Zahid-e-tang-nazar ne mujhe kafir jaana
Aur kafir yeh samajhta hai musalman hoon main
— Allama Iqbal(To the narrow-minded Muslims I am a kaifr/And the communal non-Muslims think I am a fanatic Muslim)
The dilemma that the poet Iqbal talked about dogs liberal Muslims everywhere. Two recent instances involving India’s two well-known film personalities and public intellectuals—actor Naseeruddin Shah and scriptwriter-poet-lyricist Javed Akhtar—illustrate it.
When Shah, through a viral video clip, slammed a section of Indian Muslims who welcomed the return of the Taliban in Afghanistan, he faced flak of the larger Muslim community which saw him needlessly targeting Muslims for the utterances of a few maulvis. Especially when the All India Muslim Personal Law Board (AIMPLB) had distanced itself from their statements. Muslims felt that Shah, because of the tone and the strong words he used in the video, ended up cheering the Hindutva brigade which wants to paint Indian Muslims as fanatics and pan Islamists. Shah’s criticism from sections of Muslims remained confined to social media posts or inside some Urdu newspapers. No Muslim organization issued threats to Shah for “dividing the Umma” into Indian Islam and Islam in other countries through his video clip.
In contrast, Akhtar’s interview to a TV channel where he compared the Taliban with some of the right-wing outfits in India has received massive outrage with a BJP legislator in Mumbai demanding apology from him with “folded hands” or the films featuring his family members would be opposed. A group of protestors even tried to reach his residence in Juhu, Mumbai. The police have provided protection to Akhtar though he didn’t seek it.
What does the hounding of the likes of Shah and Akhtar show? Clearly it shows the increasing intolerance and diminishing space for dissent in our society. As citizens of a free, democratic country both Shah and Akhtar have right to speak their minds. Even if they may not be pious Muslims in the popular sense—Shah claims in the video he is an Indian Muslim while Akhtar has never claimed if he is even a believer—they carry a burden. The burden of being liberal Muslims. The liberals just cannot shed the cultural ethos they imbibe. Their mere names are enough for the communal elements to paint them as partisan towards and sympathetic to minorities.
The world knows that actor-activist Shabana Azmi, daughter of leading progressive poet Kaifi Azmi and wife of Javed Akhtar, has never asserted her “Muslimness.” And yet she was denied a house at a Housing Society in Juhu a decade or so ago because, to the narrow-minded majority members of the Society, she is a Muslim. The same prejudice was brazenly practiced when actor Emraan Hashmi was denied a house in Bandra.
The liberals get attacked from fundamentalist, fanatical elements of all hues. Around a decade ago, every time a bomb went off anywhere in the country, Muslims, including the liberals, were expected to condemn it. Is it the job of liberals alone to condemn acts of violence? Why should they alone issue press statements and sit at TV studios to attack jihadism? Terrorism is a menace and it is duty of every citizen to berate and condemn it.
Did the people who are demanding apology from Akhtar today send him flowers when he crossed swords with the orthodox, regressive elements who defended the indefensible and unjustifiable Triple Talaq during the debates on it before the Supreme Court made TT illegal and subsequently a law criminalized its uttering by a Muslim husband? Did the same forces write to him “love letters” when Akhtar, as member of the Rajya Sabha, chanted Bharat Mata Ki Jai slogan in the House to prove there was nothing wrong in hailing the motherland? Did they congratulate him when Akhtar and his ilk participated in numerous seminars, conferences and symposiums to condemn terror acts and condolence meets to commemorate victims of terror violence? Did they burn effigy of Shahi Imam Ahmed Bukhari who, at a Television debate, had insulted Shabana Azmi by calling her nachne gane wali (nautch girl)?
Those who are attacking Akhtar and Shah should introspect. At a time when Taliban, a group adhering to extreme Islamic ideology, has taken command in Kabul, we in India must watch out. We must guard against extremists of every variety and volition within our own boundaries. Condemning Muslim fanatics and condoning or shutting eyes to illiberal, sometimes even genocidal pronouncements (the slogans raised at Jantar Mantar against a community recently were nothing but genocidal), will further fuel hatred and demonization of the minorities in India. Instead of targeting the liberals, the fanatical elements, wherever they are, need to be taken to the task.