Nowadays a Muslim is never just a Muslim but also has some hyphenated identity. Obviously there are some prefixes that Muslims use such as Sunni, Shi’a, Barelvi, Deobandi, Salafi and Wahabi. However, there are a whole host of other categories such as radical, moderate, extremist, liberal, modern, fundamentalist, progressive and orthodox that are used while discussing individual Muslims. Some people, to be sure, also voluntarily append some of these prefixes when describing themselves.
Following the attack on an Israeli embassy official in New Delhi a group of people were invited to participate in an Indian television show in order to discuss various aspects of the attack. One of the speakers on the show was Dr. Zafarul Islam Khan who is the editor of the Milli Gazette, a fortnightly English language newspaper that primarily covers and writes about Muslim issues in India. Dr. Khan on being asked whether he thought that the Israelis were being “paid back in their own coin” replied that in the past Israel had carried out similar attacks in Dubai, Damascus, Tehran and even in England. He argued that if one was to assume that Iran was indeed behind such an attack, then one also had to look at the context and background to such an incident. He finished by saying that the perpetrators of the attack should be caught, tried and punished but one should not jump the gun as far as laying blame on anyone specific. Noticeably he did not talk about Islam or Muslims in his interview and it would not be pertinent to discuss Dr. Khan’s analysis, but what is interesting is an article that appeared after the TV show.
Following the talk show, the Jerusalem Post carried an article on February 14 by Kanchan Gupta entitled “Embassy blast mars New Delhi street’s calm.” It is a few sentences at the end of Gupta’s analysis that are relevant. He asserts that Dr. Khan, “espouses radical Islamism and routinely berates Israel while calling upon India to break relations with the ‘Zionist state.’” He then goes on to say that Dr. Khan is amongst a “handful of radicals - among India’s millions of Muslims - who know who Mughniyeh was, or care what happened to him.” It is precisely this kind of labelling that is so dangerous, provocative and indeed unnecessary. Dr. Khan’s mere mentioning of Israel’s previous actions was immediately assumed to mean that his position was informed by a radical form of political Islam. It might be convenient, though not accurate, to try and paint any criticism of Israel as one that is first and foremost dictated by religious prejudice. In a more recent article (11/3/2012) for the same newspaper, Gupta writes that the Milli Gazette has “vitriolic anti-Israel views that would qualify as anti-Semitism if India had a hate-speech law.” The sentence clearly illustrates how taking a political position against Israeli policies is seen as being implicitly anti-Semitic.
The cynical manipulation of the category of ‘radical-Muslim’ in order to advance a political trajectory and perpetuate unqualified stereotypes is most unfortunate. If one was to look at the various issues of the Milli Gazette it becomes evident that Dr. Khan is anything but radical. He is of course a Muslim and therefore is particularly interested in highlighting issues that Muslim communities face. Does this however make him a radical? In the last issue of the Milli Gazette (16-29 of February 2012) there is a long opinion article about the various problems faced by India’s Christian community and in previous issues he has covered issues that affect India’s lower castes, tribals and other persecuted groups.
Today, various political, economic and social exigencies have meant that an entire discourse has been created in order to justify untenable positions. Recently at a conference on identity it was interesting that two speakers, a Muslim and a Christian, began by describing themselves as secular and not fundamentalist. It is unfortunate that it was not enough for them to state their religion but instead they had to qualify their belief by making sure that this was not assumed to be of the ‘radical’ variety.
A number of prominent Muslim leaders from different schools of thought have time and again given statements about how any form of violent or radical extremism has no place within Islam. For instance Ahmad Al Tayyib, the Sorbonne-educated rector and Grand Imam of the al-Azhar University, called a press conference to issue a statement along with the Coptic Pope Shenouda III about the need for a bill of freedom and rights. The bill contains clauses about freedom of religion, freedom of expression and thought, freedom of scientific research and the freedom of creativity to practice the arts. Noticeably the Salafist Al-Nour party boycotted the conference.
Unfortunately the media often does not highlight these voices and instead those views are given prominence who insist on perpetuating stereotypes by manipulating appellations and labels. Recently Ayaan Ali Hirsi wrote an article in the Financial Times arguing that political Islamism was popular amongst most Muslims and that “violence was inherent in Islamic theory.” In another article in Newsweek she argued that anti-Christian violence is “a spontaneous expression of anti-Christian animus by Muslims that transcends cultures, regions, and ethnicities.” Of course for many people Hirsi is an ‘acceptable Muslim’ but it is now more important than ever to not feed into stereotypes that will only serve to divide and isolate individuals and indeed communities even more.