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Advocating Rights of Muslims: Problems and Challenges-Part 2
By Yoginder Sikand

My own limited reading of Islam suggests that mere preaching in the absence of practical effort to ameliorate a social ill really has no sanction in Islam.

Funding coming in for projects for sundry Muslim causes does not, despite what they claim, actually empower the community as such to articulate their demands both on the state and wider society for their rights as citizens. Take for instance, this case of an NGO that has got international funding for a project on Muslim women’s rights in the shariah. The project aims at critiquing the traditional ulama’s understanding of women’s rights, offering more gender progressive under-standing of fiqh or Islamic jurisprudence. This, of course, is a welcome thing and can also, in a sense empower Muslim women, but the point to also note is that the way the project is framed is such as to turn the attention solely on the internal causes of Muslim women’s marginalisation, deflecting attention from the structural and institutional discrimination that Muslims as a whole, including Muslim women, suffer.

As for the role of Muslim groups in highlighting Muslim issues and rights, here, too, there is room for much improvement. It appears that large sections of the Muslim political and religious elite display little or no concern for the daily issues of survival and empowerment of the Muslim masses, undoubtedly because this might threaten their own claims to authority and leadership. This explains, for instance, their reluctance to take up issues related to what can be termed as ‘internal minorities’, such as women or so-called ‘lower’ caste Muslims, who are among the most marginalised sections of Muslim society. Often, when their issues are raised it is condemned forcefully as an alleged anti-Islamic plot to divide the ummah, and the merits of the case, even if framed in ‘Islamic’ terms, are dismissed. While cases of anti-Muslim violence are regularly highlighted, the issue of structural injustice, such as the economic, social, educational marginalisation and plight of millions of Muslims, are rarely, if ever, raised. This is reflected in the demands of Muslim groups made on political parties before elections, these being largely cosmetic and identity-related or issues that concern only a small section of Muslims.

It is not that these issues, even if some of them are cosmetic and identity-related are all unimportant. Some of them are indeed crucial, but the fact of the matter is that focusing on these alone, as many Muslim political and religious groups do, leaves out the crucial social, economic, educational and political issues of under-representation and marginalisation of millions of ‘ordinary’ Muslims.

Many Muslim groups working on Muslim social, economic and educational issues and rights as well as against state repression or Hindutva are characterised by adhocism, poor management, lack of funds, nepotism and absence of professionalism, and often are centred around a key founder leader. Working on common issues with other organisations is thus imperative for helping improve their own style of functioning.

Another issue that needs to be seriously addressed by Muslim groups working on issues related to Muslim rights and empowerment is that of the need to expand the present normative discourse through which Muslim issues are looked at. For many religious groups that claim to represent all Muslims, the myriad social and economic problems of the Muslims and the solutions to them are seen simply through a narrowly-defined religious lens. Some groups come up with novel theories to explain or even to justify Muslim marginalisation and to obviate the necessity of any practical effort, besides preaching the faith, to solve the issue. This is reflected in the literature produced by many Muslim publishing houses in India, most of which is on normative Islamic rules and prescriptions. So, while you will find several books on the ‘Islamic Solution to Poverty’ and ‘The Islamic Notion of Human Rights’ and ‘Social Justice in Islam’ and so on, in hardly any Muslim bookshop will you find empirically-grounded studies of the actual, living conditions of Muslims in India.

To cite a personal instance, I have just completed preparing a bibliography of writings on Muslim education in India, and I have to say that more than 80 per cent of the writings that I managed to gather were either on the concept of education in Islam or on the history of Islamic education in classical Islamic civilization or biographies of Muslim educationists and relatively very little on actual existing contemporary Muslim education. I once asked the editor of a Muslim magazine, which regularly publishes articles on the notion of education in Islam, as to why his magazine has not carried a single piece on existing problems and conditions of Muslims in different parts of the country. His reply was: “If Muslims were to fully practise Islam, then all our problems would be automatically solved, so what is the need for doing these field surveys and wasting time and money, when we know what the single solution is?” Since this man is a deeply religious person, the way he sees the solution to the problem is understandable, but my own limited reading of Islam suggests that mere preaching in the absence of practical effort to ameliorate a social ill really has no sanction in Islam.

Many Muslim groups working on Muslim social, economic and educational issues and rights are characterised by adhocism, poor management, lack of funds, nepotism and absence of professionalism, and often are centred around a key founder leader.

Yet another issue that Muslim groups that seek to articulate the rights of Muslims need to also seriously ponder is that of exclusivism. If Muslims wish to be taken seriously by the wider society, there is an urgent need for Muslim activists and groups to look beyond just Muslim-related rights issues and join hands with groups struggling for the rights of other similarly marginalised communities as well, such as Dalits and Adivasis, as well as with groups working on issues that affect the wider society, of which Muslims are also a part, such as say the anti-globalisation and anti-imperialist movement, the struggle against environmental destruction, the peace movement, etc. In this way they will be seen as not simply concerned about themselves, which will make others take Muslim issues and concerns more seriously. It will also help remove the enormous misconceptions that many non-Muslims have about Islam and Muslims, which, today, in the face of mounting Islamophobia, has emerged as a really major challenge.

To cite a personal instance, I was at the World Social Forum some years ago in Mumbai. While there were dozens of Indian Dalits, feminists, Adivasi environmentalists and other such groups present at the venue with their own stalls, I saw only two Indian Muslim stalls—and both these were simply selling literature about Islam. Now, the World Social Forum was a wonderful occasion for Muslim groups to reach out to others, not just about Muslim-related issues, but issues of common concern to all, but this was not the case.

Finally, a word about the media and about the state. It is really crucial that Muslim groups reach out to the media to articulate their opinions and concerns about their rights. Unfortunately, in the current context of rapidly mounting Islamophobia, large sections of the media, both Indian as well as international, seem to have a vested interest in presenting Muslims and Islam in a particular light, and pick on the most obscurantist and extremist elements and present them as representatives of the Muslims. Alternate voices are rarely, if ever, allowed to be heard. Yet, there are sensitive people in the media who do think it important for alternate Muslim voices to be heard. Muslim organisations working on Muslim rights need to adopt a proper media policy so as to reach out to these people and through them to the wider society.

(To be concluded)

(The writer can be reached at