Monday, August 18, 2008

Debate on Indian Muslims : Shabana Azmi Interview with Karan Thapar (CNN IBN) - August 17, 2008

[I found Shabana Azmi's views in this interview very interesting and very insightful. I very strongly agree with almost everything she says in this interview and, more specifically, when she speaks about "Islam not being a monolith" and on multiple identities of each one of us, not just revolving and focused on one aspect of our identity that could be "religion", which are views very much held by Amartya Sen, the Nobel Prize laureate and by many well educated scholars and Muslims as well. Although she mostly refers to Indian Muslims in this interview, it could be said that these views and thoughts can be adapted to any other conflicts around the world where there are questions and disputes revolving around the so-called "religious minorities". From this interview, you just need to change the word "Muslim" for "Catholic", "Protestant", "Buddhist", "Hindu", "Shiite", "Sunni", etc. and this will lead to almost the same perspectives and conclusions. In this sense, Shabana Azmi's views (and for that matter Amartya Sen's views) are not just specifically linked to the Indian context but they are very much universal. It is high time that, all and each of us, we stopped thinking of "other" people - who are slightly different from us but who have much more in common with us than we can imagine - JUST AND ONLY in "religious" terms, which is a very restrictive, very biased and very unfair way of thinking and interacting with "other" people - Mounir]
[August 23, 2008] Message and comments from Eric Plouzennec (Paris) :

Merci pour cette instructive interview et pour tes commentaires très éclairants, notamment sur l'actualité récente.


Effectivement, la position de S.Azmi semble à la fois positive et impartiale, et ça fait vraiment plaisir de voir des gens confrontés aux diffcultés et pourtant cherchant toujours à rendre une image de vérité.(même si évidemment tout le monde ne bénéficie pas du contexte familial qu'elle a connu enfant, ni de sa position sociale).

As-tu vu ce reportage sur la Grameen Bank, qui écorne un peu le mythe. C'est la limite du libéralisme appliqué aux pauvres. pour des gens qui sont déjà sur la corde raide, un seul échec peut les amener à basculer, et tout le monde n'a pas forcément l'idée qui marche du premier coup. Et puis, on ne les autorise pas à simplement déposer le bilan sans conséquences sur leurs biens personnels, comme ça se pratique abondamment chez nous avec les entreprises à responsabilité limitée:

Eric Plouzennec (
Shabana Azmi interview with Karan Thapar (Devil's AdvocateCNN IBN) broadcast on August 17, 2008


Part 1

Part 2

Part 3

Sources :


TRANSCRIPTS [the notes between brackets are mine - Mounir]


Karan Thapar: Hello and welcome to Devil's Advocate. As India marks another Independence Day, what is it like to be a Muslim in India and what does the world look like when seen through Muslim eyes? That’s one of the key issues I shall explore today with actress, social activist and former MP [Member of Parliament], Shabana Azmi. Shabana, let’s start with how the world perceives Islam. Seven years after 2001[2001September attack in the USA], many people see the religion as a threat, some even fear it. How do you respond to that?

Shabana Azmi: With exasperation, with anger, with hurt and with bewilderment. The fact is that Islam is not a monolith. It resides in more than 53 countries in the world and takes on the culture of the country in which it resides. So it’s moderate in some, it's liberal in others, it's extremist in others and it's… You know there’s a whole range of Islam that’s available according to the culture. But the world, particularly after September 11th, tends to view it as synonymous with terror.

Karan Thapar: The sad part is that it's not just Islam that's in a sense misunderstood if not targeted but Muslim people as well. In the West, particularly the Western media, because of the association with terror, Muslims have become figures of fear and for some figures of hate. Do you understand that or do you resent it?

Shabana Azmi: I’ll go back a little bit to 1992 when the Babri Masjid was demolished [The Babri (Muslim) Masjid was destroyed by fundamentalist Hindus in December 1992, which led to widespread riots between Hindus and Muslims across mostly northern India]. I have been raised in a very liberal, Bohemian family in which religion has not played any part at all. For me, being a Muslim really was about Urdu, about eating Biryani [a rich Indian meal eaten during special occasions and festivals] and wearing ghararas [an Indian dress worn on festivals and special occasions] on Eid [a major Muslim festival]. So the cultural aspect of me was Muslim, otherwise, because I am not religious, the religion didn't matter.

