Muslims and mountains of misconceptions
By: Syed Aijaz Zaka
Being a student of media, it never ceases to amaze me how popular perceptions and opinions are formed. How tiny little nuggets of misinformation, hearsay, old-fashioned biases and often plain ignorance feed into dangerous stereotypes and are passed around as gospel truth.
As far as collective memory goes, Muslims have never had to suffer what one would describe as inadequate media coverage. We are almost perpetually in the news. And for all the wrong reasons. Indeed, if you go by media narrative and popular perceptions, these are not the best of times to be a Muslim. We seem to be at receiving end everywhere.
As if all the sweetness and light spread around in the name of Islam in recent years by the likes of Al-Qaeda and Taleban was not enough, now we have Boko Haram in Africa and the ISIS or the so-called Islamic State in Iraq and Syria.
In the past few weeks, the Indian media has been crying itself hoarse about Muslims from India fighting alongside the dreaded ISIS in Iraq. If you go by their fantastic accounts, India’s 200 million Muslims are queuing up to pay their allegiance to the new self-styled ‘caliph’ and Amirul Momineen, Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi.
It is the same media that, fed and tutored by intelligence agencies, spawned the legend of Indian Muslim terrorism, holding it responsible for various attacks and mysterious blasts, from the Indo-Pak Samjhauta Express to Malegaon blasts and from the Ajmer to Mecca Masjid atrocity.
However, when the National Intelligence Agency discovered the fingerprints of Hindutva outfits and worthies like Swami Aseemanand, Col Purohit, Pragya Thakur and other RSS functionaries in all these cases, the news was greeted with deafening silence.
Despite all the arrests by the NIA and interesting revelations made by Swami Aseemanand, insisting he had the blessings of the chief of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, the ideological parent of Modi’s BJP, little seems to have changed. Muslims remain the usual suspects and are the first to be picked up as soon as there is trouble or something noisy goes off somewhere.
So is it simply a matter of media perception or does the world really believe we are as bad as it seems to? Even the most informed and educated minds do not seem to be free from the most common and often bizarre fallacies about Muslims. Look at the case of my friend Vijaya Rajiva. Some time back, revisiting a familiar theme I had noted, not for the first time, that Islam’s humane teachings are increasingly being distorted and misrepresented by its own followers. I had suggested that if the world today has such hopeless view of the faith, we Muslims are largely to blame.
Responding to the piece, Vijaya wrote: “I have nothing against Muslims, especially Indian Muslims who are basically converts from one of the indigenous religions. My quarrel is with Islam itself. Its history has been one of war and violence. The conquest of southern Europe, the other countries of the Middle East, Iran, Iraq and later Afghanistan, the Muslim conquest of Sind in the 8th century CE (have all been the result of Islam’s war). Well, I’m sure you know your history! To give an example, Mohamed of Ghazni did come and plunder and loot India but that was only one of his aims.
“The other (aim) was conversion of the infidels, at the point of the sword. Those who did not convert were summarily killed. Nadir Shah standing on the ramparts (of Delhi) watching the inhabitants of the city being put to death because they were infidels is a well-known fact. The entire history of Muslim conquests is well known. Hundreds of temples were destroyed, sacred books burned and thousands were killed or converted. I would be interested in knowing when exactly Islam morphed into a ‘peaceful’ religion!” Then Vijaya went on to say: “Intellectually, I find it insulting that there is only one God, and one Prophet (or with the Christians, one son of God). I much prefer the truth that the divine principle is a Mystery and each of us has access to it, without mediation. (There is) not just the One Way!”
Well, I wish I could reproduce the letter in its fascinating entirety. Frankly, Vijaya’s vehement response and her views about Muslims came as a revelation. Besides, more than a friend and fellow Indian, she also claims to be a supporter of the Palestinian cause, frequently writing on the Palestinian dispossession and their struggle. Be that as it may, one could write a whole book in response to Vijaya’s critique. There’s nothing new here steeped as her observations and accusations are in ignorance and lies and prejudices peddled by European crusaders dressed as historians and scholars for a thousand years now. I respect Vijaya but this liberal mixing of historical facts and fiction does no justice to her credentials as a scholar. Mahmoud of Ghazni, who she calls Mohamed of Ghazni, and numerous Muslim rulers who invaded or ruled India at one time or another, were not on a mission to convert the subcontinent to Islam. Most of them were merely soldiers of fortune like thousands of others who sought out India for its fabled riches.
Be it Mahmoud of Ghazni or Mohammed Ghouri, who invaded India a record 17 times, they could hardly be described as the most ideal Muslims neither did they represent Islam. Like all conquerors in history, they were merely ordinary men looking for power. They just happened to be Muslim, just like those European kings happened to be Christian or indigenous Indian rulers happened to be Hindu.
Just as Asoka the Great was not driven by any religious zeal when he painted the whole of Kalinga red, Muslim conquerors were not inspired by any noble religious agenda. They were equally ruthless in dealing with their fellow Muslims. What Babar did to Ibrahim Lodhi and what Sher Shah Suri did to Humayun is what emperors and kings routinely did to each other, and not just in India.
Nadir Shah of Iran, who Vijaya says watched from the ramparts of Delhi while the ‘infidels’ were killed, did not just kill Hindus. If this is any consolation, almost all of those killed in Delhi at the time were Muslim subjects of the reigning king Mohammed Shah.
If Muslim rulers fought and killed Hindu kings and their subjects, they killed fellow Muslim rulers and their subjects with equal impunity. Aurangzeb fought bloodiest of battles against his own brothers, just as many Indian and European kings did.
It was all for power and religion had nothing to do with any of these antics. If these men had indeed been real representatives of Islam and its teachings, their subjects would have pleaded with them to stay and rule them, as the persecuted Jews did when Caliph Omar visited Jerusalem or as the oppressed people of Spain did when Tariq bin Zeyad arrived famously burning all his ships.
As for the charge of forced conversions, there’s a simple answer: If Islam had indeed been forced on India at the point of a sword, don’t you think the whole country would and should have been Muslim today? After all, Muslims ruled the whole of subcontinent for nearly a thousand years, enough time for a proselytizing project you would think. But we are still a minority in the country of a billion, aren’t we?
That said, I understand if even well-read friends and academics like Vijaya demonstrate such incredible ignorance about Islam and Muslims. Frankly, Muslims have done little to address the issue. We remain our own worst enemies doing little to present the true face of our faith and its universal message before the world. We’re endlessly busy building monuments to vanity while mountains of misconceptions and ignorance about us grow taller and taller. Is it any wonder then the world can barely tolerate us?
Aijaz Zaka Syed is a Gulf-based writer.