A Real-World Tactic for Fighting Islamophobia: Talk to a Muslim
Is Islamophobia as old as Islam itself? This may be a debatable proposition. But there is no doubt that modern-day extremism in Islam’s name and Islamophobia have been feeding on each other to a point that the latter today looks like a raging worldwide epidemic. Ordinary Muslims and their well-wishers are now challenged to think in novel ways of tackling the “othering” and demonizing of a global community of nearly two billion people. This is especially true as much in the U.S. under President Donald Trump as in present-day India, which has been under the hegemony of Hindu supremacists since 2014.
One such novel initiative against the hate-hurlers came from a Muslim woman, Mona Haydar, who, along with her husband, put up a stand offering coffee and doughnuts outside a library in Cambridge, Massachusetts, in December 2015. On the two sides of the stand stood two tall signboards that read, “Ask a Muslim” and “Talk to a Muslim.” To passersby, Haydar offered free coffee and doughnuts plus an opportunity for conversation. At day’s end, she posted a happy message on Facebook that said: “We weren’t out there that long today but the take away was clear: Keep your heads held high, dear Muslim family ... There is an overwhelming amount of love and so remember this post when you are faced with bigotry and hatred towards you or your faith.”
In October 2017, a small volunteer group launched a monthly “Meet a Muslim” campaign in Kansas city on the premise that, “It’s harder to demonize someone or think they’re monolithic when you actually get to know them.”
In March this year, a hate-peddler from the UK sent out an anonymous letter to some homes and businesses and Muslim Members of Parliament in East London, the Midlands and Yorkshire asking people to observe April 3 as “Punish a Muslim Day.” The letter suggested that participants award themselves “points” by engaging themselves in activities ranging from removing a headscarf from a woman (25 points) to beating up some Muslim (500 points). In response came the “Love a Muslim” events organized in several cities across Britain on the suggested date. In the Scottish capital, Edinburgh, “Stand Up to Racism” held a protest demonstration. Simultaneous to “Love a Muslim” events, was launched another initiative, “Protect a Muslim.” Volunteers signed up under the initiative to walk people home, or to stay on the phone with anyone concerned about violence.
A spokesperson from the Metropolitan police in London later said: “These messages [Punish a Muslim] seek to cause fear and mistrust amongst our communities and to divide us. Yet in spite of this our communities have shown strength in their response to such hatred and in their support for each other.”
Some such initiative in response to hate politics was waiting to materialize in India, where Muslims have been the systematic target of right-wing Hindu extremists. Under the watch of self-proclaimed “Hindu Nationalist” Prime Minister Narendra Modi, lynch mobs have been killing and maiming Muslims (and sometimes Dalits) in the name of the Holy Cow. Even in metropolitan cities such as Mumbai, Delhi and Kolkata, Muslims today find it extremely difficult to rent or buy an apartment in a Hindu-predominant or a cosmopolitan neighborhood. As a result, even upper-class Muslims end up living in Muslim ghettos.
In April, a member of the extreme right-wing Vishwa Hindu Parishad, a sister organization of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party, triggered a huge debate by putting out a tweet claiming he canceled his Ola cab ride because the driver was a Muslim. In June, a woman customer refused the services of a company executive because he happened to be a Muslim.
In journalist Swati Chaturvedi’s book I am a troll, published by Juggernaut in December 2016, she charges Prime Minister Narendra Modi with being a regular follower of hate-spewing internet trolls whose full-time occupation is Muslim-bashing: “What does it say about Modi? Why does my prime minister follow those who dish out rape and death threats to women and men alike as if it is no big deal?” The allegation has since been repeated by others. But Prime Minister Modi has yet to issue a denial.
“Muslims are in an unprecedented situation today,” writes Arshad Alam, in his column published on New Age Islam. He continues:
“There is so much Muslim talk these days but then there is no Muslim voice. Muslims are either spoken about or spoken over. The only Muslims who get a chance to speak are the sponsored ones: made for TV mullahs. They speak on an agenda which is pre-configured to otherise and demonise Muslims. If this cacophony of silence needs to be broken, it must be done by Muslims themselves. There is no need to wait for others to speak up. True this loneliness is killing, but silence around the issue will only allow this loneliness to rip apart our very souls.”
What was waiting to happen in India happened in mid-July when, taking a cue from the West, a small group of Muslims and their friends launched a campaign on Twitter with the hashtag #TalkToAMuslim. The celebrity status of some members of the group ensured that the tweets went viral, with hundreds of followers re-tweeting the message.
Model and actress Gauahar Khan on July 17 tweeted:
“#TalkToAMuslim seriously didn’t think a day would come where talking to a muslim leader or a commoner would question ur patriotism or ur belief in ur own faith!!by land I am a Hindu, by faith I am a Muslim and by heart n soul INDIAN is my identity!!! #killThehate #spreadlove”Khan was referring to the BJP describing the Congress Party as a “party of Muslims.” How and why? Because a few days earlier, party president Rahul Gandhi had invited a group of Muslim intellectuals for an informal meeting. Gandhi’s response to the BJP was a tweet: “I stand with the last person in the line. The exploited, marginalised and the persecuted. Their religion, caste or beliefs matter little to me. I seek out those in pain and embrace them. I erase hatred and fear. I love all living beings. I am the Congress.”
