'Islamophobia' Phobia: Politics of offence and the death sentence for debate culture in JNU
Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU), which is known to be a contestatory space, such that even the subdued walls of the SSS canteen soaked in the sticking glue of the parcha-poster culture, seem to be shouting up at the smug building windows, engaged in endless debate.
In a space where political debate is an essential condiment to the afternoon snacks and tea at the Ganga dhaba, critical questioning and logical debate is getting subjected to the big O — the politics of offence.
Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU), which is known to be a contestatory space, such that even the subdued walls of the SSS canteen soaked in the sticking glue of the parcha-poster culture, seem to be shouting up at the smug building windows, engaged in endless debate. The most quiet corners and neglected pathways of the JNU campus mark the history and culture of protest.
But beware, the thought police of 'true belief' is upon us. Pathologisation of rationalist views as 'Islamophobic', belongs to the long tradition of taxonomising rationalists by turning critical thought into an allegation. While the progressive and the Left community has always claimed to put up a fight against right-wing violence and in this project appropriated the icons of rationalists like Narendra Dabholkar, Govind Pansare and M M Kalburgi, it has deliberately refrained from taking a principled political position on the rationalist critique of religion and systematically upheld Islam apologia as its strategy to counter the Hindu right-wing.
The rechristening of dissenters, rationalists and free-thinkers belongs to the historical tradition of pathologising those with contrarian views. The women non-adherents of patriarchal norms were dubbed 'witches'. The rationalist non-adherents of faith were dubbed 'blasphemers', and the non-conformists to the social strictures were dubbed 'mad'. Now the regime of offence in JNU has begun the task of taxonomising rationalists with the power vested in them by the Left political ally.
JNU student politics is witnessing an alarming rise in the politics of identity, where all protest spaces, modes of organising and articulation is reduced to the person's immediate identity. Alliances, solidarities and assertions on the basis of a politics of identity are self-referential and inward-looking, intolerant to 'outsider's' criticism or questioning. The Left parties have helped to maintain the status quo by deliberate and strategic silences on the issue of 'Islamophobia' and 'Islamic feminism'.
This is reflected in the recent incident where an AISA cadre Aman Sinha was disowned by the organisation for criticising the idea of "Islamic feminism". The disowned activist, a student at the Centre for Historical Studies (CHS), "caused offence" to some truer believers of history by questioning a historical figure in Islam, and AISA in all contradiction to the Left's history of speaking blasphemy to power, acquiesced. Instead of clarifying the organisational position and differences with their activist's position, it sought to appease offended souls by severing ties with the culture of rational debate.
To begin with, one needs to deconstruct the term 'Islamophobia' — it is the phobia or irrational fear and aversion towards Islam. This term is misleading and conflationary, as it pigeonholes all critique of Islam as a 'phobia' or bigotry towards Muslims. In the Indian context, since Muslims are a religious minority they should be viewed as a social group too. Islam is a religion and Muslims are the members of that socio-religious group, who all have different beliefs, interpretations of the book and relationship with the faith. Multiple interpretations by various denominations and sects, deflates the notion of the monolith of Islam.
The fears and aversion of the rationalists are not irrational phobias, but justified responses in a political context where 'insensitivity to feelings of hurt and offence' have gone on to become a trademark allegation to silence their voices and accuse them of 'hate-speech'. Feeling offended and subsequent silencing of voices of critique of religion to protect the offended feelings, is the sign of a bigoted mind and weak logic.
It is important to note that opponents of Islam can also be atheists and rationalists who could be members or non-members of a social group called Muslims. The attack on minorities through right-wing projects such as ghar wapsi, anti 'love jihad' violence, cow vigilantism, are to be viewed as an attack on the Muslims, not Islam. It is not the Muslim citizen's right to religion, but their democratic right to equal choice of food, love and freedom to loiter instead of wapsi, which is at stake. And which is to be protected most zealously.
Coming back to the context of JNU, very few arguments that advocate a deconstruction of the term 'Islamophobia' have come up in popular debates. Let's revisit some of the most important allegations made in this article JNU: Left wing Students Shouldn't Act Superior, Islamophobia Is Running Rampant Among Them'.
To begin with, the authors have operated from the false binary of Muslim believers and non-Muslim "Islamophobes". In laying the blame of the disappearance of Najeeb on the campus Left, they otherise the campus Left as if they did not constitute Muslim members. Or that the Muslim members of the Left organisations in JNU were somehow lesser qualified to represent oppressions of Muslims and their views were less authentic. The authors' assumption that the rationalists who question Islamic feminism are all non-Muslim "Islamophobes" or Muslim-less Left, is reflective of a deep seated prejudice that is characteristic of the Big O.
The hyperbole and spectre of "derogatory word" logic used by the authors misses certain very crucial facts. The authors use the instance of Shehla Rashid's Facebook post which had made a point about 'hate speech', as an example of Left activist's usage of 'derogatory word' for Prophet Mohammad. What they fail to conveniently omit is the word was from a quoted text, which also contained another example about the Hindu god Ram. Why are such references justified in the case of 'other' religions, but unacceptable and intolerable for one's 'own' religion? Any act of questioning Islamic history and historical figures, is just as much anti-Muslim as questioning the veracity of the claims of a Ram Mandir or Ram Setu are anti-Hindu. To question one, and not question the other is bigotry and chauvinism.
While this "offence" had led to FIR threats and massive trolling culminating into a police complaint against the leader, AISA and the Left parties on campus maintained a deafening silence on the Muslim AMU right-wing or the musanghis, in keeping with its principled politics of appeasement. The fundamental reduction of all Muslims to their immediate identity does supreme injustice to the voices of the minorities from within. Neither do all believers of Islamic faith have a uniform interpretation of Quran, nor are all Muslims, believers of the faith. Muslims, like other social minorities in the country have denominational, gendered and caste-based internal minorities. Additionally, there are ideological minorities of ex-Muslims, atheists, apostates, rationalists and anti-Islam feminists who face the threat of legal and social penalties and persecution, apart from routine oppression, injustices and a general sense of alienation and marginalisation.
