What is wrong with the ‘Islam and the West’ discourse

First things first : I am happy that Sadiq Khan is the Mayor of London. Nothing could be cooler than having someone who shares your last name become the Mayor of a global city.

This incident has been commented upon, quite a lot. Well meaning people point out that this is an indication that the ‘West’ is tolerant of Muslims and Islam. And that forces of intolerance have been defeated.



What I do have a problem with, is the simplistic characterization of his win as somehow mainstreaming of Muslims .  The second problem I see with this discourse is a lot of focus on Mr.Khan’s identity as a Muslim ( ok, I get it – he didn’t bring it up, but was rather attacked for being a Muslim, and an extremist). This identification of him – a Muslim- as an ‘outsider’ who has somehow been ‘accepted’ by the establishment is problematic to me.

He is not an outsider, but a London born Brit. Secondly, Islam has centuries of history in Britain and is certainly not a ‘new’ entrant into the nation.

Just as much as those claiming that ‘Islam’ is out ‘there’ and we in the ‘West’ are ‘here.’ This is patently false. Mr.Khan is part of the West; indeed, he is the new West, as he has claimed. The West and Islam are not only compatible, but are intertwined to such an extent that it is not fair to talk about these two as different categories. Conceptually, Islam and West should be seen as co-existing and co-equal, not two separate or distinct entities – in opposition.

Orientalists have always spoken of Islam as the ‘other’ that is somehow inferior to the West. This discourse of ‘Islam and the West’ perpetuates this Orientalist stereotyping.

On the other hand, Muslims in the West do occupy this ‘liminal’, in-between space, which makes them unique. As Kambiz Ghaneabassiri argues, in his analysis of the History of Islam in America – this space between White and Black America, has made American Muslims unique. To some extent, this argument can be used for Muslims in Europe, as well; though the history of Muslims on that continent has been markedly different.

May be it is a nuance that many don’t care about, or may be it comes across as not being celebratory of his victory; but it is far from true. I am indeed happy that someone like him could become a leader in a cosmopolitan society. It is a proud moment for all minorities. Indeed, not many Christians or Hindus will get to lead a city in a Muslim majority country, such as Pakistan, for instance.

So, yes, Western Liberalism is good and mighty and powerful. But at the same time, this Liberalism should also not reduce complex subjects such as Mr.Khan to a mere symbol – a symbol of the ‘West’s tolerance’. Nor should it perpetuate the ‘Islam and the West’ discourse.

Two visions of India ?

Having spent my teen years in post-economic liberalization India of the 1990s’, I have seen the growth and transformation of my home-country over the last two decades. My hometown of Bangalore transformed from a sleepy ‘pensioner’s paradise’, as it was known to become a booming ‘Silicon Valley’ of India. All in a matter of less than twenty years or so. While this has brought obvious benefits, in terms of increased infrastructure, better access to technology and the tangible benefits of Capitalism, the other effects, in terms of societal embedding of markets is less obvious. There have been other negative impacts of this massive growth as well – with increased inequality, exploitation of natural and human resources. Indian voters hold up their voter ID car

While astronomical growth rates of 10 percent GDP are long over, there is still hope and aspiration among Indians, who are seemingly ‘tired’ of the ‘corruption’ of the Congress led UPA government, led by Dr. Manmohan Singh, the man who ushered in the economic reforms, that transformed the economy. I will briefly examine the claims made by the Congress Party and the BJP, in terms of their ‘inclusive development’ mandate and analyze how either party is likely to treat the poor, vulnerable and other minorities in a country, that has, in some measures become the standard-bearer for democratic governance in the ‘developing world’. While many of these arguments are normative, I believe that politics is ultimately about ‘vision’ and not merely about technocracy. While bureaucrats and public servants execute this vision, it is up to the leaders, who are elected, to craft this vision and present it before the people, who may or may not buy into it. Let us briefly turn to the upcoming national elections in May 2014. There are, I would argue, two visions of India before us, represented by the two largest national parties. Arguably, there is not a whole lot of difference in terms of their economic policies, and the only perceptible difference seems to be in their social vision, of what kind of a India they foresee. While the AAP Party and regional parties are definitely a part of the plurality of Indian democratic system, they do not have a national mandate and influence.

