Interview With Manzoor Alam
"Inherent and deep-rooted media bias against Muslims is not easy to remove"
TwoCircles.net | June 10, 2010
By Yoginder Sikand
Manzoor Alam is the Chairman of the New Delhi-based Institute of Objective Studies, a Muslim social science research centre, and also the General-Secretary of the All India Milli Council. In this interview with Yoginder Sikand, he speaks about the Muslim leadership in contemporary India.
Q: What do you think the priorities of the Indian Muslim leadership should be today?
A: Indian Muslim leaders should focus particularly on three major issues: economic, educational and political empowerment of Muslims. All of these are crucial for establishing personal dignity as well as dignity of the community. Of these, I think education is the most vital—both modern as well as Islamic. Modern, or secular education, without moral, spiritual content would be like a building without foundation. On the other hand, religious education without modern education would be like a foundation without a building. Both need to go together, in a harmonious fashion. We do need modern education—of that there can be no dispute—but, at the same time, we also need to preserve our Muslim identity, based on knowledge of Islam, the legacy of Islam in the light of the Quran and the authentic Hadith, and a critical examination of the later Muslim tradition. We also need to promote professional and technical education for those many millions of young Muslims who cannot go in for higher education due to economic reasons.
Q: There is a general impression that Muslim leaders do not pay sufficient attention to issues related to Muslim education, being concerned more with identity-related issues and controversies. Do you agree?
A: Till two decades or so ago, in north India it was rare for Muslim leaders and organisations to talk about Muslim educational empowerment. There was certainly no visible movement in this regard. But, today, things have changed considerably. Of course, in the south, Muslim organisations have for long been working in the field of education, setting up institutions and networks for the purpose. There are many reasons for this difference. South India was largely spared the horrors of Partition and endemic communal violence. South Indian Muslims had stronger linguistic and cultural affinity with Hindus than in the north. All this and more enabled south Indian Muslims to focus much more on institution-building in an environment free from prejudice and communal antagonisms, unburdened by the legacy of Partition. Governments in these states of India also facilitated Muslim educational advancement in different ways, though perhaps not as much as one would have expected. Of course, now things are changing, and communalism is no longer absent in the south as well, having been exported there, along with other things, from north India.
Another reason for the continued educational backwardness of north Indian Muslims was the way they were treated by various political parties that were characterised, to varying degrees, with a strong streak of anti-Muslim communalism. Owing principally to the Partition, Muslims were looked upon as ‘traitors’, ‘enemies’, ‘untrustworthy’ and as ‘anti-national’. No party was seriously interested in helping Muslims, economically or otherwise. Every effort was made to stamp out Urdu. Muslims were deliberately kept out of government services. Routine pogroms directed against them made them lose whatever hope was left regarding the system, including in the possibilities offered by education for ameliorating their pathetic condition. All this had a tremendously negative impact on the Muslim psyche. Muslims and their leaders were forced, due to constant provocation from anti-Muslim communal forces, to focus all their energies on defending themselves, their identity, their very lives, from attacks, and were dragged into endless controversies by communal elements who wanted them to be bogged down in them so that they would have no energy left to work on the task of internal reform.
Faced with what they saw as major threats to their religio-cultural identity, north Indian Muslims invested their resources in setting up madrasas in order to protect their identity and to save the tradition of Islamic learning and to promote Islamic awareness. This was a very natural reaction to a strong and widespread sense of being under siege.
Things, however, began to change from the early 1980s, with the emergence of Muslim educationists across north India, trying, in their own, limited ways, to promote modern education in the community by setting up schools and colleges. This process continues apace even today. However, they have been greatly hampered by the fact that very often their applications for recognition for their institutions have been refused by communal-minded bureaucrats in education and allied departments. This forces their students to sit for examinations in other, recognised schools, which naturally dampens their enthusiasm for setting up schools in the first place.
To add to this is the fact of discrimination in allocating funds to Muslim localities for schools. Take the case of West Bengal, where Muslims account for around a fourth of the population, but are economically and educationally extremely deprived despite the fact that the state has been ruled by a so-called ‘progressive’ Marxist government for over three decades. Muslim villages in West Bengal either have no schools at all or else have insignificant schools running in shabby, dilapidated structures. Despite the fact that Muslims in West Bengal and other north Indian states have been requesting their governments to do something about the pathetic condition of Muslim education, hardly anything has been done at all. This is equally true with regard to government-funded schemes for economic development, employment generation, health and so on. Muslim leaders have not paid sufficient attention to such issues, nor has the state.
