Muslims and Inter-Community Relations  – “‹A Global Overview

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Islam recognises that people would pursue various paths to God and salvation, and there are bound to be differences. In order to achieve peace, it enjoins the Muslims not to revile other’s gods.

By Maqbool Ahmed Siraj


Muslim population around the world currently stands around 1.6 billion, nearly 23% of the total people who inhabit the globe. There are 56 member-states of the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) where Muslims are in majority and control their affairs.
Nearly 30% of the world’s Muslims live as minorities in other countries. India has almost 16 crore Muslims who constitute 13% of its population. Indian Muslims outnumber population of several smaller Islamic states put together. Islam emerged from the Middle East. But Arabs whose population is around 35 crore and who live in 22 countries, are not entirely Muslims. Nor all Muslims around the world are Arabs. There are considerable non-Muslim minorities in the Arab country, e.g., half of the Lebanon’s people are Christian inasmuch as its Constitution calls for only a Christian to be the President of the country. Egypt’s Coptic Christian comprise 9% of its population. There are small communities of Jews in almost all Arab countries. Even within the Middle East, Iran and Turkey are ethnically different from Arabs. Iran has a cultural heritage different from Islam. Turkey too is much culturally richer than Arabs.
Indonesia is the State with largest number of Muslims and is almost half the globe away from the Islam’s heartland in the Middle East. Most Muslims in Indonesia are converts from Hinduism and culturally more akin to Hindus than to Muslim Arabs.
Two Muslim countries on the either flanks of India are Pakistan and Bangladesh. While 5% of Pakistan’s people are either Hindus or Christians, Hindus constitute 8.2% of its population while other religions make up roughly 1.5% of the people in Bangladesh. The languages spoken by Muslims in South Asia are of Indo-Aryan origin and are embedded into Sanskrit.
Roughly 4% of Europe’s population is Muslim. Strangely, there are two Muslim majority states, Albania and Kosovo but the government has got nothing to do with religion. Another State Bosnia and Herzegovina is a Muslim dominant state i.e., 44 % Muslims but has adopted a totally secular Constitution. Muslim comprise 5 to 7% in all West European states who are predominantly immigrants from North Africa, Indian subcontinent, Indonesia and Africa and the Middle East. Then there are nearly three million Muslims in the US who may constitute less than 1% of the total population. In neighbouring Canada Muslims constitute 3.2% of people i.e., over a million.
Muslims in China are almost 50 million while in Russia they number around 20 million.
This overview of the Muslim demography across the world should make it evident that Muslims are tied in diverse relationships with non-Muslims everywhere. Just as no nation-state is ethnically pure, Muslim countries too are not monolithic. The people are criss-crossed by ethnic, linguistic, sectarian, divisions. It is in this context that intercommunity relations need to be discussed.
Most Muslims start the discourse with ‘Islam means Peace’. This is very simplistic to start any discussion on inter-community relations. People, communities and nations cooperate, coordinate, coalesce, collide and clash, and come into conflict on the basis of their interests. Religion may be just one element of their identity. This does not make any religious community a homogenous whole. Peace and love dominate the narrative of the Christian missionary organizations. But the fact is that major violent campaigns emanated from the Christian Europe e.g., Crusades, two World Wars, ethnic cleansing in Bosnia, nuclear race, Stalinist terror. Christianity is not responsible for all this. Similarly, Islam may mean peace, but Islamic Middle East has seen a lot of bloodshed, rise and fall of empires and social turmoil all through the 15 centuries of the existence of Islam.
The Quran talks of the entire humankind as one universal brotherhood in its capacity as descendants of Adam and Eve. It also talks about ‘God having conferred dignity over the mankind. Commonality of Abrahamic heritage, ties Christian and Jews into a unique relationship of Ahl e Kitaab. Furthermore, the Quran does not envisage the monolithic Islamic world. It recognizes that the world will be inhabited by people who follow various faiths, Islam included. It therefore lays down norms for inter-religious dialogue between people of varying religious persuasions and even pagans. Prophet Muhammad proclaimed all people to be Al-khalqu Ayalullah (the entire humankind is the family of God.)
Yet Islam recognises that people would pursue various paths to God and salvation and there are bound to be differences and therefore peace and harmony would be the prime need of the humanity to bond it together into a universal brotherhood. In order to achieve peace, it enjoins the Muslims not to revile other’s gods. There is a tendency in all religious people to be self-obsessed and think of other faiths as false and fallacious. Islam enjoins its followers not to vilify other religions and their weaknesses, lest they also vilify the God of Muslims and the ultimate situation being worse than before. This Quranic verse says that insofar as mistakes are concerned, Allah will send his mercy and help the ignorant.
The Quran also talks about virtuous people from all faiths deserving reward from God and advises Muslims not to create differences and distinction among various prophets as all of them were sent by God. It also talks about there being no compulsion in pursuing a faith and for everyone has the right to follow his faith.
These are the ideals cherished by the Quran and Islam. But communities and nations do not live by the ideals, be they national or religious. It is 1,425 years since Prophet Muhammad departed from this mortal world. History, geography of the nations and polity and economics have all undergone massive changes. Today we live in a world divided among 250 nation-states. These states have come into existence not on the basis of the dominant faith followed by a group of people, but on the basis of ethnicity, nationality and linguistic identity of the people inhabiting them. Former colonial masters too had had a hand in fixing their borders. Nearly all of them decide the citizenship on the basis of historical claim of residence of those people who are its citizens. Not on the basis of faith.

