Muslim countries are not as bigoted as world may think

While we often hear of the bigoted and conservative nature of theocracies and so-called Islamic states like Saudi Arabia, we are mostly unaware of the religious tradition prevalent in other Muslim majority countries.  (Representational Image: Wikipedia)

While we often hear of the bigoted and conservative nature of theocracies and so-called Islamic states like Saudi Arabia, we are mostly unaware of the religious tradition prevalent in other Muslim majority countries. (Representational Image: Wikipedia)

Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s maiden trip to the United Arab Emirates (UAE) has led to the Emirati government allocating land for the construction of Abu Dhabi’s first Hindu temple. This move of the UAE government is bound to accelerate religious pluralism in the Gulf nation which is home to nearly 2.6 million immigrant Indians. The Emirati city of Dubai currently has two temples, one of which is dedicated to Lord Shiva and the other to Lord Krishna. These facts introduce us to an altogether ignored reality in certain Muslim majority societies.

While we often hear of the bigoted and conservative nature of theocracies and so-called Islamic states like Saudi Arabia, we are mostly unaware of the religious tradition prevalent in other Muslim majority countries. Indonesia, the country with the world’s largest Muslim population, is a secular nation. The Indonesian constitution is planked on the philosophy of “Pancasila” which is pluralistic in its outlook. The drafting committee of the constitution categorically decided to replace the word “Allah” with “Tuhan” so as to ensure that the minorities in Indonesia did not feel neglected and all communities could relate to the phraseology of the constitution.

Indonesia’s national carrier is called “Garuda Indonesia” whose name has been inspired by Hindu mythology. Garuda is the steed or “vahan” of Lord Vishnu. In fact, the Garuda Purana details the conversation between Lord Vishnu and Garuda. Some of the Indonesian currency notes carry pictures of Lord Ganesha and it is a common sight to come across statues of Lord Krishna, Arjuna and Ghatotkach while paying a visit to the Main Square in Jakarta, or the city of Bali.

There are examples from many other nations which can be recounted. Foremost among them is Turkey, which was built on the lines of fundamentalist secularism by none other than Mustafa Kemal Ataturk. Ataturk brought in sweeping secularisation measures and cultivated the notion of Turkish nationalism. Lebanon is another mutli-faith country where the law mandates equality between Muslims and Christians. Following their independence from the erstwhile Soviet Union, the Central Asian nations of Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Turkmenistan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan, despite their Muslim majority societies, chose to embark on the lines of Leftism and secularism instead of Islamism. The same is the case with Bangladesh.

After its liberation in 1971 which effectively buried the dubious theory that Hindus and Muslims were two separate nations, Bangladesh chose to ingrain “secularism” within the preamble to its constitution and decided not to replicate West Pakistan by proclaiming itself to be an Islamic state.

Interestingly, several of these nations had been led by women. Megawati Sukarnoputri served as the president of Indonesia, Tansu Ciller as the prime minister of Turkey and Sheikh Hasina and Khaleda Zia as prime ministers of Bangladesh. This is not to suggest that these states do not suffer from their respective set of domestic issues which are a challenge to the kind of secularism being practised in these countries. We’ve been reading about the brutal manner in which many secular and atheist bloggers have been hacked to death in Bangladesh. The word “secularism” was expunged from the preamble to the Bangladeshi constitution during military dictator Ziaur Rahman’s regime, but was thankfully brought back owing to a high court ruling in 2010.

Turkish prime minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan is a known Islamist, and the Pancasila philosophy is often criticised in Indonesia courtesy its secular grounding. No country is devoid of religious politics or communal discrimination, but the very reality that secular Muslim majority countries exist should be an eye opener for many. But at the same time, let us also recognise the reality of countries like Saudi Arabia which masquerade as “Islamic states.” The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia (KSA) does not even provide its non-Muslim citizens the right to freely propagate their religion and build their places of worship.