Yet, as I was saying, in the last two decades or so, Muslim organisations and leaders are increasingly talking about the need for modern education, and some of them are also setting up institutions for this purpose. I am quite optimistic that this trend will gather momentum in the years to come.
Q: It is often claimed that the quality of education imparted in Muslim-run schools and colleges is very low, and that Muslim organisations are, in general, characterised by inefficiency, corruption, and lack of professionalism, proper work ethics and democratic functioning. What do you have to say about this?
A: There are certainly many problems with many of these institutions, but I suppose achieving high standards is a long process. It cannot come about all of a sudden. It may not be proper to compare the Muslim case with, say, the case of Christian educational institutions, which have been in existence for over two hundred years in India. It takes at least two or three generations for institutions to emerge and then develop on professional lines. We should look at the functioning of these Muslim educational institutions in the light of this fact. We need to appreciate the motivation behind them and realise that professionalism will take some time more to develop. And as more such institutions emerge, it is bound to create more competition, which, in turn, will certainly lead to greater professionalism, higher standards and more democratic functioning.
Q: To come back to an issue that I raised earlier, is it true, as often alleged, that Muslim organisations, by and large, do not focus adequately on economic and educational issues, preferring to focus, instead, on religious or identity-related matters?
A: This is only partially true. If you look at the issues that many Muslim organisations, including those led by the ulema, are today raising, many have to do with modern education and employment for Muslims. But the fact remains that when these organisations start demanding that the state live up its responsibilities as far as these issues are concerned, the media remains mute and so does the state.
Let me cite an instance to clarify this point. In March 2008, the All India Milli Council, of which I am the General Secretary, organised a mammoth convention in Delhi, which was attended by over one hundred thousand people. We discussed various issues related to Muslim educational and economic empowerment, about what both Muslims as well as the state should do about this. We also demanded that the government should set up a judicial commission to investigate cases of terrorism or alleged terrorism involving Muslims in the last fifteen years headed by a sitting judge of the Supreme Court so that the truth about charges against Muslims being involved in terrorism could be verified. The media did not highlight this or any other demand of ours. Only a few non-Muslim papers mentioned the rally, and that too in some remote corner of an inside page, summing it up in just two lines. Urdu media gave full information but national and Hindi media gave very little information.
We sent our resolutions to the government, but got no response. Six months later we met with the Prime Minister, and were informed that he had not received our resolutions. We handed him the file containing the resolutions personally, insisting that his official photographer take a picture of us doing so in order that it could be verified that he had indeed received the resolutions. The Prime Minister informed us that he would look into the matter. More than a year has passed since that meeting, but, I regret to say, nothing at all has happened in this regard.
It is not at all proper to tar all Muslim politicians with the same brush and accuse them all of being indifferent to the economic and educational problems of Muslims. When the state itself is unwilling to act on the recommendations of the committees it has set up to address Muslim marginalisation for fear of alienating Hindu voters, why blame only Muslim leaders. Sometimes, even if Muslim leaders talk of these issues and make representations and demands, the government refuses to do anything at all, despite the tall promises it might make.
Q: I agree with you, but I don’t buy the argument of some Muslims that it is the state alone, and not also their leaders, that are to blame for Muslim backwardness. What do you say?
A: I agree with you here. The fault is on both sides. Many of those who project themselves as Muslim ‘leaders’ are not even aware of the resources provided by the state, in the form of various schemes for general development as well as specifically for the minorities. Many of them are also not aware of the considerable resources—financial, infrastructural and human—that the community itself possesses that can be tapped for Muslim advancement. Many of them have no idea about the constitutional rights of citizens and the special provisions made by the Constitution for minorities. This might seem strange, but it is a fact, and is the case because, generally, they are handpicked by non-Muslim-dominated parties not on the basis of merit but, rather, because of their perceived ability to attract Muslim votes. Since these ‘leaders’ are unable to do much for Muslims, they have a vested interest in whipping up controversies in order to stir Muslim emotions so that they can thereby present themselves as their ‘leaders’.