Ayaan Hirsi Ali, a Somali-born activist who became an atheist after renouncing Islam, faces routine threats for being vocal in her anti-Islamic views. Ali faced the oppressive practice of genital mutilation at the age of five and had to flee in order to escape a forced marriage and the subsequent backlash of honour killing. She regularly expresses herself against the dangers of not just radical Islam, but "regular Islam" and has asserted against the "backward" nature of the religion. The consequences and costs of resistance have been manifold. A video campaign targeting Ayaan Hirsi Ali titled 'You Are Not Our Ally' was recently launched on the internet where prominent Muslim women, writers, activists and others from Australia projected her as a right-wing white supremacist. The de-legitimisation of rationalist voices, that exists in JNU context too, plays into a subtle and hidden apologia for misogynistic attacks on female rationalists.
The complainants who report sexual harassment against men of 'progressive' lineages and links find popular support and solidarity in JNU politics. But the consequent development of a feminist politics independent of the Left, has been time and again been characterised as 'bourgeois', 'elite', 'urban' and even written off as a right-wing conspiracy. And when the independent and rationalist feminists face religious bigotry and chauvinism by distributers and wholesale vendors of religion through choicest brandings, the Left blames them, instead, for acting insensitive. Why do the Left-liberals not uphold rationalist arguments when women are labelled as 'Islamophobic' and 'bourgeois' for critiquing Islam?
It has become a left catchphrase to call rational thought and ideas as "elitist" and "insensitive". Faisal Saeed Al Mutar has attributed this regressive and reactionary character of the left politics to its "unholy alliance" with the Islamists. Mutar has called out the hypocrisy of the left liberals who uphold the universal rights of women and homosexuals yet side with the Islamists, pleading religious sensitivity, and supporting Islamic practices from a cultural relativism lens. He attributes the vindication of backward and regressive practices in Islam to the fear of Islamophobia or "Islamophobia" phobia, not a concern for human rights. The pre-emptive "Islamophobia" phobia leaves the space of criticism open only for the "crazy far right" while demolishing any right to the critical interpretation by rationalists.
The right to logical interpretation of faith, is not the sole prerogative of believers, or a monopoly of the few believer-jurist men, but the equal democratic right of every rationalist, atheist and free thinker. Notwithstanding whether the question is of personal or political rights, or whether the question is with regard to central tenets or debatable tenets of Islam; No question of faith is personal and every personal question of faith is political.
The unqualified right to interpret is critical for specially women and feminists as they are the ones suffering systematic denial of their constitutionally guaranteed rights and freedoms.
Whether it be restriction of entry, debarring of activities by interpreters and owners of faith or violence of oppressive practices upheld and propounded by institutions of faith. Nahid Afrin, a 16-year-old Muslim singer from Assam, faced a pamphlet campaign by 46 Muslim clerics who believed that singing was anti-Sharia and would "definitely anger Allah". Despite facing severe social pressure to give up singing, she fought back and asserted her democratic right and freedom to sing. Afreen found support in Taslima Nasreen who tweeted, "After getting fatwa from 46 mullahs in Assam, 16 yrs old Nahid Afrin said she'll never bow down and will never leave singing. Bravo girl!"
While Nasreen is openly anti-Islam, not all women and girls can afford to pay the price of speaking up. So, as easy as it may seem, to call a fatwa "non-mandatory", unless any such order or interpretation as contained in a fatwa doesn't mandatorily uphold the equal rights of girls like Afrin to interpret her faith, it is unjust and unconstitutional. Just like the Khap panchayat is, for telling women what to wear and eat. The right to interpretation of both, essential and non-essential features of faith is a rationalist right, on which scholars, systematic purveyors of faith and standard believers cannot impose restrictions or qualifiers.
Whether it be the recent incident of Aman Sinha or that of the several other left-liberal and free-thinking students and faculty of JNU who think critically, the offended souls, their kindred spirits and the respected authors who distribute certificates of "Islamophobia", cannot impose restrictions on their freedoms to express and interpret. There is no such right that constitution grants to the believer. While belief is democratic and open to harshest critiques, caricatures and mockery, it is dogma stems from a self-righteous claim to incontrovertible truth.
Since critical scrutiny is a very fundamental basis of rationalism, all dominant narratives of history are open to rational inquiry and criticism. No matter how fundamental any principle of belief in Islam, it is open to scientific inquiry and counter-claims. PN Oak's proposition in, "Some Missing Chapters of World History", that Christianity and Islam are both derivatives of Hinduism, and that the Catholic Vatican, Kaaba and the Taj Mahal were once Hindu temples to Shiva, is not beyond critical scrutiny, questioning and counter-propositions.
In fact, as students, activists and social scientists, there is every need to question faith based practices like honour killings, denial of girls education, denying women the right to leave their homes without permission from a male relative, performing marriages on girls as young as age 9, the continued practice of female genital mutilation for "purity," and the stoning of homosexuals, which are often attributed to believer, instead of the faith.
And while those with differences have the right to debate, they cannot assume the moral high-ground of a jury. Debate culture is not a Roman inquisition, where rationalists can be accused and branded for heresy, but a Socratic dialogue where individuals are dedicated to the cause of debunking presumptions, not protecting offence.
Abhiruchi Ranjan is a PhD research scholar at the Centre for Political Studies, JNU and Chitra Adkar is a research scholar at the Centre for the Study of Social Systems, JNU
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