Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Making Muslims Citizens

Proposing an agenda to incorporate the rhythms of Islam into Goan public life

What happened to the minor and female students of the residential school in Vasco last week was an act of State terror perpetrated by police officers of our State. Lame excuses have been proffered by the responsible officers, but they fail to impress and clearly elaborate what necessitated treating children, who were in no way responsible for the acts of the school authorities, like criminals. Not that the school authorities seem culpable. They have presented eminently plausible reasons, that refer to an existing understanding and cordial relationship that was rudely and violently interrupted on the 16th of December 2008.

It is because there seems to be no rational argument forthcoming from the police that this column will not dwell further on this instant case. It is on the episodes and issues thrown up in the aftermath of this incident that we could dwell on. Subsequent to the incident, the All Goa Muslim Jamaats held a press conference in Panjim. What emerged in stark relief was the large cultural (and informational) divide that separates the Goan (inclusive of the Indian) Muslim from the larger populace of the State.

When I speak of a divide, I am not referring to a Muslim refusal to be “more Goan”. On the contrary, a large number of the Muslims at that press conference were fluent in Konkani, some had worked for the state as high functionaries, and were definitely not the stereotypical bearded and capped Muslim. The divide if at all stemmed from the other side. This is the unfortunate truth of most calls to assimilation, all the effort has to be made from the minority that is being accommodated; the majority has to simply be its stubborn and provincial self, closed to any sort of cosmopolitanism.

For example, in the course of this press conference, one of the trustees of the school volunteered the information that the school that was being called a Madrassa was in fact not a madrassa, but a Dar-ul-uloom (Dar for place; al meaning of; and Uloom being the plural for Ilm, learning/ knowledge; therefore house of knowledges). The non-comprehension of the term was embarrassing enough; this was compounded by the subsequent flip-flopping by the trustee. Having revealed this new term, he failed to clearly elaborate what it meant, and went back to referred to the school as a madrassa, effectively confusing everyone in the audience now.

What possibly motivated this flip-flopping, this half-hearted volunteering of new terminology? The first, possible, and less charitable suggestion could be that this trustee himself was not particularly clear as to what he was suggesting to the audience. The second, more charitable, and in the larger scheme of things more plausible reason would be that even while volunteering, he didn’t actually believe that there would be an audience interested in knowing the difference between a madrassa, and a dar-ul-uloom, and just gave up before he even began.

The point that I would like to make here, is that if we are to make Muslims equal partners in our society, and effective citizens of our purportedly secular state, we need to make efforts to understand the cultural frameworks and references of the multiple Muslim communities of our State (and country). In more programmatic terms, the challenge before us is also to inquire as to how we can incorporate the rhythms of Islam into our public life.

The task before us may not be as difficult and impossible as it may possibly seem. The periods of the Sultanate and that subsequent to the Portuguese conquest of Goa have marked our society profoundly with an Islamicate culture. Whether it is the Konkani we use that is peppered liberally with words of Persian and Arabic origin, some of the social mores of our land, the architecture that we proudly call Indo-Portuguese (as code for Hindu-Catholic); we are a people profoundly marked by an interaction with Islamicate cultures. We fail to see this, first because these features are such an integral part of our lives, and secondly because the representations of Goa have overly focused on the ‘European’ Portuguese, and when focusing on pre-Portuguese have erased the Islamicate, to focus only on the Sanskritic aspects of that time. A more balanced focus would reveal to us the ties that bind us with people who profess Islam as a faith.

This however is an intervention required at the level of ideas, the impact of which will take time to be felt. The more immediate requirement is to incorporate the rhythms of Islam into our public life. In this regard, as a supreme example of failure, my thoughts go back to a lecture-discussion I had organized titled “Rethinking Secularism” on a day that happened to be the last Friday of Ramzan. Given that the last Friday of Ramzan is a particularly significant day in the holy month it was not the most sensitive choice of dates. To his credit, we did have a lone Muslim in the audience, but shamefully, we had made no preparation either to help him break his fast (a glass of water) or to set aside a space for silent prayer subsequent to his breaking the fast. Such acts should not be seen as extravagant. They are only as extravagant as the act of pausing mid-sentence when the church bells ring for Angelus, or providing a vegetarian option at festive banquets.

An agenda of incorporating the rhythms of Islam does not necessarily have to be tied to incorporating and making space only for religious practices of Muslims. However, in the scenario, where large numbers of Muslims have been forced into the fold of religious practices and rituals as a result of a hostile state and society, making these moves would serve to in fact buttress the secular credentials of the Indian republic. Having suggested this though, this agenda must necessarily include extending our cultural space to include cultural, literary references that move beyond the tiring repetition of the image of Mosques, and bearded and capped men hugging each other. This cliché will however be broken only when we explore our own personal and domestic cultures and realize within them the debts we owe to our forgotten and ignore Islamicate pasts.

(Published in the Gomantak Times 24 Dec 2008)

1 comment:

Shabs said...


We've met once before, on Val's facebook profile to be specific, while debating on Mr Al-Zaidi's 'right' to use his shoes as missiles targetted at Dubya. Val, in fact, sent me this post of yours, perhaps thinking that we might share similar opinions. And she was right. I am in firm agreeance with your thoughts on making muslims feel at home in this wonderful country of ours which we claim to be secular. Well said, brother!

From one human rights defender to another - Shabari.