Why the Likes of Naseeruddin Shah Are in the Wrong

Muslims under the rule of the Indian state are perhaps facing their worst crisis in the seven decades of the country’s existence. India has not only failed to put an end to massacres of its religious minorities, it has doubled down and democratically awarded a pogromist with the most powerful office in the land. Since Prime Minister Narendra Modi took power in the summer of 2014, dozens of Muslim men have been lynched. [1] Laws and policies that threaten the statehood of Muslims have been enacted (National Register of Citizens and Citizenship Amendment Act). In addition, abolition of article 35 (a) has enabled settler-colonialism in the Muslim-majority Kashmir, part of a UN-recognized disputed region.

Given the amount of heat Muslims are under, one would think that the country’s self-declared progressives, especially those of Muslim descent would be especially sympathetic towards the minority. Instead, we have seen even greater antagonization of Muslims by their supposed allies.

Foreign Wars Fuel Local Islamophobia

Take the recent reactions of Bollywood bigwigs, actor Naseeruddin Shah and lyricist Javed Akhtar — self-declared atheists — on the Taliban’s victory in Afghanistan. Both celebrities derided the militia’s takeover as a catastrophe, which is their prerogative. However, neither spoke about the foreign occupation of the central Asian country that killed over 300,000, ignoring the lion’s share of the violence inflicted on Afghan civilians.

Shah went one step further and made a rather pedantic video sermonizing those Indian Muslims who had come out in support of the Taliban, using words like vehshi (Urdu for barbarian) to describe the Muslim mindset, which in his mind needs to be reformed.

Note that over a dozen Muslims have been arrested for allegedly sympathizing with the Taliban in the north eastern state of Assam under the draconian anti-terror law, Unlawful Activities Prevention Act (UAPA), which grants government power to declare individuals and groups as terrorists. [2]

I fail to see how merely sympathizing with the Taliban merits a terror charge. Moreover, India is notorious for falsely implicating dozens of Indian Muslim youth in terrorism cases, imprisoning them for over a decade each under non-bailable provisions and then acquitting them. I wonder if any of this even registers with Shah or if he cares.

Scrutinizing the Marginalized

Shah’s tirade found fertile ground in Indian news media, particularly the country’s tone deaf liberal elite, who see nothing wrong with singling out and harassing Indian Muslims for reform. Their rhetoric has become code for “we have power over you,” even though in reality they do not.

The vast majority of Muslims in India are marginalized and non politicized, concerned mainly with their next meal. They know little of Afghanistan. Expecting them to condemn foreign Muslim militant groups is bigoted. The trouble is that India is arguably the most stridently anti-Muslim country in the world and mild Islamophobia, especially on part of Indians who style themselves as secular, is seen as socially acceptable.

But Shah figured he hadn’t done enough damage. He then gave an interview to an online publication, “The Wire,” wherein he repeated some of the same tropes he has used in the past, calling on Muslims to embrace “Indian Islam,” which in his view is inherently liberal.

One fails to understand why Shah, a non-believer, feels the need to dictate to Indian Muslims which Islam they must follow. How he plans to “reform” Islam from outside the fold of faith, while regarding religion as illegitimate, also remains a mystery. (Shah regards himself as an atheist, but still lays claim to Muslim identity. I don’t know how that works).

Moreover, Islam is based on the Qur’an and the Sunnah. It is not altered by the borders of modern nation states. One may concede that Islamicate culture varies in different regions, but to suggest that the Indian version of Islam is liberal and foreign Islam is illiberal is itself a xenophobic notion, not a progressive one. In fact, one could argue that the ancient apartheid system of caste that religious minorities of India who follow Abrahamic faiths have also adopted in some forms makes their version of their religions especially illiberal. Shah would know, as he comes from the badlands of Uttar Pradesh, where casteism is an especially acute problem.

In the same vein, songwriter Javed Akhtar has been vocal about the Taliban, asking Indian Muslims to condemn the militant group. Predictably, he ludicrously equated the Taliban with democratically-elected Hindu extremists at home. Since then, he has walked back his statements, claiming that Indians are inherently tolerant and not like Afghans.

If this is the case, I wonder why these inherently tolerant people repeatedly vote extremists into power, relentlessly lynch innocents, and feel the need to compare their situation to a country that was invaded by two superpowers and has been embroiled in wars for over four decades.

