A new, militant Muslim culture is beginning to emerge in the Indian polity. The urban, liberal, middle-class section of the community is the public face of the phenomenon.

The growth and consolidation of the middle class had been sluggish and disjointed among the Muslims, primarily due to the control exercised by the clergy. Nevertheless, the emergence of liberal Muslims reinforced the value attached to amity between the two major religious communities in the country. However, that began to change when these new liberals started suffering from an aspirational crisis. They realised that the ruling elite had failed them — a perception underlined by the findings of the Rajinder Sachar Committee. The result was a deepening alienation.

The Gujarat riots of 2002 had, in fact, vitiated an already precarious situation. Liberal Muslims were shocked by the way the State apparatus allegedly helped in perpetrating violence against the community. Moreover, they also ended up seeing themselves as victims of the politicking of the Congress party, which, behind the mask of secularism, had only exploited them and still plays on the fear of Narendra Modi to project itself as their saviour.

Over the past decade, urbane, educated Muslim youth have more or less replaced the older breed of poor and downtrodden members of the community, who often took to violence to wrest social, economic and political space for themselves. The new breed of activists prefer to assert their identity and presence not through violence, but by articulating a radical political line and religious discourse. This emerging politico-religious discourse is a matter of concern as it challenges the prevailing assumption that the real fight is between the ‘secular’ and the ‘communal’ parties in the electoral sphere.

A transformation is visible in the attire and language of a large section of middle-class Muslim youth as they try to reinvent themselves in the face of communalisation in contemporary Indian life. Many of them have taken to sporting long beards and wearing pathani suits. They are increasingly speaking in the language of religion to assert their Muslim identity. They seem to believe that the old secularist politics does not serve the interests of their community.

There is a growing perception among these sections that the political class does not wish to treat them at par with the Hindus. Even if this impression is skewed, it has gained ground in the absence of any attempts to rectify it. In fact, the actions of the political class have only reinforced it.

The biggest casualty has been the idea of secularism. The perception that the ‘secular’ parties have only used the Muslims for electoral ends has led to a situation where the liberal sections of the community see themselves as victims of secularism. They feel that upper-caste Hindus have denied them the space they deserve — an opinion shared by large sections of Dalits and Adivasis as well. Yet, unfortunately, instead of being articulated as a critique of upper-caste hegemony, the politics of liberal Muslims has acquired communal tones and is directed against the Hindus in general.

This does not mean, however, that the liberal Muslims have begun to fully subscribe to the line of their religious leaders on Hindus. In fact, the clergy has been primarily responsible for the plight of the minority community by keeping it segregated from the mainstream. The political parties took advantage of this sense of insecurity to serve their electoral ends.

Moreover, some ‘secularists’ have also exacerbated Hindu-Muslim tensions by exaggerating the threat of Hindu communalism and contributing to the Muslims’ socio-economic backwardness. It is a tragedy that because of all this, secularism has become suspect in the eyes of the Muslims.

So, how long are Indian Muslims going to be slaves of this ‘electoral secularism’, which only creates fear in the minds of the minorities and plays on it for political ends? Prime Minister Modi recently said that “Indian Muslims will live for India and die for India”. But is that enough to instil confidence among the Muslims? Had that been the case, the Majlis-e-Ittehadul Muslimeen (MIM) would not have made such an impressive debut in the Maharashtra Assembly election even as the RSS was trying to consolidate the Hindu votes.

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Have the Muslims begun to see the Hyderabad-based party as their “national” alternative to the “pseudo-secular” parties? Other minority-based parties such as the Indian Union Muslim League and the Welfare Party of India were also in the fray in Maharashtra, but their candidates forfeited their deposits. What made the Muslims reject them?

The MIM has provided a political platform particularly to liberal Muslims so that they can make their voice heard. The party was able to cash in on the Muslims’ anger against the Congress in Maharashtra. Its impressive performance marks the beginning of an aggressive brand of Muslim identity politics. In fact, MIM leader and Hyderabad MP Asaduddin Owaisi has become for the liberal middle-class Muslims what Modi is for urban, middle-class Hindus.

Unable to identify with other Muslim parties, the liberal Muslims found in the MIM the best forum to vent their anger and frustration. Perhaps, they were looking for a way to uphold the cause of their community without being labelled as extremists or terrorist sympathisers.

