Society Reviews

‘Siyasi Muslims’ review: Fractured identity

Politics or religion? What is the cause of negative Muslim portrayals and violence against the community?

Siyasi Muslims by Hilal Ahmed is an attempt to study how notions of Muslim identity in contemporary India are produced and sustained. Ahmed justifies the adjective ‘siyasi’ (political) on the basis of the perception that Muslims today are collectively portrayed as a politically reactive community even as some groups and individuals within it are labelled siyasi or deceitful (in another sense) for selfishly exploiting politics.

He reckons that both these meanings characterise the community “as an informed and conscious group of people who are untrustworthy and disloyal to the nation.” Ahmed, however, dispels such a belief saying it does not determine the aspirations of Muslims because, they, like any other socio-religious community, prioritise the issues of poverty, employment and education.

Political consciousness

Interestingly, Ahmed’s own analysis negates his presumptions and conclusion.

To begin with, he does not give any evidence to show that political consciousness is the reason for Muslim loyalty being suspected. On the contrary, his chapter on Hindutva explains why this rightist ideology needs Muslims for its survival and proves that it is “the historically constituted, anti-Muslim rhetoric” which is really the cause of negative Muslim portrayals and violence against the community.

Ahmed ignores the fact that after Partition Muslims have hardly shown any sign of political consciousness which is an important indicator of a community’s social evolution and democratic participation. Nor have they done anything concrete for their socio-economic development. Thanks to the divine fear that decades of religious indoctrination instilled in their minds, Muslims have seldom looked beyond attaining empyrean rewards for their ritualistic acts.

This is evident from the amount of time and money even lower middle class Muslims spend in seeking divine proximity through the performance of non-obligatory rituals especially umrah, the minor pilgrimage to Mecca.

The Saudi Gazette reported that between October 2018 and March 2019 more than 4.72 lakh Muslims from India performed the umrah. This would have cost them more than ₹3,500 crore at an average of ₹75,000 per umrah. If extrapolated to 12 months, the amount would exceed ₹7,000 crore.

What’s more, the year 2017 saw 4,48,268 Muslims applying for Hajj which proves that lakhs of middle class Muslims have the capacity to spend more than ₹11,000 crore (at ₹2.5 lakh per person) on a ritualistic pilgrimage meant only for the rich.

Simply put, a whopping ₹18,000 crore (not including zakat funds) is available with Muslims every year in the form of hard cash even a small portion of which Muslims are not conscious enough — politically or otherwise — to earmark for their socio-economic development.

Problematic argument

Siyasi Muslims suffers from what sociologists Woolgar and Pawluch call ‘ontological gerrymandering’ by which theoretical statements and empirical studies of social problems manipulate a boundary, making certain phenomena problematic while leaving others unproblematic. In his eagerness to make sense of “the story of Muslims as numbers” in postcolonial India, and flag intra-Muslim heterogeneity (such as the existence of caste among Muslims), Ahmed ignores Louis Wirth’s insightful definition of a minority.

In his 1945 paper The Problem of Minority Groups Wirth describes minorities as “A group of people who, because of their physical or cultural characteristics, are singled out from the others in the society in which they live for differential and unequal treatment, and who therefore regard themselves as objects of collective discrimination.”

This is more or less the case with the Muslim ‘minority’ in India today. In other words, majoritarian perceptions or attacks on Muslims have very little to do with their internal caste systems or class structure as argued by Ahmed. These issues are part of a separate topic of discussion altogether.

Ahmed also contradicts himself at several places. For instance, after having rightly decried attempts to project triple talaq as the “ultimate issue that plagues Muslim women,” he goes on to introduce an 18-page chapter on the subject wherein he tries to justify and endorse “the nuanced arguments” of some Muslim women’s groups instead of calling them out for prioritising a non-issue and continuing to be obsessed with it to the extent of supporting its criminalisation without any legal basis.

The book does little, in sum, to add to our understanding of the subject it holds forth on. A better thesis to explore would have been the idea of Mazhabi Muslims (Religious Muslims). If anything it is the pietistic religiosity of Muslims which prevents them from becoming conscious of their political rights and responsibilities, or their all-round backwardness.

Siyasi Muslims; Hilal Ahmed, Penguin/Viking, ₹599.

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Printable version | Mar 29, 2020 12:13:38 AM |

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