Among other things, we have conveniently decided the religion of names as well in India. My Persian sounding name usually gives away my religion and many do try to locate me socio-politically and ideologically. Coming from a small town in Indo-Bangladesh border of Assam, I was reminded of my religion when I moved to Delhi to pursue my graduation. In the corridors of a premier institution I was reminded something which I conveniently thought irrelevant.
I was a resident of the beautiful Miranda House hostel which was a second home to girls coming from different places in India as well as different socio-economic and cultural backgrounds. Clad in my shorts and an oversize T-shirt I didn’t look how many would expect a twenty something Muslim girl to look like. That actually paved the way for people to open their hearts as well as their misinformed prejudices in front of me. I was told by a senior about the food habits of Muslims. I could see she was referring to a certain nomadic tribe of Middle East and conflating it to a characteristic of the entire religion. I corrected her and did mention that I was also a Muslim and we don’t eat like that. My senior was very apologetic and careful in front of me from then onwards. I found the entire episode funny at best.
My beautiful college opened my mind and my eyes to Feminism and religion based discrimination and concern about it was usually put on the backburner. But the next time I was reminded of ‘Us’ and ‘them’ was during a class lecture. We had vibrant class discussions and among one of those, a class mate mentioned that how she would prefer to turn to ‘one of her own’ during crisis. At its immediacy I didn’t find anything wrong with it but it kept coming back to me from time to time. When a teacher asked me something about Islamic history, I was embarrassed by my ignorance.
I continued to be a non-religious person at best if not an atheist. But once I moved to Jawaharlal Nehru University, some things changed. The campus politics which taught us the need to stand up for the rights of the marginalized and the excluded made me take cognizance of the fact that Muslims were also one of the communities which faced systemic exclusion. As a community it was facing problems at multiple levels. There were problems within the community and there were problems the community faced from outside factors. To have a voice within the community I stopped discarding my ascriptive religious identity. It didn’t seem much of a baggage.
I accepted that I was a Muslim woman who hailed from a Northeastern state, but I knew I was more than that also. Identity is multi layered and one must maneuver through its multiple layers. The problem however starts when one is often told that how one aspect of his/her identity is overdetermining. You are reduced to your religious identity. Religious identities are politicized and one is often reminded of one’s religion. Stereotyping people on the basis of their identity is very much present.
It was amidst the discourses on the experience of the excluded in the nation, I started thinking of how it must be for many to grow reminded of being a Muslim regularly. It was a religion to which many stigmas were also attached from time to time. Coming from a comparatively liberal Muslim family, it was not easy for me to relate to such harrowed tales of systemic exclusion. But being aware of the changed attitude of many on hearing my name, I could not dismiss those stories either.
When friends told me they could not find accommodation, I wondered how it felt to be told where all one cannot live. I was lucky enough to have lived in hostels and being spared such humiliation. But on a different level I could relate to these Muslims. There is a tendency to locate Muslims ideologically merely based on their religious identity. Their stand on issues is taken for granted until proven otherwise.
As a friend who went from being an atheist to a political Muslim puts it, reducing someone to his/her immediate identity and reminding the same constantly is violent to say the least. And Muslims are often subjected to it. It starts with a prejudiced belief that most Muslims tacitly support Islamic fundamentalism. Hence the demand that they should be on a condemnation spree of things that are happening thousands of miles away. There is a constant pressure on them to disown the activity of someone with whom they may have the widest ideological differences.
Such generalisation is a consequence of denying the diversity within the community. It is also an impact of rising visibility of influence of Wahabism. Nobody should deny the presence of radical elements. But it is a case across the religions. However in India a major portion of Muslims are still nearer to the lower rungs of social ladder. While it is a fertile ground for breeding ultra religiosity, it also shows that the priority of a major portion of the community is an improvement of livelihood. Hasan Suroor in his book India’s Muslim Spring talks about a younger generation which has tuned a fine balance between religion and a forward looking attitude.
With everything going through a change, our ideas about communities should also not be frozen in time. Muslim religious leaders have thankfully come out condemning terror activities done in the name of Islam. This has helped not so religious Muslims like me for whom entering any debate is based on the pre-condition of clarifying my stand on every wrong thing committed by Muslims till date. It is no doubt frustrating that my religious identity makes it imperative for me to make a point that I condemn Malda just as I condemned Dadri.
When I decided to be within the fold of Islam, I rediscovered my religion through the scholarly writings of Asghar Ali Engineer, Ziauddin Sardar, Amina Wadud and others. While the community has a large number of problems, if we who are not influenced by a narrow reading of religion, are not conveniently placed on the ideological spectrum can actually work towards tackling these problems. Stereotyping is reductionist and negative stereotyping strips a community of its dynamism. It forecloses introspection because the community is pushed against a wall in a defensive mode. The community in turn asserts itself by re-entrenching some of its negative attributes.
As a ‘liberal’ Muslim, I have been compelled to respond to issues which I would have otherwise dismissed as irrelevant. Caught amidst this cacophony of negative stereotyping and regressive assertion, a forward looking moderate secular voice from the community is often lost.