Who Cares for Indian Muslims?
A senior friend of mine, who spends much of his time online, passionately airing his strongly held views on issues and challenges facing India in general and its Muslims in particular, is surprisingly sprightly and sharp for his 80 plus years.
Well-read and widely travelled, Shervani sahib writes well and with effortless ease, giving people like yours truly a huge complex. He is invariably swift in responding to my rants, within minutes of sharing them on some online groups. His missives raise uncomfortable questions demanding swift answers, especially on solutions to our continuing dispossession.
Responding to my latest piece on the US move on Jerusalem, Shervani sahib wrote: "Who are the Americans and British to give away Palestine and Jerusalem," asks Aijaz rightly. But this question should be asked by the countries in the region. What are Indian Muslims to do about it? We have problems of our own. How many Muslim countries have shed tears on our plight, ever?" he demanded.
"Only Indian Muslims kept singing: "Jaan beta Khilaafat pe denaaa…" raising funds to support the Khilafat (Ottoman caliphate of Turkey) in the last century. Muslim women gave away jewelry to "save" the Ottoman caliphate when the British sacked it!"
He recalled that the first major anti-Muslim riot in Gujarat broke out soon after massive demonstrations were held against the grabbing of Al Aqsa mosque all over the state in 1969. These protests were so powerful that many Gujarati Hindus got terrified, thinking they were the target!
Questioning our continuing preoccupation with the notion of the Ummah, especially with the suffering of Palestinians, Syrians, and Rohingya Muslims, Shervani sahib argued: "Even according to Islam, the FIRST responsibility of Indian Muslims is to to look after themselves. This does NOT seem to be such an easy task, does it? Saare Jahan Ka Dard Hamare Jigar Men Hai. Bohut hogaya! Ab apne dil o jigar men kuch apna dard hi hoe to behtar hai. Our bleeding heart beats for the whole world. Enough! Now is the time to attend to our own pain, our own problems!"
He has on more than once pulled me up for 'crying' about the Ummah and our distant brethren in Palestine, Syria and Burma, although one of my recent pieces forced him to contribute Rs 50,000 to a Rohingya relief fund set up by a Sikh charity.
He asks me to talk about our own 'headache' — the continuing backwardness of Indian Muslims, especially their performance, or lack of it, on the educational front.
Apparently running his own schools, especially for Muslim girls, Shervani sahab remains obsessed with the issue, insisting time and again that education is the only key to our progress. While agreeing with him wholeheartedly, I try to reason that we couldn't remain indifferent to the suffering of our fellow travelers. After all, we are supposed to act like one body feeling the pain of each of our limbs, as the Prophet, peace be upon him, put it.
I pointed out that, in the words of Iqbal, we cannot view ourselves through the prism of Western nation state:
Apni millat par qiyas aqwam-e-maghrib se na kar
Khas hai tarkeeb mein qaum-e-rasool-e-hashmi
"Besides, we South Asian Muslims are different from others. We are more sensitive than others when it comes to the plight of our brethren," I wrote back.
He was far from convinced. "But why should we feel all the pain all the time? Did you ever see other Muslims come out in protest for us ever?"
That shut me up. Unfortunately, that remains the reality. While writers, intellectuals and ordinary Muslims in the subcontinent remain obsessed with issues like the Palestinian persecution and occupation of Al Quds, our fellow travelers have not exactly burnt midnight oil, worrying about the future of Indian or Rohingya Muslims.
And this isn't a new phenomenon. South Asian Muslims have always been bound with their brethren in the Middle East and elsewhere through an emotional bond. Our poets and writers have pined for the lost glory of Muslim lands, rather than write about our more pressing, mundane reality at home.
Much of Iqbal's poetry — although he paid fulsome tribute to India in his immortal anthem, saare jahan se achcha – remains pan-Islamic in nature and strives for the ideal of a resurgent Ummah, calling on the faithful to unite for the protection of the Holy Land:
Aik Hon Muslim Haram Ki Pasbani Ke Liye
Neel Ke Sahil Se Le Kar Ta Bakhak-e-Kashghar
May the Muslims unite in watching over the shrine (Kaaba)
From the banks of the Nile to the deserts of Kashgar (Xinjiang)
Forever a hopeless romantic, the poet philosopher believed until his death that the movement for an Islamic revival could only begin from Arabia. Indeed, this continuing obsession of Indian Muslims with their distant holy land has always been a big stick in the hands of Hindutva. This is one reason why Indian Muslims are often accused of not being 'Indian enough' in their outlook.
Compared to this passionate, one-sided love affair, few of our fellow believers around the world seem to be even familiar with the situation of the subcontinent's Muslims, let alone care for our issues and concerns.
One explanation for this state of affairs is the fact that much of the media in West Asia, especially the Arabic press, has not been big on the coverage of South Asia in general and its Muslims in particular.
In the 90s, the coverage improved when the regional media compulsively followed the developments in Afghanistan and Pakistan because of the Arab involvement in the Afghan jihad against the Soviet occupation with thousands of Arab fighters, including one certain Osama bin Laden, joining the 'holy war' to liberate fellow faithful.
Today, when there is so much happening in South Asia, from the rising hate attacks on Indian Muslims to the genocide of Rohingya Muslims unfolding on the world community's watch, it is unfortunate that it barely creates a ripple in the media across the Muslim world. No wonder then much of the Islamic world remains ignorant of or indifferent to the plight of Indian Muslims or the persecuted minorities like the Rohingya.
Imagine the impact if all 57 Muslim countries spoke in one, firm voice on the issue of Rohingyas or those spine-chilling lynchings in the name of cow in India. But when Arabs and Muslims cannot act like one global community on such burning issues as Palestine, Syria or Yemen, it's hardly realistic to expect them to speak up for the distant Indian or Rohingya Muslims, I guess.
Will this change in the foreseeable future? Unlikely. While we cannot stop caring for others and identifying with our extended family across the globe, perhaps it's about time we reworked our priorities. We need to pay greater attention to setting our own house in order and improving our situation in all areas. We are totally on our own and cannot look to the outside world for support.
(Aijaz Zaka Syed is an independent journalist and former editor Khaleej Times)