How absurd can a state get, especially when it claims to rule under the pretext of Islam? Doesn’t the Quran explicitly mention religious freedom? Of course it does! Chapter 109, Verse 4 of the Quran says, “I have my religion and you have your religion.” Another much quoted verse is Chapter 2, Verse 256 which says, “There is no compulsion in religion.” These two verses from Islam’s most significant religious document clearly hint at how ignorant the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia is regarding the teachings of Islam when it prevents non-Muslims from professing their faith freely and puts to death anyone who converts from Islam to any other religion.

One can cite more verses from the Quran to explain how integral the freedom of worship is to Islamic teachings. Chapter 22, Verse 67 of the Quran states, “We have appointed for every community ways of worship to observe. Let them not dispute with you on this matter.” The need to protect religious monuments belonging to non-Muslims as well as Muslims is also mentioned in the Quran in Chapter 22, Verse 40 wherein it is stated, “If god did not repel the aggression of some people by means of others, cloisters and churches and synagogues and mosques, wherein the name of god is much invoked, would surely be destroyed.” And here we have the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia with its redundant apostasy laws and completely un-Islamic ways of not allowing non-Muslims build their religious monuments and worship god in their own prescribed ways.

There are several theocracies like Saudi Arabia where such laws are common. In Egypt, Coptic Christians are often targeted and asked to prove their patriotism. This sort of racism was regularly manifested during the reign of the Muslim Brotherhood. Didn’t the members of Muslim Brotherhood hear tales of the Christian delegation which came to meet Prophet Muhammad from Najran? The Prophet didn’t just have a theological debate with them, but allowed them to pray inside Masjid al-Nabwi or the Prophet’s Grand Mosque in Medina. Yet, we had certain elements in Egypt questioning the Coptic Christians’ patriotism simply because of their annual pilgrimage to Bethlehem. They were labelled as being part of a Zionist ploy which is indeed laughable. This kind of an anti-Christian sentiment needs to be shunned.

Anti-Semitism is even more deeply entrenched as Islamic clerics in West Asia have repeatedly called for boycott of Pepsi, since Pepsi allegedly stands for “Pay-ever-penny-to-save-Israel.” Former Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad used to deny the holocaust and label the 9/11 terrorist attacks as insiders’ job. There is no space for such blatant lies in Islam. The Quran says in Chapter 2, Verse 42, “Do not mix truth with falsehood or hide the truth when you know it.”

The likes of Ahmadinejad have to recognise the horrors of the holocaust and treatment meted out to the Jews in Germany. Conspiracy theorists have to give up on the preposterous suggestion of US Central Intelligence Agency (CIA)-Mossad involvement in 9/11. We must regret the fact that a terrorist named Osama Bin Laden used Islam’s name to commit an entirely inhumane act on September 11, 2001, which led to the death of thousands. He shall never be forgiven for that because Islam teaches that the death of even a single innocent person is like the death of all humanity (Quran: 5:32).

One more thing that is essential to undo the baggage of anti-Semitism rests in understanding that not every Jew is a Zionist sympathiser and not every Jew can be held responsible for the excesses of the Zionist state in Palestine. Lastly, we have our dear neighbour Pakistan where the population of religious minorities has historically been on the decline. Blasphemy laws are utilised to frequently frame non-Muslims and forcible conversions aren’t that rare. Owing to a hostile environment, the Hindu community in Pakistan has steadily shifted base to India which is a matter of great shame for Pakistan.

Whether a country is Muslim majority, Christian majority, Buddhist majority, Hindu majority, Jewish majority or atheist majority ruled by communists, it has to realise that freedom of religion and equality of all religions before the law is a must. No person can be deprived of any privileges because of his faith which is a matter of choice. Everyone must be treated equally. Muslim majority countries, in particular, are doing fairly well in some regions but have dreadful laws in places like Saudi Arabia.

A thorough revision of the law is a must in such regions to bring non-Muslims at par with Muslims as citizens of a free state. It must also be ensured that minorities within the Muslim community, be it Shias, Sufis or Ahmadiyyas are not discriminated against, labelled as heretics, and recognised as Muslims.

