Zafarul Islam on community, politics, and media

6 Nov

Dr. Zafarul Islam Khan is the President of the All-India Muslim Majlis-e Mushawarat, a platform of several influential Indian Muslim organizations. He is also the editor of the New Delhi-based fortnightly Milli Gazette, one of the few English-language Muslim news magazines in India. In this interview with Yoginder Sikand he talks about terrorism in India, about how the media projects Muslims and what he feels Muslims should do in the current context.

Q: Increasingly, Muslims and Muslim organizations have been singled out by the media, wrongly or rightly, for being behind the escalating incidence of terrorist acts across the country. This has led to Muslim organizations focusing much of their energies simply on countering the charges against them. How do you think this has impacted on their work for the development of the Muslim community?
 

Dr. Zafarul Islam Khan
 
A: Despite these massive provocations these organisations’ work for reform and development still continues. I think the current phase is an aberration, and I hope it will clear soon, especially now since the media has started waking up to the undeniable reality of Hindutva terrorism, pointing out what I think is just the tip of a hydra-headed monster which, in my view, is behind many of the terrorist activities and bomb blasts that have occurred across the country in recent years. The media is now slowly coming out with details of the precise role of these Hindutva terror groups in setting off deadly blasts, providing armed training to their cadre, indoctrinating them in the ideology of terror and running bomb-making factories.
What for me is a matter of equally grave concern is that this current government simply does not have the guts to fight this sort of Hindutva terrorism, for fear of losing Hindu votes or of what is termed a Hindu backlash, even though all sorts of terror, even if engaged in by some Hindus, is a menace to all Indians, including Hindus as well. This government does not bother how Muslims feel about how many innocent Muslims and Muslim organizations are being wrongly targeted as allegedly engaged in terrorism because for them we are like orphans, whose liberties the government thinks it can play with any way it wants.
But I must say that the general public, including many right-thinking Hindus, is now increasingly realizing that the actual situation is something quite different from what the media and the intelligence agencies have all along been claiming. They are gradually realizing the nefarious, yet little talked-of, role of Hindutva terror groups.

Q: But surely one cannot deny that at least some of these deadly blasts might have been the handiwork of some Muslims or some fringe extremist Muslim outfit?
 
A: I do accept that there is a possibility that some Muslims may have taken to this path. If so, this might have happened as a result of the grave threats and challenges that have been forced on the community, such as the destruction of the Babri Masjid and the Gujarat genocide and the continuing denial of justice to Muslims. But, at the same time, I must say that even though I have been actively involved in Muslim community issues for the last two decades I, at least, do not know of almost any conclusively proven case of a Muslim being involved in terror activity. Almost every single case of Muslims apprehended on charges of being involved in terrorism has been backed simply by ‘confessions’ made before the police, and of course I do not believe in the methods of investigation of the police that are often based on administering third-degree torture. Take the case of Abdul Nasser Madani, who was kept incarcerated for some nine years till he was let off because the charges against him did not stand. Or the almost 50 cases of former SIMI activists whom the courts have let off for lack of evidence, or the recent report of the tribunal that recommended the lifting of the ban on SIMI because of lack of evidence against it. The same thing happened in the case of the deadly POTA and TADA laws that targeted mainly innocent Muslims. Hardly two per cent of those charged under these draconian laws were proven guilty and convicted.
Today, arrests and targeting of Muslim youths continues in the name of crushing alleged new ‘Muslim extremist’ outfits, such as what I believe to be the fictitious Indian Mujahideen. I, for one, would not at all be surprised if the so-called Indian Mujahideen is actually a creation of the Bajrang Dal or the intelligence agencies. And in propagating what I think might well be a total fiction the media is also playing a nefarious role. They all seem hand-in-glove. After all, how can it be that within half an hour of a blast happening the media claims to have all the information of alleged Indian Mujahideen members who it says were behind it? In my view these sections of the media are great story-tellers. They should be earning Booker prizes for the yarns that they weave.

Q: But now some sections of the media are also talking about the role of Hindutva groups in terrorist activities.
 
A: True, and this is a welcome development, and I think that because of this the general public will increasingly realize and see through the stories that the media has been all along propagating.

