Since 10 September, several “events” have been created on Facebook with the name “Shout Allahu Akbar on [insert name of place/road]” in various cities in India. Two such events seem to have already taken place in Panipat and Godhra on 15 and 16 September respectively. On Sunday, 17 September 2017, Marine Drive in Mumbai was going be the site for this “event”. As of 11 pm on the preceding night, 608 people had said they were “going” for this event and 3,200 said they were “interested”. In terms of numbers and activity on the page, the Mumbai event seemed to be the largest of its kind (although it was later cancelled) and it is this “expression of interest” that presents a problem.
The phenomenon of public gatherings coupled with sloganeering, chanting, and rallying is an old one and continues to characterise several civil and political protests across the world. It has allowed for people across social spectra to come together for causes of social relevance and has given a voice (literally and otherwise) to underrepresented issues. The new form of “shouting” or sloganeering in public places deriving from memes, as in the case of these Facebook events, however, is a relatively new and somewhat undertheorised phenomenon. It is my intention to delve into some basic questions that this poses.
But before that, let us not forget another “shouting” event that has been in the news for all the wrong reasons. On 11 September, through a Facebook event, about 500 people got together at Connaught Place in Delhi to sing “Bol Na Aunty Aaoon Kya”, a sexist and misogynist cringe-pop song by Omprakash Mishra. A subsequent event was planned at Marine Drive, Mumbai for which around 4,000 people expressed interest. The event, however, was cancelled and the YouTube video of the original song was taken down after a copyright infringement was reported and several users reported the video as abusive content. Among the several critiques of the song that have emerged since, a video by the Quint calling out the overt misogyny received a lot of hate on social media. Omprakash Mishra, with his newfound fame, urged the followers on his personal Facebook page to “Report Quint Neon”. Death and rape threats were also made by his fans against the reporter who wrote the post, prompting Quint to seek police protection for her and their office. Quint also took down the video from their website. Phrases like “good humour” and “to elicit a few laughs” were used by the managers of the pages which hosted these events to justify their stance on the issue. Despite these events, several Facebook events based on the song continued to be listed for other placed like Goa, Nasik, Jorhat, Jaipur, and Bhopal. A detailed account of the whole episode maybe read here, though the song is seriously not worth one’s peace of mind.
Coming back to the question of shouting Allahu Akbar, I want to start by highlighting two key issues.
First, Allahu Akbar literally means God is [the] Greatest. In an ideal scenario, chanting the phrase clearly is a matter of one’s faith and personal religious belief. However, in the post 9/11 world, a Google search for the phrase first throws up news results of terrorism and persecution of Muslims across the world.
YouTube will lead one to prank videos where a stereotypically “Muslim-looking” man chants Allahu Akbar and throws a black bag towards unassuming people in public places. The act results in panic and the “attacked” people sprint to “safety”. On Quora, an entire thread is devoted to Allahu Akbar with a majority of people asking what would happen if one were to shout Allahu Akbar in X, Y, or Z places. Almost all answers caution against doing so in public places, especially in the West, indicating a deep-rooted bias against Muslims and the wrongly associated fear of being mistaken for terrorists. There are also questions seeking answers on the meaning and origins of the phrase, but these are few and far between. In each of these online spaces, in one way or another, the existence of “good Muslims” is always reiterated.
Second, I do believe that public space and freedom of expression must not be policed. The Indian Constitution guarantees the Right to Freedom under Article 19 and under it the Right to Freedom of Speech and Expression 19 (1) (a) and the Right to Assemble Peaceably and Without Arms 19 (1) (b). It also guarantees the Right to Equality under Article 15. This includes Prohibition of discrimination on grounds of religion, race, caste, sex or place of birth, as also the provision that “No citizen shall, on grounds only of ... be subject to any disability, liability, restriction or condition with regard to — (a) access to shops, public restaurants, hotels and places of public entertainment; or (b) the use of wells, tanks, bathing ghats, roads and places of public resort maintained wholly or partly out of State funds or dedicated to the use of the general public.” Article 25 grants the freedom of practice and propagation of religion.
So then, are we missing a political statement in these Facebook events?
The increasing policing of freedom of speech and expression in public and online spaces by both the state and reactionary groups has prompted a variety of responses from the youth in India. Several groups have taken to the streets to demand freedom of speech and expression and to “take-back” public spaces. Many of these protests have been catalysed by feminist thought. At the same time, some YouTube videos channels (by groups like AIB, most popularly), have taken on the task of demystifying hitherto “academic” conversations around exploitation, censorship, and discrimination based on gender, caste, and religion for the lay person. The large scale participation of people on the streets and the high reach of these videos has to some degree also been a function of social media which has connected people across many social boundaries. At the same time, in the wake of this new space for expression, the number of internet trolls, stalkers, and threat makers has also risen proportionately. The anonymity offered by the internet and the condoning of such acts by the government have played a role in this phenomenon.
