Through the Muslim lens, darkly



One would have expected journalist Hasan Suroor to de jure write a book on the UK’s largely immigrant Muslim population. The Hindu’s former London correspondent would have had rich pickings to offer readers on the more febrile issues surrounding a vigorous community of which he was a part for “well over a decade”.

For example, is there really a contradiction between “being British” and “being Muslim”? What possibilities exist to reconcile these incongruities? Home-grown terror? How do far-right outfits, such as the English Defence League, and Muslim extremists in Britain deepen the divide? And why did British minister Baroness Sayeeda Warsi famously point out that prejudice against Muslims had passed “the dinner-table test” to become socially acceptable in the UK? (I’m craving for one such book.)

However, Suroor chooses India’s Muslims, not Britain’s, as the canvas of his petite book India’s Muslim Spring. He manages to botch up his project at many places.

“Cultural change” in a community, Suroor writes, cannot be scientifically measured. So, any book that seeks to do precisely that is fraught. Suroor sees in young Muslims today a yearning for progress, education and more “liberal” values, against an older and more conservative tinder-box generation.

The dipstick of change in India’s Muslim community for Suroor is his own early life in the warrens of Delhi’s Ballimaran, the old Muslim quarters.

There was little “very religious fervour” then, “near deserted mosques” and little assertion of Muslim identity (women wore burqa under compulsion, not out of choice), he says.

Today, there is “new religiosity in the air”, full of “pucca namazis” (dogged believers). Despite being deeply religious, their “worldview” is “secular”, almost an Indian exceptionalism, as it were. These conclusions are anecdotal, not empirical.

Yet, ten chapters and two decades later, “nothing much appears to have changed”. Muslims still remain very sensitive to “insult” of Islam.

Suroor manages to build up an untested confusion – between a more secular past and religious present – without quite successfully resolving them.

The measure of modernity Saroor encounters among Muslims today are in the form of some temporal tropes: a religious Aqueel Ahmed with a “Blackberry” and clad in a pair of “faded blue denims”. Such examples only perpetuate a condescending “zoo effect”. Just as a child marvels at animals performing circus tricks not expected of them, attention is sought to be drawn to Muslims who take to wordly vocations, not just religious ones. A smartphone is hardly the hand tool of liberal modernity. (Terrorists tend to use technology just as well).

The true Indian exceptionalism lies in the uniquely successful model of Indian Muslims’ unflinching acceptance of a secular, modern and democratic republic.

Weighed against the Arab world, the “Indian spring” was long upon Muslims. The signs of a heralding winter, however, needed examination: terror and the late effects of events, such as Babri Masjid episode and Gujarat riots. Or the political dilemma of accommodating a growing demand from Muslims for special policy attention and group-differentiated rights without jeopardising common citizenship.

The writer uses the term “Muslim fundamentalism” rather lazily to denote a “protestant Islam” but what he actually discovers – in the likes of Aqueel Ahmed – is an Islam profoundly shaped by modernity, to borrow a phrase from Prof. Francis Robinson.

However praiseworthy Suroor’s attempt to chronicle the New Muslim, his evasion of some egregious issues is frustrating and makes for a rather familiar scrutiny of the world’s third-largest Muslim nationality. “India’s Muslim Spring” however signifies a growing sentiment among many Muslims to propel the community on the path to successful lives.
(A version of this piece appeared in the print edition of the Hindustan Times.)

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