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Indian liberals missed the mark yet again by protesting ‘la ilaha illallah’ in CAA debate

Shashi Tharoor and Sadanand Dhume both thought Muslims asserting their existence through ‘la ilaha Illallah’ was too extreme for the anti-CAA protests.

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The Citizenship (Amendment) Act, which is discriminatory and Islamophobic in its very essence, is seeing continuous resistance from citizens across the religious spectrum. But for many liberals, who also stand against the Act, the most salient question continues to be that of identity – why are Muslim protesters chanting ‘la ilaha illallah’ and are the protests ‘too-Muslim’? Congress MP Shashi Tharoor was one of the first to take offence to the slogan. Unsurprisingly, Indian liberals have missed the mark, yet again.

The question may not necessarily be coming from a place of malice and must not be dismissed as such at the get-go. Questions of identity politics are always relevant and murky. More often than not, the answer lies somewhere between empathy, lived experiences and what it truly means to be an ally.

But the golden rule for allies asking questions of the marginalised – whose rights they are supposedly fighting for – is that the allies must be willing to listen. But that can only happen if allyship stems from a place of empathy, not patronage.


Also read: JNU is the graveyard of all anti-BJP protests. It was Modi-Shah’s ticket out of CAA mess


Tharoor’s idea of ‘Islamic extremism’

“Our fight against Hindutva extremism should give no comfort to Islamist extremism either,” Shashi Tharoor tweeted, referring to ‘la ilaha illallah’ being used as an anti-CAA slogan.

The chant, also known as the Shahada, is the basic tenet of Islam. It is a declaration of being a Muslim. ‘There is no God but God’ is its literal translation – an affirmation of the monotheism that Islam stands for.

It took something as basic as Muslims asserting the very fundamental tenet of their existence for Tharoor to label the act as “Islamic extremism”.

That doesn’t just tell us how Muslims are constantly living under the threat of being seen as the ‘next terrorist in town’ – even by supposed liberals – but also tells us a little something about Indian liberals themselves.

Tharoor’s statement exemplifies the staple diet of many Indian liberals – false equivalencies and little to no understanding of power dynamics. Add to that, the insatiable appetite for appearing ‘balanced’ and ta-da! – your garden-variety liberal is ready to be served with a dash of privileged ignorance on top.

For someone who has written at least two books and innumerable articles on why he wears his Hindu religion on his sleeve, Tharoor’s understanding of identity politics comes across as remarkably half-baked when it comes to Muslims and their fight for survival.


Also read: How India’s liberals and opposition can start winning the battle of ideas


Muslims are here to stay

Muslims protesting in colossal numbers against the CAA has proven that Indian Muslims aren’t defeated and they aren’t fatigued. But they sure are exasperated beyond measure.

Muslims have been failed by India several times – in 1992 (Babri Masjid demolition and subsequent riots), in 2002 (Gujarat riots), in 2013 (Muzaffarnagar riots), then in 2019, with Supreme Court’s Ayodhya verdict, and the passing of the CAA in Parliament.

But despite this, they have consistently and unflinchingly upheld the secular ideals of India. Ultimately, however, they are well aware that no matter what, they will be seen as nothing but Muslims.

The slogan is a way of Muslims defiantly asserting, “We are Muslim and we are here to stay. Deal with it”. Honestly, there can be no better way to counter an Act that can end up sending the Muslim community to detention camps, especially when coupled with the National Register of Citizens.

“India’s protest movement has a problem: Muslim identity entrepreneurs want to give it a religious tinge to boost their own narrow prospects,” author and political analyst Sadanand Dhume tweeted.

He further elaborated, in a subsequent tweet, that “If you want allies, common symbols like the flag and the constitution work better than religious ones like the shahada. Why is this hard to understand?”

Dhume’s assertion might have had some merit if the Shahada would have been the only symbol employed by Muslims during the protests. But anyone can tell you that is far from the truth. Muslims have been actively using the national flag and the Constitution in all their protests. Unlike pro-CAA protesters.

Writer Taslima Nasreen soon joined the debate and tweeted: “You wanna fight for secularism, fine, but don’t let islamic fanatics join you, because they are definitely not  secular.”


