No country for Islamophobia

Unlike in the West, India’s syncretic culture has kept the fear of Islam at bay.

Written by Abdul Shaban , Abusaleh Shariff | Updated: March 15, 2016 12:24 am
The Indian ethos is one of assimilation of Islam or Islamophilia, and love and respect for the other’s religion. (Source: AP) The Indian ethos is one of assimilation of Islam or Islamophilia, and love and respect for the other’s religion. (Source: AP)

A leisurely walk on Chicago’s Magnificent Mile and interactions with the Indian diaspora were experiences to remember. One could feel palpable apprehensions about Islam and rising Islamophobia in the West. But who had a relatively higher fear factor — the people on the street or Muslims dreading a backlash due to terrorist incidents?

Notwithstanding the deepening of communal politics in India in recent years, particularly since the ascent of the BJP, questions arise on Islamophobia and communal violence in India, especially comparisons between the situation in India and the West. Such questions are difficult to answer. Some articulate that the presence of Islam has impacted Indian Hindus, which is reflected in rising communal incidents and exclusionary and discriminatory practices against Muslims, especially in public spaces, including government jobs and positions of national importance. For academics and analysts, the situation is complex, embedded in the socio-economic history and syncretic culture of India. Our clearheaded response: Islamophobia has no relevance to India.

Is Islamophobia — “a fear of Islam” — emerging from contemporary politics or is it the manifestation of a sociological and cultural game plan? If the “fear of the unknown” or “unknown power” defines a phobia, then how can this fear be present in India, where Islam has been an integral part of society, politics and everyday life for at least a millennium? Although the crusadic encounters are well-documented, the presence of Islam in the West is recent and based on selective migration. The dominant Western culture and politics is mixed up with selective and sporadic suspicions that bubble up due to some rare but spectacular violent episodes.

The Indian ethos is one of assimilation of Islam or Islamophilia, and love and respect for the other’s religion. Indeed, religious assimilation is so conspicuous across India that it is easy to miss it altogether. It would be appropriate to highlight that the Sufi saints of the subcontinent are revered both by Muslims and Hindus. Assimilation is so strong that Hindu parents let imams at local mosques serve as traditional healers for their children, with dua or Islamic prayer. In many parts of India, Muslim marriages are solemnised by the groom tying an amulet to his bride that is known as a tali among Hindus.

One could find it surprising that Mirji of Lahore, a Muslim, laid the foundation of the Golden Temple. Shirdi Sai Baba, a Muslim by birth, is one of the most popular deities in the Hindu middle class. Premchand wrote about how on hearing the cry of a distraught woman, Syed Salar Masud Ghazi got up from his wedding to save cows. Similarly, at the Cheluvanarayana temple, devotees worship Bibi Nachiyar, the Muslim consort of Lord Vishnu. There are countless such examples across India, even in Gujarat and Maharashtra, notorious for communalism in the recent past.

If, therefore, one finds no Islamophobia, how can one explain the rising violence and discrimination against Muslims in India? The answer requires an understanding of India’s social structure and postcolonial politics. Brahminical ideology is not rooted in phobias but pollution and purity. Historically, in India, Dalits have been discriminated against not due to phobias but “pollution”. One is allowed to live at the periphery of the caste system and religious order in peace as long as one accepts the hegemony of the core. Contemporary violence against Muslims in India can be explained through the purity-pollution framework.

Muslim interests were sidelined in postcolonial caste and communal politics. In fact, they were compromised by some upper caste Muslims who denied the presence of caste among Muslims during the Constituent Assembly debates and important policy-design negotiations, when affirmative action and constitutional protections were being based on caste. The best example of this is the exclusion of Muslims from Article 341 and the presidential order of 1950.

With rising political competition, some parties employ hate — rather than fear — narratives as tools to mobilise votes. We subsume the attempt to generate demographic fears about Muslims in this category. It would be fair to point out that what we find in India is Hindutva-phobia.

However, to say that there is no attempt to create a fear of Islam in India would not be correct. One sees such attempts everyday. They employ political technologies and terminologies from the West. However, this is still largely confined to some TV channels, newspapers and social media. The Islamophilia of India constructed through syncretic practices has kept the Islamophobic narrative at bay from the masses. For Indians, it is not Islam that is scary but militant Muslims, as are militant Hindutva ideologues and practitioners.

Shaban is deputy director, TISS, Tuljapur, and honorary fellow, US-India Policy Institute, Washington, DC. Shariff is executive director, US-India Policy Institute.

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  1. A
    Mar 14, 2016 at 9:03 pm
    Pure form of Islam could not have worked in India anyway when the invaders came as our customs are deeply ingrained everything having some significance or the other. Even Christians have these customs which like the Portuguese could not eradicate. And most of all Hindus are basically very tolerant minded people believing in many roads leading to one supreme. So coexistence was always there. One or two incidents don't make up psyche of the w lot.
    1. S
      Mar 15, 2016 at 4:17 pm
      Spell check ? But now, Sweden too is deporting refugees ...
      1. S
        Mar 15, 2016 at 4:10 pm
        Yes , let's read and discuss history ! Fortunately , Wikipedia has become progressively accurate and detailed . So , I request commenters to read-up on the history of the Levant, Turkic , Persia, Anatolia, Armenia, Baltics, Andalusia, Italy, East Europe, India ...
        1. S
          Mar 15, 2016 at 8:53 am
          So Islam has been imilated by the other religions in India. Is the reverse true ? Or, Islam does not need to imilate, and the burden is on other religions to accommodate Islam ? Mr. Shaban will never delve on this ...
          1. D
            Mar 15, 2016 at 8:05 am
            I think Indians are dum docile hindus. they have no idea of strategic planning. islam is surreptiously working in Hindu land to force islam on people. there will be a parion like macre in india if islam comes in majority.. no doubt. West can see it... Indians cant
            1. K
              Krishna Bhagawan
              Mar 15, 2016 at 8:37 am
              Seriously ! where is the syncretic culture in stan and Bangladesh and Kasmir ?? These were historicaly part of Indic Culture. Also phobia means fear without any basis like ghosts, Islamophobia has a basis
              1. V
                Vijay, Florida
                Mar 15, 2016 at 2:20 am
                ........... "If, therefore, one finds no Islamophobia, how can one explain the rising violence and discrimination against Muslims in India?"............. To find an answer, one has to look at stan's behavior since independence. Up until 1960, things were quite alright. But since then, stan's Army, ISI, and the Feudal Landlord Politicians, all conspired to change the Ideny, Culture, and Ethos of the stani society. They DELIBERATELY WALKED AWAY from the South Asian (and Indian) pedigree of the stani poce. They DELIBERATELY tried to "ARABISE" and "Islamasize" their people with eager help from Saudi Arabia which was only too happy to bring Islamic Extremism into stan with their Wahabi and fi culture. Too many of stan's leaders , especially Gen. Zia, tried to REMOVE the "Indianness" from stan, by becoming Religious Bigots. All Minorities, especially the Hindus were very much ill treated for decades. Slowly but steadily this had a negative effect on the "Natural Tolerance" that was inherent in the Indian Ethos. The result is nothing but a "natural reaction" of many in India, as a "retaliatory gesture" against stan's behavior. This is what is causing intolerance in India today
                1. D
                  Dr. Mike
                  Mar 14, 2016 at 9:08 pm
                  It's amazing how people find mistakes in any and everything and I wish they come out of darkness and start seeing the light. This is a good positive piece of work about social integration and lauding India for her sabhyata.
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