More importantly, the rights of women need to be recognised, which is possible only when the state bans female genital mutilation, introduces compulsory girl education, outlaws polygamy and gives women an equal say in matters of divorce, inheritance law and judicial testimony.

(This article was originally published in DailyO.) 

Vande Mataram – A Midway

Vande Mataram was originally written by Bankim Chandra Chattopadhyay as part of his novel 'Anandmath' in the year 1882.

Vande Mataram was originally written by Bankim Chandra Chattopadhyay as part of his novel ‘Anandamath’ in the year 1882.

One of the sticking issues in the secular-communal debate in Independent India has been regarding the singing of Vande Mataram which happens to be the national song of India, a country comprising of a strong 1.28 billion people. Vande Mataram was originally written by Bankim Chandra Chattopadhyay as a part of his novel ‘Anandamath’ in the year 1882. The song generated massive controversy during the 1930s when India’s movement for independence against the British was beginning to take a decisive note. The Muslims of India raised objections concerning the lyrics of the song which they considered to be sectarian and idolatrous. Ever since then, Vande Mataram has been an issue which has managed to polarize Hindus and Muslims of India. The debate has got murkier with the some Sikh and Christian organizations joining the anti-Vande Mataram bandwagon.

Since the Muslim groups have historically been most vociferous in their opposition to Vande Mataram, it becomes imperative to first analyze the objections raised by them. The first and most fundamental objection is in regards to the meaning of the term ‘Vande’ which Sri Aurobindo, a Hindu revivalist scholar, translated as ‘Mother, I bow to thee’ in his translation of Vande Mataram. While some sects among Muslims might be seen occasionally prostrating before shrines, the majority theological opinion among Muslims is that their religion does not allow them to bow in front of anyone except Allah. The second and the more serious objection is in regards to the sectarian nature of the song. While the third stanza possibly refers to Hindu Goddess Kali, the fourth stanza mentions the Hindu Goddess Durga by name. Metaphorically, the poem identifies the Land of Bengal with Hindu Goddesses. The third objection concerns ‘Anandamath’, the novel in which Vande Mataram appeared for the first time. The novel revolves around the Sanyasi Rebellion which took place against the Muslim Sultanate in Bengal during the late 18th century. Some have claimed that the novel endorses the idea of Hindu nationalism and portrays Muslims in bad light. In January 1999 issue of English magazine Frontline, AG Noorani wrote an article titled, ‘How secular is Vande Mataram?’ in which he pointed out towards certain sections of the novel which appear to be anti-Muslim. He stated that in the last chapter of the novel, Satyananda, the protagonist of the story, is persuaded by a supernatural figure to bring a halt to fighting as Muslim dominance in Bengal had been destroyed. The supernatural figure tells Satyananda that the British would now rule over them and they were their (Hindus) friends and could not be defeated in battle.

The second question is why Vande Mataram is so important to the idea of India. It has been noted by scholars that Vande Mataram was the slogan raised by patriotic Indians during their long and arduous struggle for independence against the British Raj. The whole purpose behind making Vande Mataram the national song was to give respect to the memories of those freedom fighters who laid down their lives while uttering these words in defiance of the British rule. The British had even banned the usage of the term ‘Vande Mataram’ fearing massive civil disobedience and agitations. When Vande Mataram ran into trouble in the 1930s, the Congress Working Committee appointed a Commission in October 1937 under the President-ship of Nehru to look into the matter. The Commission ruled in favour of the patriotic nature of the song. However, the Commission also took note of the objections raised by the Muslims. Eventually, it was decided that only the first two stanzas of the song would be song as they contained nothing which could hurt anyone’s religious sentiments. The Commission also pointed out that it was only the first two stanzas which had been regularly sung by the people. It went to the extent of saying that the other “stanzas of the song are little known and hardly ever sung.”