Also read: India attracted the world once. But it wasn’t because of its ambition to be a Hindu Rashtra


Wanted: Allies not patrons

Dhume’s definition of the “Muslim identity entrepreneur” is a roundabout way of calling the Muslim protesters chanting the Shadaha “the bad Muslim”.

“…those among them who foreground religious slogans in their demonstrations are effectively hanging up a big sign that says ‘ALLIES NOT WANTED’,” Dhume further adds.

The bad or overtly Muslim, according to Dhume and many other liberals like him, don’t deserve allyship. Their suffering and marginalisation on account of their Muslim identity aren’t enough for them to be worthy of half-decent allies, they need to please the allies in order to really earn that allyship.

This allyship, then, isn’t unconditional or even honest, it’s patronising. It requires the Muslim protester to “just be Muslim enough, but not too Muslim”.

It’s really just a more sophisticated way of asking a Muslim friend to bring the biryani to the neighbourhood potluck, but not the skullcap – something all Muslims have gone through, courtesy their “insensitive but not ill-intentioned” Hindu friend.

As Papri Banerjee writes in her brilliant poem The Proper Secular Liberal

“Be mildly Muslim
Not wildly Muslim.
Bring poetry to us
Keep prayer at bay.”

Hayaat Fatemah argued in her Indian Express column that the Shahada can be alienating to a Hindu protester. There is no doubt that for a Hindu who has grown up listening to the Gayatri mantra, the Shahada can sound alien, even discomforting.

Do Hindus in anti-CAA protest need to chant the Shahada? Absolutely not. Their act of standing there, next to a group of Muslims chanting the same is enough and more proof of their support for the movement. Given how this is a situation of life and death, freedom versus detention camps – a good ally would get over their initial discomfort and show solidarity nonetheless.

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69 COMMENTS

    • Fatima is either ignorant or deliberately concealing the meaning of the Islamist call of Shahada.

  1. In India, it version of secularism as always been minority communalism, especially Islamic communalism. Anything Islamic goes as a particular of secular discourse. Anything Hindu is communal.Haven’t we been watching this since the days Shah Bano judgment reversal, opening of Babri Masjid in Ayodhya, or ethnic cleansing of Kashmiri Pandits in 1990s? Secularists have no problem with these matters. Only lately, people like Shashi Tharoor occasionally open their eyes to Islamic communalism.

      • Thats what the author did.
        Saying Allah is only god is not equivalent to gayatri mantra

        Islamist are bad kind of muslims if you want to argue that hindutvawadis are bad hindus . As simple as that.

    • But these people intentionally forget their treachery in Kasmir and Gidhra train carnage but 2002, the cause of it and Bombay blasts, Kerala, Bengal killings etc. Thugs.

  2. Do i support BJP & it’s politics – No
    Do i support Congress & it’s politics – No
    Do i support regional parties & their politics – No {They are the most divisive & corrupt of all}

    I oppose extremist on all sides but i knew if BJP wins the election then the debates which so called ‘Secular’ parties keep avoiding will start happening & hence i was not worried about BJP winning the elections. As always i voted NOTA with hopes that it’s numbers will keep rising & demand for police reforms similar to the UK’s police reforms will gain momentum in India.

  3. The author doesn’t seem to realize that the Shahada has been institutionalized in some countries to mean “there is only one God and that God can only be interpreted in our way.”

    The result of that equation is considered a Kafir. Once again, there are certain countries that have institutionalized the Kafir category and equated it with illegality, blasphemy, and otherness.

    The question to ask, however, is what is the Indian Muslim’s relationship with the Shahada? Whose interpretation of God is going to define the Kafir? Because, the identity being expressed isn’t the identity shared by our neighbors.

    If it is, then one can understand why that identity is at odds with the Indian Constitution, and hence non-Indian.

    • Hope the Author reads your comment. People like her hurt the movement, the secular forces, the Muslims by their immaturity. When a group prefers Vande Mataram over Jai Hind, it gives a signal. When a group wants to bring in Shahada in a secular movement, it gives a wrong signal.