Q: What do you feel about the charges against the SIMI leveled by the Government, the intelligence agencies and the media? Surely, its approach was aggressive and un-called for, as was its denunciation of the Indian Constitution and its call for armed jihad. What do you feel about the concept of Khilafah or Caliphate that it claimed it wanted to establish in India, with force, if need be? Don’t you agree that this was bizarre, to say the least?
 
A: I agree with you entirely that the SIMI’s rhetoric was extremist. But the charges against it and its activists of actually being involved in terror acts must first be conclusively proved by the courts, which has not happened. In almost all the cases involving such people all we have are statements made before the police, and we know how often these statements are false and forced out after administering the most brutal forms of torture. On the other hand, while there is ample evidence to prove the role of Hindutva groups and activists in murdering people on a massive scale, no effective action at all is taken against them. This is absolutely unfair. My point is clear: if anyone, including any former SIMI member or any other Muslim, is proven by law to be engaged in any terror act, he or she must be punished according to the law. Give him or her the sternest possible punishment, but do not target innocent people in the name of countering terrorism, but unfortunately this is happening on an increasingly worrying scale today.
Now, as far as the issue of Khilafah or the Caliphate is concerned, surely everyone is within his rights to democratically argue for what he or she believes as an ideal system, whether or not this is derived from religion. Thus, Marxists have their own version of the state, and Gandhiji called for ‘Ram Rajya’. Interestingly, Gandhiji is on record as having said that in his view an ideal state would be one that would be like that which was ruled by the Caliph Umar, which Sunni Muslims believe to have been an ideal-sort of Caliphate or Khilafah. An ideal Khilafah is a system where the ruler is accountable to the people and rules in accordance with justice. What is wrong with that? The Caliph Umar is reported to have said that even if a goat dies of thirst on the banks of the Euphrates—a difficult proposition to imagine—he would be held responsible for this. Once, when he saw an old Jewish man begging, the Caliph Umar ordered that the man be given a stipend from the public treasury, saying that the man had served the society when he was young and that now, in his old age, society must serve him. So, this was the ideal sort of Caliphate, which Gandhiji also praised. What a contrast, you will agree, to our present-day politicians, who seem to care nothing at all for the poor and the marginalized.
But then, in this regard, I must also say that seeking to establish any political system, be it the Khilafah or any other, through force and by resorting to violence is wrong and not permissible. If anyone seeks to do that he should be sternly punished according to the law. So, the SIMI’s rhetoric of establishing Khilafah by means other than democratic was wrong. It was extremist. We are a political democracy, and the only way to put one’s views and agenda forward is through seeking public support, through elections. This is why even before the SIMI was banned, most Muslim leaders shunned the organization, finding its approach extremist. But you must also remember that the SIMI emerged and became more radical at precisely the same time as when the American- and Saudi-backed jihad against the Soviets in Afghanistan was at its peak. At that time, even the slogan of ‘jihad’ was being mouthed and propagated even by American leaders, although now the case is precisely the opposite. This fact needs to be taken into consideration while talking about and seeking to understand the SIMI’s radical rhetoric.

Q: Do you think that, increasingly, Islamist movements across the world are beginning to realize the folly of armed confrontation with established states? Is this a general sort of trend?
 
A: I think so. You cannot seek to establish or impose ‘Islamic government’ or an ‘Islamic state’ or any other sort of political system by force. It can only happen through democratic means, through participating in elections. Islamists cannot hope or expect to rule people against their will. Such an approach will be entirely counter-productive for them, as they have today realized. I think Islamist movements across the world have come to realise this, with a few fringe exceptions such as outfits like the Hizb ut-Tahrir, which is a very marginalized group but has a safe haven in the West.

Q: Why do you think that extremist groups such as the Hizb ut-Tahrir have been allowed to freely function in the West?
 
A: There are some who hold to a conspiracy theory in this regard, but my view is that groups like the Hizb ut-Tahrir have found a safe haven in the West by escaping from their home countries where they would probably have been killed or imprisoned. So, in the West they benefit from the freedoms that Western countries give to all, to Neo-Nazis, Muslims, Jews, radicals and liberals and so on. The authorities in these countries generally leave them alone until and unless they become a real menace.

