Sometime back in these columns I had argued that if Islam were to sue for libel, many of its followers would find themselves in the dock. No faith has suffered as much as it has at the hands of its own overzealous followers. Bernard Shaw got it about right when he suggested that Islam is the best religion and Muslims are the worst followers. No day passes without the fervent faithful putting the religion in unforgiving global glare with their actions.
If it is not some crackpot blowing himself up with fellow believers right when they are in the presence of their God, it’s some self-anointed defender of the faith declaring who in his expert opinion has stepped beyond the pale of Islam. Without troubling the Ultimate Judge, they even decide right here and right now who gets to go to hell.
Indeed, if it were up to them, they would dispatch everyone right away to damnation. All this of course is done with complete sincerity and conviction believing in the justness of their cause. The road to hell is indeed paved with good intentions.
Lucknow Muslims against Vishwaroopam movie.
From the wild heart of Asia to the unpredictable Middle East to the edge of untamed Africa, this willful distortion and misrepresentation of Islam and its teachings and spirit has not only lost its shock value for everyone, including the faithful, it’s acquiring increasingly absurd and frightening proportions.
And this is in no way inferior or less dangerous than the kind of Western wars and ideological crusade against Islam that we have lately seen, especially over the past decade or so. In fact, they appear to be aiding and abetting and providing the fig leaf of an excuse to each other.
So if Kamal Haasan’s Vishwaroopam unabashedly apes Hollywood and taps into the First world narrative of Islamophobia, painting all Muslims as crazed followers of Al-Qaeda and a threat to the world peace and civilized world, those threatening him with dire consequences for the movie wittingly or unwittingly end up justifying his message.
It must be said though that all protests against the movie in Tamil Nadu were totally peaceful. That didn’t however prevent the increasingly shrill Indian media from once again launching into a diatribe, screaming about a grave threat to free speech and the nation’s great democratic traditions. Excuse me but do not the same democratic traditions and the freedom of speech, include the right to protest peacefully and register one’s disagreement?
And it’s not Muslim groups but the TN government that prevented the film’s screening because of Chief Minister Jayalalitha’s own issues with Haasan. The movie has been running in the rest of India, including in several neighboring states without any incident. But those who have watched the film suggest that the outrage over the movie is justified. It’s an endless and predictable harangue against Islam and a paean to Uncle Sam’s global war.
I don’t believe Haasan is communal. One of the finest actors India has produced, the star is widely regarded for his sensitive portrayals in films that have enriched Indian cinema.
However, as Feroze Mithiborwala says in his brilliant Tehelka piece, the actor is being far from honest when he claims Vishwaroopam is his “tribute to Muslims” and that it would make them proud. The film actually reinforces communal stereotypes and justifies the empire and its hegemonic wars and occupation “in ways that even Hollywood would have felt ashamed of portraying.”
The message propagated all through, in Feroze’s words, is basically this: “One Good Muslim, All the Rest Bad Muslims.” The hero, a closet Muslim and a RAW agent, is a noble exception who saves the world while the rest of the Muslims are all committed to destruction and mayhem driven by their faith. Muslims are furiously praying while bombs go off all around them. The Quranic verses are recited in the background while machine guns are turned on defenseless women and children by the followers of a menacing, one-eyed Mullah Omar-type lunatic. There’s no mention whatsoever of what the Afghans have been through at the hands of their Western liberators.
That said though demanding a ban on such movies and books is no solution. It’s counterproductive and ends up earning them greater attention and hype as has been the case with numerous Hollywood and Bollywood flicks, Danish cartoons and Rushdie’s infamous book. And taking to the streets over every slight and slur–real or imagined–actually plays into the hands of the ever voracious, insensitive media and forces that can hardly be described as our friends or sympathizers.
In the past few weeks or so, not a single day has gone without the television pundits furiously debating about some Muslim issue or the other. If it’s not about the largely isolated demonstration against Vishwaroopam, it’s about some little-known outfit protesting against Rushdie’s visit to Calcutta. And then there was this absurd row over an all-girl rock band from Kashmir in the news with a fatwa promptly declaring it ‘un-Islamic.’
Not surprisingly, it’s not just the insufferable Arnab Goswami who had a field day; everyone else joined the fun, gravely speechifying about “our growing intolerance” and the creeping Taliban rule in Kashmir under Indian constitution. There was more bedlam when the nervous band of teenagers that calls itself, Pragaash (From Darkness to Light), clearly drawing on the Islamic imagery, decided to call it quits.
Frankly, I fail to see what the fuss is all about, especially when the young girls, in their early teens, observe hijab and have done nothing that violates Islamic traditions. Not only does Kashmir boast a hoary tradition of music and singing, especially by women, men and women sing and dance across the Arab and Muslim world on festive occasions and even otherwise. Women sang to encourage their men at the time of wars, including in those that were led by the Prophet, peace be upon him. He would make Hassan bin Sabit, the legendary poet, recite poetry right in Masjide Nabavi, the Prophet’s mosque.
So why are we constantly chasing chimeras and tilting at the windmills? Why do we for goodness sake see a threat to Islam everywhere? Is our faith so fragile and feeble that it cannot withstand a minor idle pursuit here or criticism there? Don’t we know how much abuse the Prophet himself silently suffered at the hands of his legion of enemies?
Islam is far more robust and tenacious than our insecurities. If it wasn’t, it wouldn’t be the fastest spreading religion today despite our own conduct and efforts and all the conspiracies and canard against it. More important, why are we battling shadows, ignoring our real issues and concerns? As a people, we have developed a rare talent for obsessing over the irrelevant and inconsequential.
As Amartya Sen so rightly put it commenting on the protests over Vishwaroopam and Rushdie, India’s Muslims have far larger problems facing them–from poverty, health and sanitation to food and education. And this is not a state of affairs that is limited to India. Indeed, elsewhere the community confronts fiercer demons.
Isn’t it about time we got our priorities and focus right? We cannot forever remain locked in a perpetual state of war, bleeding ourselves to death. We have to choose our battles. Every time we get bogged down in such minor irritations and irrelevancies, we let our adversaries win.
Aijaz Zaka Syed is a Gulf based writer. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org