  4. Both sides probably have a point but really, is this the moment to aim at each other or is this the moment to stay concentrated on the issue at hand? please read the political history of Germany in the years preceding the rise of fascism – see how the enemies of Nazism were picked off one by one – because they did not stand by each other. First the commies, then the trade unionists, the gypsies, then the SPD politicians and then the Jews and PoWs. United we stand, divided we…
    JaiHindJaiBhim.

  5. The author’s understanding of identity politics seems to be only in relation to Muslims and hence, it is not even half baked, it has not started baking at all.
    First, the religious slogans of Muslims is irritating to others because CAA is a law not a religious edict and hence, their sloganeering indicates that their religion is above the law and constitution for them.
    Second, the author seems to forget that CAA excludes even Hindus such as Tamils.
    That is how ignorant the author is. No mention of it. Because she is muslim, she doesn’t care about others. This attitude is very widespread in the community and that is why other communities treat them as outsiders.

    • Amazing! For a person who holds some kind of a doctoral degree, to be so ignorant of facts, is simply unforgivable. CAA excludes ONLY Muslims, a religious identity. And the fact that Hindus from Sri Lanka are not included in this act makes it all the more glaring.

      • Sri Lanka is a democratic country, not a jihadi islamic country like pakistan, afganistan, bangladesh. You must know the difference between sri-lanka and islamic facist countries mentioned above

    • Shashi Tharoor and all the Congies desereved worse than this. The Print should also take the blame as it is encouraging this y publishing one sided articles often. Imam of Shaheen bagh once contributed to it.

  6. The opposition to CAA by Muslims in India is nothing but expression of hatred inherent in their minds and hearts against the Hindus which has come out which they were suppressing since a long time. Anti Modi, anti-BJP leftists,and so-called liberals have been quick to give it a facade of opposition in the name of the Constitution, whereas it is very much clear to them that the Constitution of India and all the constitutions of the world provide for and allow some basic classifications to be followed while making laws, coming up with sectional and Sectoral benefit schemes,privileges and restrictions. A humanitarian gesture of reducing the time period for grant of citizenship to persecuted non-muslim minorities of the tyrant Muslim countries is opposed without giving thought that every country drafts its immigration policies to benefits its majority population. The real reason of opposition is hatred and, hatred towards Hindus and Hinduism.

    • The more Muslims use this slogan the more beneficial for the BJP.already people are sick of protest taking place in Shaheen bhag.No non muslim would love to hear this slogan.If your idea was to save Constitution making such slogans only helps BJP

  7. The real question to be asked to Fatima and the Liberal-sickulars is this: Would the minority community have come out in large or small numbers if the CAA were to exclude Hindus but include all others? Honest answer to this question should settle the reality of this issue- that is it is being politically or communally milked by every demonstrator but under the facade of showing Constitution, singing preamble to the Constitution, appealing to secularism etc. The facade can go away in no time and real intentions will come out soon. In defense of Shashi or Dhumal, all one can say is that they are not fighting for Muslim cause per se but the secular cause in the sense that they would have opposed CAA even if any other community would have been excluded! So Fatima needs to revisit her basic premises honestly and come out clearly on what she hopes get out of the CAA protests. By the way, CAA is not against Muslims as it is not for the Muslims. NRC could be an issue where anyone including Muslims can face corrupt government machinery if SC directed Assam style NRC is held all over India. Since all India NRC process is not yet decided, any comment is highly speculative. In any case, until SC settles the CAA issue, there is no need for any protest or violence as CAA is now a law passed by both house of the Parliament. There can be debate or opinion building against it till SC declares it null and void or BJP goes out of power and UPA abolishes it ( Has Shashi or Rahul said so?!!- Fatima should demand a categorical answer)

  8. Anything in Arabic will sound extremism to a non Muslim. This is because , there is more extremist in the world (who are Muslim ) Arabic is not understood by them. Once a man reacted very badly when he was told ” Assalamu Aalaikum” . Then , when he is explained that it was similar to ” May God bless you” … he laughed..
    So, my advice is use more common language in conversations. The person in front will be happy and definitely the God will also be happy… Changing language from Arabic to Hindi / English will solve 99 percent problem…

    • “Once a man reacted very badly when he was told ” Assalamu Aalaikum” . Then , when he is explained that it was similar to ” May God bless you” … he laughed..”