Now, the MIM is contemplating the creation of a platform for the unity of Muslims, Dalits and OBCs as an alternative to the ‘secular’ parties. The urban intellectuals have reduced secularism to a form of snobbery. They have been thrusting their skewed perceptions of Muslims and Dalits on the governments and policymakers. Anything that does not fit into their framework is often derided as ‘communalism’. No wonder, a large number of people across all communities have begun to look at secularism as a failed idea that only encourages sectarianism.

Muslim youth are asking why the ‘secular’ parties do not field enough candidates from the community. They argue that the voices from the community remain unheard because of the lack of representation in Parliament and the state Assemblies. And even as political parties fight over secularism, the condition of the community remains abysmal.

Take education. The Muslim clergy do not encourage parents to send their children to public schools, which they deride as carriers of Hindu ideology. As a result, many Muslim children are denied the benefits of modern education. Unable to get a decent job, many of them become hawkers on city streets, for instance. A feeling of deprivation haunts them. Anti-national elements use this sentiment to further their designs.

Unfortunately, the secular parties never raised this issue as they were afraid of antagonising the community. This is one example of how secularism, instead of promoting harmony, ended up as a divisive force. And today, the Muslims are attacking secularism in a language that almost echoes that of the Sangh Parivar. Believing that the ‘secular’ political parties have only used them to fight their own battles against Hindu fundamentalism, they are increasingly falling for militant politics with a pathological hatred for secular values. It is unfortunate that they confuse secular values with the actions of the ‘secular’ parties.

If a young Muslim grows up believing in a distorted form of religion, he could eventually fall prey to the ides of global ‘jihad’. The silver lining, however, is that a section of Muslim youth understands the need to oppose the fundamentalist views that are being propagated as part of Muslim identity politics.

Moreover, it is not just sections of liberal, middle-class Muslims that have bid adieu to the polemics around secularism. Poor Muslims in rural India have also begun showing greater concern for their economic interests and survival than for identity politics. For instance, in Birbhum district of West Bengal, many poor Muslims switched their loyalty to the BJP because functionaries of the Trinamool Congress stopped paying their MGNREGA wages. This shows that possibilities of the community rising above identity-based politics continue to exist, despite the trend represented by the MIM.

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The Islamophobia Of Our ‘Secular’ Liberals: When Muslims assert their identity, they say the community has turned communal.

In the rejoinder of the above quotes, according to the author, “Over the past decade, urbane, educated Muslim youth have more or less replaced the older breed of poor and downtrodden members of the community, who often took to violence to wrest social, economic and political space for themselves.”

But the author does not stop there. He goes on to observe, rather assert, that: “A transformation is visible in the attire and language of a large section of middle-class Muslim youth… (M)any of them have taken to sporting long beards and wearing pathani suits. They are increasingly speaking in the language of religion to assert their Muslim identity. They seem to believe that the old secularist politics does not serve the interests of their community.”

Interestingly, though understandably, Srivastava does not provide any empirical data to substantiate his points. But this is nothing new and writings like these should not surprise anyone. In the past, there have been numerous self-appointed messiahs of the “Muslim community” who left no stone unturned to “liberate” Muslims from the clutches of mullahs and fundamentalists such as Imam Bukhari. Srivastava and Chetan Bhagat are only the latest of the breed. Last year, Bhagat had written Letter from an Indian Muslim youth and Srivastava’s arguments are more or less along the same lines. However, I believe it is important that such writings do not go uncontested because their writers seem to be ardent followers of the Goebblesian dictum that “tell a lie a hundred times and it becomes the truth”.

Note the blanket, and quite brazen, stereotyping of the entire community in the title of the article. For the likes of Srivastava and Bhagat, the Muslims of this country have a herd mentality and so they are undeserving of any qualifiers like “some” to be attached to the community. Because, you know, all of us behave in the same way and, before I forget to mention, all of us just love the Majlis-e-Ittehadul Muslimeen (MIM) and its brand of “communal” politics. By the way, the apparent reason behind the writer penning down the article in question was the rise of the MIM led by the Owaisi brothers, never mind that it took six decades for it to establish itself in only two states.

