How Much Muslimness Are You Comfortable With?


How Much Muslimness Are You Comfortable With?

Illustration: Siddhakanksha Mishra

Over the past few days, as the protests against the controversial Citizenship Amendment Act and National Register of Citizens have gathered steam across the nation, a new debate has come to light. A debate, not about the Act or the register itself, but about the “Muslimness” of the agitation.

I am not talking about the right-wingers who continue to spew venom against the minority and want to keep sending them to Pakistan. Or the Prime Minister’s “you can identify them with their clothes” remarks. Nor am I referring to Delhi police personnel saying, “Maaro inko, ye k**we hai” while beating up defenceless Jamia Millia Islamia students. Though derogatory and appalling, we generally brand such comments as bigoted and move on to outrage about the next big thing.

But in a nation that is becoming increasingly discriminatory toward the minority, what stands out like a sore thumb are anti-CAA voices raising concerns about the Muslimness of fellow demonstrators. And these concerns come in varying degree – like how much “Muslimness” are we comfortable with.

For most of us living in urban areas, the Muslimness of Muslims is restricted to biryani and phirni on Eid, and nothing more. Many from the community who work in offices and study in schools in the cities do not wear their identity like a badge. Some may be born in Muslim families, but are atheists. Those who are religious might not feel comfortable displaying their religiosity because of the way we treat minorities. As a result, many of us who live in cosmopolitan areas might not be exposed to the religious identity of our friends and colleagues. That is why, when we have to visit Muslim-dominated parts of our cities, we are ever-so-slightly on the edge – ironically forgetting that they feel the same every day in a nation where they are fewer in number.

And yet, we consider ourselves woke, we tomtom about our liberalness and to prove it, we go to protests. At the protests, however, entry is not restricted by class or caste. Everyone is welcome – because everyone wants to fight the good fight. It is here that things start to get complicated. And our ugly biases start creeping out, as has been witnessed in the recent agitation.

So, what are the degrees of Muslimness which cause discomfort to so many of us?

Firstly, there are some who get uneasy with women wearing the hijab or men wearing skull caps at protests. They’d be happier if you don’t display your religious identity. But then again would you ask a Sikh man to take off his turban? Would you ask a Hindu to wipe off the tilak on his forehead, or to take off the janeau? Or ask a Buddhist to not wear his robe? People can and should wear whatever they want when they are coming to a protest, otherwise what the hell are we demanding equal rights for?

At the protests, however, entry is not restricted by class or caste. Everyone is welcome – because everyone wants to fight the good fight.

Secondly, the slogans Muslims chant make many of us cringe. My friend, who was at the protests in Jamia, told me that student leaders worked hard to ensure no one chanted Allahu Akbar. “You might be seen as a terrorist because you are Muslim; instead show them you are humans, citizens,” they advised, probably out of concern but more because of their ingrained apprehensions.

Partly to be blamed are American movies, pop culture, and one-sided propaganda. Allahu Akbar, which translates to “God is great”, is no longer seen as just a religious slogan but a call to jihad. Many allies feel uncomfortable with these slogans because: a) They stoke the dormant fear of the “other” which lies buried deep in our hearts, no matter how much you want to deny it. b) They genuinely feel that communalising the issue is exactly what the government wants. And any sort of overt religious overtones to the protests will lead to further trouble.

Commentator and former journalist Irena Akbar went to a protest in Lucknow wearing a hijab. While she was speaking she was stopped mid-way by “Hindu liberals” and asked to speak as “an Indian only”. In her Twitter posts, she defends her right to protest as a Muslim. And asks if protesting as a Muslim is unconstitutional. “I reject the suggestion that Muslims shouldn’t protest as Muslims, only as Indians. Aren’t Muslims Indians?… I am protesting as a Muslim because my coreligionists have been attacked because of their faith,” she tweeted. Is she being too idealistic, too naive? Or are we, as a nation, as a people, simply unable to come to terms with the gravity of her truth?

Thirdly, we need to look at the Facebook posts of Ladeeda Sakhaloon, one of the Jamia students who has become the face of the protests. Before we go ahead, it is only fair to acknowledge that Ladeeda is still young and her views should not be seen as cast in stone. In one of her posts, she says that “liberals” at the protest dictated them not to chant slogans like “Insha Allah” and “Allahu Akbar”. But it makes me wonder, if there is no one stopping Hindus from shouting “Jai Shri Ram”, do we have the right to ask Muslims to keep their voices low? If people are stopping her from expressing her religious beliefs, no matter how well-intentioned they might be, she has a right to feel aggrieved, doesn’t she?

It’s one thing to chant a slogan and another to incite violence.

Fourthly, it’s only fair we look at Muslim bigots. Let us not pretend that those two words do not exist together under any circumstances. Like this man who is instigating those listening to shut down roads. “Don’t the Muslims of North India even have enough clout to shut down a few cities,” he demands. The crowd, to their credit, seems unseduced by him, with only a few forced ayes emanating from it.

It’s one thing to chant a slogan and another to incite violence. The latter, I’m afraid, can dismantle this movement before it has a chance to reach its full potential. No one should be asked to take their hijab or skull cap off, but one shouldn’t be encouraged to further explicitly communal rhetoric.

There are different degrees of Muslimness acceptable to all of us. And this is not restricted only to the protests. You might not call them names, but you don’t refrain from passing a quiet judgement about someone who prays five times a day, fasts during Ramzan, or covers their head. You might stand in solidarity but still laugh at a derogatory joke about Muslims. You might outrage on Twitter but not call out your parents when they make bigoted remarks.

The truth, how much ever we deny it is, that a majority of us are uncomfortable with the minority who wear their identity proudly. They bring out hidden biases within us which had been buried, thanks to years of superficial bonhomie and allegiance to secularism. But along with NRC and CAA, we must go the extra mile – fight the discomfort and paranoia which the identity of our fellow Indians invokes in us. Let’s start by not flinching when someone says, “Allahu Akbar”. Let’s start by carrying scarves to today’s protests.