Q: How do you see a lasting solution emerging to the widening communal chasm in this country?
 
A: I think that for this it is essential for the majority to realize that minorities, too, have rights, under the Constitution, in law and morality, rights as human beings that must be respected and observed. But see where Muslims stand today. You only have to skim through the Sachar Committee report to realize the utter falsity of the myth of ‘Muslim appeasement’.
Muslims have been pushed or kept down ever since 1947. And things are becoming worse today. On the one hand you claim that Muslims are ‘backward’, that they refuse to take to modern education, and when they do take to such education then you brand them as ‘terrorists’. Earlier, Muslims were given very few jobs in the public sector, and now, due to this media hype about ‘Muslim terrorism’ and about even highly educated Muslim youths allegedly taking to terrorism, do you think the private sector would like to employ Muslims? Obviously not.
I think that all this—this sort of anti-Muslim hatred that is being consciously stirred up—is part of a larger design. Some forces within and without the country want to marginalize the Muslims. They want that the only jobs that can be available to Muslims are as rickshaw-pullers or washermen. They want them to become the new Dalits. But this will not happen. Muslims are citizens of this country, and we must continue to struggle for our rights, using Constitutional and legal means, and also by working with people of goodwill among the Hindus and other communities.

Q: To come back to the question of the media, how do you think Muslim organizations could more effectively engage with the ‘mainstream’ media in presenting Muslim views and concerns?
 
A: I think there is a lot that we need to do in order to interact more closely with the media. I don’t think that large sections of the media are against Muslims or Islam as such, contrary to what some people might think. But the point is that many people in the media are also influenced by the general social climate, and so, like everyone else, they are not free of anti-Muslim biases. In this regard, I would advise Muslim organizations not to shun the media, but, rather, to seek to engage more closely and effectively with it, in a spirit of dialogue.
We also need to consider developing alternate media of our own, as well as working with the alternate media run by non-Muslims, who are sometimes more willing than the ‘mainstream’ media to seriously take up Muslim issues and concerns. But, the world over, the alternate media has always been at the fringes, and so we also need to work to get our views heard in the ‘mainstream’ media. Unfortunately, Muslim organizations are doing little, if at all, in this regard. They are often content simply to release a statement in Urdu and when they see it published in some Urdu paper the next day they feel that they have done their duty. Obviously, this does not at all serve to bring Muslim views or concerns before non-Muslims because today hardly any non-Muslims read Urdu papers.

Q: How do you think your paper Milli Gazette has been able to address the lacunae that you have pointed out in the existing Muslim media?
 
A: We have been able, to an extent, to fill the vacuum in the field of the Muslim English-language media. It gives me some satisfaction to say that our paper is read also by government officials and MPs. We are among the very few Muslim periodicals that focus not on religious or ideological issues and debates but, instead, on community affairs and current national and international developments. If you see any ‘mainstream’ newspaper on any day you would imagine that the day before that all the 160 million Indian Muslims must have been asleep or doing nothing, or, if at all, allegedly bursting bombs, because this media does not report on the positive happenings within the community. This is something that Milli Gazette tries to highlight—news about Muslim social work organizations doing productive work, Muslim groups organizing seminars, Muslims writing books or getting awards for various achievements, although our coverage of this is, admittedly, limited and not exhaustive.
I recognize that at present our paper doesn’t fully satisfy the needs of the community. We need to have a weekly, but ours is still a fortnightly. We need better quality reports, stories from the field, but we lack the finances needed for this. Presently, we do not have even a single full-time staff reporter, because of shortage of funds.

Q: Why is it that the ‘mainstream’ media focuses almost inevitably on only negative or sensational real or fictive events or developments when it comes to Muslims?
 
A: I don’t think this is a phenomenon specific only to Muslim issues. The media thrives on negative or sensational news about almost anything. Underlying this is the quest for hiking circulation or viewership, and, therefore, profits.

