By Nilofar Suhrawardy, Muslim Media News Service (MMNS)
NEW DELHIâ€”The two-day conference on â€œTerrorism,â€ called last week (August 20-21) by Jamiat Ulema-e-Hind proved to be an effective forum to convey several viewpoints regarding Indian Muslims.
Without doubt, the declaration adopted during the conference conveyed that the primary purpose of the roughly 150 ulema gathered from across the country was to defeat the stereotyped images which conflate Islam with terrorism. Describing terrorism as â€œcompletely un-Islamic,â€ the conferenceâ€™s final declaration condemned â€œall forms of terror.â€ It also called on the government not to blame the entire community even if a few elements are found to be â€œwrong.â€ In addition, through the declaration, the clerics said they expected the governmentâ€™s security agencies to be fair and even-handed while investigating terror cases.
This is not the first time Indian ulema addressed issues related to terrorism and bias, but what is noteworthy is that the conference provided a united front of Indian Muslim clerics to convey their viewpoint to the Indian government. Against the backdrop of Indian Muslims emerging as a strong political force, the conference conveyed the message that the government should not expect them to remain mute spectators to stereotyped images and abuses linked to them, Islam and terrorism.
The very fact that several members of the government, including Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, also participated in the conference suggested that this message was not missed by the government. During his address, Singh said: â€œIt is sad if some people are now equating terror with Islam. This is just a third-rate attempt to provoke Muslims and the conspiracy must be resisted.â€ He also called on Muslim leadership to â€œleadâ€ and help the government fight those who are â€œtrying to mislead and provoke some Muslim youth at this point, and show them the right track.â€ Calling on Muslim clerics to pay greater importance to the progress of women, Singh said: â€œThe government could help by opening schools but it is for the communityâ€™s leadership to make sure Muslim girls attend school and go on to claim their place as equals.â€
What is noteworthy is that the ulema used the forum to share their grievances with the government regarding the bias displayed against Indian Muslims. The premier said that he shared Muslimsâ€™ â€œpain and anguishâ€ on being victimized and accused of abetting terrorism. He assured the ulema that if wrongs had been done they would be corrected. Referring specifically to the Mumbai-blasts, Singh said that he had talked to Maharashtraâ€™s chief minister to ensure that Muslims were not harassed by the police.
The ministers who participated in the conference included Home Minister Shivraj Patil and Human Resources Development (HRD) Minister Arjun Singh. Assuring the ulema that Muslims would not be harassed during investigations into terrorist attacks, Patil said: â€œWe do not accept that only one community is responsible, there are wrong-doers in every community.â€ When confronted with questions regarding harassment of Muslim youths by police, Patil said that he would act immediately if concrete cases with proof were furnished. Dismissing the â€œClash of Civilizationsâ€ theory, Patil said: â€œIndia had always believed in alliance, harmony and unity of civilizations.â€
HRD Minister Singh was confronted by a question on whether the center intends to make signing of Vande Mataram compulsory in all educational institutions. Muslims are known to be opposed to the song because of its religious connotation and because its writer Bankimchandra Chatterjee was known to be anti-Muslim. The song is in his novel Anand Math, published in 1882. While Singh acknowledged that this song is viewed with a patriotic fervor by a considerable section of Indians, he asserted that there can be no compulsion on singing it. On whether one could be branded as unpatriotic for not singing it, he said: â€œThose who are making such suggestions are also those who wanted to issue a white paper on madarsas. The country is not with them.â€
Among the clerics, giving examples of investigations being conducted regarding the Mumbai blasts, the majority voiced concern about the ease with which security agencies presume accused Muslims to be guilty. In addition, Maulana Abdul Wahab Khilji of Jamiat-e-Ahle-Hadis displayed concern about continuous usage of the term â€œIslamic terror.â€
Maulana Arshad Madani of Jamiat Ulema-e-Hind said that cases/incidents involving non-Muslims hardly draw attention but whenever â€œa Muslim name comes up, the approach automatically hardens.â€ Their concern is supported by hundreds of young Muslims having been detained following the Mumbai attacks. In this context, the Muslim clerics have undeniably taken the right step forward by drawing governmentâ€™s attention to their concern against such discriminatory approach. At the conference, ministers, including the premier, definitely assured clerics of their approach against such discrimination/bias. It remains to be seen whether these assurances are merely rhetoric or real support for fair treatment.