Do Not Judge Me by My Burqa
A new generation of Muslims embraces modernity without forgoing its identity
Doing business with a global IT company, I am surprised by the young women I see working there who happen to be wearing burqas or hijab, without any sense of contradiction.
The Indian Muslim world can be said to be a triangular one, its three points being the Sufi’ist position, the orthodox position and the modernist position, as originally articulated by Syed Ahmed Khan. Every Muslim would therefore find his, or her, place somewhere in between these triangulated points. The common perception is that, in recent years, there’s been a shift in Indian Muslim society towards the orthodox position—as evidenced by, for example, the increasing numbers of burqas and beards we see around us today. Hassan Suroor’s thesis is that this is a misconception: What is happening, in fact, is that the new generation of Muslims is shifting towards the modernist, secular, pragmatic position.
What confuses the picture, Suroor argues, is that instead of adopting the Western cultural identifiers that one would assume go with such a position, this new generation has proudly, and demonstratively, embraced an Islamic cultural identity, along with an adherence to Islamic practices. Like the bearded young graphic designer, who tells Suroor (while fiddling with his BlackBerry) that he’s happy to ‘flaunt’ his Muslim identity: “I want to tell the world, look at me, I have a beard and I’m a practising Muslim, but I’m also educated, a successful professional, and as liberal as anyone else. It is my way of disabusing my non-Muslim friends of the idea that any Muslim in a beard is a fundamentalist.” That is the theme that runs through this book.
The London-based Suroor (he used to be the London correspondent of The Hindu) has earlier written about Hindu-Muslim issues with an acuity that earned him accusations of “selling out” by Muslim hardliners, as well as of “showing his Muslim colours” by Hindu hardliners. Clearly, therefore, he has been doing something right.
He confesses that this was not the book he intended to write. What he had in mind was a more pessimistic book, based on his perception of a community stuck in the past. But as he interviewed today’s Muslim youth living not just in the metros but in the small towns of India’s heartland, a different picture began to emerge. A picture of a confident, progressive new generation that wants to rid itself of the maulvis and the cynical politicians who have held back the community for so long. A generation that believes that the demolition of the Babri Masjid was “a blessing in disguise” because it made them sit up and think about the real issues facing them: Issues like education, jobs, housing, security. A generation, moreover, that seamlessly blends its Muslim and Indian identities. It is a mundane story, claims Suroor, which the media have overlooked because it does not have the eyeball-grabbing quality they look for. He goes on to urge the Government to recognise the aspirations of this new generation, and to seize the opportunity to help to make those aspirations a reality. Failure to do so, he says, would be to hold back 170 million Indians from the trajectory of growth they’re now striving for. It would not only demoralise them but would encourage the very forces of backwardness they’re trying to escape.
India’s Muslim Spring was an eye-opener for me, a book that combines optimism for the future with anger for the past. It is important reading in today’s context, whether one agrees with everything Suroor says or not: A small, fluttering flag that shows us what is blowing in the wind.
INDIA’S MUSLIM SPRING
by Hasan Suroor Rainlight/ Rupa Price: RS 395 Pages: 200