Karan Thapar: But then today, when in the eyes of people who do not know you, you are branded as…

Shabana Azmi: No, no. That’s why I am saying. And what happened is, after the riots, following the Babri Masjid demolition, I suddenly had people saying "You Are a Muslim" and hurling it as an accusation or treating me with dressed in china. Either way, it was with a self-consciousness that I had never before experienced. It was very traumatising. And what it made me do is, it made me dig my heels in and say, "Yes, I am a Muslim and what do you want to do about it?". That, I can see, is increasingly happening, particularly in the Western world. A lot of young kids today are wearing the burkha [a women's garment covering the entire body, worm by some Muslim women], are taking on an identity, which really they don’t feel just because when you push somebody against the wall, that’s what they'll come up with.

Karan Thapar: In other words, you push them and make them defiant. You make them become something that they don't, that they aren't, and may not want to be but they have to become in self-defense?

Shabana Azmi: Absolutely! Yes, that’s exactly what happened to me and I see that refrain particularly amongst the young in the West and it poses me some concern because what they are taking on is just parts of identity which really don't have anything to do with Islam.

Karan Thapar: Is that also happening to Muslims in India? Are Muslims today going through the same experience that Muslims in the West have lived through?

Shabana Azmi: I think the Muslims in India, in spite of the fact that there have been communal riots [conflicts between religious communities], in spite of the fact that justice has not been got…even then I think that Indian Muslims are in a safer place because the Indian Muslim has a stake and a space in India’s democracy. It’s a very huge thing that we are a part of a democracy. An Indian Muslim can aspire to become a Shah Rukh Khan [a very famous Bollywood actor], can aspire to become Irfan Pathan [a very famous Indian cricketer], the President of India [A. P. J. Abdul Qalam, the previous President of India was from Muslim background]. And that makes the Muslim far more hopeful and far less in despair than in any other parts of the world.

Karan Thapar: So, it’s the fact that they can participate in democracy and more importantly the fact that they can aspire to have dreams and live up to those dreams that makes the difference.

Shabana Azmi: Absolutely. That’s right.

Karan Thapar: Have you, in your life, particularly in the last few years, because you're Muslim, faced up to distrust and suspicion? Have you suddenly noticed that people look at you in ways that perhaps they didn't earlier?

Shabana Azmi: No, it again happened after the 1992 riots, because, you know, after the first phase was over, which was largely in the slums and not in the sophisticated areas, people weren’t really affected during the December riots. And, when January happened, when THEY got affected, it's when they woke up. But the thing is that I was right there on the streets and I was so completely consumed by it…the minute I would speak about it, there would be this hushed kind of silence, I was not allowed to talk about it. And suddenly I was being branded "a Muslim". But my reaction was the same during the Sikh riots [in November 1984, after the assassination of Indira Gandhi by her Sikh guards, there were widespread riots against the Sikh community in Delhi and in India], and I had reacted exactly in the same way, at that time, this wasn't flung at me. So, that to me was very, very difficult.

Karan Thapar: Today, many people, not just abroad but even in India, say that Muslims have to accept the onus of changing the image of their religion and the image of their community. Is that a fair thing to say?

Shabana Azmi: I think it is. I would accept that because I think that we...I don't think Muslim leadership has bothered to clear the air about what Islam actually is, because for far too long, and because of reasons of conspiracy more than intent really, every time "the Muslim question", if you look at what's happening in India, every time "the Muslim question" is raised, you look at all the politicians, whether it is Atal Bihari Vajpayee [former Indian Prime Minister] or whether it is Indira Gandhi [former Indian Prime Minister], whether it is anybody, the minute it's "a Muslim question" you'll get all the dadhiwallahs ["the bearded men" that is Muslim fundamentalists] and all the maulvies [Muslim clergymen] only to speak. And I've always told them that why do you always leave it to the maulvies? There are other people also, that's the moderate, liberal voice, why don't you ever consult them?


Karan Thapar: In other words, there is the need for the moderate, liberal Muslim voice to speak up?

Shabana Azmi: No, no, no!! This is again a cliché and it tires me because the moderate, liberal Muslim has always spoken up. But, nobody is interested because it doesn't make for dramatic headlines. I’ll talk to you about myself, all right ? Now, when we’ve all along been talking about the need for Muslims to look at reforms within their own community, to look at education, to look at themselves and look at several situations, it never gets any kind of huge coverage. But I took on the Shahi Imam on [Shahi Imam is the title held by Syed Ahmed Bukhari, the leading priest at Jama Masjid in Delhi]. If you remember there was this incident when he had called for Indian Muslims to go and wage jehad [Muslim "holy" war] in Afghanistan and I had told him on a television channel. I said what I’ll do is arrange for you to be air-dropped into Kandahar [in Afghanistan] so you can start your jehad from there, your problem will be solved and so will ours. I mean that grabbed newspaper headlines like nothing else could. What I am saying is that why does it have to be something so sensational before it is picked up by the newspapers?

