When I was a kid, I used to travel to Hyderabad every summer vacation. One of those times, my mother and I shared the cubicle with three Muslim men. Sometime during the journey, they ended their conversation, spread napkins on the floor, turned east, knelt and offered prayers. I remember my mother telling me “Look at them – it doesn’t matter where they are or what they are doing. When the time comes for them to pray, they always will. How many of us (Hindus) are so devoted?”
Most of my student life – I gave little or no thought to religion. Part of it was spending 14 years in a very homogenous, middle class Tambrahm school. I can remember only one Muslim student and one Christian student. There may have been more, but that’s pretty indicative. And in college, there certainly was greater diversity, but religious diversity was lost in the bewildering array of “others” – Chomes. Bongs. Punjus. Kashmiris. Gults. Mallus. Gujjus. Surds.
Even afterwards, I never really thought of terrorism. Violence in Kashmir would be reported, read and forgotten. The Iran Iraq war was – like all wars – about territory and geopolitics. The first Gulf War? Securing America’s oil pipeline.
Then came Ayodhya. And then Dawood and the Bombay blasts. Then the Coimbatore blasts. Then the attack on Red Fort. All these were the result of the mosque demolition – we’d further alienated a marginalized group. And they were retaliating against an unfeeling majority. If the government claimed that it was the vile foreign hand of Pakistan that was rending apart the cloistral peace of our beloved secular nation, that’s what governments did – and what could you expect from an especially kakistocratic example that representatives made of themselves?
As I saw the planes crash into the WTC on 9/11, a part of me felt a grim satisfaction. “Now you know what it is like for the rest of the world,” I thought to myself. And I consumed the news that came out of the US from every source I could find online. I read about the PNAC and learnt about Neocons and Leo Strauss, of Wolfowitz and Richard Perle and David Frum. I thought the fight against the Taliban was justified and the war in Iraq was a BAD idea.
In the years that followed, the BJP and lost elections. Manmohan Singh demonstrated that it was PV Narasimha Rao who was truly the architect of reforms in India and Nira Radia showed how rotten the establishment was. And “Muslim radicalization” became a popular shorthand for everything from Moqtada Al Sadr to Ayman Al Zawahiri.
Which brings me to the point of what I’m trying to get out of my system. What does Islamophobia mean to me? What is Muslim radicalization? Is there something in the Quran and the way that it is interpreted – as some of my friends maintain – that is deeply inimical to the idea of pluralism in civilization?