Liberal Muslim is an insulting label



I despise the term ‘Liberal Muslim’, although sometimes I use it for the sake of convenience. It is invariably used in a patronizing way and it perpetuates, what I call, the “zoo effect”.

Just as a child marvels at the sight of caged animals, attention is sought to be drawn to certain Muslims perceived as “liberal”.

The term is applied to Muslim individuals who may be seen to be behaving in a certain way, especially if that behaviour undercuts the Muslim stereotype.

For instance, a Muslim who drinks is looked upon as a liberal Muslim, although he may not have the foggiest idea of what liberalism as a political concept constitutes.

His liberalism may just be about the love of the smell of good wine. It’s so much like the common practice of mistaking a nattily dressed person as the modern man.

There is a tremendous mixing up of labels insofar as our understanding of various shades of thought, as applied to Muslims, is concerned.

My maternal grandfather, a medical doctor who mostly worked in British-owned tea plantations in Assam, was looked upon as a modernist and a liberal, mostly because of his lifestyle.

His shoes had to be so well polished that he could see his face in it. He ate a light supper and had a long English overcoat he invariably wore in winters.

Being a doctor, he used to deride plantation labourers for thinking small pox was caused by a curse. He also had a swagger and people’s notion of an English-speaking, well-dressed middle-aged doctor was that of a liberal Muslim.

He was a ‘believing’ Muslim but an unconventional one. He once slapped the cleric of the local mosque for stepping into his home without knocking or pressing the doorbell.

As the learned imam, he ought to have cared about the household’s women, who were startled by the sudden intrusion, albeit by the friendly neighbourhood imam.

This act of enforcing etiquette on a religious figurehead was instantly construed as a liberal act, even though grandpa’s views about John Locke’s life and liberty weren’t exactly known.

Nowadays, the term liberal is applied to Muslims who are apparently unIslamic or not overly religious, although Islamic values can be ‘liberal’ in their own way.

I have always maintained that, whether in the media, university classrooms or public discussions, there’s a lot of confusion about what Islam is and what it isn’t.

The peculiarities of Islam – as viewed from the prism of modernity – was accentuated by the events of 9/11, a cut-off date that permanently changed Islam in the eyes of millions.

Normatively speaking, certain Islamic values are germane to modern political liberalism as an ideology. The concept of ‘ummah’, for example, is primarily that of solidarity among Muslims, and by extension, equality among men, regardless of their social class, race or colour.

Islam endorsed women’s education, their right to property and their right to work. (The Prophet was an employee of his wife. So, there was a Muslim woman as a boss 1,400 years ago).

However, Islam also ordained limits for women, which, judged by modern notions of freedoms, obviously appear anachronistic.

True, Islam isn’t readily compatible with modernity or its features, such as markets, capitalism, liberalism and individual freedoms. No religion is.

Yet, there is a case for, and possibility of, reconciling Islam with these postmodern political frameworks, as some scholars have already argued.

Of late, there is this tendency to view Indian Sunni Muslims, who follow the Deobandi school of thought, as extremists and radicals. This is ridiculous.

Sufis particularly are thought to be peace-loving, while others aren’t. Such a claim was made by the right-wing BJP’s spokesperson Meenakshi Lekhi on television recently.

The BJP’s Subramanian Swamy, who is a bigot, in my view, has even talked of exploiting this division. What are these, if not nefarious designs?

For instance, Barelvi Muslims, who follow a 19th century movement founded by Ahmed Riza Khan Barelvi of Barreilly, are perceived to be harmonious, as opposed to Deobandis, as Lekhi stated.

Any belief system can be taken to a radical extreme. The Governor of Pakistan’s Punjab province Salman Taseer was actually murdered by a follower of the Barelvi sect for committing “blasphemy”.

The differences between Deobandis and Barelvis are about the right way of worshiping. However, Barelvis are increasingly trying to convert this into political differences, while the conservative Deobandi theological establishment has always sought to ridicule Barelvis.

I see no problem with such differences as long as they don’t border on bigotry or violate the law or become violent. In fact, when Muslims quarrel in this way (and I use the term quarrel in a liberal way) they are only being characteristically Muslim.

Debate is an inherent part of Islam. For example, the Prophet would say that his followers would never agree on a wrong thing.

Yet, the big picture is more important and it is this.

Islam in India remains a uniquely successful model of Muslims managing to largely reconcile their faith with some expressly modern concepts by subjecting themselves to a Constitution that is modern and liberal.

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