‘You’re Not Like Other Muslims’ And Other Islamophobic Indianisms
Earlier this week when Hamid Ansari made a factual statement at the launch of Congress politician Shashi Tharoor’s latest book—that even before Covid-19 “our society became a victim of two other pandemics: religiosity and strident nationalism”—an avalanche of abusive tweets targeted the erudite octogenarian who served as vice-president in the decade to 2017. How dare any ‘Muslim’ (now used as a slur in itself) hold a mirror to India’s rotting soul?
Islamophobia is everywhere, on Twitter, when you’re house hunting, in a discussion with friends, at parties, in the midst of a divorce, because you expressed an opinion and, of course, in that all-time favourite ‘compliment’, ‘But you don’t look like a Muslim’, which became the title of historian Rakshanda Jalil’s 2019 book.
In a country that is increasingly hostile to its Muslim citizens and one that used the pandemic to inject itself with a booster shot of Islamophobia, hatred is everywhere, from new laws that govern marriage and citizenship to foot soldiers who champion “Hindu saviour” Arnab Goswami and celebrate news of an interfaith couple getting a divorce.
As Covid-19 deaths climb to more than 100 every day in India’s capital and a faltering economy results in record unemployment, Indians only want to discuss why Muslim men shouldn’t marry Hindu women.
Beyond the direct attacks and open Islamophobia, there’s no shortage of everyday humiliations as we find ourselves free to air bigoted thoughts with zero consequences.
“When I told a friend that no Muslim I’ve ever known, not even a distant relative had practiced triple talaq, and that there is no uniform community-wide support for the practice, I was told, ‘Of course, moderate Muslims like you don’t support it, but most Muslims do’,” says lawyer Zaid Wahidi. “Being characterised as a moderate Muslim in any discussion revolving around Islam and the acceptability of Muslims in India is inherently Islamophobic because it is premised on the majority of us not being moderate.”
There are many versions of this experience. “My classmate once remarked that I was so nice and fun to be around that she would have never guess I was a Muslim. My best friend’s grandmother loves me dearly but she is the same person who never allowed my friend to go to her other Muslim friend’s home because ‘Muslims smell and they are dirty’,” says 21-year old history student M.
These days landlords don’t even bother to hide their bigotry behind ‘meat eater’ when explaining why they don’t rent their homes to Muslims. And if you’re a single Muslim woman looking for a rental, you’re at the intersection of misogyny and Islamophobia, says author Annie Zaidi, who once went house hunting with her female cousin. Deals fell through, brokers magically vanished the moment they realised Annie was Muslim, and landlords insisted they only rented to families. “We were actually family, just not their idea of a family…married and with two kids,” says Zaidi.
A friend who’s a doctor rattles off a list of Islamophobic Indianisms:
Writer Salman Usmani has a diary in which he records the bigoted things a neighbour says in loud phone conversations to family members and to building residents out on their daily evening walk. This gent was in his element in the weeks after the Indian government blamed a Tablighi Jamaat gathering for the spike in coronavirus cases across the country and triggered an avalanche of fake news and Islamophobia. “I don’t even know what I’ll do with these notes I take,” says Usmani. “It’s like keeping a ledger of unkind and hateful things that one would otherwise forget.”
Historian Rana Safvi says when she attends parties where only vegetarian food is served, people commiserate with her and wonder how she will manage. Haters brand Safvi’s writings on syncretism as “anti-Hindu”. “I write about medieval monuments be they forts, temples, mosques or dargahs. I face constant trolling including from people who complain that I’m only talking of Mughals. That’s my specialisation so obviously it’s what I will concentrate on. Again, it’s my religion which colours their response,” she says.
M tells me she always knew that she would have to face Islamophobia at some point in her life, regardless of whether she identified as Muslim or not. “In my head, it was like having to fight some huge monster. What I failed to realise was that it wasn’t always that simple and more often than not, it’s the people we know who feel this way.” She has never been more aware of her identity as in these past few years.
It’s devastating to watch the pain, suffering, anger, bitterness, disbelief, and resignation of Indian Muslims as their homes, livelihoods, rights, and even lives, are snatched away from them by the bullies on the playground. It’s important to remember that while the hate—by virtue of its organised nature—drowns out the many friendships, business partnerships, and love stories between these two communities, these stories continue to exist under the manufactured national narrative.
If only we tried half as hard to highlight the love as haters do the hate, we might have a chance at winning this battle.
Otherwise, we’ll just have to be mute witnesses to the pain that comes from being the recipient of all this hate. “It makes me feel unwanted or like I don’t belong,” says Wahidi. “It definitely feels different from the India of my childhood. Agrees Usmani, “I feel lost, mostly. This is not what a home should look or feel like. It makes me want to leave and go to a place that is kind and happy…I’ve given up wanting to change things.”
Safvi says she feels diminished and, sometimes, ready to give up. “But then I get up again and fight.” Adds M: “I self-censor my thoughts and words because of the fear of being targeted. During class discussions I think twice before participating if the topic is even slightly political and/or controversial…I constantly feel a sense of apprehension within myself.”
Priya Ramani is a Bengaluru-based journalist and is on the editorial board of Article-14.com.
The views expressed here are those of the author, and do not necessarily represent the views of BloombergQuint or its editorial team.