Further, these leaders are hopelessly divided, often seeking to pull others down. They lack even a minimum common programme. It is also the case that many of them are in politics merely to feather their own nests and that of their relatives. We simply do not have leaders of the moral stature, intellect, vision, independence of mind and popular support like Maulana Azad or Rafi Ahmad Kidwai today.
But, I would again say that it is not the fault only of today’s Muslim ‘leaders’ for neglecting Muslim bread-and-butter issues. Political parties must also take a major share of the blame. If getting qualified and capable Muslims elected on their tickets might be difficult, they could have, if they had wanted to, nominated them to the Rajya Sabha or upper house of state assemblies. Regrettably, few Muslims are to be found in these bodies. What is the use of nominating Muslim film stars and sportsmen, as some parties have? How can they be expected to play any role in effectively articulating Muslim concerns? There are many qualified Muslim intellectuals and activists across the country. Why do political parties ignore them? Does this not reflect deep-rooted prejudice?
Q: Most Muslim organisations that claim to represent all the Muslims of India are led or dominated by maulvis. Middle-class, modern-educated Muslims have little space in them. Why is this the case?
A: This issue has to be understood in historical perspective. In the wake of the uprising of 1857 against the British, which is also described as India’s First War of Independence, several thousand ulema were hanged by the avenging British. It was then that the idea took root among many Muslims that the ulema were their leaders, now that the Mughal rulers had been toppled. They saw the ulema as men who had struggled for the community and for the country, who had sacrificed their lives for them. This is one reason why the ulema came to be seen as the leaders of the community by large numbers of Muslims.
There are yet other reasons for this phenomenon—the very low levels of education among Muslims generally; a concern shared by many Muslims that their religious identity is under threat and so needs to be protected, which they see the ulema as capable of doing; and the fact that the ulema are seen, and see themselves, as representatives or symbols of Islam, and who, therefore, Muslims should follow and accept as their leaders. This tendency is further reinforced by the fact, or the perception, that many ‘modern’-educated people who try to project themselves as Muslim leaders have proven to be concerned mainly with their own personal interests and glorification.
Ordinary Muslims might recognise that the ulema do have certain limitations, that they are not properly trained or equipped to deal with many of the issues of the modern world. But, at the same time, they might see them as better leaders than the ‘modern’-educated Muslims, who have done little for them and who do not appear to be concerned particularly about Islam or Muslim identity.
Another issue that must be considered is the fact that the existing political parties do not want an organic, grassroots-based leadership to emerge among Muslims. They would rather present and project some figures as ‘Muslim leaders’ who can gain Muslim votes for them. It is a fact that those Muslim ‘leaders’, including some ‘intellectuals’ and maulvis, are favoured by parties who make minimal demands on the state for resource allocation for Muslim economic and educational empowerment, focusing instead on only identity-related issues.
Be that as it may, it is also a fact that, particularly after the release of the Sachar Committee Report that highlighted the immense problem of Muslim educational and economic marginalisation and called for urgent steps to address the situation, scores of Muslim organisations, including those led by ulema, are now taking up Muslim economic and educational concerns in a big way, organising seminars and rallies and demanding that the state act on the recommendations of the Sachar Committee that it had itself set up. Lamentably, the government shows little or no interest in doing so. What Muslims are saying is that it was not they but the government that appointed the Sachar Committee and the Ranganath Mishra Committee, and if the state is unwilling to accept the suggestions of its own committees to take positive steps to address Muslim backwardness it simply indicates a deep-rooted bias against Muslims in the state apparatus itself.
Q: Do you think the present-day Indian ulema are able to adequately interpret Islamic teachings in the light of the conditions of the present-day and thereby provide proper leadership to the community? Is it not the case that many of them are wedded to the tradition of medieval fiqh or jurisprudence, much of which has outlived its usefulness in the vastly different context of today?
A: The rapid changes brought about in today’s globalised age have undoubtedly posed serious challenges to Muslims, who have, by and large, not been able to adequately respond to them on a host of issues. We need to be able to discover how to express the rahmat or mercy of Islam in the context of the changed conditions of a globalised world. We need to seriously address the issue of how to express the teachings and values of the Quran and the Sunnat or practice of the Prophet in today’s context, which certainly goes beyond the medieval fiqh framework. This must be based on a consciousness that the Quran lays down certain principles that we must follow but that, at the same time, it also allows human beings sufficient room to adjust to different situations and contexts.