Karan Thapar: So how responsible then is the press for conveying an impression of the Muslim community and of Islam perhaps, because they only concentrate on the mullahs and the "long beards" [Muslim fundamentalists] because they don't concentrate and listen more effectively to people like you?

Shabana Azmi: But, you know, I wouldn't say that the press is doing it as a design or a conspiracy against the Muslims, though I would want to see it like that because they do the same thing about Hindus. It is Praveen Togadia who gets all the newspaper headlines! [Praveen Togadia is an important leader of the V.H.P., a Hindu fundamentalist (anti-Muslim) organisation]

Karan Thapar: Except that, Hindus being the majority are a little difficult to misunderstand, Muslims, being a minority and, in a sense, being victims of what's happened as a result of change of image after 9/11, are easy to target and misrepresent?

Shabana Azmi: Much, much easier to target, much easier to target but I think that if there is a call within the community to actively try and defuse the image that it has got, I think that's a fair demand.

Karan Thapar: So, do you make an appeal to the press, do you say to the newspapers and television channels, there are a whole range of different Muslim listeners, there are a whole range of different Hindus trying to portray some of the others who don't have beards?

Shabana Azmi: All the time, all the time. And constantly I say that Islam is not a monolith and don't portray it as a monolith because you do it great injustice.

Karan Thapar: What about politicians who persist in trying to convert politics into something that's almost [?] religion? For instance, you have the BJP saying that the UPA is weak on terror because it'll lose Muslim votes or as the Left says that the Indo-US nuclear treaty is anti-Muslim [Bharatiya Janata Party: the opposition party whose political agenda and electorate is mostly based on anti-Muslim/pro fundamentalist Hindu sentiments] [United Progressive Alliance: the current governing coalition led by the Indian National Congress under the leadership of Sonia Gandhi]. Do you resent this attempt to portray ordinary everyday politics in religious or, worse still, in Muslim terms?

Shabana Azmi: Yes, except that you know when people say that, you know, this is for Muslim votes, I don't see any problem with that. Because, if there is a constituency that's voting for you, then hopefully, you will pay attention to that constituency. There is nothing wrong, yeah! There is nothing wrong with that! That’s what you are supposed to do. If you have voted me into power, then it's my business to protect your rights. What’s wrong with that?!

Karan Thapar: But what about the position Omar Abdullah took during the vote of confidence in Parliament when he spoke with passion, in fact he spoke with anger at the fact that people were trying to portray him through his religion and his politics through that religion and he resented it.[Omar Abdullah, Member of Parliament and president of the National Conference, an important political party in Kashmir, recently (July 22, 2008) said "I am a Muslim and I am an Indian and I see no distinction between the two."]

Shabana Azmi: Yes, of course! Absolutely! You know, see, India’s greatest strength is her composite culture. But, in recent times, there is a concerted effort to compress identity into the narrow confines of the religion that you were born into.

Karan Thapar: And that happens most to Muslims?

Shabana Azmi: All the time! So, you are Hindu, I am Muslim, she is Christian, so on and so forth. This is not true, because if you were to look, for instance, at Kashmiri Muslims and Muslims in Tamil Nadu, then in spite of the fact that religion is the same, the Kashmiri Hindu and the Kashmiri Muslim have much more in common with each other than the Kashmiri Muslim and the Muslim from Tamil Nadu.

Karan Thapar: How do you then today view the crisis in Kashmir? What you're saying is about the differences between Kashmiri Muslims and Muslims elsewhere, or the affinity between Kashmiri Muslims and...

Shabana Azmi: Because of the factor of Kashmiriyat and because of their cultural...[According to Wikipedia, Kashmiriyat "is characterised by religious and cultural harmony, patriotism and pride for their mountainous homeland of Kashmir"]

Karan Thapar: So, how do you view crisis in that state where the two communities are literally pulling apart and their emotions spiraling out of control?

Shabana Azmi: Because, because it's a cauldron! The situation has been allowed to go out of hand and there is a deliberate attempt to communalise it, which is a huge pity because always, look there, the history of Kashmir, people have, because of the factor of Kashmiriyat,very strong bonds with each other in spite of the differences. See, it's wrong to say you will not have differences, of course you will have differences! My whole point with anybody who has a difference, I do not need to love my neighbour as myself, that cannot happen; but all I need to do is not kill my neighbour and not burn down his house.

Karan Thapar: But are you worried that what's happening in Kashmir, what could be spiraling out of control could create differences between Hindus and Muslims elsewhere in India?