The major changes we have witnessed in modern age could be listed as following:

The major changes we have witnessed in modern age could be listed as following:
Nation-states are defined by the ethnicity, language and collective memory of the people.
No nation can claim religious purity.
Religion has only symbolic relevance in determining the national identity.
Government and people are not designated as rulers and the ruled. Nor kings and subjects. But participants in the democratic process.
Religion of the majority of the people does lend a nation a distinct flavor, but minorities are equally part of the governance. Minority rights are guaranteed and those of the minorities within the minority are also recognized.
Religion is a private affair of the individuals, it does not determine their status in the nation-states.
Everyone has the freedom to choose a faith, live by it or give it up, even propagate it.
The role of religion in the public life has been limited drastically. Some states have banished it altogether such as Albania, China etc (they ban growing of beard and wearing of Hijab). Certain states give them ceremonial role i.e., holidays for festivals, recognition of their symbols, etc (The US, Canada, the UK). Some others go a little further and provide guarantee for preservation of the culture, educational institutions, calendar, medicinal systems, even civil laws pertaining to regulation of family life, etc (e.g., India, Malaysia, Singapore, Mauritius, West Indies.). A few States have curbed the right to wear religious symbols (ban on veil in France and Belgium, circumcision in Germany or raising of minarets in Switzerland.)
A few go much further and provide reservation for minorities, and are taking measures to arrest the decline of their numbers as we do in India for Parsis.
A few such as Lebanon and Iraq have even designated public positions for certain communities (only a Maronite Christian can be a Lebanese president, a sunni Muslim prime minister, a shia Muslim the Speaker of the House etc. Similarly, Iraq has designated President’s post for a Kurd).

But the fact is that the inter-community relations are not always guided or regulated by the Constitution or law. If the spirit of camaraderie, brotherhood, caring and sharing, accommodation and tolerance are missing, inter-community relations are bound to suffer disharmony. History, language, competition for scarce resources, perception of domination and subordination, clash of values, disputes over territories, wars between two States etc determine the inter-community relations in a particular society and at a specific era or age.

Case of South Asia
South Asia with three large countries viz. India, Pakistan and Bangladesh presents a unique case. Despite being a Hindu majority region, the 650 years of Muslim rule (from 1191 AD to 1857 AD) makes it a very distinct region where majority community suffers from a siege mentality. Creation of Pakistan (which eventually broke up into two with Bangladesh on the eastern flank), three and half wars between India and Pakistan; the continuing fractious legacy of Partition in Jammu and Kashmir; India’s geographical location where it is encircled by Muslim States of Middle East and South East Asia, reinforce this mentality. Even while all these may not have anything to do with the Muslims and Hindus living within India, the historical animosities do influence inter-community relations. Muslims are generally suspected to be deficient in patriotism at best and fifth columnist at worst. They are accused of celebrating Pakistani victory in Cricket. (Sania Mirza is questioned as to whose victory she would celebrate, merely because she is married to a Pakistani cricketer). Kashmir imbroglio adds the secessionist element to this perception. Maltreatment of Hindus in Pakistan and Bangladesh also casts its shadow over Hindu-Muslim relations in India although fair treatment of one’s minorities does not and should not warrant reciprocity. Justice is an absolute value and is not a matter of reciprocation.