Not recognising this, and, instead, insisting on the blind following or taqlid of the medieval fuqahahas led to a veritable crisis in Muslim thought and to a rigid dualism between the traditional ulema, on the one hand, and ultra-secularist Muslims on the other. The way out is to seek to apply the message and values of the Quran and Sunnat in accordance with the changed spatio-temporal context. It is these teachings and values, rather than just some revered personalities of the past among the clerics, that must be the guiding light. And then, in this process of reconstructing Muslim thought, the fact must remain upper-most in our minds that Muslims do not live on an island. They live and have to interact with others. So, unless the changing global scenario is properly understood and factored in, our intellectual crisis cannot be properly addressed.
For this task we also need a critical examination, based on a deep study of the teachings and values of the Quran and the authenticated Hadith, of the historical legacy of Muslim thought that developed after the Prophet. Alongside this, we need the combined efforts of the ulema as well as experts in modern subjects. Only then can we come up with contextually-relevant understandings of Islam on a whole host of issues of contemporary concern. This task can best be undertaken by ulema who also have a good knowledge of modern subjects and contemporary conditions, but this might take some time to develop. This is precisely what the New Delhi-based Islamic Fiqh Academy, which I am also associated with as a founder-trustee, is trying to do.
Q: How do you gauge the performance of Muslim MPs and MLAs in articulating Muslim demands and concerns?
A: For the most part, these people are handpicked ‘leaders’ who are at the mercy of their parties and cannot do anything against their parties’ wishes. The fact of the matter is that no political party wants a good, responsive Muslim political leadership to emerge, one that can address the genuine concerns and demands of Muslims. So, our Muslim MPs and MLAs work not for the community, but, rather, for their own political parties, whose goodwill they are dependent on and whom they have to please. Even within their own party structures they are unable, sometimes even unwilling, to articulate Muslim issues. They are often scared that if they do so they would run the risk of being branded as ‘communal’ or even worse, which would cause their parties to deny them tickets in the next elections.
Some Muslim MPs and MLAs do whatever little they can, in their personal capacity, to help Muslims but, generally speaking, they feel that their position in their parties, which are led mainly by non-Muslims, would be at stake if they get too vocal on Muslim demands. So, there is really a limit to what they feel they can do, and often that limit is very low. Further, because they are also dependent on non-Muslim votes and because they tend to take Muslim votes for granted, assuming that Muslims would vote for them anyway, they do not wish to appear to be overtly interested in helping Muslims. In this way, they fail to adequately address Muslim issues. On the other hand, in non-Muslim-dominated constituencies, non-Muslim candidates generally consider Muslims as helpless, and as having no choice but to vote for this or that ‘secular’ party simply to keep the BJP out, and so do not feel the need to do anything about Muslim economic or educational development. All they need to do to garner Muslim votes is to present themselves as champions of ‘secularism’.
Another issue that must be considered while gauging the ability of Muslim MLAs and MPs in articulating Muslim issues is the marked tendency of the media to quickly brand as ‘communal’, ‘divisive’ or worse, any effort by any Muslim leader to highlight even genuine Muslim demands. If a non-Muslim politician tries to do the same thing, he is branded as ‘pseudo-secularist’. This naturally tends to further limit what elected representatives can do for Muslims.
Q: To come back to a question that you left unanswered, why is it that so few well-educated middle-class Muslims are visible as leaders in Muslim organisations?
A: There are many reasons for this. A very large section of the Muslim middle-class, especially in north India, migrated to Pakistan in the wake of the Partition, so the existing Muslim middle-class is very small. Elite Muslims are even smaller in numbers. But while this tiny section of elite Muslims displays, by and large, no concern for the poor Muslim masses, I must say that an emerging Muslim middle-class that is gradually making its presence felt today is becoming increasingly involved in community issues, for instance, in terms of setting up modern schools, which you can now find in every Muslim locality. These are men and women who have risen from the lower middle-class to the middle-class in recent years, who run these institutions both as a profession as well as out of concern for the educational development of the community. Many middle-class Muslims do not, for fear of being wrongly labeled as this or that, want to be publicly associated with Muslim issues, but they do help, in their own ways, such educational initiatives.