Shabana Azmi: Absolutely! Absolutely! I can see that happening, and that's why I'm so distressed over what is happening in Kashmir and, for heaven’s sake ! they should be brought to a stop! It should have been brought to a stop right when it started with that nonsense!

Karan Thapar: So it is not just Kashmir, it’s India that’s at stake?

Shabana Azmi:Absolutely, yes!

Karan Thapar: This a challenge to our integrity, and our future and our unity?

Shabana Azmi:Yes ! and I think of the politicians haven't woken up to it yet, I think I really don't know what's happening?!

Karan Thapar: Shabana Azmi, let's take a pause for a moment and I want to ask you a critical question as a former MP. Has Indian politics been unfair to Indian Muslims? We'll be back in a moment's time. See you after the break.


Karan Thapar: Welcome back to Devil's Advocate and in an interview with Shabana Azmi. Shabana Azmi, let’s talk a little bit more focussed about Indian Muslims. They are amongst the poorest, the least educated, the worst represented communities in India. Has Indian politics been unfair to Indian Muslims?

Shabana Azmi: Yes.

Karan Thapar: And, is it individual politicians you'd blame or the system or parties ?

Shabana Azmi: I think there isn't enough understanding of the fact that, in a democracy, how you treat the security of the minority must be a very important part of the success of a democracy. You can't only make token gestures and actually let them be in the state that they are, as the Rajinder Sachar Committee report shows [The Sachar Committee, appointed by the Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, extensively investigated the socio-economic situation of Muslims in India and concluded in December 2006 that Muslims in India were among the poorest sections of the general Indian population and suggested a series of important measures to improve their situation]. So what happens is that token gestures are made but the real issues are never addressed.

Karan Thapar: Would you go a step further? Would you say that Muslims are in fact victims of discrimination despite India’s proud claim of being secular, they still face prejudice?..

Shabana Azmi: I can’t get a house in Bombay!! I wanted to buy a flat in Bombay and it wasn’t given to me because I was a Muslim. I've read the same thing about Saif [Saif Ali Khan, a famous Bollywood actor]. I mean if Javed Akhtar and Shabana Azmi cannot get a flat in Bombay because they are Muslims, then what are we talking about? [Javed Akhtar is Shabana Azmi's husband and very famous poet and lyricist in India, he has written thousands of songs and ghazals for famous Indian movies]

Karan Thapar: Do Indians understand, particularly those who aren’t Muslims, the extent of problems that we've created through this prejudice for the 14%-15% of Muslim minority? Do you think people understand this?

Shabana Azmi: Yeah, yes and no. And when they don’t, I also think it’s about time that Indian Muslims stopped viewing themselves as victims. I think we also tend to get into this...victim mode.

Karan Thapar: But what can they do?

Shabana Azmi: Firstly, you have to look at your own community, you have to build reforms within it. You have to say, all right we have to look into things like education. But, what happens is that riot after riot after riot, the guilty get away scot-free. So, the feeling that is left behind is that there are two kinds of laws in this country: if you kill one person, you're likely to be hung; if you indulge in mass murder, an amnesty of sorts will be granted to you. This leads to ghettoization, this leads to marginalisation, this leads to a lot of despair. Until we can actually understand that the guilty must be punished, whoever they are, we can never talk about integration!

Karan Thapar: How much resentment does all of this cause in the hearts of Muslims who see themselves as Indian and they also realise that they are not being given a fair deal?

Shabana Azmi: No, but I think it's not only time for resentment because we..

Karan Thapar: But there is resentment?

Shabana Azmi: There is resentment in certain sections which is fanned even more by the [Muslim] fundamentalists. The average Muslim really just wants roti, kapraa aur makaan, as the average Hindu, as the average Christian..[roti, kapraa aur makaan : (Indian) basic bread, clothes and a house]

Karan Thapar: But that he doesn't get..

Shabana Azmi: He doesn't get..

Karan Thapar: Because politicians don't think of that..

Shabana Azmi: Politicians don't think about it, the community is also allowing itself to listen to the fundamentalists, who actually are not their leaders at all!

Karan Thapar: To what extent is the community entrapped by what are often described as "bad leaders", fundamentalists who provoke them rather than lead them forward?

Shabana Azmi: But I think that there is a change that is happening. What has happened is that, for far too long, the liberal, the moderate liberal Muslim hasn’t really got involved with the affairs of the community because after Partition it was seen as being sort of "communal" to do so. ["communal" could mean being only concerned by one's religious community] But, I think, post-Babri Masjid demolition, the moderate liberal has come forward to the affairs, for the affairs of the community and that has led to a great strengthening of confidence amongst the Muslims.