Q: Perhaps one reason for the inability of many Muslim organizations to relate to the ‘mainstream’ media effectively is that they are run and headed by madrasa-educated ulema, whose cultural background is of a different sort from that of most persons in this sector of the media. Do you agree? In this regard, might not modern educated middle class Muslims be more effective in interacting with the media to try to get Muslim views across to them?
 
A: That is true. We do need more middle-class Muslims to take an active role in community organizations, including in highlighting their views before the media. Unfortunately, they seem to be more interested in their own careerist aspirations. What typically happens is that many middle-class Muslims begin to take an interest in community issues only after retirement. Then they grow their beards and go to Mecca for the Haj and want to do some sort of work for the community. But of course by the time they reach that stage in life there is little that they can possibly do.
As I said, I would like more middle-class Muslim youth to take part in community-based organizations, which are now mostly run by the ulema. But many of these organizations simply do not have the money to employ them. Muslim organizations have to make effective media relations as one of their top priorities, but, unfortunately, many of the maulvis who control these organizations do not recognize this as an important priority. They simply want to satisfy their own limited circles.

Q: Why is it that, particularly in north India, the leadership of Muslim organizations is mainly in the hands of traditional madrasa-educated maulvis?
A: This is by default. Before the Partition, the ulema played a supporting, not the leading, role in providing leadership to the community, whether in the Congress or in the Muslim League. But then, with the Partition and the massive migration of north Indian Muslim elites to Pakistan, a great leadership vacuum was created, which had to be filled, and the maulvis stepped in to fill that vacuum. Now that they have occupied that place they won’t leave it voluntarily. I am not suggesting that we don’t need them. We certainly do, but they should not dominate or be considered the sole leaders, because their views on national and international developments is limited. Often, their views on these are limited simply to what they learn from the one or two Urdu newspapers that they read, and these papers are often based on sensationalism, spiced-up and one-sided news and views and so do not give a correct picture of things.

Q: Do you see the emergence of an alternate sort of leadership emerging among Muslims, particularly in north India, today?
 
A: Yes, gradually this is happening, and it is a welcome development. We need a joint effort of maulvis and modern-educated intellectuals and leaders, neither of which should dominate the other. If this sort of leadership comes into being, it can play a much more effective role in re-orienting our community’s priorities and in working to build better relations with people of other communities.
Unfortunately, there is one major psychological barrier that operates that seems to be inhibiting modern-educated, middle-class Muslims from taking an active role in Muslim community affairs. They have been made to believe and fear that if they do so they might be branded by their non-Muslim peers and colleagues, among whom they often live and work, as being allegedly ‘communal’ or even ‘fundamentalist’, although , of course, this is not at all the case. In recent years a vicious sort of climate has been created because of which many such Muslims seem fearful to openly say that they are committed to Islam and to Muslim causes. If they do say so, they are automatically accused, or at least suspected, of being ‘communal’.
We have to come out of this complex. We all have our religious, regional and national interests and identities, and there is no necessary contradiction between these. A religious Muslim who works for his community is not a threat to India. In fact, such a Muslim is actually serving his country by working for the welfare of one of its most marginalized communities. In fact, if someone is working for the education of Muslims the Government should reward him for this because he is doing the work that the Government should actually be doing but which it is not.

Q: To go back to the question of the media, Muslim organizations repeatedly stress the need for a more effective media policy, and some of them claim to have established ‘media cells’ for this purpose. How effective have these efforts been?
 
A: Many of these organizations that claim to have established ‘media cells’ or that keep talking about the need for a proper media policy simply have no idea of what precisely these mean. They think that it simply means having a separate room with a board hung at its entrance proclaiming ‘Media Cell’, and employing one or two unqualified people to cut out Muslim-related articles from newspapers and issue a statement in badly-written English once in a while, which almost no ‘mainstream’ paper publishes. This sort of effort will not have any major impact. We need a thoroughly professional approach, which is distinctly lacking in almost all the existing Muslim organizations.

Q: Across the country literally hundreds of Islamic magazines, dealing with religious issues, are published, but there are hardly any Muslim-owned papers that deal mainly with community-related affairs. Besides your Mili Gazette and, to some extent, the Bangalore-based monthly Islamic Voice, there are no other Muslim-run English language periodicals in India that focus on community, as distinct from religious, affairs. Why is this?
 
