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Quick Takes

Who is Afraid of Allah? On Muslims Sans Muslimness

For Muslims to become worthy of any empathy and solidarity, whether in the west or in staunchly anti-Muslim India, what must first be shed is our very religiosity. Islam is to be tolerated only when reduced to culture in which the dominant-caste or white friend can joyously celebrate Muslim festivities, visit Muslim friends and restaurants for biryani in Toronto or Delhi, or post Sufi songs on their social media. Those are the parameters set around reception of a Muslim sans Islam.

Snippet #1: In response to my statement of resignation from an executive committee of a program at the University of California, San Diego, a few self-identified Marxist cis-men professors with whom I have never held any conversations, wrote to me, concerned about the last line of my resignation letter which stated: “May Allah bring Azadi to Kashmiri Muslims and may people like me be on the right side of the barricades here and in the other world. Aameen.” Rather than expressing solidarity with Kashmiri Muslims living under Indian occupation, or solidarity with us women of color demanding accountability from the university, their issue, consistently across those emails, was with my mention of Allah and the “other world.” Infantilizing me as unable to understand what anti-capitalist actions demand, and almost using their father’s tagline of “religion is the opium of the masses,” these Marxists could not engage with the important message driven by anti-colonial politics, refusal of unethical research practices, and the demand for accountability from researchers.

Snippet #2: Amidst threats from Hindu nationalists given my scholarly and other political work, I posted on my private Facebook account’s wall a verse from the Holy Qur’ān which many Muslims recite in times of distress to comfort ourselves that nothing happens without Allah’s Will. A self-proclaimed cis-man Brahmin atheist, who in all the years, had barely clicked on any Facebook post of mine, responded with a laughing emoji. When I called him out, his dismissive reply compelled me to remove him from my Facebook. A minute later who came to his defense but a Dalit cis-man with whom I had never had any interactions before. Brahmin or Dalit, what seemed to unite these men across caste lines was contempt for Islam and for a Muslim woman quoting from the Qur’ān.  

Snippet #3: Engaging with the actions of the brave young Muslim woman, Muskan Khan who, in response to, Hindu nationalists heckling her for wearing hijab outside her school in Karnataka, shouted “Allahu Akbar,” many non-Muslim Indians, feeling the urgent need to express their radicality, praised her actions but with a caveat that she leave Allah out of her resistance. As an Indian Hindu woman with 24 K followers on her FB noted: “I would request my Muslim brethren to counter Jai Shri Ram with Jai Hind. It will prevent the conflict from turning into a religious one and defeat their purpose.” They perhaps missed the slogan and the big cloth banner held by Muslim women in Kerala with the message: “We’ll decide our slogans; You shut up! #AllahuAkbar”.

In times of impending genocide of Muslims in India, what does secularism as a state doctrine/policy/identity and atheism (of a dominant caste man with a Hindu name) mean? What is the function of this figure of the seemingly situated on the left [Brahmin] atheist who mocks Muslims and our Holy Scripture? What about expressions of religiosity by Muslims is so offensive and even threatening to these people? These are some of the questions I have been reflecting on for a while now.

In their article, “To invoke Allah or to not,” Mudasir Amin and Samreen Mushtaq, reflecting on the anti-Citizenship Amendment Act protests at the Jamia Millia Islamia College, note that the non-Muslim students protesting the draconian Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) took offence at Muslim students’ slogans of “Allahu Akbar” and accused them of “communal sloganeering.” Moreover, these “left-liberal students made statements such as, ‘Let us be united. Don’t give a communal colour to the movement,’ and ‘We will not allow ‘La ilaha’ to be shouted here.’” The authors ask:

What is it about Muslim assertion that must be repressed in order to forge unity with the leftist-liberals? This is not a comment on Jamia alone, but goes well beyond. Solidarity from liberals is conditional because of their understanding of Muslims as quintessentially illiberal. The liberals boast about the country’s pluralistic credentials, but see any assertion on part of Muslims who foreground their identity in religious terms as inimical to India’s secular fabric. 