The fact is, “secularism”, for the numerous Srivastavas and Bhagats, is just a stick to beat the Muslims with. They shed crocodile tears, which can drown the entire nation, over the apparent “communalisation” of middle-class Muslims and exhibit extreme discomfort over it. To these writers, the body etiquette of a Muslim is sufficient to brand him/her as “communal”. The same standard is not applied to a Hindu sporting a vermillion mark or wearing a sacred thread. After all, Hindus are capable of pure, unadulterated secularism (or the Indian version of it).

These writers show dubious concern over Indian Muslims being usurped by “global jihad”. This is a peculiar made-in-India kind of Islamophobia that people like Srivastava seem to have mastered. It is very subtle and involves waxing eloquent by using all the crucial buzzwords that define the liberal, secular, modern values, which “the Muslim community” is apparently yet to catch up with.

Of course, the author laments the abysmal conditions in which most Muslims live, the findings of the Sachar Committee report, the lack of political representation of the Muslims and so on. But, before I extend my hand to thank him, something pulls me back. My ungrateful mind draws my attention towards what the writer posits as the cause behind these pathetic socio-economic and political conditions. It is none other than “the Muslim clergy”, those “regressive” mullahs. Who are this clergy? Shia or Sunni? If Shia, who? If Sunni, who? These, however, are questions that the author did not think necessary to either ask or answer.

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Indeed, when it comes to issues of Muslims, many people ignore the facts or sensible arguments and take great pride in spewing preconceived notions.

According to the writer, “the Muslim clergy do not encourage parents to send their children to public schools, which they deride as carriers of Hindu ideology. As a result, many Muslim children are denied the benefits of modern education”.

Really? If the author had taken the trouble to read the Sachar Committee report instead of randomly using it as a prop in the article, he would know that only 4 percent of Muslim children who study get their education in the madrasas. So, the pitiable state of education among Muslims cannot be attributed to the madrasas and the clergy. What, then, is the real reason? It is the hideous socio-economic conditions (entrenched poverty, social stigma and discrimination) that force many Muslim children to never see the face of school, and many more to drop out of them.

It is extremely amusing for me to note that the middle-class, liberal Muslims, who are normally manipulated to debunk the claims of poorer Muslims that their socio-economic conditions are worsening day after day, have today become a cause of concern for writers like Srivastava. The reason is that the middle-class Muslims have begun to move away from the “secular” parties, which have done zilch since decades to provide the community a life with dignity and security. They have started to seek shelter in what the writer perceives to be a “communal” outfit.

All this while, they stigmatised us because of our identity, and now, suddenly, they start wondering why we are so conscious of our identity and why we are drifting towards parties that assert this identity and claim that they will fight for de-stigmatising that identity.

This is not to condone the politics and rhetoric of hate. This is just to point out that the source of the ailment rests, untroubled, elsewhere — somewhere deep inside the fabric of the Indian polity, where the eyes of the upper-caste liberal Hindu can never reach. It is not the Muslims who have become communal. It is the society surrounding them that has long been communal and is becoming more so with each passing day. It is this society that has distanced itself from the Muslims and ghettoised them.

There is no point rambling over the gap between the theory and the practice of secularism in the Indian context. The fact of the matter is that many “secular” non-Muslims in this country, locked in their exclusive gated communities, are communal and it is they who have started calling all the Muslims communal because they suddenly noticed a bunch of bearded men in pathani suits infiltrating their holy electoral citadels. In fact, many “secular” liberals fortify their secularism by rampantly spewing hate-filled Islamophobic rhetoric.

Finally, I have a request for Srivastava. If possible, he and his ilk should go on a tour distributing pathani suits to all the Muslims who don’t have it and can’t afford it. Only then will their hate-filled articles start making some sense. We are all waiting for the pathani suits, and maybe some burqas for our sisters! #KhabarLive

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A senior journalist having 25 years of experience in national and international publications and media houses across the globe in various positions. A multi-lingual personality with desk multi-tasking skills. He belongs to Hyderabad in India. Ahssanuddin's work is driven by his desire to create clarity, connection, and a shared sense of purpose through the power of the written word. His background as an writer informs his approach to writing. Years of analyzing text and building news means that adapting to a reporting voice, tone, and unique needs comes as second nature.