What words can mean

by Javed Anand
Mumbai - On July 11, 2006, terrorists blasted bombs on several suburban trains in Mumbai, the industrial and commercial capital of India. Over 200 commuters were killed while many more were maimed.

Within 48 hours, over two dozen Mumbai-based maulanas, or religious leaders, representing the most prominent Muslim religious bodies in India - Jamiatul ulema-e-Hind, the All India Sunni Jamiatul ulema, Ahl-e-Hadith, Jamaat-e-Islami, Ulema Council, Milli Council, Tanzeem-e-aaimma Masajid, the All India Muslim Personal Law Board, the All India Qazi Board, among others - came together to collectively declare all terrorist targeting of innocents as "barbaric", "cowardly", "inhuman" and "un-Islamic".

Within the same period, they also had an hour-long, wide-ranging meeting with two politburo members of the Communist Party of India (Marxist) visiting Mumbai in the wake of the terrorist atrocity. In the midst of this unusual Maulana-Marxist engagement, Maulana Athar Ali lobbed a remark sure to surprise many: "We have come to the conclusion that communists are the only genuinely secular politicians in this country," he said. The spontaneous endorsement of his statement from fellow clerics showed that the good maulana was speaking not only for himself.

Maulanas singing the praises of secularism at a meeting with Marxists? It happened, believe you me, for I, an avowed secularist who had something to do with bringing the maulanas together for a collective denunciation of wanton violence in the name of Islam, was present.

But aren't Muslims, religious leaders particularly, allergic to the very sound of the word secularism? Yes, they were. Until recent years the relationship between those who swore by secularism and those who kept faith was one of mutual antipathy, even animosity. For devout Muslims, secularists spelt anti-God atheists while for the latter all clerics were synonymous with irrationality, obscurantism, bigotry, intolerance and fanaticism. But having lived through the nightmare of escalating religious intolerance, hatred and violence in India, promoted by extremist rightwing Hinduism in the last two decades, both sides have discovered new meanings of the words "secular" and "religious".

Muslims in most Western countries today might worry about increasing Islamophobia, racial profiling and selective violation of human rights. But especially after the bloody violence against Muslims in India, first in the city of Mumbai in 1992-1993 and then state-wide in Gujarat in 2002, for the 150 million battered, brutalised and traumatised Indian Muslims, lack of security is the prime concern. What better time to learn who your friends are?

In Mumbai and in Gujarat, when Hindu mobs went on an orgy of killing, looting, arson, gang rape, and desecration and destruction of Muslim religious symbols, policemen chose to look the other way. Often, they did worse, conniving with the perpetrators of mass crime. In their hour of greatest need, Muslims discovered that they shared common ground with that very circle of secular activists, journalists and political leaders whom they had hitherto dismissed as anti-religion secularists and atheists.

And those who held that religion itself was the root of all problems had to contend with numerous instances of devout Hindus and Muslims alike giving protection to their neighbour from the other religion, risking the wrath of their co-religionists in the process. They have also had to factor in the example of compassionate Christian priests who, though vulnerable themselves, threw open the gates of their parishes to offer refuge to Muslims fleeing from mobs and an uncaring police force.

It is this shared, lived experience that spoke when the maulanas met up with the Marxists. Experience has taught them that whatever their personal belief, genuine secular democrats, atheists included, can be the believers' best friends; and that a devout person can simultaneously subscribe to the idea of a non-theocratic, secular state, based on the view that in multi-religious, multi-cultural societies matters of faith are perhaps best not mixed up with affairs of State.

Meanwhile, non-believers among the secularists have had the humility to draw the appropriate lesson from the examples of those who risked their lives to save people from a different faith. "It's no big deal, we did what we did because that's what our religion teaches us to do," said the oft-unsung heroes.

In short, experience has taught both sides that in so far as there are borders, those who have learnt to respect differences, be they believers or atheists, belong on the same side. And it is those who interpret or manipulate religion to legitimise violence in pursuit of power or ideology who belong to the other.


* Javed Anand is the general secretary of Muslims for Secular Democracy, based in Mumbai. This article is part of a series on secularism and Muslim-Western dialogue distributed by the Common Ground News Service (CGNews) and can be accessed at www.commongroundnews.org.

Source: Common Ground News Service (CGNews), 8 May 2007, www.commongroundnews.org
Copyright permission has been obtained for publication.
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Other articles in this series

What is it about Western secularism? by Jorgen S. Nielsen
Envisioning Islamic democracy by Jocelyne Cesari
Myths about Western secularism and politics in Islam by Asma Afsaruddin
Why do Muslims look to religion to address political issues? by Dalia Mogahed
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