Do Not Judge Me by My Burqa

A new gen­er­a­tion of Mus­lims em­braces moder­nity with­out for­go­ing its iden­tity

India Today - - LEISURE - By An­var Alikhan

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.

Pho­to­graph by MAN­DAR DEOD­HAR


by Hasan Suroor Rain­light/ Rupa Price: RS 395 Pages: 200

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