Lacking powerful leaders and worldly-wise elders, today's young Muslims have had to teach selves secularism, political savvy
The 1980s-born Muslims, like me, had seen their childhood go through the trauma of the Babri Masjid demolition and subsequent riots. They grew up with fear, care, and patience
As the young hesitant generation of the 1980s, we rarely spoke with non-Muslims on heated issues
Then began the revolution of social media in 2006, and the young Muslim generation got on the train without waiting for a signal
The young generation had more opportunities and space to interact with non-Muslim society and its interaction with non-Muslims is beyond the rhetoric of Hindu-Muslim unity
Agitating Muslim youths are asserting their voices without fear because they are the New Muslims of India who are ready to assume bigger roles, to participate in mainstream processes and want to be heard
I am not an angry young Muslim, but there is an entirely new generation I see that is angrier than me.
The 1980s-born Muslims, like me, had seen their childhood go through the trauma of the Babri Masjid demolition and subsequent riots. They grew up with fear, care, and patience. We learned how to remain quiet, not be reactive and look to our elders before we wanted to act. We saw our families blindly trusting leaders like Azam Khan in Uttar Pradesh. Our best source of entertainment was to watch, en masse indeed, Ramayana, Mahabharat, Akbar the Great and The Sword of Tipu Sultan.
Only a few families had a television set in my locality and only two of those were open to the children of those who did not have TVs. In our socio-religious affairs, we waited for the Muslim Personal Law Board, Nadwatul Ulama, Darul Uloom Deoband, Jamia Ashrafiya etc. to act on our behalf. We saw our parents and elders anxiously waiting for the next day's Urdu newspapers to see our leaders' statements on the Babri Masjid demolition, the Gujarat riots, the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq etc. We saw our elders hiding their pain and complaints behind a happy "Hindu Muslim Bhaichara" slogan because they were afraid of the backlash.
The new young generation was growing up in the time of a full-blown IT revolution. It was only changing the models of gadgets, not struggling to adapt the technology itself as we had to do. They started accessing information in real time, as the boom of news channels, cyber cafés, easily available internet connections and live TV broadcasts trained them for the national and international public sphere. There is nothing local in this young generation. They might be living in remote peripheries, but they are very much part of an imagined centre created by technology.
As the young hesitant generation of the 1980s, we rarely spoke with non-Muslims on heated issues. The young generation found itself facing highly ambitious, hardworking young non-Muslims. They were deeply inspired by them and wanted to learn and work together. The stories of Hindu-Muslim youths living in the IT hubs of Noida, Gurgaon, Hyderabad, Bengaluru or elsewhere are very inspiring. They are successful in creating new terms for their social life. The Sachar Committee report was even criticised by some of them as they found it discouraging and showing them in poor light.
Then began the revolution of social media in 2006, and the young Muslim generation got on the train without waiting for a signal. The old generation was unaware or in denial of social media, or skeptical of its use at the very least. The young generation wasn't. It was excited and adventurous in using the new mode of expression. Here, the gap between three Muslim generations of India can be seen growing wider without much hope of being bridged by a healing hand.
The communication deficit
The Muslim leaders, mostly in their 60s, 70s and 80s, have no experience of providing leadership in real time when young Muslims access information about happenings in real time. The non-Muslim leadership was much better in upgrading its communication with its following. The Art of Living, Baba Ramdev and all major non-political, religious leaders of Hindu society realised the need to communicate through the new powerful medium, which was becoming a new message in itself. Even today, most of the Muslim leadership has no connection with this medium and stays in denial about the game-changing capability of the new medium.
The new Muslim generation does not find the much talked-about Muslim leadership there. It finds the BJP's social media machine, known as its IT cell, spewing hatred against it, demonising it and degrading its equal citizenship status on a daily basis. Elsewhere members of this young generation find the Kanhaiya Kumars, Umar Khalids, Shehla Rashids and media personalities such as Ravish Kumar weighing in on the Great Indian Debate. Nowhere have they found Muslim leadership speaking and offering something that could have stopped the IT cell demonisation.
In fact, Urdu itself was a latecomer on the internet as it failed to hitch a ride on the IT revolution on time. Even today, Urdu newspapers are struggling to make their publications online in the most easily accessible format. The Urdu multimedia in India is a failed story. The Urdu that produced the most wonderful poetry for common men, the popular film stories and dialogues, failed to register its presence on digital media. The limited presence of Urdu on the internet became a blessing in disguise that helped young Muslims — educated in Hindi, English or regional languages — see the world beyond Urdu's nostalgic and past-facing world view. The young generation's relationship with its country and society is being shaped by an increasingly noisy media, where it has more opportunities to speak and engage in a two-way debate — something that was not much available to previous generations.
Empowered and engaged
The young generation had more opportunities and space to interact with non-Muslim society and its interaction with non-Muslims is beyond the rhetoric of Hindu-Muslim unity. This generation talks with non-Muslims with great confidence on a variety of issues, not limited to contentious issues. The old generation didn't have that many opportunities or space to engage with non-Muslims in a significant way.
Muslims of today are angry with their community leaders for not offering any solution, and worse, because they have no understanding of their problems at all. The disconnect between them and the Muslim leadership is one of the causes of rising discontent. The traditional Muslim leadership failed by not trusting the young generation. They don't assign them leadership roles, they don't welcome their voices in Muslim leadership forums. The Muslim Personal Law Board has not seen any change in its faces for many decades.
Both religious leaders such as the Jamiat al Ulema, the Jamat Islami, the Ahl-e-Hadith, or non-cleric leaders such as Azam Khan, Asaduddin Owaisi or others have effectively maintained control of their families in key positions. The Muslim leaders of the Congress have rarely opened their doors for the young Muslim generation. Owaisi could have been the best hope, but he too is preoccupied by the "family politics" syndrome. You will find the young Muslim generation having lost hope in affiliating with mainstream political parties or religious groups and wanting to act independent of affiliations and orientations to society.
Unapologetic secular Muslim
Agitating Muslim youths are asserting their voices without fear because they are the New Muslims of India who are ready to assume bigger roles, to participate in mainstream processes and want to be heard. They are non-ideological but passionate, non-political but politically sensitive, secular but unafraid of aggressions on their identity as a Muslim. They are secular by training and by choice, not by political compulsions that have propped up only an apologetic Muslim leadership within the secular ranks.
Apologetic secular Muslims shy from speaking on Muslim issues, from defending Muslim identity, from criticising Muslim clerics. The young Muslims are unapologetic, simultaneously secular in public affairs, critical of the Muslim Personal Law Board's reckless approach to Muslim women, madrassa education and modernisation. Proving that an unapologetic Muslim identity is not an antithesis of secular identity is yet to happen, but you can see them asserting to get themselves recognised and respected for all aspects of their identities — as a Muslim, an Indian, a gender, a local, a generation and a language.
Movements such as Pasmanda have taken these aspirations further to the level of multiplicity of identities within Muslim societies. In Delhi, Saudi Arabia, Oman or elsewhere, you can see a Keralite Muslim asserts her/himself first as Keralite making her/his bonds with Malayalis, and secondary to it, s/he finds oneself a Muslim. To them, the multiple identities of an Indian Muslims are as normal as the multiple identities of an Indian Hindu or Indian Sikh.
This young Muslim generation is a new opportunity for both Muslim and non-Muslim leadership, for the country and society alike. Let them speak and let them be heard, let them be part of the national public sphere without pushing them to religious, secular, regional or ideological ghettos.
The author is a PhD from Jawaharlal Nehru University. He tweets @omairanas
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