There is much to think with in their questions. Both, the leftist liberal and the right-wing/mainstream Indian Hindus use the word “communal/ism” in reference to Muslims to cover systematic and brutal violence against Muslims in India. They shore up the myth that rather than a historical and structural dispossession of Muslims, it is merely another banal disagreement between Hindus and Muslims who are on the same level playing field. India is a Brahminical state and its anti-Muslimness, as exemplified by the role of revivalist Arya Samaj and Hindu nationalist militancy, is older than 1947.  India can claim secularity only by disavowing its genocidal Islamophobia, casteism, and hatred of all minority religions that challenge its Brahminical core. Here I am not claiming that nothing has changed since the 19th century. As Christophe Jaffrelot notes:

The new phenomena we are seeing today are of two kinds. Some of them reflect merely a change in degree, not in kind. This is true of most of the attacks against the minorities. They were there before. They have ‘simply’ gained momentum, become more systematic and banal because of the post-2014 political dispensation that allows the rise of vigilantes, like gau rakshaks (self-proclaimed protectors of the cow).

Islamophobia has systematically intensified but has been an integral part of Brahminical India. While I cannot do a systematic analysis here of the ways in which the Indian left engages with Muslims, I note that these ‘allies’ are not willing to allow Muslims to carve out the parameters and terms of resistance according to their (collective or not) will. Those who speak on terms that differ from the ones set out the allies are not worth offering solidarity to.

For Muslims to become worthy of any empathy and solidarity, whether in the west or in staunchly anti-Muslim India, what must first be shed is our very religiosity. Islam is to be tolerated only when reduced to culture in which the dominant-caste or white friend can joyously celebrate Muslim festivities, visit Muslim friends and restaurants for biryani in Toronto or Delhi, or post Sufi songs on their social media. Those are the parameters set around reception of a Muslim sans Islam. As  Mahmood Mamdani’s  Good Muslim, Bad Muslim shows,the bad Muslim (understood as the one practicing Islam – whatever that means to these liberals) can become tolerable as dead only.

For those of us who understand Islam in all its multiplicity and as a way life, the hope of receiving any form of care (whether solidarity, alliance, friendship) is miniscule outside of our small circle of friends, kin, and other community members. This shedding of religiosity and performing (nationalist) secularism is necessarily genocidal because it is the means through which colonial, racial, and casteist hierarchies have been solidified in modern nation-states whether India, Canada, or the United States. Christian and dominant caste projects of conquest and annihilation of Indigenous peoples across continents has continued through seemingly secular state institutions even when the core of these states remain (white) Christian (in North America) and Brahminical (in India).

Therefore, this figure of the (religious) Muslim has consistently been one of the most loathed and villainized figures in both Western and (seemingly) postcolonial nation-states like India. For South Asians, anti-Muslimness and casteism are two of the important ways in which active participation in maintaining both Brahminical supremacy back home and whiteness and white settler colonialism are maintained. For example, post 9/11, as Prema Kurien (2004) writes, many Hindus in diaspora felt the need to constantly shore up the idea of “the tolerance and pluralism of Hinduism” in order to differentiate Hindus from Muslim immigrants (378). Giving strength to the white supremacist and Brahminical ideologies that Muslims are indeed terrorists, they sought to establish themselves as the “good and noble” brown people at all the borders and within state institutions. This was not only anti-Muslim but also anti-Indigenous if we understand that “this labeling of Muslim bodies as terrorists was the legacy of a white supremacist settler-colonial governmentality that continues to label Indigenous peoples of the land as terrorists, and then targets them for disappearance and death.” This was also anti-black and much has been said about how caste and anti-blackness maintain each other.

In her powerful analysis of the work which culture of sentiment in 19th century American literature performed to shore up racialized hierarchies of life, Xine Yao (2021) makes reference to a short essay by popular social media critic, Robert Jones Jr., who goes by the name, Son of Baldwin. Yao cites the instance when Son of Baldwin refuses to extend any sympathy to the white woman shot by a Black police officer, and faced severe backlash for it. Yao cites them at length in her text:

Most white people rely on this idea that black people, in situations where white people are in pain, are only ever to be soothing and understanding; only ever to be Mammy or Uncle Remus; only ever to extend condolences; only ever to embody loyalty; only ever to offer the empathy and sympathy that most white people purposely and haughtily deny when the situation is reversed—almost as if most white people still see us as their property. When the situation is reversed, when we require empathy and sympathy, then suddenly we’re all of the opposite things that these once-needy white people previously said we were. When the shoe is on the other foot, then they assess us as immoral, violent, criminal, subhuman, unworthy. (Son of Baldwin, cited in Yao, 2021, 2)