A: The root of the problem is that the community still has not understood or properly estimated the role of the media. We should have our TV channels, radio stations, daily newspapers in English, Hindi and regional languages and so on, but this, sadly, is not the case. There are several Urdu newspapers in the country, but then they are read almost entirely by Muslims, and so cannot play an effective role in getting Muslim views across to non-Muslims and to the state. I think it is only in the Malayalam media where Muslims have been able to make a real and substantial difference. There are four Malayalam daily newspapers brought out by Muslims in Kerala, and they exercise a considerable influence on the local scene. So, other newspapers in Kerala generally abstain from publishing concocted stories about Muslims in the state, because the very next day these Muslim newspapers can reply back by exposing the false claims that they might make. But in north India we have only Urdu newspapers, and even if some false claims are made about Muslims in the English and Hindi press, the only way that Muslim organizations respond is by publishing counter-claims in the Urdu press, which no one but a limited number of Muslims read, and so these responses do not have any impact. And so you have this bizarre phenomenon of people writing ‘open letters’ to Sonia Gandhi in the Urdu press dealing with matters related to Muslims, which, of course, Sonia Gandhi cannot herself read, and thus these serve no positive purpose at all.
Even as regards the many Islamic magazines that are published in the country, mainly in Urdu, there is much left to be desired. There are hardly any original religious Urdu journals. Much of what they publish is taken from elsewhere or consists of reprinted articles. Many of these articles have nothing to do with contemporary developments or are on irrelevant issues. Reading many of them, one can’t help wondering if those who write and publish them are truly living in this age! And then, most of them simply represent the jamaats or organizations or madrasas that bring them out. For many of them, their basic aim is not to serve as a good Islamic journal or to provide good information, but, rather, to operate as the mouthpiece of a particular jamaat or sect, so as to seek to prove that the particular organization or school of thought or ulema that they represent are supposedly great heroes of Islam and have rendered great services, as they see it, to the cause of the faith. This holds true for all the different Muslim jamaats—the Deobandis, the Ahl-e Hadith, the Barelvis, the Shias, the Jamaat-e Islami, the Nadwis and so on.
 

 

Q: In view of the coming Parliamentary elections in India, what advice would you give Muslims?
 
A: The old formula: to vote for secular candidates, and, preferably, for Muslim candidates in case they are in a strong position. I don’t think Muslims are any longer tied to any particular political party. And as regards the Congress and the BJP, as far as Muslims are concerned I see them as two sides of the same coin, the only difference being that sometimes the former raises some seemingly good, but misleading, slogans. But, practically, as far as economic policies and attitudes towards Muslims are concerned, there is no difference at all between these two dominant parties.

Q: There is now some talk about a separate Muslim political party. Imam Bukhari of Delhi’s Jamia Masjid has sought to float his own party. How do you see these developments?
 
A: Bukhari’s recent attempt should be seen in the context of similar attempts made by himself, and, before him, by his father, in the last three decades. Just before elections, he and his father have issued announcements about floating a Muslim political party and have organized such meetings as the one he recently called, to project the wrong claim of being the leader of the Indian Muslims. This is absolutely wrong, and I feel that, as in the past, this time, too, this trick will not work. After all, all major Muslim organizations boycotted the meeting that Bukhari had called. Nothing came out of it, and even the resolutions that the meeting passed were weak.
On the other hand, the Jamaat-e Islami has also been talking of possibly entering the field of electoral politics and the political process, whether directly or indirectly. I think this might be a good development, but I am not very optimistic because Muslims are scattered all across the country and there are so many political parties vying for their votes. Frankly, it is really an uphill task to put together an effective Muslim political party.

Q: But if such a party does come into being, would the All-India Muslim Majlis-e Mushawarat, of which you are the President, also be a part of it?
 
A: No. The Majlis is not a political platform or organization. We do not want to get involved in such issues. This is why we have not supported any political party, and have limited ourselves to appealing to Muslims to work with genuinely secular and democratic forces.

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