Repeat Offenders

This is not the first time Shah has found himself embroiled in controversy either. The veteran actor had penned an article for the Hindustan Times, which was ostensibly supposed to cap off a series discussing “the churning within the Muslim community.” Instead, what Shah wrote could be described as tone deaf at best and hate mongering if we are being honest. [3]

His article iterated every anti-Muslim trope in the book. Consider the excerpts below: 

“Undeniable though it is that many Indian Muslims misguidedly consider Pakistan their haven, the immeasurably greater number who take intense pride in being Indian and who connect deeply with the country are hurt and angered at our patriotism being under scrutiny.”

“Indian Muslims’ indifference, particularly among the economically weaker sections, to education or hygiene need not be reiterated nor the fact that they have no one but themselves to blame for these ills. Granted, patriotism is not a tonic that can be forced down peoples’ throats. But till the length of Sania Mirza’s skirt causes more agitation than the lack of modern education and employment opportunities for our community, as long as we hesitate to condemn the sadistic madness of the ISIS (that we haven’t heard too many Hindu voices condemn the lynching of innocent Muslims by gaurakshaks is immaterial).”

Shah claims that Indian Muslims consider Pakistan their haven. He then advises Muslims to bathe more often and attain education to rid themselves of the stink of marginalization, an abhorrent jibe befitting the worst of bigots. This is then followed by the bogus claim that Muslims hesitated in condemning ISIS. Every last one of these claims is false.

It is remarkable that while the majority community continues voting for far right extremists, Muslims are lynched as a result, yet the latter is under the microscope while Hindus are hardly scrutinized.

The rest of the article bemoans the presence of visibly Muslim people, who as it turns out face greater bigotry due to their appearance. To counter, Shah would just advise them to shed their hijabs and shave their beards.

The actor also wonders aloud if Muslims should merely stop feeling persecuted. As if Muslims can prevent pogroms, lynching, sexual assault, displacement and systemic discrimination by merely refusing to feel persecuted. No marginalized group wants to be marginalized. It is society and state that marginalize them. They can’t snap out of it, but have indeed made gains, despite obstacles. 

Crazy as it sounds, Javed Akhtar has a significantly worse track record on marginalized groups. He is known to have asked Muslims demanding reservation in education and jobs (a Sachar Committee recommendation) to go to Pakistan, behavior reminiscent of a Sangh troll. (Sachar Committee was a judicial committee led by the late Rajendra Sachar, which was tasked to study socio-economic conditions of Muslims and make recommendations).

The lyricist had once mocked marginalized caste academic Kancha Illiah for embracing Buddhism, likening accepting religion to suicide. Note that the very same man is mindful of Hindu sentiments and has claimed: “In households like ours, we don’t eat beef” (cows are considered holy by Hindus).

The Great Divide

Indian secularists who legitimize the likes of Shah are heavily overrepresented by the ruling class, namely upper caste Hindus, a demographic that is at the forefront of peddling anti-Muslim bigotry in India. In most cases, they don’t unlearn their anti-Muslim prejudice and carry it along to whatever “progressive” space they inhabit.

In fact the widely touted Indian Muslim progressives are mostly self-declared atheists. They are invariably upper caste (Ashraaf), upper or middle class, anglophone liberals who have little to no contact with their community. They resort to trotting out the worst stereotypes about Muslims. This leads to a mostly upper caste, elitist orgy bad-mouthing a persecuted and brutalized minority, whom they have nothing in common with.

The same cabal would not be caught dead advising Brahmins to fight the Brahmin supremacist and extremist organization that is Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) or to reform themselves for it is much easier to punch down.

The only advice one can give the likes of Shah and Akhtar is: if you cannot help, then do not hinder. The very least you can do is omit your toxic takes and abide by the principle of do no harm.

Photo by Steven Lasry on Unsplash

About the Author: Maqsood Sahafi is a freelance journalist based in India. He particularly enjoys wildlife reporting. His interests include political commentary, sports, fantasy and science fiction. You can follow him on Twitter here.

Disclaimer: Material published by Traversing Tradition is meant to foster scholarly inquiry and rich discussion. The views, opinions, beliefs, or strategies represented in published articles and subsequent comments do not necessarily represent the views of Traversing Tradition or any employee thereof.

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