Refusing to center “white feelings” in American politics (whether that of the right or the liberal left), Son of Baldwin, and in turn Yao, make us reflect on the conditions of solidarity laid out by dominant groups. Oppressed people are demanded to always appear sympathetic to the presumed pain and injury of white and dominant-caste people if they are to have any chance at being recognized as objects deserving their sympathy. As Yao (4) writes: “Thus, the marginalized do not have the luxury of being unsympathetic without forfeiting the provisional acceptance of their capacity for affective expressions and, therefore, the conditional acceptance of their humanity.”

For Muslims too, we must first be sympathetic to feelings of these various dominant groups before the left is able to marginally construe us as human enough to receive their convenient solidarity. In order to appear sympathetic, it is required that we shed Islam as a way of life from our lives. The Qur’ān, the hijab, the skullcap, the mosque, the prayers, or the faith in Tawhid (Oneness of Allah) as the basis of our decolonial and anti-casteist praxis, all of it must remain hidden or narrated within the terms which the liberal left can condone. For example, dominant-caste and white feminists love to don on the hijab on World Hijab Day and understand some Muslim women’s taking up of it as being about feminist autonomy and women’s right to wear what they want. The only way we can stop being threatening, as the first step, and secondly appear to be sympathetic to white and savarna liberals, is to allow ourselves to be rescued from the tentacles of Islam and dilute any religion-based practices into neoliberal capitalist narratives. That is the only way Muslims, our living, our struggles become remotely legible to the left, be they anti-racist, post-colonial, anti-casteist, Marxist or whatever else. That is why, despite my anti-university stance and solidarity towards Kashmiri Muslims, the only thing these Marxist professors wanted to point out was how I was being duped by my own brand of opium called Islam. That is why both, the Brahmin atheist and his Dalit mouthpiece, felt the need to confront me, to discipline me. My Facebook is good for them for information I share on books, events, and critiques of the world here and there. But the minute I posted a verse from the Qur’ān, I became a threat, and somebody alien and yet known and familiar, inciting in them the need to challenge me. The Qur’ānic verse posting Muslim woman is not one they can even pretend to be collegial with.

Lastly, I would like to talk about caste. The disdain over Allahu Akbar response and slogans or my posting the Qur’ānic verse is more than about the tyranny, homophobia, misogyny, and hatred-for-the-west discourse linked to Muslims in both mainstream and alternative institutional spaces of the West. For dominant-caste Hindus, both Islamophobia and anti-Pakistan sentiments is precisely how they come to understand themselves as Indian subjects, even when they purport to be anti-nationalist. I have discussed some of this elsewhere, but here I want the reader to consider this: In the context of South Asia and its diaspora, to be anti-Muslim is to also be casteist. Because caste is a system of graded inequality, one can be a caste-oppressed non-Muslim subject and still vie for dominance within the setup of state apparatuses through their Islamophobia. Around the time of this writing, there has been much commotion on Twitter over Dalit scholar Suraj Yengde’s post accusing Indian Muslims of not voting for Dalit leadership, effectively erasing the role of Dalit-Bahujans assimilated into Hindutva politics that are innately and ultimately genocidal for Indian Muslims. Much has to be said about Yengde’s constant anti-Muslim attacks as well as about his offensive anti-Christian rants. These accusations against Muslims deflect our attention away from the fact that, as Rémy Delage and other scholars have noted, in the Indian Subcontinent, it was majority of Dalits and other caste-oppressed people who converted to Islam. In the end, the question for me is this: Do dominant caste persons and non-Muslim Dalits like Yengde or the friend of that Brahmin atheist who confronted me, not understand that Indian Muslims are legitimately at the mouth of a genocide by the Brahminical state? Experts are claiming, based on the very obvious, that there are signs and processes of an impending genocide of Muslims in India. What does it mean to claim to be anti-casteist while being staunchly anti-Muslim? Can casteism be sufficiently addressed in the Indian context or diaspora without engaging with the figure of the anti-secular (?) Muslim-as-threat?

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