Expert examines why India’s Muslims are in crisis

Expert examines why India’s Muslims are in crisis
asghar-aliIn an interview with Deutsche Welle, leading Muslim intellectual Asghar Ali Engineer analyzes the reasons for the lack of progressive Muslim leaders in India.
Asghar Ali Engineer is head of the Mumbai-based Institute of Islamic Studies and the Centre for the Study of Secularism and Society (CSSS).

Deutsche Welle: One often hears Muslims complain that they suffer from a leadership crisis, that they have no leaders, in the true sense of the term, to guide them. How do you see this complaint?

Asghar Ali Engineer: There is, undeniably, a serious leadership crisis among Muslims, but I don’t think this problem is specific to them alone. Rather, it is one that affects the country as a whole as well. Of course, with regard to the Muslims, the crisis is even more acute because, on the whole, they are educationally, economically and socially backward. Further, most Indian Muslims are descendants of converts from various what are today called Dalit and backward castes, and they still carry that historical baggage. The state as well as Muslim community organizations have done little or nothing for their educational and economic empowerment. So, to expect a progressive leadership to emerge from their ranks is perhaps unrealistic.

There are no charismatic Muslim leaders with a strong following, not even at the regional level. Instead, the leaders they have are all dependent on the patronage of some political party or the other, and lack grassroots links and an independent voice.

The crisis of the Muslim leadership needs to be seen in a historical context. Prior to 1947, there was a sizeable Muslim middle-class, which had emerged, for the most part, from the decaying feudal order, and they had a long tradition of cultural and intellectual activity. Many of them set up educational institutions, worked for social reform and heralded a new progressive social consciousness. Many of them migrated to Pakistan in 1947. The Muslim middle-class that remained was simply too small to assert itself and to carry on with the work that progressive sections of the pre-1947 Muslim middle class had been engaged in.

From the 1980s onwards, a new Muslim middle-class began to emerge in northern India, but, in contrast to its pre-1947 counterpart, it emerged largely from the Muslim “low” castes, who lacked the cultural capital of the latter. Moreover, its quest for upward social mobility and assertion is often expressed in the form of a very conservative sort of religiosity, such as in building fancy mosques or patronizing madrassas, which only exacerbates the malaise of the Muslims rather than solving it. In addition, with job options limited for the growing Muslim middle-class in India, many of them have taken up better-paying jobs in the Gulf, from where they often return with a very conservative understanding of Islam, which they seek to propagate here.

Why is it that almost all organizations that claim to represent the Indian Muslims are mullah-led?

The major reason for the continued hold of the maulvis on the Muslim populace and the influence they enjoy is because the vast majority of Indian Muslims are backward – economically, educationally, socially and intellectually. The power of the conservative maulvis is strengthened by their nexus with political parties that regularly court them in order to use them to garner Muslim votes. This works to strengthen the influence of the maulvis, who are wrongly projected by these parties as the representatives of the Muslims, a claim that the maulvis themselves never tire of asserting.

The Urdu papers are also deeply complicit in this nexus with the maulvis, routinely projecting them as the leaders of the community. But how can the maulvis provide proper leadership at all when they know next to nothing about the modern world? The intellectual backwardness of the maulvis is immediately apparent from the absurd fatwas that keep being issued from one madrassa or the other. And, because they exercise such a major influence on the Muslims through the community institutions that they control, the maulvis have an impact far beyond what their numbers might otherwise suggest on the way millions of Muslims think.

But what about the Muslim middle-class, small though it may be? Why have they been unable or unwilling to challenge the authority of the maulvis or their way of understanding the world and Islam?

I think this has much to do with the educational system in India in general. It is definitely not geared to promoting critical thought. Rather, it stresses conformity. It produces docile, not questioning, minds. And that is reflected in the acceptance of conservative interpretations of religion even among the supposedly educated middle-class.

Take, for instance, the leading Muslim center for modern education in India, the Aligarh Muslim University. It is in the grip of the most conservative elements, such as the Tablighi Jamaat and the Jamaat-e Islami. Huge numbers of Muslim students in this university are members or activists or sympathizers of these two movements that are definitely not progressive. Given this, how can one expect and hope for the middle-class that is under the influence of such movements to play a socially progressive role? Matters are made worse because of the growing demonization of Islam, which only strengthens Muslim conservative elements and forces Muslims to retreat into their shells.