While the Congress did make substantial adjustments in regards to Vande Mataram, the stand taken by them was not enough to please the Muslims as they still objected to the use of the word ‘Vande’ whose meaning by now had become a bit ambiguous. In a letter written by Rabindra Nath Tagore to Subhash Cahndra Bose, he stated, “The core of Vande Mataram is a hymn to Goddess Durga: this is so plane that there can be no debate about it. Of course Bankimchandra does show Durga to be inseparably united with Bengal in the end, but no Mussalman can be expected patriotically to worship the ten handed deity as Swadesh. This year many of the special Puja numbers of our magazines have quoted verses from Vande Mataram – proof that the editors take the song to be a hymn to Durga. The novel Anandamath is a work of literature and so the song is appropriate in it. But Parliament is a place of union for all religious groups and there the song cannot be appropriate. When Bengali Mussalmans show signs of stubborn fanaticism, we regard these as intolerable. When we too copy them and make unreasonable demands, it will be self defeating.” Mahatma Gandhi advised the Muslims of India to appreciate the historical significance of Vande Mataram but warned against mandatory imposition of the song on them.

The most important question is can singing of Vande Mataram be made compulsory for all? The plain and simple answer is no! In the year 1985, a school in Kerala expelled students belonging to the Christian sect of Jehovah’s Witnesses for not singing the National Anthem, ‘Jana Gana Mana’. The father of the children, Bijoe Emmanuel, took the matter to court. Eventually, the Supreme Court ruled in favour of the children’s right to not sing the national anthem. The Supreme Court stated, “The Fundamental Rights of the appellants under Art. 19(1) (a) and 25(1) have been infringed and they are entitled to be protected. The expulsion of the three children from the school for the reason that because of their conscientiously held religious faith, they do not join the singing of the National Anthem in the morning assembly though they do stand respectfully when the National Anthem is sung, is a violation of the fundamental right to freedom of conscience and freely to profess, practice and propagate religion. Therefore, the judgment of the High Court is set aside and the respondent authorities are directed to re- admit the children into the school, to permit them to pursue their studies without hindrance and to facilitate the pursuit of their studies by giving them the necessary facilities.” The Supreme Court further added, “There is no provision of law which obliges anyone to sing the National Anthem nor is it disrespectful to the National Anthem if a person who stands up respectfully when the National Anthem is sung does not join the singing. Proper respect is shown to the National Anthem by standing up when the National Anthem is sung. It will not be right to say that disrespect is shown by not joining in the singing. Standing up respectfully when the National Anthem is sung but not singing oneself clearly does not either prevent the singing of the National Anthem or cause disturbance to an assembly engaged in such singing so as to constitute the offence mentioned in s. 3 of the Prevention of Insults to National Honour Act.” It was possibly because of this court judgement that Former India Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee clarified regarding the singing of Vande Mataram in the year 1998 and stated that it was not compulsory to sing the song.

An important aspect of the Supreme Court’s judgement regarding the right of Jehovah’s Witnesses to not sing the national anthem was that the children never disrespected the song as such and stood up quietly while the song was being sung as a mark of respect. Going by the precedent set by the Supreme Court, no minority group in the nation including Muslims have the right to disparage Vande Mataram as the verdict of the Supreme Court concerning the national anthem can also be extended to the national song. They are not entitled by law to take part in the singing but they are also not supposed to create hindrance while the national song is being sung. Recently BSP Member of Parliament Shafiqur Rehman Burq raised a stir when he walked out from the House when Vande Mataram was being sung. I gave a long thought to the actions of the old man and I have finally come to the conclusion that he didn’t take the right step. If anybody does not want to be a part of the procedure then they should walk out prior to the singing starts. Walking out during the process is going on, can indeed be perceived by many as insulting.

