If you’re looking for a defining image from the fifth Jaipur Literature Festival, which ended on Monday, there are plenty to choose from: laughter rippling across the front lawns of the Diggi Palace hotel as Alexander McCall Smith recalled the travails of his fictional female detective from Botswana, an electric evening performance by the Tamil singer Susheela Raman, a moving speech on the power of literature by the Scottish novelist Andrew O’Hagan. But none was as arresting as the unannounced (for security reasons) appearance of the controversial Dutch-Somali writer and activist Ayaan Hirsi Ali.
Speaking to a packed hall, with her burly bodyguard unobtrusively off-stage, Hirsi Ali spoke about Islam—and its problems with individualism, women’s rights and sexuality—with a frankness unfamiliar to most Indians. She described the faith she was born into as “a dangerous, totalitarian ideology masquerading as a religion”. She argued against the moral relativism that has prevented Western intellectuals from scrutinizing Islam as they do Christianity and Judaism. She asked why it seemed impossible to have a sober discussion about the Quran and the sayings of the Prophet Muhammad without riling Muslim sentiment, and made the case for bringing the Enlightenment to the blighted lands of West Asia and Muslim South Asia. Hirsi Ali touched upon India only briefly, to contrast the country’s success with the dismal state of neighbouring Muslim-majority Pakistan.
But her very presence in Jaipur speaks of the ways in which India, home to 150 million Muslims, is slowly starting to grapple with the faith. As India grows wealthier and more integrated with the rest of the world, the call centre worker with the American accent and the farmer with the cellphone have become the most common symbols of how much the nation has changed since it began opening its economy nearly 20 years ago. But the Jaipur festival suggests other, less obvious, ways in which globalization has begun to affect a country long dominated by the kind of groupthink fostered by decades of socialism.
The Indian debate about Islam has remained frozen in a time warp. The mainstream intellectuals who dominate the country’s editorial pages and television channels tend to trace the Muslim world’s problems almost exclusively to the alleged misdeeds of Israel and the US. The Hindu right doesn’t make this mistake, but its tendency to group all Muslims together, its inability to distinguish between Islam as a religion and Islamism as an ideology, and its championing of causes important to the most orthodox Hindu believers shades into bigotry and religious chauvinism.
In Jaipur, Hirsi Ali challenged the assumptions of both groups. She was flatly unapologetic about her views on Islamic theology, but at the same time she urged the audience to think of Muslims as “individuals who are capable of changing their mind”.
Nor was Hirsi Ali the only writer at the festival—studded with some of the world’s most prominent experts on Islam—to challenge the mainstream Indian narrative. Tunku Varadarajan of the Daily Beast website talked of Arab-Muslim societies with “terrible rulers and terrible oppositions, squeezed between despots and fanatical Islamists”. Max Rodenbeck of The Economist described Lebanon as “fragmented according to which conspiracy theory you subscribe to”. Lawrence Wright, a writer for the The New Yorker and author of The Looming Tower, a widely read book on Al Qaeda, answered an often-asked question about US aggression by pointing out that “Islam is under attack from the West in part because it attacked the West”. Steve Coll—whose books on the genesis of global jihadism in what has come to be called Af-Pak and on Saudi Arabia’s second most famous family are among the definitive works on either subject—calmly and carefully untangled a web linking zealous Saudi royals, Pakistani intelligence agents and tribal warlords in Afghanistan.
Predictably, the audience response was at times slightly hostile. While the reaction to Hirsi Ali’s talk was polite—as though people were still digesting her message—and questions were restrained, not all listeners were so tolerant. A young Kashmiri Muslim man accused a panel that discussed the Arab-Muslim penchant for conspiracy theories of “promoting stereotypes”, and being “spokespersons for the mainstream media”. A professor of history at Delhi University said he would “defy anyone with the slightest sense of justice” to say what was happening in Palestine was “fair”. Javed Akhtar, a prominent writer of Bollywood lyrics, declared that “all Islamic fanaticism and fundamentalism is nurtured by the USA”, and accused the US government of deliberately hiding the “fact” that Osama bin Laden was dead.
In the end, though, Jaipur marked a small step towards the slow but inexorable knitting of India into the mainstream of global discourse on a sensitive subject. A clutch of books by Indian authors that take a critical look at Islam and Islamism are also contributing to this trend. It’s easier to start using a cellphone than to change a mindset, but over time Indian audiences are likely to begin demanding the same sophistication from their intellectuals that they do from their phone service providers.
Sadanand Dhume is the author of ‘My Friend the Fanatic: Travels with a Radical Islamist’ (2009), and is writing a non-fiction book on the impact of globalization on India.
THE WALL STREET JOURNAL
Comment at email@example.com