Yet another factor is at work which inhibits the possibility of the growing modern-educated Muslim middle-class from articulating socially progressive thinking. This is the growing tendency among students – and this holds true irrespective of community – to go in for technical, professional courses, courses such as computers or management and commerce, which are subjects that might get them highly-paid jobs, but which certainly do not produce critical minds. And so, they readily and uncritically accept religious conservatism. By and large, they are so taken up by their careers and their consumerist aspirations that they simply have no interest, time and energy for social issues.

How can the process of shifting the agenda of Muslim organizations, from mere identity-related issues to substantive issues of economic and educational empowerment, be facilitated?

For this to happen, the Muslim middle-class will certainly have to play a more important role in community affairs, which can happen only if the maulvis are sidelined. Things have been made even more difficult than they might otherwise have been with Gulf petrodollars financing a considerable number of madrassas all over India. These Arab patrons have no interest whatsoever in promoting modern education and the economic advancement of the Muslim poor. Many rich Arab sheiks are so neck-deep in corruption that they think that by patronizing madrassas in poor countries like India they can have some of their sins washed away! So you have this huge amount of money coming into India to fund splendid, palace-like madrassa buildings, even in small villages, and these are centers for promoting very conservative interpretations of Islam. Poor Muslims might want to send their children to modern, English-medium schools, but because they are simply unable to afford their high fees, they are forced, often out of economic compulsion, to educate them in these conservative madrassas.

I think that the upper caste or “ashraf” mentality, based on an extremely feudal culture, is still very deeply-rooted in the psyche of Muslim organizations, especially in the Urdu-Hindi belt. They seem indifferent to the plight of the non-ashraf poor, who form the vast majority of the Indian Muslim population. It would directly challenge their internal hegemony – in quite the same way as upper caste Hindus, in general, are viscerally opposed to the empowerment of the Dalits. But there are many reasons why the Muslim lower caste or Dalit movement has not really gained ground despite the fact that low castes form the majority of the Indian Muslim population, and one of them is that no party wants to do anything substantial for the Muslim masses. If a party does something, it is immediately accused of “Muslim appeasement”. Furthermore, in this age of neo-liberalism, popular movements in general have declined. The left is in crisis. Even the workers’ movement in places like Mumbai has been captured by Hindutva groups. In the face of Hindutva chauvinism, the voices of conservative Muslim forces that do not favor progressive popular movements gain an additional boost. In such a situation, it becomes even more difficult for the low caste Muslims to challenge ashraf hegemony and articulate a progressive political and religious discourse.

Have the organizations that claim to represent Islam and all the Muslims of India ever evinced any interest in Muslim women’s educational and economic advancement?

I am afraid these Muslim organizations are definitely not making any progressive and substantive demands on the state as far as Muslim women are concerned. Rather, many of their demands are thoroughly reactionary, such as opposing much-needed reforms in the Muslim Personal Law, which continues to heavily discriminate against women, although this is not mandated by the Quran. In fact, I would say that Muslim defenders of patriarchy, including these Muslim organizations, have succeeded in completely paralyzing half of the Muslim community – women. They definitely do not want Muslim women to be empowered.

How is it that we have so few progressive Islamic scholars like yourself in India today? Why is it that your books are rarely to be found in Muslim bookshops, and that your writings are looked at with distaste by most conservative Muslims in India?

Let me answer your last question first. Since I challenge many of their interpretations of Islam on a host of issues, it is natural that conservatives vehemently disagree with much that I write on Islam, even though I adduce Quranic references and proofs for my views. That is why Indian Muslim organizations, which are mostly very conservative, have not evinced any interest in translating my writings on Islam into Urdu. But it is not true to say that my writings on Islam are not appreciated by many Indian Muslims. On the contrary, thinking Muslims, who are fed up of the narrow-mindedness of the maulvis, do agree with what I say.

As for the promotion of progressive Islamic discourse, the task is extremely difficult. When the education system itself is not geared to producing questioning minds, how can you expect people to dare to think out-of-the-box? Furthermore, Muslims have been made so insecure in India, especially with the ongoing witch-hunt against innocents in the name of countering terrorism, that the prospects of progressive Islamic discourse seem even more remote than before. In such an environment, conservative, insular discourses thrive, even among the modern-educated middle-class.

I think another major hurdle to promoting progressive Islamic thinking is the work culture of most Muslim institutions, which does not tolerate dissent and critical thinking. They are often run on dictatorial lines, being steeped in a feudal ethos. Their work culture is dismally unprofessional. Employees are often treated like servants. The moment you start thinking on your own, the moment you question your bosses, you are branded as an “enemy.” That is also the case with the madrassas.

Interviewer: Yoginder Sikand
Editor: Thomas Baerthlein


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