Delhi-based writer Zainab Sikander tweeted: “I’m An Indian Muslim. I’m Human too. You can talk to me. #TalkToAMuslim.” One news portal reported that Sikander’s tweet was re-tweeted 7,000 times in just three hours: “Thousands of people including Muslims, Hindus, Christians and other religious and ethnic minorities took part in the social media campaign that was aimed to highlight the growing anti-Muslim sentiments in India,” the report said.
Popular Bollywood actress Swara Bhaskar, who is not a Muslim, re-tweeted Gauahar Khan’s tweet, stating: “#India comes in all creeds, and from all beliefs. India stands for love and peace. #TalkToAMuslim.”
Not every Indian, however, thought well of the campaign. Those critical of it included some Muslims and secular-minded non-Muslims who hold no prejudice against the community. Omair Ahmad, a Muslim, tweeted: “If you think you need to #TalkToAMuslim, don’t come near me. If you can’t see another human being without seeing their ‘identity’ (race, caste, gender, whatever), you are the problem.”
The campaign is “ridiculous,” commented actor Anupam Kher. “I have come from a family who never told me that they are another religion. We have respected all religions and that (#TalkToAMuslim) is a ridiculous campaign.”
But the initiators of the campaign stood their ground. Among them is Ansab Amir Khan, an engineering student from Aligarh Muslim University (a minority educational institution in the north Indian state of Uttar Pradesh) who is credited as being among the first to conceive the campaign. Khan said:
“Many of our wellwishers claim we are not propagating a vision of a secular and free nation, for both majorities and minorities (through #TalkToAMuslim). However, the other-isation, the villain-isation, and the ghettoisation of the minorities had been so rampant that purposely asking for an innately natural act as a sort of last resort seemed the best way to make people realise how low the current regime has made our nation fall—as a democracy, and as a society.”
To this, Tarushikha Sarvesh, an assistant professor at the Centre for Women’s Studies at the same Aligarh Muslim University, added:
“You realise it (the gap) exists on the ground when your domestic help, who belongs to the Paasi community [a ‘low-caste’ in India’s caste hierarchy], expresses her apprehension about sharing space with Muslims and feels good that their settlements are not close to her basti. You know it exists on the ground when people want their domestic help to change their names before hiring them. The perception that Muslims ‘produce more children’ and are violent by nature is commonplace. The everyday-ness and disturbing normalcy of this reality is realised when you talk to people with an intention of actually listening to them.”
With the continuing war of words on social media, the debate for and against the campaign was soon picked up by India’s leading newspapers. The writers expressed their views without being limited by Twitter’s word limit, and deserve reproduction in some detail.
“This is no way to talk. #TalkToAMuslim campaign is patronising, reinforces community stereotypes,” writes Anasua Chatterjee, who teaches sociology at Delhi’s elite women’s college, Miranda House, in the Indian Express:
“The politics of ‘othering,’ which began with Partition, has only gained in momentum with the rise of Hindutva forces. It has worked its way towards a perceived Hindu unity by relentlessly casting Muslims as the diametrical other of the authentic Hindu self. The compelling power of this construct lies in the fact that despite the countless instances of personal friendships, the Muslim continues to remain the ultimate enemy in the average Hindu psyche. Any intervention to dislodge an idea as entrenched as this needs to organise itself very carefully and at different levels. Inexpedient social media campaigns could potentially cause more harm than good towards that end.”
To this came a response from Mohd Asim, a Delhi-based journalist who began his piece as follows:
“I am a Muslim Indian, and I am not the problem. All around I see a siege being laid for the Muslims of this country. Government, TV media, social media—everywhere there is a cacophony around the Muslims.
“This cacophony is the problem. I am not the problem.
“Hate is being mainstreamed by the very people responsible to maintain harmony, to bridge divides.
“This hate is the problem. I am not the problem.”
The highly evocative piece ends with the words: “My dear countrymen, talk to me. Don’t let some loonies define me for you. Let’s talk. Let’s cut through the cacophony of hate that has surrounded us. Let’s start a dialogue. #TalktoAMuslim.”
In a strong endorsement of Asim’s views, the Indian Express published a third article, this one was written by Nazia Erum, author of the book, Mothering a Muslim. Commented Erum:
“The hashtag is under immense derision for placing religion before any other form of identity. What would have been a healthier vocabulary? Talk to a human? Talk to an Indian? Talk to a friend? Let’s face it—all are feeble attempts to shy away from what needs to be said—talk to a Muslim, because: One, it is Muslims who are being made political scapegoats by unscrupulous political leaders and unashamed news anchors. Two, the caricatured Muslim identity rubbed in your face and brainwashed into your psyche through 24/7 television is not what the very diverse Muslim community is like. Three, religiously marked ghettos are increasingly the reality of India. This is not an overnight phenomenon but a slow process of otherisation of Muslims adopted by the Congress and maximised by the BJP. It first distanced physically, then alienated mentally and is now demonising emotionally. Four, it’s not in our hands that bracketing ‘us vs them’ narratives have successfully eclipsed social media conversations. It is also an understated truth of the conversations taking place in our drawing rooms, casual remarks of extended families and in our classrooms. The hashtag reflects this reality. Naming it, acknowledging it is vital to stop it from being normalised.”
The last word on the subject is perhaps yet to be written.
This article was produced by the Independent Media Institute.