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Dear epistolarians,

Salam alaikum. I thank you for your concern about my community, and felt it would be rude not to reply (I hear there is another reply floating around, but that one reveals the authors’ angst more than any coherent comment). Now to be clear, I do not claim to speak for India’s 150 million Muslims but of them. No doubt, my own socio-cultural and economic biases will seep in frequently, but I do hope you are not still under the illusion of perfect objectivity.

To explain the lay of the land, you must first understand that Islam is not a centralised religion – we have no Pope, even if we do have a fixed text like the other Abrahamic faiths. Islamic law, therefore, varies widely from region to region, and there are fours schools of legal thought. Decrees from our clergy are only as binding as the acceptance of the particular qadi pronouncing judgement. In personal matters, that faith is high, but in matters of geopolitics, that trust runs much shallower. Notice, for example, the disagreement between Gulf clerics and the Muslim Brotherhood.

Secondly, to get to more mundane matters, Muslims, like every other community, come in all hues – some are conservative, while others are orthodox; some are liberal, while yet others are indifferent; some are spiritual, while a fringe are, admittedly, radical. If this spread is not repeated in every community whether you divide people based on religion, ethnicity, or something else, I will eat your taqiyah! So when you write “Dear Muslims,” rest assured, most of us are looking around wondering, “Who, me?”

Now, let us start with the question on most of your minds: terrorism. I am sure most of you will agree that there has been a spurt in Islamic militancy, particularly in the last 15 years. Now, I am not sure if you noticed, but that violence carried out in the name of religion has less to do with its stated reason and more to do with power. Most terrorists have been dismal failures in expressing their cause, but US support of totalitarian regimes in Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Iraq, etc, overthrow of democracy in Iran, Israeli treatment of Palestinians in the occupied territories, and other such political reasons have fuelled the upsurge in terrorism; tragically, its leaders use the ambiguous category of religion as a means of luring followers. My explanation is not a defence of terrorist methods; in fact, the version of Islamic society these monsters envision – beheading, capital punishment, stoning, extreme gender discrimination – is abhorrent to many Muslims and goes against the most basic Islamic tenet of social justice (remember zakaat?). All but the radicals would agree that terrorists, whatever religion they claim to fight for, are enemies of society that should be resisted and defeated. just be wary of primitive social profiling based on ungrounded suppositions.

Muslims have fought Muslims from the earliest days of Islam just as much as they have fought non-Muslims. To this day, you see inter-sect as well as inter-faith conflict involving Islam, clearly indicating that religion is not necessarily the motivating factor in everything we do. To some, religion is important and to others, less so; yet to assume it is our only identity, even our prime identity, is about as sensible as assuming that someone buying a Tata Nano is expressing his or her solidarity with Narendra Modi because the factory is in Gujarat.

To turn this around a bit, let us ask you – are you Hindu, Tamil, or Indian? Can you be all? Can you be motivated by just one of those in certain tasks, two of those in others, and all three in yet others? I suspect you can, so why do I have to choose between being Muslim, Tamilian, and Indian?

Then comes the issue of the crude stereotypes – if you see all Muslims as Osama bin Laden or Hafiz Saeed, then by the same logic, are all Catholics like Tomás de Torquemada, Protestants like Anders Breivik, Jews like the first-century Kanaim or Yigal Amir, and Sikhs like Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale? Are all Hindus traitors like BK Sinha or Madhuri Gupta and assassins like Madan Lal Dhingra or Nathuram Godse? Or perhaps you think APJ Kalam, Altamas Kabir, Idris Hasan Latif, Shahabuddin Yaqoob Quraishi, and Asif Ibrahim are also terrorists? You can harbour such essentialist thoughts, but do not be surprised if we treat you as quacks.

Please don’t misunderstand me – there are indeed many problems with the Muslim community, and you are absolutely right that no one is taking on the fanatics out of fear. Yet to see this as a purely Muslim problem again misses the texture of the issue. For example, honour killings are not uncommon in Islam; yet they are not unheard of among Hindus either, particularly in the case of inter-caste or inter-faith relations. While the anti-religious lobby brigade like to find fault with religion itself, the fact is that it is a cultural problem, and there have been cases of honour killings even among atheistic families due to their cultural influence. Similarly, with female genital mutilation, it is an abhorrent custom that has tried to creep into religion but remains largely restricted to Africa more than to all Muslim lands and communities.

Some of you wonder why we hold ourselves apart from the rest of India like partially immiscible liquids; Muslim ghettoes exist in every nook and cranny of India. Yes, it is true that we have our own communities. It is also true that many of us have mingled quite freely with our Hindu and other neighbours during festivals and other occasions for celebrations such as marriages and births. Again, the reasons for this need not be religious – people segregate themselves based on caste, class, dietary habits, ethnicity, and various other criteria. You might not know this, but some Muslims refuse to live in certain Muslim areas for class reasons!

Personally, I have enjoyed the fruits of a liberal education in England, France, and the United States. I love my Faiz and Ghalib as much as I adore Balzac and Petrarch. However, very few people in the world – of any religion – have that sort of fortune. Imagine an Indian family of four earning ₹69,000 per annum – they would probably have to rely on state welfare and poor government schools or madaris to make ends meet. In this intellectually stultifying environment, there is the added burden of quotidian life in India – electricity and water shortages, corruption, poor infrastructure, and all those other problems successive governments have promised to solve since 1947. In the midst of these pressures, what do you think would be the impact of being asked repeatedly to prove one’s patriotism? Of being asked to officially accept that one’s ancestors were Hindu? Of being put in the spotlight for refusing to sing the Vande Mataram despite an explicit religious injunction on iconography? Of having to fight to eat whatever one wants? Of all those snide, covert and not-so-covert comments about one’s ancestors having voted for the formation of Pakistan in 1947 and the suggestion that perhaps one ought to go there? Does a free citizen of a democratic country have to put up with such haranguing?

