Time to Break the Collective Silence

Published: May 23, 2016 - 14:24 Updated: December 13, 2017 - 13:03

The liberal section of the Muslim community is at the risk of being overshadowed by fundamentalists because of their silence on key issues

Parvin Sultana

In an era where extreme binaries proliferate, we are often presented with polarised positions. A moderate strand is conspicuously absent in public discourse. The perception of Islamophobes is that Islam is inherently a violent religion incapable of peace, which cannot co-exist with modernity. To justify this stand, the Islamophobes point out that for fundamentalists the Quran and Shari’a is their guiding source. Whereas the truth is that a significant number of Muslims claim to be liberal and believers of a moderate Islam, who have nothing to do with the likes of Islamic State and Boko Haram.

The perception of Islamophobes is based on certain premises. They believe that Muslims who don’t support terrorism are not vocal enough while condemning it. According to them, this is essentially tacit support of extremism. This is again an erroneous perception. Muslims have regularly condemned such terrorist activities. In fact condemnation of extremism has come from a wide swathe of the Muslim community. Islamic clerics and Islamic scholars have put forth well argued statements condemning terrorism and asserting that Islam does not promote or allow use of such violence.

Liberal Muslims believe that Islam can easily coexist with modernity and there are not necessarily any internal contradictions between the two. At the same time the label of ‘liberal Muslim’ is problematic to many as it connotes that a Muslim is generally a conservative individual while a liberal Muslim is someone who is not. To many it is a misnomer which is used to label Muslims who are apparently unislamic or not overtly religious, although Islamic values can also be ‘liberal’ in some ways.

Moderate members of the community have rightly pointed out that holding an entire community responsible for the acts of a handful is wrong. They have also repeatedly driven home the fact that a majority of the victims of Islamic fundamentalism are Muslims, be it in the Middle East or South Asia. A large section of the refugees who have been displaced and uprooted due to sectarian conflicts are Muslims.

Having said so, can moderate Muslims be absolved of all responsibilities? Merely calling oneself a tolerant Muslim does not necessarily mean that there is nothing more to do. Bangladesh has been seeing murderous attacks on bloggers and free thinkers who had questioned religious conservatism. Members of religious minorities have also been targeted. In one of the latest offensives, militants have hacked to death two gay right activists. Members of an Al Qaeda affiliate Ansar al Islam, murdered Xulhaz Mannan, the editor of Roopbaan, the first LGBT magazine of Bangladesh along with Mahbub Tonoy. This followed the murder of Rezaul Karim Siddique, a Professor of English of the Rajshahi University.

Bangladesh is witnessing increasing polarisation as Sheikh Hasina’s crackdown on the war criminals of 1971 is being equated with an attack on Islam. While one cannot deny the religious resurgence in the politics of Bangladesh, the scenario is not very different in secular India. A year back an Urdu woman journalist Shirin Dalvi was accused of hurting religious sentiments. She was sacked, hounded and eventually forced to go underground. Her crime was that while writing on the Charlie Hebdo attacks she used a controversial cartoon of the Prophet. Quick to realize her mistake, she offered an apology.

Her ordeal had just begun. Her case was largely overlooked by civil rights activists and free speech champions. Even the Urdu Patrakar Sangh of which she was a member did not stand up by her. The lack of support from the community shows that within the community, the moderate voice is yet to gain dominance. Muslim women commenting on Islam are often shouted down in debates and discussion. Clerics are more often than not unwilling to engage with Muslim women on religious issues. The ongoing movement for equal rights for Muslim women is yet to see widespread support from the community.

While liberal Muslims have brushed off their responsibility towards the murder of the two gay rights activists in Bangladesh, when Section 377 was decriminalized in India, conservative groups across the board came together and went to town against the verdict. Social media was flooded by justifications coming from many educated Muslims as to why the section should stay. They didn’t take much time to condemn sexual minorities and found themselves as the inadvertent bedfellows of right wing fundamentalists.

Stereotyping Muslims is uncalled for as it feeds into Islamophobia. Assuming Muslims are tacit and potential supporters of terrorism is equally egregious. At the same time this need not foreclose the possibility of introspection. Muslims need to engage with these issues, be it the question of homosexuality or whether it be the issue of gender equality. While scholars on Islam like Ziauddin Sardar, Amina Wadud and Asghar Ali Engineer have given very progressive views on these issues, many liberal Muslims are still seen reluctant on taking a clear stand on these issues.

Any belief system can be taken to a radical extreme. Being a liberal Muslim does not end with merely condemning terrorism or disassociating with extreme ideologies. It also entails introspecting about strongly held beliefs, revisiting them time and again and ensuring that our religious beliefs are humanitarian enough. It will also entail putting one’s weight behind initiatives which are reformative in nature. While the demand for continuous condemnation of Islam may seem like unwanted cacophony to some, silence is not an option anymore.

 (The writer is an Assistant Professor in Pramathesh Barua College, Assam)

The liberal section of the Muslim community is at the risk of being overshadowed by fundamentalists because of their silence on key issues
Parvin Sultana

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