On 9/11, a Call for Unity from Indian Muslim Journalists
By: Melody Fox Ahmed
September 18, 2014
On Thursday, September 11, 2014, the Berkley Center hosted a group of Indian Muslim journalists and religious leaders visiting Washington, DC, Mississippi, and California under the auspices of the State Department’s International Visitor Leadership Program, which brought them to the United States for the first time. At a time of fascinating and controversial change for the world’s largest democracy, we were eager to host a forum to discuss developments in India since the recent election of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and Prime Minister Narendra Modi, a controversial figure who has electrified the country, while alienating large populations of religious minorities such as Christians and Muslims. A group of student interfaith leaders and students enrolled in a course on “Religion, Ethics, and World Affairs” took part in the discussion.
India has the world’s second largest, and widely diverse, Muslim population (after Indonesia). The visiting group highlighted this diversity with Sunni and Shi'a members, imams and politicians, scholars and news anchors. The Georgetown students in attendance in turn showcased their campus’s diversity, hailing from Tunisia, Bangladesh, all across India, and all across the United States; and representing Hindu, Christian, Muslim, and Jewish faiths. The visitors were impressed by several of the students’ skills in Urdu, despite having been born and raised in the United States.
We asked for an update on the situation in India, noting that as Americans we support religious freedom and pluralism, and admired the same values enshrined in the Indian constitution. The Indian National Congress at the time of independence from Britain in fact derived power from claiming to represent a multi-religious, pluralist India rather than a solely “Hindu” India. The visiting group was unanimous in asserting that a radical shift has occurred in Indian society with the election of the BJP and a shift towards “Hindutva” or Hindu nationalism, a shift they characterized as going against the history of unity and diversity that defined India.
They spoke of the prime minister’s failure to offer Ramadan and Eid greetings to Muslims this year—a first since independence—which they saw as a major symbolic gesture. They lamented a media divided in two parts: a powerful but often biased and corrupt print media, and smaller outfits which seek to tell the truth but lack an outlet. They described minorities as developing a “psyche of fear,” in which everyone is living in a state of fear and is afraid to speak out. They described how history books are being rewritten to minimize the significant role and contributions of Muslims in Indian history. As journalists, they said they are fighting against the stereotypes and narrow vision that is being presented to young people primarily through social media. They decried the current “love jihad” campaign on social media, which blames Muslim men trying to convert Hindu women through sex, consensual or not, as a ridiculous slur on Muslims that has no basis in truth. An imam declared that they are “fighting to save secularism in India.” We had an interesting debate about the nature of Indian secularism, and the group declared that they saw secularism as “the states where all faiths are living together peacefully in society.”
The Indian guests asked how the Georgetown students are learning about peace and religion—do they try to minimize religion to focus on respect for humanity? One Muslim student described how Jesuit values such as contemplation in action and service to the world inspire her and resonate with her own faith. A Hindu student and a Muslim student told the story of how they really bonded as friends over discovering that their families originally hailed from the same place in India, and how their cultural similarities and affinities override religious differences. Another spoke of how her religion called for respect for all humanity and rather than minimizing differences, has helped her see the value and beauty in all religions.
A student questioned the visitors on the “moderate” point of view of Islam in India, asking if Indian Muslims, who have participated in relatively few acts of terrorism at home or abroad, will now become radicalized in the face of greater discrimination. A frank answer was given: yes, they fear this outcome, and that India might break up over it. Another student asked if Muslim and Christian religious minorities in India might unite to together oppose Hindu nationalism. One guest worried that as Christians are currently the less persecuted group, they are reluctant from standing with Muslims in the worry that hatred will come to them too. Another shared several examples of Christians and Muslims working together to combat discrimination, and Prof. Timothy Shah noted from his recent work in India that he believed there would be a lot of openness now for religious minorities to work together.
As we concluded the nearly two hour session, one of the Indian journalists said that he wished there was a center like the Berkley Center in India that had Christian, Muslim, Jewish, and Hindu students all sitting together at the same table debating these issues of religion and peace—“We need this, and it is not happening. These are the young people who are going to lead our nations. We are against putting these divisive thoughts over who is Hindu or who is Muslim into their heads. We have to be united and fight for secularism.”