In such a time and age, meeting at a public place such as Marine Drive, to shout a phrase which has come to be associated with Islamist terror attacks, while a government espousing Hindutva rules the state and the centre, seems nothing short of a subversive act. It seems political. It seems to be a challenge to the hegemonic right-wing discourse.
Perhaps not. What is the shouting claiming to achieve? Is it a consciousness raising activity? While the act of claiming the public space seems simple enough, it is the intention that is doubtful and unclear. This may seem to be a premature conclusion, but you need to only ask: Who are the organisers of these events? Who are the participants? What is being discussed?
If one looks at all the Facebook event pages under this category, with the exception of Bengaluru, all the pages are managed by meme or comic groups. The group pages too are a great window into their “politics”. As expected, sexism and nationalistic fervour abound in the garb of jokes.
The event certainly mocks the blind association of the phrase Allahu Akbar with terrorism. The discussion and comments on the other hand invariably draw parallels with “Bol Na Aunty Aaoon Kya” and are rife with “comic” references to suicide bombers, bomb blasts, and rebuilding the Ram Mandir. “It is going to be super lit,” says the Facebook event page Shouting Allahu Akbar on Marine Drive, with small fire emojis superimposed on a photograph of the location as the cover image. Other event pages seem to have thrown caution to the wind with cover photographs showing bomb-blasts, explosions, and arson.
The celebratory tone of the Mumbai event page was hard to miss especially with people tagging and inviting others on their list to join the party. The assumption seems to be that occupying a public place to chant a controversial verse (no matter how harmless in meaning) constitutes a daring act. Whether this apparent acceptance of religions actually percolates into actions in real life is not a concern. The fact that the “Bol Na Aunty” song endorses rape, sexism, and misogyny is not a concern. The fact that the aftermath of the Babri Masjid-Ram Mandir issue was communal riots is not a concern. If the discussion page of this event is not reflective of its politics, then what is? If the page as a site of organising people towards a cause lapses into sexism, intolerance, and insensitivity to the socio-political context, how can any consciousness raising take place?
It is certainly possible that many of those who are interested or will be in attendance at these events will be progressive individuals with a critical outlook towards social issues. Is that enough? Is it enough to merely attend this event and not shape it? Is it okay to overlook the problematic aspects as a by-product of diversity? Is it not necessary to ask why we must shout before we do? A recent post on Feminism in India said this about the progressive contribution to the “Bol Na Aunty” phenomenon and this seems to hold true of the “Allahu Akbar” events as well.
"We are happy in our ability to propagate misogyny, without taking ownership. We are happy to laugh at the expense of others, even as it is a consciously constructed performance. We are separated from the production cycle and yet remain transmitters of patriarchal knowledge."
The "Allahu Akbar" event in Mumbai was cancelled after the organisers failed to receive permission from the Mumbai Police. This brings up a question about the relationship of the event with the state's machinery to maintain public order. If there are permissions sought to organise this event, does the event then remain subversive at all? After the cancellation of the event, the page admin created a sub group called Secret Allah Society for updates and discussion. It remains a mystery though whether any Muslims would have “attended” this event at all.
It is apparent that thousands of us are happy to bask in our privileges and be “interested” in the event, so long as the “progressive” label remains attached to us. Being present or just being “interested” on Facebook is our social and cultural currency. Irrespective of the decision of the police, the internet has made sure that at least online, people have already “participated” in the event. Do we pause to ask ourselves whether the ordinary Muslim can chant Allahu Akbar without fear of persecution? The idea that 3,000 such privileged people are interested in speaking for and with their Muslims brethren to “get lit” reeks of cultural appropriation at several levels.
The search for “shouting” pages led me to one called “Shouting 'Simon Go Back' in front of the UK High Commission” scheduled for 2 October, the birth-anniversary of Mahatma Gandhi. Before you think something is up with the relations between the two countries, there isn’t. As with the other Facebook pages, this is also hosted by a meme page and already 374 people are “going” and 2,800 are “interested”. In the absence of another logical explanation, I venture to ask: “Are we heading towards a meme-fication of our everyday life and collective histories?”
At least two major universities in the world now offer study programmes in Meme Studies. We might want to take a page from that book and take a closer look at the humorous and fast spreading phenomenon that is the internet meme and what it might mean for our cultural and political practice. Moreover, if Facebook events are intended to be a call to action to subvert authority and reclaim public space, their discourse must first not fall short of the very basic benchmarks of organising people that have been set by social movements in India.
Your guide to the latest election news, analysis, commentary, live updates and schedule for Lok Sabha Elections 2019 on firstpost.com/elections. Follow us on Twitter and Instagram or like our Facebook page for updates from all 543 constituencies for the upcoming general elections.
Updated Date: Sep 23, 2017 16:31:50 IST