Is Namaz In Public Spaces A Purely Religious Act, Or A Political One?

  • This is not piety, but politics, where the language of religion is about destroying other people’s sacred spaces.
  • R JagannathanMonday, November 1, 2021 2:39 pm IST
    Namaz on highway. (representative image)
    Namaz on highway. (representative image)

    It takes genius to misrepresent Hindu positions and aspirations in order to paint issues in such a way as to make them about Muslim victimhood.

    In an article published by The Print (www.theprint.in), Hilal Ahmed says that the “aggressive Hindutva campaign to interrupt a peaceful assembly of Muslim worshippers performing namaz” upsets him deeply for it allegedly goes against two principles he cherishes: his spiritual faith in Almighty Allah and his belief in the Gandhian ideal of “sarvadharma sambhava”.

    He writes: “As a practicing Muslim, my namaz has always been a reflection of my commitment to spirituality. My colleagues, friends, teachers, and students have always been encouraging. No one has ever found it anti-Hindu or anti-India. Even unknown people, mostly Hindus, pay respect to my namaz. This was so heartening that I was able to offer namaz in moving trains, on busy streets, in the corridors of hospitals, and even inside the functional Hindu temples.”

    Now, Ahmed is said to be a “scholar of political Islam” apart from being an associate professor at the Left-wing Centre for the Study of Developing Societies. Quite apparently, he does not understand — or pretends not to — that Islam is often about politics, and less about religion. Any religion that devotes so much space (a huge chunk of the Quran and the Sunnah) to what must be done with or to kafirs is more political than religious. The Prophet was not just a religious teacher, but a political and military leader too. So, Islam is not just a religion, but a political idea as well. We will come to that later.

    Here are a few misrepresentations.

    First, no Hindu has ever objected to Muslims offering namaz, as he himself attests. Every Muslim is free to offer namaz whenever he wants to, in mosques and prayer halls designated for this purpose. The objection, in Gurugram or elsewhere, is to Muslims taking over public spaces repeatedly and gradually expanding this “capture” of public spaces and claiming this as a right. One must also add the right to blare azaan over loud-speakers in crowded localities is part and parcel of this takeover of public airwaves. This cannot be right, except when specifically agreed to by neighbours and the police for specific occasions, which could be on Eid, or Ganesh Chaturthi, or Durga Pooja. The commandeering of public spaces for religious activity cannot be taken as a right by any community, and the mere act is political in nature.

    Second, the Gandhian belief in sarvadharma sambhava is no longer acceptable to many Hindus. Not because they have stopped believing in it — it is an important aspect of Hinduism to respect the many paths to god and truth — but because it has become a one-way street. Hindus may respect all religions equally, but Christianity and Islam leave us in no doubt that they do not accord the same respect to Hinduism. Without reciprocity, the Gandhian ideal is unacceptable.

    The problem is Islam sees itself in a binary way, where there is Islamic rule and there is non-Islamic rule. There is the believer and there is the kafir. Defeating the kafir is central to Islamic belief systems, and this makes it political. As Bill Warner, writes in his decoding of the Quran (A Simple Koran): “Islam has a political doctrine and a religious doctrine. Its political doctrine is of concern for everyone (since it has implications for them), while religious Islam is of concern only to Muslims.”

    We saw this binary when some Muslims celebrated the defeat of the Indian cricket team to “Muslim” Pakistan, when the Pakistani captain talked about his victory as a defeat for “kufr” (“kufr toot gaya”), and we saw it even earlier, during the anti-CAA agitation, when Faiz Ahmed Faiz’s poem was recited. The poem had these lines, “Jab arz-e-khuda ke Kabe se, Sab but uthwaye jayenge”…… “Bas naam rahega Allah ka.” (When god wills, all idols will be broken, and only the name of Allah will remain”). While many secular individuals sought to explain this as a poem written in defiance of the Zia-ul-Haq regime in Pakistan, one wonders what its relevance was in India. This is not piety, but politics, where the language of religion is about destroying other people’s sacred spaces. It is Imperialism with a capital ‘I’. Any ideology which wants to rule the world is imperialist by definition. So, when his defence of namaz in public spaces is touted as part of his belief in “Almighty Allah”, Ahmed is indirectly making the same imperialist claim.