Karan Thapar: Let’s try and look to the future. At the UP elections, the Shahi Imam formed the Muslim Front to contest them. [UP means Uttar Pradesh, the largest and the most populated state in northern India] Earlier, in Assam, Badruddin Ajmal formed the Muslim Front to contest the Assam elections. [Assam: a north-eastern state of India, bordering Bangladesh] Do Muslims need their own political parties?

Shabana Azmi: No! No, no, no, no ! Jawaharlal Nehru was a leader of Muslims and that’s the way it should be. You don't need a Muslim leader for that.

Karan Thapar: Do Muslims need to merge more effectively and more aggressively with the mainstream then?

Shabana Azmi: You see, poor things! Poor things! They've been pulled over the coals all the time for some stupid statement which is made by some extremists and because that caught...catches the attention of the press. You have all Muslims being hauled over the coals, which is really unfair.

Karan Thapar: But Togadia doesn't get identified with the entire Hindu community but a Muslim extremist gets identified with the whole Muslim community, that's unfair and wrong..[Praveen Togadia : leader of the V.H.P. (Vishwa Hindu Parishad), a very important Hindu (anti-Muslim) organisation]

Shabana Azmi:Yeah...

Karan Thapar: What about another issue: the Rajindar Sachar Committee brought out for the first time, for many people, the extent of deprivation that Muslims in India live with. Do they need reservations just as you have for Dalits or OBCs or Scheduled Tribes? ["Dalits" is the modern name for Untounchables; "OBC" means Other Backward Classes, that is people who are not Untouchables but whose living conditions are also very low; "Scheduled Tribes" also known as "Adivasis" (literally "the first or original inhabitants") are groups of communities that have or used to have "tribal" modes of living, who are not Untouchables, some of them practice certain Hindu rites, some are Christians, some are animists; the reservation policy is a policy of attributing quotas in the administration of the state and in education to certain specific groups of people to improve their socio-economic status in similar ways as in "Affirmative Action" in the USA or "discrimination positive" in France]

Shabana Azmi: Tricky, I'll pass that question.

Karan Thapar: Is that because it’s an answer you don't know or because you suspect it's political and therefore awkward?

Shabana Azmi: Because I really don’t know the answer, I don’t know the answer because, I mean, affirmative action is definitely important but whether it'll be solved by reservations, I'm not very sure about that.

Karan Thapar: People sometimes say, and you've echoed this without saying it in the same way, that Muslims have begun to retreat into their shells, sometimes even into ghettoes, that they need to come out and play a fuller role, and just as much as...

Shabana Azmi: No, but the situation is not as dismal as you're making it out to be because, on the one hand, this is happening, on the other hand, there is a resurgence of the moderate liberal voice, which is now taking on the affairs of its community, which it hadn't done in the past and because of that, I think, there is also confidence building. It’s not all black and bleak!

Karan Thapar: Then, how do you square up the fact that there is this resurgence, that's the positive side, as you've just said it, and yet, a Shabana Azmi, a Javed Akhtar or a Saif Ali Khan can't get a flat in India’s most cosmopolitan city!

Shabana Azmi:Yeah, but if I were to see that as an indication of everything that was wrong is not correct. Because, I mean, look at the possibilities for what Muslims have..

Karan Thapar: It's part of the black and the white..

Shabana Azmi: ..exactly! that you have a President, you have a cricketer, you have the Khans ruling the film industry. So, there are both these contradictions! India is a country of contradictions!

Karan Thapar: So, as you look to the future, are you an optimist who sees the situation getting better or do you fear that things could still get worse before any improvement comes?

Shabana Azmi: I am by nature an optimist. And I can see within Muslims a real hard look at themselves. I think they are making very important attempts to be seen, like for instance this rally against terrorism that the Muslims had was huge!! Now that comes from understanding that we need to change the image of our religion..

Karan Thapar: And the Deoband ‘fatwa’ was another example? [in June 2008, the Darool-Uloom Deoband seminary of Sunni Islam, which is extremely influential in India, Pakistan, Afghanistan and elsewhere, issued a fatwa (a religious decree or a (binding) opinion) against terrorism describing it as "the most inhuman crime", it added that “Islam rejects all kinds of unjust violence, breach of peace, bloodshed, murder and plunder and does not allow it in any form”, and that “the religion of Islam has come to wipe out all kinds of terrorism and to spread the message of global peace.”]

Shabana Azmi: Huge, huge, no? So, these things are happening, we have to look at them positively..

Karan Thapar: So you're a positivist, you're an optimist?

Shabana Azmi: Yeah.

Karan Thapar: Shabana Azmi, a pleasure talking to you on Devil’s Advocate.

Shabana Azmi: Thank you, thank you.

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