College, had come to me for the spadework on her graduation film on Islamophobia in India. My gut response was this: The only way for Muslims to tackle Islamophobia is to handle it creatively. Hate of Islam, like anti-Semitism, breeds from a view that Muslims are different and inherently violent. So, a fatwa here and a threat there do not help. Rather, this only reinforces the hatred.
Hate speeches are often driven by political power and selfish agenda rather than any broad clash of cultures or beliefs. Here’s my dummies guide to fighting hate creatively:
(a) Invite the offender to your community. People no longer demonise somebody they have met, known or broken bread with
(b) Islamophobes and anti-Semites look upon Muslims and Jews as a monolith, all with a uniform outlook. Tell them that no two Jews and Muslims are alike. People are conditioned according to their social ethos
(c) Highlight to the offender your community’s positive contributions to society though e-mails, online communities on Facebook, blogs and Twitter.
(d) The offender sees the community he targets as one with no common ground, values or culture. Prove this wrong. Bring to light our collective common values
Because of its brevity, this list is naturally not complete. There’s a lot more you can add. But don’t forget the big hug.