Q: Are Muslim organisations paying adequate attention to the particular issues and views of the Muslim youth and women? Are youth and women adequately represented in such organisations?
A: I think there is now considerable pressure on Muslim organisations to accommodate the youth. Some organisations might be resisting this, but I believe that ten years onwards no organisation that continues to resist this demand will be able to survive. As far as women are concerned, I believe that we need to pay much more attention to their education. In fact, I would go so far as to say that women’s education should be made, directly or indirectly, compulsory. At the same time, while I do believe that, as human beings, men and women are equal, they do not have exactly the same roles in society. This does not mean that women should be denied roles in the public sphere, as some argue. Rather, I feel they can well work in the public sphere or gain higher education, even in environments that are not gender-segregated, provided the environment is proper.
Q: A major issue that Muslims are faced with, in India and elsewhere, are negative stereotypical images of Islam and its adherents in the media. What do you feel about this? What could be done to address this problem?
A: One reason for this is the low representation of Muslims in the dominant, non-Muslim, media. We at the Institute of Objective Studies have tried, in our limited way, to address this problem by providing almost 500 scholarships over the past two decades to Muslim students to train in journalism and media studies. Many of them are now well-placed in the media, including in the non-Muslim media. But even there they often lack independence, constantly having to look at the eyebrows of their bosses to see how they might react to the Muslim-related stories they write or cover. It is rare for them to be allowed to cover any positive stories about Muslims.
Another serious concern is that the media ignores the voices of recognised Islamic scholars and, instead, projects some people with Muslim names to speak about Islam in a prejudiced manner, simply to criticise it, although they do not possess a deep understanding of the basic Islamic texts and resources. This further reinforces Islamophobic trends in society.
Yet another problem is that the media often totally ignores Muslims’ genuine concerns and demands, including the undeniable fact of Muslim marginalisation. If at all it talks of Muslims, it is only in the context of something negative, which it presents in sensational terms, using it to generalize for all Muslims. Often, these negative events and developments are not even properly investigated, and can even be entirely concocted. Naturally, this tendency makes many Muslims look upon the media with suspicion, which only further strengthens the hold and influence of conservative elements.
The inherent and deep-rooted media bias is not easy to remove, no matter how hard we may try. The media in India has become increasingly corporatised, driven by capitalist greed. It thrives on sensational news, which is how it depicts not just Muslim issues, but virtually all other news as well. So, there is a limit to what Muslim organisations can do to address media bias. All the same, I would suggest that they should make efforts to interact personally with people in the media, and cultivate professional as well as personal relations with them. For their part, non-Muslim media personnel covering Muslim issues must properly study and understand Muslim society and its issues, which is something that, with a few exceptions, they completely lack. We don’t want their sympathy. We don’t want them to eulogise us. All that we want is for them to be honest when they write or speak about us. If some Muslims somewhere have said or done something wrong, they must certainly report it, but not in a manner that creates the impression that what those particular Muslims have said or done is true for all Muslims or for Islam as a religion. Likewise, if some Muslims do something decent, this, too, should be reported.
I would also suggest that Muslim organisations develop a professional media policy. Some Muslim organisations claim to have media cells, but, unfortunately, these are not professionally run, and thus are not very effective.
Q: There are literally hundreds of magazines run by Muslims across India that focus on Islamic issues, and thousands of madrasas that are engaged in teaching and research on Islam. How is it that, besides your Institute of Objective Studies, there is really no Muslim social science research institute worth the name that deals with the empirical social realities of Muslims?
A: I think this has, in part, has to do with the intellectual crisis that Muslims face. There are a number of Muslim intellectuals and social scientists employed in colleges and universities across India. Many of them are good teachers and have a good knowledge of their subject, but they do not have much familiarity with Muslim empirical issues—social, economic, educational, legal, political and so on—because they simply don’t take the trouble of doing field work since this involves physical labour and hardship. They prefer to read and write books while sitting in their own ivory towers, earning fat salaries. This is at the root of our intellectual crisis today. It is bound to get worse now with salaries of university employees being suddenly and massively hiked, which might make them even more complacent and less inclined to do field work. Our ‘intellectuals’ have little or no contact with people and realities at the grassroots and yet claim the right to pontificate on Muslim issues or to solve them.
