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.
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.
Our fight against Hindutva extremism should give no comfort to Islamist extremism either. We who’re raising our voice in the #CAA_NRCProtests are fighting to defend an #InclusiveIndia. We will not allow pluralism&diversity to be supplanted by any kind of religious fundamentalism. https://t.co/C9GVtB9gIa
— Shashi Tharoor (@ShashiTharoor) December 29, 2019
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.
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.
India’s protest movement has a problem: Muslim identity entrepreneurs want to give it a religious tinge to boost their own narrow prospects. They may succeed in this, but only at the cost of destroying the movement itself. #CAA https://t.co/VdTEQO0qV4
— Sadanand Dhume (@dhume) January 13, 2020
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.”
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.