      I am an atheist and that is very offensive to me.

  9. If you want to country be remain secular ,your(peoples) public identity must be secular not based on religion. If this is not case then I want to ask writer why in 55 or odd country where Muslims are in majority and chant la illa il illaha are not secular democratic country.
    If Muslims want country be secular then they have to be secular like Abdul kalaam or Javed Akhtar not like owasisi.

  10. “Indian Liberals” is a label I’d like to stay away from. Liberal thought, by definition, is not expected to be homogeneous. Contrary to conformist or conservative thought. Hence the labels, which tend to present people as homogeneous are misleading. Liberal thought works around Live and Let Live among other principles.

  11. The slogan may be innocuous assertion of identity for you but is a deeply threatening phrase for non-muslims as it negates their religion even when it asserts yours. If you want non-muslims to understand your sensitivities and anxieties then you should reciprocate and understand their anxieties too. Don’t lose potential allies by unnecessarily including a divisive religious slogan in what is ostensibly a fight for a secular constitution.

  12. Instead of the shahada, or, Jai Shri Ram, or Sat Sri Akal, or, Hail Mary or whatever, the slogan should be Rumi’s “All religions. All this singing. One song. Peace be with you.”

  13. Petty pathetic attempt by an Islamist to normalize her community’s extremism. All this because they hate Hindus so much they cannot tolerate a few of them persecuted in Pakistan to settle honorably in India?
    Now even hard core leftist liberals like Tharoor and Sadanand Dhume are being chastised for calling spade a spade!

    Exactly why we need CAA..

    • ” they hate Hindus so much they cannot tolerate a few of them persecuted in Pakistan to settle honorably in India” – this is a new one – cropping up suddenly everywhere – nagpur se yeh line ayi kya?

  14. So going by the opinion odd this writer Jai Shriram slogan is also acceptable. I think people like these writers needs a new narrative for events of these kind. This is directly falling directly into right wing trap.

  15. Aap bole: la ilaha illallah,
    Om Mani Padme, aur “Hallelujah;
    Har-har Mahadev aur Jai Shree Ram,
    Toh as atheists, jyen kahan hum?

  16. I am deeply divided on this issue – intrinsically, I agree identity is important, yet I see the example of European liberals some of who ended up supporting casteist practices perpetrated in the name of hindu-indetity. i also wonder if one can fight simultaneously on all fronts – is a battle for existence the moment to pick a fight about identity?

  17. Whole thing is going as per script. CAA NRC protests only strengthening communal divide. Only way to defeat the dividers is protesting against burre din. Against decreasing GDP, joblessness, increasing poverty in the countryside. CAA NRC can only be defeated by regime change in elections.

  18. Fatima , good article ! I think the constitution, the very thing we are fighting for today, promises us the freedom to bring our whole selves, our authentic selves, our religious selves, unafraid to a march. Back in the 1990s an American gay activist was asked: wouldn’t it be better for gay people’s acceptance in the mainstream, if they did not wear makeup, theatrical clothes and wigs at pride marches. He replied that perhaps it would make gay people more acceptable to the mainstream, but it would also encourage the mainstream to buy into a false narrative of gay people. He added, he did not want that kind of acceptance based on a false or incomplete narrative. It is sad that that religious symbols have been hijacked by power players on all sides; we should support ordinary citizens when they try to take those symbols back. Just a thought.

    • Interesting comparison. Personally, as a short-haired, make-up shunning woman, I struggled to understand where overtly theatrical gay men were coming from. Yet, the current discussion about assertion of Islamic identity in India has made me change my mind – I DO see where these people are coming from. I only hope that one day we will have a world where people will not feel the need to ASSERT their identity overtly and will be able to simply live peacefully with it.