    Third, as Ahmed himself admits, the number of namazis has increased manifold in part due to the rise of organisations like the Tablighi Jamaat, a Sunni movement that he characterises as reformist, but in reality seeks to remove syncretic elements from Indian Islam. It was formed because the Meo Muslims of Rajasthan were found to be continuing with some Hindu practices even after conversion. The Tablighi Jamaat, which claims over 80 million adherents worldwide, is avowedly non-political, but its teachings provide the basis for more militant activities, including terrorism. (Read here, here, here). While there is no need to demonise the Tabligh, its belief in purifying Islam cannot but be viewed with concern, especially since Islam imposes exclusivist claims on its followers and hatred for kafirs.

    Fourth, Ahmed writes: “These three new claims — the oneness of Allah as an anti-thesis of nationalism, namaz as an impure, anti-Hindu act, and namaz as a crisis in urban spaces — help Hindutva politics touch upon the most sensitive aspect of the Muslim psyche. The purpose is to provoke Muslims to react as a collective, simply to legitimise Hindu victimhood.”

    The is rich. The Umma is no respecter of national boundaries, and Hindus are right to consider the Indian Muslim’s transnational loyalties as problematic. Even B R Ambedkar, in his tract on Pakistan, drew attention to this point (read here). The second point, that namaz is anti-Hindu, is never the position of Hindus. It is only the third point, that namaz on public streets is problematic, that is a Hindu concern, since it ultimately means sacrifice of public spaces for religious activities permanently. Muslims have to find a way to practise namaz in private spaces or mosques or even at homes.

    Fifth, and this is something Ahmed does not even touch upon, the fact remains that Muslims have never fought for Hindu rights anywhere, not in Pakistan, not in Bangladesh, and not even in India. A meagre attempt to provide fast-track citizenship to persecuted minorities in Bangladesh, Pakistan and Afghanistan was stoutly opposed by Muslims in India, and the only thing we heard was that Muslims were victims here, not their bigoted brethren in the neighbourhood. Maybe, just maybe, Ahmed should try and convince his fellow Muslims to fight for everyone’s rights instead of only theirs to the exclusion of others. And no, I do not consider the occasional statement by intellectuals opposing the ethnic cleansing of Hindus from Kashmir, or the recent anti-Hindu riots in Bangladesh, as evidence that Muslim society or intellectuals or their organisations are concerned about everybody’s rights and not merely their own. If they believed this, Muslims could equally have opposed the CAA (Citizenship Amendment Act) merely with statements, but they took to the streets and did not allow a proper discourse on the subject whenever anyone sought to defend the law.

    What we are seeing in Gurugram, especially the protest over namaz in public spaces, is the Hindu demand for equal rights and negotiated equality between them and the alleged minorities. Hindus are getting organised now to regain their lost rights. Few Hindus are willing to make one-sided concessions like Gandhiji did for the Khilafat Movement, in which no Hindu had a stake. But, at the end of it all, all the Ali brothers (Maulanas Shaukat and Mohammed) could say was that even the worst Muslim was better than Gandhi. If this superiority is what Islam teaches its followers, why should Hindus obligingly accept it as the basis of secularism? How is secularism neutral between religions if it only penalises Hindus and their institutions?

    For a professor of political Islam to pretend that namaz on the streets is only about piety is questionable.

    Lastly, the headline of Ahmed’s article, probably not his doing, says: “Namaz isn’t an anti-Hindu act; time for every Indian to defend Islam.” Oh, really? Why is it India’s job to defend Islam? If anything, India’s job is to defend Hinduism, Sikhism, Jainism, Buddhism and the myriad tribal faiths that were birthed in this geography, and who have no protectors anywhere else.

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