Before you all collectively jump down my throat, it ought to also be conceded that the recent walkout by the Bahujan Samaj Party MP Shafiqur Rahman Barq during the playing of the Vande Mataram was deplorable – as a country of multiple communities, the respectful thing to do would have been to stay but not sing. I am glad to see that Barq’s action has been criticised by voices from most segments of the political spectrum, the BJP, Congress, as well as the Communists. Such pandering to the radical votebank must have strong negative consequences.

Another issue that pops us when the “M” word is mentioned is Babri Masjid. Hindus are right that the mosque was not of particular importance to Muslims, and that it was rarely used. However, any building that is over 450 years old is a part of Indian history and it ought to be of value for at least that reason. The merits of the case can be decided by the courts, but what is hurtful is the venomous Rath Yatra led by LK Advani and the crowd mobilisation for the destruction of the structure. As if that were not enough, a year later, the Bombay Riots orchestrated by Bal Thackeray in celebration only added salt to the wound. While Advani has since said that his role was unintentional in the demolition and expressed regret for 6/12 his loss of control over the crowd, the Shiv Sena was allowed to disband the Srikrishna Commission. Reconvened with a skewed mandate that included the Bombay blasts of 1993, the report it produced was nevertheless rejected and no action has been taken to punish the guilty. Muslims might eventually come to terms with Advani’s and the Babri Masjid incident, but the unabashed revelry and criminal inaction of the BJP’s ally in Maharashtra casts doubt on the sincerity of their outreach to the Muslim community.

The destruction of Indic religious structures and the erection of mosques upon those very sites is, no doubt, a grievous offence Muslim rulers of yore gave local populations, and a human tragedy. Yet is there no statute of limitations on these sorts of civilisational crimes? Should we exterminate the Israelis for killing and chasing out the Philistines from Judea some 3,500 years ago, or perhaps the Europeans and Americans for their intrusion into the New World? Even among Muslims who are not particularly attached to the Babri Masjid issue, the question arises up to what point one can go back to settle old scores. Furthermore, what does it mean to be an Indian? In a multi-cultural society like India, short of genocide, these questions will continue to haunt unless a common sensical approach is taken.

The greatest irony in all this Hindu-Muslim acrimony is importance you give to the All India Muslim Personal Law Board (AIMPLB). The body is a private non-governmental organisation whose views are taken as largely representing all Indian Muslims. They threatened political action against the High Court ruling on Babri Masjid, objected to Salman Rushdie at the Jaipur Literature Festival, disagreed with the Right of Children for Free and Compulsory Education Act, opposed gay marriage, supported child marriage, and resisted change in divorce law for Muslim women.

Interestingly, while the government accepts this non-elected organisation’s claim to represent all Indian Muslims, it is Muslims who have problems with the board – there have already been two splinters, the All India Shia Personal Law Board (AISPLB) and the All India Muslim Women’s Personal Law Board (AIMWPLB). For all the talk of shariah, how many Indian Muslim men actually have more than one wife? Most Muslims, in India or elsewhere, do not apply each and every facet of of Islamic law to their lives. By focussing on the AIMPLB, in essence, the Indian government has made, as Prayaag Akbar pointed out, a more regressive faction of the Muslim community the voice of all Muslims. For all the hungama you raise about Muslims, how many politicians have challenged the AIMPLB’s position as the sole voice of Indian Muslims? Would you allow, say, the Art of Living Foundation to represent all Hindus in religious matters? More importantly, why has my personal relationship with God become a matter of national policy?

No conversation on Muslims in India, particularly around elections, ends without mentioning the other “M” word – Modi. Many of you would like to know why we do not support Narendra Modi as a prime ministerial candidate. I am not sure if you noticed, but many did vote for him in the Gujarat Assembly elections last year, and there are some Muslims in his party. So make up your minds – did he win from Muslim-majority districts or do Muslims not vote for him? It cannot be both. As Zafar Sareshwala points out in an interesting article, most of Modi’s critics are actually Hindu.

Non-support has many reasons – disagreement with economics, distaste for others in the party, and yes, the unease many feel over the whole Godhra issue. You can score political points with the Congress about 1984 and whatever else, but as far as many Muslims are concerned, even those who acknowledge his governance record, there is a black mark against his name that will take time to fade away. Let us not pretend to have no emotions!

All this started with Chetan Bhagat’s letter. There were issues with his letter, as many have pointed out, but the letter was really not as bad as people have made it out to be. Bhagat appealed to our better instincts, did not play up fault lines, and talked of Muslims as part of the Indian whole. Despite whatever analytical weaknesses exist in his letter, his intentions were, in all probability, noble. What we need is more reassuring Chetan Bhagats and fewer fear-mongering and hate-spouting Praveen Togadias or Subramaniam Swamys. If you genuinely want to work towards a congruence of visions between India’s two largest religious communities, learn about us with an open mind: historical flexibility and half-baked notions about civilisational friction are best left to demagogues. If you are more than your rhetoric about a strong and united country, give us our due – treat us as countrymen.

Yours sincerely,

(The author of this piece is an education industry professional in New York. He is an acquaintance of the owner of this blog, Chaturanga, and it was requested that this letter be reproduced here as well.)

A version of this post appeared on Rediff on July 22, 2013.