    • You overlooked a critical difference in gay and muslim identity:
      Gay identity is looking to get accepted and peacefully co-exist while muslim identity has been and still being used to conquor, subjugate and convert others.
      It’s been a tool of ethnic cleansing (Kashmir valley)
      Forming nation states (57 of them)
      Terrorism (al quida et al)

      It’s false equivalence to use them interchangeably.

    • The constitution does not allow bringing your ‘religious selves’ because the constitution guarantees secularism. If you want to bring your religious self, then prepare to see all hindus bring their religious self upon your self. Civil war. And the demise of all muslims in the subcontinent.

  19. Ms Fatima, you jihadists may shout your shuhada in Pakistan or in your ME based country. This is India Hindu majority country. After 1947, you people are here just on the goodwill of majority. Get this into your mind.

      • Why, if the PM is allowed to be abused called liar, feku, maut ka saudagar, chaiwala, neech what is the problem with this? Intolerance? At its best?

      • Two reasons. Print is a catholic space. Second, the wise would understand that allowing these views to be expressed will feel all people of good conscience with revulsion. I have always felt that the troll armies are their own worst enemy.

        • I disagree. The trolls create hierarchy of discrimination. By pushing the extreme they mostly take the median of narrative towards their side. And the common person accepts his/her subtle discrimination as normal, as it now stand in comparison with this extreme bigotry. The trolls have damaged the parameters of speech everywhere, and have sadly affected our thinking and behaviour. Moreover, it also starts an exchange of insults and disparaging remarks on communities and religious identities. However, all being said I stand with free speech.

    • India is a secular country. Muslims have been and continue to be active contributors to our nation.

      Like your mind, your intestines seem to be twisted. What should be sent down, is unfortunately coming up!!

  20. Such a beautifully written piece but pointlessness can seldom be covered up by articulation. The author, in her last paragraph, says the Hindu protesters should stand with silent affirmation of their Muslim counterparts shouting ‘La ilaha illallah’ during anti-CAA protests. Showing silent support to the notion of the concept of ‘No God but Allah’ can be alienating and destabilising for the very crux of their religious identity. Will the Muslim protesterrs sand by their Hindu counterparts chanting Har Har Mahadev or Jai Maa Kali during any form of protest? Or will that then be observed as a ploy to assert Hindu supremecy?!

  21. I understand where you’re speaking from.

    But asserting a religious identity is exactly what those whose politics depend on religious polarisation want. They say, ‘Hey, look at the Muslims asserting their religious identity. C’mon Hindus, it’s time we assert ours.’ Supporters of CAA-NRC basically want a Hindu nation. They want their country to be identified by their religion.

    By making it about religion, the numbers are not on our side. By making it about ‘being Indian’, the scales tilt.

    I don’t think those who spoke against chanting the Shahada have anything against Muslims asserting their identity. Just that when you chant a slogan perceived as religious at the CAA-NRC protests, the chances of winning over those sitting on the fence decrease. It only helps the BJP!

    To win, we need to take everyone along.

  22. Indian liberals’ remain liberal until their view points are not challenged and their political masters remain in power. Once they are politically defeated
    through democratic means, they become insane and behave most irrationally to the point of do or die. They start manufacturing fake stories based on lies and facts becomes untouchable to them. They often distort the meaning of words to suit the narrative of their propaganda. One can’t differentiate between them from the crooks. They can shamelessly apply double standards even in two consecutive sentences and their statements of near past. Their last stage before ultimate demise is indulging in violence and anarchist activities similar to anti social thugs.. Only India can tolerate their anti national acts. Most countries would either imprisoned them or shoot them down.

  23. My impression that the Sanghis are an intolerant lot, those who claim to be the secular/progressive/left/liberal have outwitted their counterparts. Who has asked to shade your identity? You retain it but should not convert a political moment into a political one by raising slogans. These ashraf Muslims cheated azlaf (poor) brethren in 1947 by raising the demand of Pakistan. Only 1.75 Muslim population voted for the Muslim League. These ashrafs are again out to deceive gullible poor Muslim population. Modi does not need friends when friends as Ashraf Muslims are there to further his cause.

  24. Author misses the point. The point of movement is to be inclusive. You can’t simply fight for secular treatment by a religious slogan. It would have been ok if it’s raised by a few and not justified by mainstream. Justifying that will alienate more folks.

