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Mainstream, VOL LVII No 34 New Delhi August 10, 2019

Report of Indian Muslims for Democracy Meeting

Sunday 11 August 2019

by Irfan Engineer

A meeting of prominent citizens, professionals and intellectuals from the Muslim community along with some non-Muslim intellectuals under the platform of “Indian Muslims for Democracy” took place at the Centre for the Study of Society and Secularism, Mumbai on July 29, 2019. Dr. Farrukh Waris, a retired Principal of Burhani College and social activist, acquainted the group with the objective and purpose of the meeting. The objective of the meeting, as she explained, was to discuss the challenges facing the Muslim community vis-a-vis communal harmony and democracy. The group identified certain issues faced by the Muslim community arising from their long-term engagement with the various sections of the Muslim community and locating the community in the overall contemporary public discourse.

To begin with, the group felt that there is a greater polarisation in the society which alienates and isolates the Muslim community from the “mainstream”. One can blame the media—both print and electronic as well as the social media—and political mobilisation for the negative image of the community. The result is the exclusion and marginalisation of the Muslim community. The community today is facing difficulty in integrating with the larger processes due to a variety of factors. Different members of the group traced the core of this problem to different factors. Some members felt that the political mobilisation of non-Muslims by a section aggravated the image of the community and strengthened the prejudices and biases. For example, Mukhtar Hussain, an entrepreneur, social activist and community worker, opined that due to limited interaction between the Muslims and non-Muslims, there was a plethora of misunderstandings, myths and prejudices against the community which taints its image. According to him, interventions must be undertaken to carry out dialogue and inter-actions between communities to correct the understanding of non-Muslims about the community. He gave an example of the programme they have undertaken inviting non- Muslims to mosques to dispel the myth that mosques are the den of terrorists or teachings of radical Islam.

On similar lines, Sayeed Khan, an activist, elaborated that addressing the bias against the community is the key to its inclusion and better relationship with the other communities. They organise programmes that give non-Muslims better understanding of Islam. One such programme was during the Eid-ul-Milad-un-Nabi procession wherein the processionists chant certain slogans. The slogans are misunderstood by the others causing suspicion. They distributed small booklets containing the translation of such slogans among the people living along the route and to pedestrians who then welcomed the procession with open hearts appreciating that the slogans meant the broad principles of Islam.

While communally segregated neighbourhoods lead to lack of understanding regarding socio-cultural behaviour, particularly of Muslims, a portion of the blame is also to be born by some members of the Muslim community and their public conduct, particularly those who can be identified as Muslims from their dress, skull cap or beard. There was a nuanced discussion on the Akhlaq of the community members. The overall perception about Muslims is that they are religiously driven about their appearances. Their religious practices cause discomfort to non-Muslims, for example, their congregational prayers spilling over onto the streets on Fridays, or using of microphones for Azaan, that is, the call for prayers. Nuzhat Farooqui, a former lecturer at Rizvi College, cautioned that one may sport a beard or a dress according to Islamic tenets; however, what is more important is the conduct or behaviour of Muslims according to the tenets of Islam with the aim to become better human beings—honest, kind, compassionate, and standing up for justice as is commanded by the Quran. We must educate members of the community to orient their behaviour according to the teachings of Islam and this would change the way non-Muslims perceived them. Towards this end, an attempt is made by Sayeed Khan and his colleagues who mobilised over 350 Muslim rickshaw drivers, who preferred to wear skull caps and sport beard, from across Mumbai and requested them to be polite towards the passengers. The rickshaw drivers are told to help the elderly passengers with their luggage, talk with utmost respect to the women passengers, not to abuse or cheat the passengers. This way they might change the perception of the Muslim community as they were goodwill ambassadors of the community. Mukhtar Hussain reported that a similar initiative was taken in Bengaluru and it resulted in the fact that rickshaw drivers sporting beards have become synonymous with good service and ethical conduct and are sought after and respected by passengers.

Suleman Bargi, a company secretary by profession who promotes education among Muslims through scholarships, underscored the inconvenience caused by Azaan through loudspeakers to the neighbourhood. Such practices are perceived as “appeasement” of the Muslim community. Sohail Masood, a former employee of Air India and who runs an NGO called Dhai Akshar for education of street children, reported that they in Lokhandwala had persuaded the mosques in the area not to relay Azaan on loudspeaker as it was not an integral part of the religion. The namaazis gather five minutes before time for namaaz. On Fridays, instead of occupying streets for namaaz, they offer namaaz in two batches. The namaazis do not inconvenience non-Muslims in any manner.

In the group, some people voiced that we should be tolerant to diverse views within the community. Ghulam Arif spoke about his NGO —Community Talking, which promotes the attitude of questioning, tolerance and critical thinking. He pointed out that as there is a lack of political awareness in the community, there must be a process of self-reflection in a conducive atmosphere alongwith inclusive space for all voices including critical voices.

Education is a crucial issue facing the Muslim community. And the issue is multi-layered demanding a multi-pronged solution. The first hurdle is the lack of equal access to educational opportunities like scholarships and secular education. The state allocates very small share of the budget for the education of the minority communities as compared to their deprivation and backwardness. Furthermore, the minority welfare schemes have many issues and are not helpful to the neediest and even inaccessible due to cumbersome procedures and requisite documentation. Dr Sandhya Mhatre, a researcher at Mumbai University and social activist, explained that the Maharashtra Government allocates very little funds towards the education of Muslims in the State budget. That precious little too is not completely utilised for the allocated heads.

While Sohail Masood too emphasised on the importance of access to scholarship, he also raised the issue of high dropout rate among the Muslim students. The dropout rate among Muslim girls is even higher. Priority is given to learning household chores for a better prospect of marriage. Their mobility and interaction with those outside the community is restricted. Ruksheeda Syeda, a psychologist working with college and school youth, felt that there should be resistance from within and outside. While the Muslim community is fighting for inclusion and acceptance from outside, it has to likewise pay attention to the needs of the marginalised within the community, especially the poor and the differently-abled, and help them access educational and livelihood opportunities.

The group also strongly voiced their support to democratic processes and spaces. Ghulam Arif reiterated the need for Muslims to participate in political processes. He was of the view that Muslims should engage with elected representatives and pressure groups to put forth their own demands and demand for accountability. Dr Indra Munshi, a former head of department of Sociology at Mumbai University, said that intervention had to be at multiple levels. One of the sections to engage with to strengthen democratic values is the youth in college. Manzur Bagdadi from the Make Proud Foundation thought that there was some change even in the religious leadership of the community and there should be constructive engagement with them.

The group unanimously agreed that the need of the hour was sustained work among the Muslim community in order to address the prejudice against them and help the process of their inclusion. The group decided to thus meet on every 4th Saturday of the month from 4pm to 6pm. In the meanwhile, in order to inspire the community as well as strengthen the work of the civil society actors, Irfan Engineer suggested some steps. Firstly, he suggested that the community can benefit immensely if there are linkages and networking amongst the individuals and organisations that work for the Muslim community in a democratic framework upholding the diversity. There have to be solidarity and exchange of information amongst such actors. Secondly, he suggested that Aslam Parvez, the Vice-Chancellor of MANUU, should be invited to speak to Muslims and non-Muslims to shed more light on what it means to be a Muslim. Such talks will guide the community in the right direction. The group enthusiastically agreed to such suggestions.

(Courtesy: Secular Perspective)

The author is the Director, Centre for the Study of Society and Secularism.

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