Home / Opinion / Columns /  Opinion | India’s devout Muslims show our assumptions are wrong

Some honest tributes can be great insults. As in the case of an old compliment that has come to haunt Indian Muslims in this season of terror and mojo.

The tribute is often conveyed as a gracious question: Considering the apparent power of Islam to convert some people into terrorists, “why are Indian Muslims not radicalized?’’ Among the people who answer the question for us are acclaimed scholars, diplomats, politicians, writers and journalists. Their answers are wrong. The question itself is foolish. But the foolishness of the question is not the reason why the answers are wrong.

Most of India’s 180 million Muslims are poor, semi-literate, driven into ghettos and very devout, conditions in which global scholars have claimed Muslims demonstrate dangerous properties.

How many people per million in a community have to join a terror group for that society to be deemed ‘‘radicalized’’? There is, of course, no helpful global standard, but the consensus among scholars, diplomats and politicians is that India’s Muslims are not “radicalized".

Very few Indian Muslims outside Kashmir have been involved in acts of terror. In the glory days of Al Qaeda, the terror network failed to draw in Indians. A confidential report prepared in 2015 by the intelligence agencies of several nations suggested that even the Islamic State thought Indian Muslims were lousy at terror, especially in the total commitment and suicide-bombing departments. In the first place, Islamic State could lure very few Indians. Various reports on the number of Indians who joined ISIS agree that the figure is in the region of 100.

India is this way, according to David Heyman, a former US assistant secretary for homeland security, because “India was born a multicultural, multi-ethnic, multi-denominational society that embraces that diversity". This is a common view among scholars who bloviate on the subject. “India has been a model of inclusiveness," the US ambassador to India then, Richard Verma, told journalists when asked why few Indian Muslims have joined the Islamic State.

If an Indian Muslim laughs at all this, it is because of his circumstances. He has memories of riots, and those whom he regards as perpetrators have grown in political stature. After the recent escalation of India-Pakistan tensions, a Muslim mother tweeted that her two children are being asked by their schoolmates to go “back to Pakistan".

Even before the recent tensions, every now and then, a politician or government official would ask Muslims who are unhappy with India to “go to Pakistan". In the past few weeks, Indian Muslims burned Pakistani flags, a show of patriotism Hindus do not have to perform.

About 20 years ago, I had gone around the posh parts of south Mumbai, claiming to be “Mohammed Khan’’ from Kerala looking to pay an atrocious rent for a flat but every time a Hindu landlord would learn of my name, his demeanour would change and, of course, the deal would fall through.

The idea that India is ‘’inclusive’’ is promoted by people who are never in a position to know how India excludes. The pious nonsense of India being “multicultural, multi-ethnic…" cannot be the reason why Indian Muslims “are not radicalized".

What then could be the reason? Scholars and visiting diplomats do point to the fact that Indian Muslims are lucky to be in a democracy, and ‘‘have a voice’’. However, the Muslim representation in politics has been declining. The current Lok Sabha has the lowest Muslim representation since 1957.

Over the years, since the rise of Al Qaeda, several explanations for the moderateness of Indian Muslims have leaned on the fact that the prosperity of the nation in the past two decades has deepened the sense of Indian identity among Muslims. This is not a spurious reason, but there is much that it does not explain. How, for instance, have Muslims remained moderate in the face of politically profitable religious violence and social insults, and the stagnation of Muslims in poverty even as other communities have done better.

India’s politicians take credit for the innocuous nature of the average Indian Muslim as though they have put in place some cunning intelligence network. What India does not have the heart to state is that it is safe not because of some grand sophisticated spy shield but because the nation’s first line of defence is made up of ordinary Muslims. At the first sign of suspicious outsiders or activities, the local Muslims alert the police. India has faced very few terror attacks, not in spite of its Muslims but because of them.

The reason why the question ‘‘why are Indian Muslims not violently radicalized?’’ is daft is in the surprise implied in the question. It makes an assumption that Muslims in certain conditions will turn violent—that the poor and the illiterate are innately more prone to violence than highly educated scholars. What India’s devout Muslims show is that this assumption is wrong. What they show is that most of humanity, no matter what its disenchantments and provocations, does not wish to kill.

I propose a new assumption. What if religious terrorism, like extreme activism, is a symbiosis of handlers and the miserable, which includes the mentally ill? If this assumption is a fact, we can ask why is it that in some regions of the world, sadists and psychopaths are able to recruit the vulnerable. That, I believe, is the correct question. Not “why 180 million human beings are so human in India’’.

Manu Joseph is a journalist, and a novelist,most recently of ‘Miss Laila, Armed And Dangerous’.

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