  25. I strongly disagree with the writer. She is ignoring the fact that nuanced reasoning she is offering requires educated minds to appreciate. When a large population in India is not educated (even after going to college and applies to all sides) such brazen assertion of religious identity will fuel religious extremism on both sides. This can and will poison young minds. Regards

    • In terms of formulating tactics, you are probably right. But in terms of formulating what is right and what is wrong, the author has a point. I think we need to be as inclusive as possible – there should be place for saffron wearing gurus of Ramkrishna ashram, for Allah praising Muslims – and make no mistake – it is the educated and confident Mussalman who dares to assert her identity, for Tharoor who explains why he is a hindu as well as Kancha Illiah who explains why he is not. Icons of yore, Gandhi, Sarojini, Ambedkar, Abdul Ghaffar and Bhagad Singh can teach us how to build this national consensus.

      • Kind of clever how you included the “good hindus” (actually the submissive “dhimmi” ones) and the all brazen Allah (who doesn’t like infidels) praising muslim in your definition of being inclusive.

  26. Why this finger pointing within the movement? Why say “you too muslim”/”you too liberal”? the real issue at hand TODAY is neither the tepid islamophobia of liberals of Tharoor’s ilk, nor the mild effort at display of muslim identity by a miniscule section of protesters. Let us deal with the cancer first, we can treat the wart(s) tomorrow.

    • exactly what BJP is telling the nation. Dont get bogged by small disturbance. Defeat the forces who keep their religion above everything else for they can quickly start defending and normalizing slogans like no god but ours

  27. NRC is linked to CAA, which grants citizenship rights to Non-Muslims only. Previous amendments were not religion based. CAA 2019 is not for Assam only; it is for whole India. In NRC, all citizens (135 crore Non-Muslims & Muslims) have to prove nationality. Passport, Aadhar Card, Voters’ Identity Card will not be its proof. Dozens of crores Indians may fail to prove it. Muslims may be about 14.2% & Non-Muslims may be about 86% (population %). CAA may give nationality to refugees of 3 neighbor countries, if entered India legally, before 31-12-14, are not Muslims; not to anyone else. What about Non-Muslim Indians (around 86% sufferers), who fail to prove nationalities. Non-Muslims will suffer more and Muslims will suffer less by NRC & CAA. Let us struggle together for all to save secularism, democracy and constitution. UNITE NOW.

    • India don’t have Ms we have Arabi followers foreign agents, they better leave. Desist here from playing your Muslim and non-muslim binary. 1947 was clear for such people.

      • kya bakwas! zafarullah stressed the non-binary nature of the problem. YOU are stressing the binary. why up the ante now? Even Modi said there will be no NRC – there is no need! Shah said no hindustani-mussalman need be afraid. dont you believe them?

    • next also tell how ticket checking needs to be stopped since it is inconvenience for mostly ticket carrying passengers. Woow

  28. For me, Ms Irena Akbar’s column in IE placed the matter in context. When you are attacked as a Jew or a Muslim, that is the identity you use to fight back with, not something bland or generic. It was childish to believe that twenty crore Muslims will allow themselves to be pushed further and further back to the wall. They are drawing a line in the sand. Wonderful for all if it all remains very civil / peaceful / constitutional.

    • 20 crore? How did you came up with number. I just hope the govt starts re-education programme. This is India not Arabia. Those with Arabi leanings can leave.

      And what can expect from you Mr faux “Ashok” who is quoting potential jihadi writer Irena Akbar.

      • Only Arabi and not Farsi? because Shah is in fact a Farsi name?
        And why “faux” Ashok? curious to know the story!

        • The Gujarati Jain title “Shah” comes from prakrit/sanskrit word Sah (merchant), Sahu (like sahukaar). Better stop following Irfan Habib.

      • It is easy to figure out how Ashok came up with the number ’20 crore’. According to 2011 census, India’s Muslim population by percentage was 14-15%. I doubt it has changed by now. Our current estimated population is 135 crore. So by simple math we can get an approximate figure of 20 crore. No need for any sort of re-education just for this.

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