Vegetarian habits of the Hindu power elite and non-vegetarianism practised by Muslims is a constant source of friction. Reverence for cows and mention of ban on cow slaughter in the Directive Principles of the State’s Policy gives the issue a positive tilt in favour of the Hindus. This could provoke violence anywhere.
Any minority which commands more than 10% of votes is not looked with same benevolence as one that is less than 5%. Thirteen per cent of Muslim population is seen as a thorn in the side of those who propose Hindu Rashtra.
Theory of Muslim being a privileged community too has been concocted to project them as a threat. A slightly higher growth rate is posed as a danger signal. Article 30 is also pointed out as yet another factor lending the minorities a privileged position.
Competition over scarce resources leads to friction over cultural properties. Eidgahs, graveyards, mosques become bone of contention. Those eyeing the votes of a particular community target such issues and promote violence. Distorted history, entry of anti-Muslim material in textbooks, demonization of Muslims in the media too fuel Muslim ire.
Blasphemy laws in Pakistan are used as a tool of harassment against Christian minority. Abduction of Hindu girls by Muslim gangs in rural Sindh of that country too act as a source of friction.
There have been demands to change cities named by or after Muslims like Ahmadabad, Hyderabad and Allahabad to Karnavati, Bhagyanagar and Prayag respectively. Curiously, the capital of Bangladesh is named after a Hindu temple Dhakeshwari, a Hindu goddess. But there were never any demand to change the name of the capital. On a smaller level, resistance is seen for proposals to change street names after Muslim heroes, artistes. It took BBMP a decade to officially name the 100-feet Road in Bangalore’s upscale Indiranagar after Kareemkhan, a yakshagana artiste.
Yet all is not lost between Hindus and Muslims in South Asia. Both share a lot of similarities, culture and traditions. There are a number of syncretic shrines all across the South Asia where Hindus and Muslims pay their obeisance. They are not taken kindly by the religious extremists bent upon segregating the communities. Kathak dance, Urdu language, Qawwali, Urs, Bollywood films are products of creative interactions between the two communities. Composite culture of Indo-Gangetic plain where Hindus and Muslims shared the same Hindustani boli (lingo), contributed to Hindi and Urdu literature, gave rise to synthesized form of religious movements such as Kabeerpanthi, Arya Samaj and even Sikhism, all these testify to confluence of the two religions. Sikhism borrowed its doctrine of monotheism from Islam and cultural mores from Hindus. Even the foundation of Golden Temple in Amritsar was laid by a Muslim sufi Miyan Sahib Meer. The oldest Ramleela Committee in Delhi was started by last Mughal king Bahadur Shah Zafar in 1829, i.e., 185 years ago. Even Phoolwalon ki Sair, a syncretic festival where fans made of flowers are offered at the dargah of Khawja Bakhtiyar Kaki and Yogmaya Temple in Mehrauli was started by penultimate Mughal King Akbar Shah II (1808-1837) in 1812 and was revived by Prime Minister Jawahar Lal Nehru in 1961.
Urdu literature and poetry was enriched by Hindu litterateurs such as Munshi Premchand, Braj Narain Chakbast, Jaswant Rai Naqsh Lailpuri, Prof. Raghupati Sahai Firaq Gorakhpuri, Ram Lal, Bisheshar Pradeep, Khushtar Garami, Upendranath Ashk, Kashmiri Lal Zakir, Manorama Diwan, Krishan Chandar, Arsh Malsiani, etc. Muslims writer are found contributing to literature in all languages, for instance Omar wrote Sirapuranam in Tamil and Syed Khader known in Tamil as Seethakkathi lived in the 17th century. The oldest existing Urdu magazine (104 year old) is Mastana Jogi currently edited by J. P. Bhatnagar. We even find mention of a Christian poet in Urdu too i.e., Shauq Jalandhari.
Muslim-Non-Muslim Inter-community Relations Globally
Diverse Communities living side by side do not live like frozen cubes. They interact with each other. They also have clash of ethos and conflicts to tackle.
Muslims have arrived in large numbers from the former colonies to the colonizing countries i.e., from the sub-continent to Britain; from Indonesia to Holland; Algeria, Tunisia, Ghana, Niger, Mali and Morocco to France; from Libya and Sudan to Italy; from Turkey (which was never colonized) to Germany.