The final part of the controversy lies in deciphering the stand of minorities as a whole about Vande Mataram. While a Christian institution in Patiala did object to the song on account of its controversial nature, Father Cyprian Kullu of Jharkand stated that Vande Mataram should not be dragged into politics as it was our national song and concluded by saying that it had no religious connotations. The Sikhs too have a contradictory stand on Vande Mataram. While school going Sikh boys and girls might have no problem with the song, some Sikh bodies like Delhi Sikh Gurdwara Management Committee and Shiromani Gurdwara Prabandhak Committee have expressed their reservations and declared the song as opposed to basic tenets of the Sikh faith. Sikh opposition to Vande Mataram also stems from the anti-Vande Mataram stand of their famous leader Master Tara Sing. As far as the Muslims are concerned, there have been innumerable fatwas issued against Vande Mataram but there are some Muslims like Arif Mohammed Khan who do not see anything wrong in the contents of the song. Arif Mohammed Khan has written an Urdu translation of Vande Mataram called ‘Tasleemat, maan tasleemat’. Sufi Musician AR Rahmann came out with a musical album called ‘Vande Mataram’ on the 50th anniversary of India’s independence. We can conclude by saying that singing Vande Mataram is a matter of choice. While some might exhibit their patriotism for the land through the recital of their song, others might abstain from it due to religious compulsions. Nobody’s allegiance should be judged on their ability to sing a particular song. While the Hindus pledge allegiance to the country by worshipping it as ‘Motherland’, Muslims too have their own way of patriotism as the Prophet said, “Love of one’s homeland is part of faith.”

Subversion of Religious Freedom in India by Anti-Conversion Laws

Over the past one decade, the state governments in India have been categorically working towards institutionalizing Hindutva by means of promulgating anti-conversion laws. The reason why this move can be associated with Hindutva is because it was Vinayak Damaodar Savarkar, Father of Hindutva Fascism, who felt that to change one’s religion was to change one’s nationality. The principle reason behind enacting such communal legislations is to keep a tap on the demographic growth of minorities in India and to ensure the numerical predominance of the Hindu faith. Such legislations have not only been passed in the right wing BJP ruled states of Madhya Pradesh, Gujarat and Chhattisgarh but have also managed to gain legitimacy in the Congress ruled hill-state of Himachal Pradesh.

Anti-conversion legislations make it mandatory for a person who is planning to convert to inform the government authorities one month in advance regarding the conversion. He also has to mention the name of the priest who would be carrying out the religious acts as also the venue and date of the conversion. If the person fails to do so prior to converting then he would be liable to either imprisonment or a hefty fine or both. What is worse is that the government authorities also have the power to reject applications. However, the most sinister part of the plot can be seen in the anti-conversion legislation passed by the Chhattisgarh Assembly which states, “returning to one’s forefather’s religion or his original religion will not be treated as conversion”. Unlike the latter part of the statement pertaining to ‘original religion’, the former part of the statement isn’t religiously neutral. All persons of Indian origin whether they are Hindus, Muslims, Sikhs, Christians or Parsis have Hindu ancestry. As per this law, all conversions to Hinduism shall not be regarded as conversions since the person already has a Hindu ancestry. What this law has done is that it has made it very easy to convert to Hinduism by not even treating it as a conversion and on the other hand, it has created governmental roadblocks in converting to a faith other than Hinduism.

Representational Image (NDTV)

Representational Image (NDTV)

Such policies of the secular state of India are very much in line with the Islamist regimes in Saudi Arabia, Iran and Sudan where conversions to any other faith besides Islam are prohibited. In fact, the law of apostasy in several countries prescribes death for those who renounce Islam publicly. Conversions have been a controversial subject in India but there appears to be a tacit understanding between India’s right wing Bhartiya Janata Party and ruling Congress Party regarding this subject. It was the Congress government in Madhya Pradesh in 1955 which appointed the Niyogi Commission to study the activities of Christian Missionaries in India. The report which was formulated held a view similar to that of the Hindu nationalists in regards to missionary activities.

The supporters of anti-conversion legislations argue that such laws are necessary to put an end to forced conversions happening in different parts of India. They accuse missionaries of taking funds from foreign countries to annihilate the indigenous culture of India. The Christian missionaries in India have largely denied such allegations and have labelled attempts of curbing conversions as an assault on religious autonomy. The much cherished freedom of religion is central to the existence of a democratic society. The hypocritical politics of the Congress coupled with the confrontational style of the BJP is a matter of deep concern for India’s secularists whose apolitical activism is the only way to preserve real secularism in the nation.