But there are other problems as well, to do with prejudice. Often, if a Muslim social scientist does a study on a Muslim-related issue, his findings would be dubbed as biased and lacking in objectivity just because he is a Muslim. Further, for Muslim social scientists to get data on Muslims from government sources is sometimes very difficult. Once, the Institute of Objective Studies commissioned a study on petrol pumps in Delhi, to see how many Muslims had been allocated such pumps. The concerned authorities simply refused to share this information with us. Had the research team consisted of non-Muslims, they might not have faced the same refusal.
Yet another problem is that Muslim institutions don’t often have enough funds as well as qualified people to do the sort of empirically-grounded social science research that is needed. Often, governments are also not interested in funding such research.
Our Muslim political leaders, too, do not seem to realise the importance of empirical research on Muslims and the need to encourage the setting up of institutions to do this work. Such research is vital to understand the causes and dimensions of Muslim backwardness and to make plans to address the issue. Lamentably, all that most of our leaders seem to be interested in is getting Muslim votes and winning elections. If at all they set up institutions, these are white elephants that can bring them quick publicity. They would not like to sponsor, say fifty primary schools in Muslim slums, because that would not bring them publicity.
The same lack of enthusiasm for empirical research characterises various Muslim organisations, whose work remains mainly promoting religious education. They tend to have a fixed set of objectives, often defined by their particular sectarian affiliation, and seek to remain limited to this, while ignoring various social conditions and their implications for future generations. They often suffer from a vision without a task or a task without a vision, being much more concerned with protecting their particular understanding of sect-based Islamic identity than with the social realities of Muslims. Often, theirs is a very ritualistic understanding of Islam that is divorced from the social aspect. Their approach is entirely theological, and what they lack is sociological sensitivity.
Instead of just criticising this, however, I think we should also seek to understand why this is the case. Right from the Partition onwards, Muslims have been forced to be increasingly ghettoized, this trend being further reinforced by periodic anti-Muslim violence. Naturally, this has led to increasing concern for protecting their religious identity, which has meant that other aspects of their lives—economic, educational and so on—have tended to get less attention on the part of Muslim organisations and leaders.
Q: What then is the way out for Muslim leaders to address the issue of Muslim educational, economic and social marginalisation?
A: I think Muslim organisations must have a social vision that transcends concern simply with religious identity. They must seek to facilitate the emergence of young social activists at every level, including the grassroots. These activists must not remain limited to, or concerned solely with, religious or identity-related issues. Rather, they should work on a whole host of issues—economic, political, cultural, educational, environmental, and so on. The issues they raise must not be limited to Muslims alone. Rather, they must also take up general issues, working together with non-Muslim activists, leaders, organisations and movements. For this we need the help of the middle-class, to arrange for funds, ideas and skills, but, sadly, the middle-class, which is the principal motor of change in any community, is still very small among Muslims, especially in the north.
Along with grassroots activists, Muslims also need NGOs. At present, the vast majority of Muslim NGOs engage only in religious education. They need to work on every other front as well, access government-funded schemes, and use the rights that the Constitution provides to all Indian citizens. These NGOs should not be limited in their work or even in the composition of their staff to Muslims alone.
It is true that there is discrimination in the matter of disbursement of development grants from governments to Muslims, but it is also a fact that Muslims have few, if any, NGOs that can access these funds. Let me cite an instance. When Chaturanan Mishra was the Union Agriculture Minister he asked me if I could identify a Muslim NGO in Bihar, his home state as well as mine, that was engaged in the field of agriculture to which he could allocate 400 acres of land to start an agricultural training centre. I scanned the whole of Bihar but couldn’t locate even one such Muslim NGO. And so, this plan came to nothing.
Muslim organisations must realise the importance of NGOs today, in the age of ‘globalisation’, when the state is rapidly retreating from providing services, the task being taken up by NGOs instead. International and government funding for development work is now being largely routed through NGOs. Given this, the lack of Muslim NGOs working on issues other than religious education, the situation is very disheartening. How can Muslims access many government schemes if they have no NGOs? But, of course, merely setting up NGOs is not the answer. I know of Muslims who have tried to form NGOs being refused registration, or being forced to pay bribe to get permission to work, or being asked to pay a ‘commission’ on grants for the projects that they get. And then you also have the problem of numerous NGOs, run not just by Muslims but others as well, that are simply money-making machines for their bosses and a means to promote their political interests.