It was arguably the most important comment on Islam that an Indian Muslim has made in a long time. But, instead of applause, Naseeruddin Shah found himself in the crosshairs of Hindu and Muslim fanatics. The actor, speaking of the Taliban’s return, said Indian Muslims welcoming the return of ‘these barbarians’ should remember that Indian Islam had always been different to Islam in other countries and, ‘May God never bring a time when it changes so much that we will not be able to recognise it.’
An attack from bearded mullahs with prayer bruises on their foreheads was no surprise. What surprised me was the virulence of the attack from Hindutva trolls. They mocked him on social media with their usual spite, reminding him that last year he had spoken against the poisonous atmosphere in which Muslims have been forced to live since Narendra Modi became Prime Minister. It is possible to say both things because both things are true.
It is not easy to be a Muslim in the ‘new’ India. In Modi’s first term, cattle farmers and meat traders were targeted and killed on suspicion of eating beef and illegally trafficking cows. In his second term, the targeting has expanded beyond cows. Three weeks after Modi took office for the second time, 24-year-old Tabrez Ansari was tied to a tree and forced to chant ‘Jai Shri Ram’ while being beaten by a mob. By the time the police intervened, he was nearly dead. He died later from his injuries. Since then, a pattern has emerged of this kind of random attack. In recent weeks, an e-rickshaw driver was beaten and forced to chant ‘Jai Shri Ram’ while his little daughter clung to his leg begging the mob to stop. A bangle seller was beaten in Indore for being in a Hindu area. He was arrested the next day because the daughter of one of his attackers charged him with molesting her. Calls have been made openly to boycott Muslim shops and a campaign on social media asks if there is a ‘conspiracy against India’ that results in Muslims being so prominent in the fruit and vegetable trade.
Now let us talk about Indian Islam.
Mr Shah is right when he says it is a very different religion to the brutal, barbaric religion that the Taliban practise. People of my generation who grew up in northern India associate Islam not with praying five times a day but with poetry, literature, cinema, and music. Indian Islam did not forbid these things. I have nostalgic memories of pre-Hindutva Delhi. It was a time when we would go to mushairas and concerts every other day, a time when we went to the dargah of Nizamuddin Aulia on Thursday evenings to listen to qawwalis and a time when we would wake early some mornings to breakfast on ‘nihaari’ in Karim’s restaurant that sits in the shadow of the Jama Masjid.
Mr Shah is right when he says that Indian Islam evolved into a religion that dealt well with modernity. So, it shocked me to hear a leading light of Hindutva declare on a primetime show that there was only one kind of Islam and only one kind of Muslim. He then spat out the numbers of verses in the Koran that recommend violence against infidels and unbelievers. The other Semitic faith that takes this view of us ‘heathens’ is Christianity, and it is still possible to meet missionaries in India who think of us lot as ‘devil-worshippers’. The difference is that Christians in India have learned to deal with modernity better than Muslims.
Among Indian Muslims a regression began to happen sometime in the Nineties and an ugly, fundamentalist Islam spread across India, making its presence felt in the number of women who suddenly wandered about in black burqas, with only their eyes showing. Having spent many years covering our Kashmir problem, I first noticed this in Srinagar. Then on a trip to Tamil Nadu, I noticed that my taxi driver had a picture of Osama bin Laden on his dashboard and that Tamil women were wearing salwar-kurtas and refused to speak to me without the permission of their Maulana. This was before 9/11. After the September 11 attacks when the global war on terrorism began, Indian Muslims, like Muslims everywhere, began to think of themselves as victims and the regression to this medieval, Talibanesque Islam accelerated.
Mr Shah is right to warn Indian Muslims to preserve the Islam they were brought up with in India. It is very worth preserving because Indian Muslims have dealt with the modern world better, and with living among people of other faiths better than Muslims anywhere else in the world. This is because they learned a great deal from Indic religions that do not go around forcing people to follow rules and regulations that nearly always end up with semi-literate priests deciding your relationship with God.
With the Taliban back in Afghanistan and with the Pakistani prime minister determined to turn his country into some fantasy of Medina, Indian Muslims need to be very vigilant if they are to preserve their faith. Islam in India has always been different to Islam as it is practised in other countries. It has enriched our culture by giving us some of the finest poets, musicians, singers, writers and actors that we have. It deserves to be cherished.