The freedom, democracy and liberal education in the West has enabled the migrant Muslim countries to throw up an entire range of new Islamic thinkers like Tariq Ramadan, Ian Hirsi Ali, Ziauddin Sardar, Mohammed Arkoun, Nimat Hafez Barzangi, Abdullahi al-Naim, Ahmed M. Souaiaia, Aminah Wadud, Raji al-Faruqi, etc. Shunning conservatism that dominates the academics in their native lands, these authors have made interpretation of Islam in sync with liberal ethos of the current age.
Even while these authors are exporting civil liberties and democracy to their native lands and imparting rationality to civilisational dialogue, the migrants have brought in gender biases, honour killings, dowry harassment, thought control, et al. Extremist among nationalists have kicked up xenophobia. Religious extremists among them have triggered Islamophobia. Islam is the new bogeyman of security apparatus all across these societies.
But there has been an effort to understand Islam too on the part of the West. John Esposito, Karen Armstrong, Murad Hoffman, Dilip Hero, Annemarie Schimmel, Jeffery Lang, Carol Anway, Roger Garaudy, are a few names who have very sensitively contributed to the promotion of debate on Islam.
Generally, most Western governments have allowed liberal space to Islam and Muslims within their land. It may primarily be as repayment of a debt to their colonial rule. But xenophobic movements look apprehensively at Muslims in Europe, mainly due to their better birthrate, youngish profile and declining population of the natives. Some of them fear clash of values too, particularly in matters of gender equality which the West has practiced for nearly two full centuries. The ban on veil by Belgium and France may be one example to cite. As a general rule, sacrifice of animals for religious reasons is not possible in European nation, not due to any religious opposition but solely due to strict rules regarding municipal waste disposal. Switzerland’s ban on raising minaret over mosques however defies logic. The right extremists pressed for it as they felt cultural threat to the dominant architectural ethos. There have been objections to Zabiha, the Islamic way of slaughter of animals (which is also shared by the Jews). Circumcision is also a point of contention.
But as a whole the West has been a much hospitable land for Muslims and Islam than the Islamic lands of the East to followers of other religions. Muslim migrants could have education, seek employment, purchase land, become voters, contest elections and become legislators, marry native women, take citizenship and do business. Some of the hassles the non-Muslims face in the Islamic lands are as follows:
Rule of law is non-existent.
Citizenship is rarely granted to migrants. This blots out prospects of ever being voters, contestants and legislators except in countries like Turkey, Indonesia or Malaysia.
In Egypt while Muslim males are free to marry Coptic Christian females, reciprocal rights are not available to Coptic Christian males cannot not marry Muslim females unless they convert to Islam. Similar laws prevail in Malaysia.
Hindus cannot cremate their dead in Kuwait and many other Islamic states.
Churches or temples cannot be constructed in Saudi Arabia, nor even images of deities can be brought in.
It is next to impossible to marry native women for expatriates. Even if they marry, their children are not granted citizenship in most Arab countries of the Gulf.
Most Muslim countries do not accord the women the rights which Islam recognized. Women are more looked from the angle of modesty than as independent, autonomous, rational entity and equal citizens.
Extremist regimes like the Taliban or forces like Boko Haram in Nigeria believe in segregation between Muslims and non-Muslims. Taliban asked Hindus and Sikhs to wear colour badges in public. They blasted the Buddha statues in Bamiyan.
In Malaysia, Christians have been judicially prohibited from using the word ‘Allah’ in their discourse or literature.
(This paper was presented by Maqbool Ahmed Siraj at the Henry Martyn Institute, (HMI) Hyderabad, on October 2, 2014, as part of the October Course on “Islam and Interfaith Relations” organized by HMI). (He can be reached at [email protected])