Much is being written about the Bharatiya Janata Party’s (BJP) Prime Ministerial Candidate, Narendra Modi, who is the current Chief Minister of the state of Gujarat. As a front-runner to the Prime Minster’s post, his personal and professional life has come under scrutiny, as is the case with any candidate, running for the national position, in the world’s largest democracy. While his supporters swear by his ability to ‘turn-around’ the economy of Gujarat and claim that he will bring about the same ‘business acumen’ to governance, larger questions about inclusion, model of governance and growth remain unexamined. While there is much rhetoric among both sides, there seems to be an overemphasis on one or the other aspect – the Gujarat riots of 2002 being argued as one of the most egregious examples of his lack of leadership. This discourse is again, one that questions the leaders ‘vision’ of leading a country.

As Dr. Abusaleh Sharief, a prominent Economist and member of the Prime Minster Manmohan Singh’s advisory team on minority affairs argues about post-Independence India’s growth and how it impacted the poor and minorities: “ During this phase of governance and development, marginalized groups had little knowledge as to the relative position they occupied in the complex web of diversity amongst the population which was explicit in terms of the caste, ethnicity and religion in India. During the early period after the Independence, the overall governance and bureaucratic structure was heavily represented by highly educated upper caste Hindus and the welfare schemes and poverty alleviation programs were in the league of pilot projects or at the most in the genre of relief programs. It is now a recorded history, however, that socialistic pattern of economic policy did not facilitate fast pace of economic growth rather it was characteristic of rigid state control and bureaucratic overbearing.”Dr. Sharief further says that there is differential in the way that communities have progressed, based on their geographical location. He says: “ There is a sort of double whammy faced by deprived groups and further the depth of deprivation and exploitation emerges from other factors such as occupational and work related exploitation, child labor and gender bias. Therefore to understand mechanism to address deprivations amongst the SCs/ STs and Muslims it is essential to lay bare all such dimensions which are a type of whirlpool or a sort of trap from which those affected have to be rescued and rehabilitated not only on the basis of empathy but with the aim of empowering whole communities so that they make their rightful claim of equal citizens of India.” Further, since the senior positions of administration are dominated by the upper caste, those in the lower levels of the caste ladder have serious educational and skill-set dis-advantage. He adds that it is important to mainstream equity, inclusion and ‘increase the pie’ that is available to be shared.  This election is being fought on issues of social equity, corruption and related matters – something that needs to be kept in mind. While Dr. Sharief and even Amartya Sen seem to be advocates of the Neoliberal framework – albeit with some constraints – there are other experts who have seriously questioned the wisdom of pursuing this growth agenda.

Congress and BJP’s development promises: A brief look at the election manifestos

Let us take a brief look at what each party has promised in its election platform for 2014. While the Congress party has stuck to its founding principles as an ‘all inclusive’ party, that brings together the masses and offers a pluralistic vision of India. The manifesto begins with “Our central values resonate the very idea of India that has come to us over the centuries, an India that rejoices in and celebrates its many diversities, and builds on these diversities to strengthen the bonds of unity through secularism, pluralism, inclusion and social justice. This is the India that Mahatma Gandhi envisaged.” While it brags about the Green Revolution, White Revolution and various other schemes launched by the Congress Party through its governance tools, it fails to acknowledge the scale of corruption that shook the government in the recent past. While corruption has been a part of Indian politics and there are even arguments made by scholars that corruption, contrary to popular belief, may be good for a developing economy, it has come to haunt the party; as it seeks to come back to power. Its 15 point program for development seems ambitious and progressive – including promises of increasing expenditure on education, women’s empowerment, encouragement of entrepreneurship among other items.

On the other hand, BJP’s manifesto is based on attacking the UPA performance over the past few years. While there is clearly an ideological orientation in its manifesto, presenting India as ‘One civilization’, while it is clearly not the case; with influx of various cultures, religions, over the centuries; and a plurality, that the BJP does not acknowledge, this is as high in rhetoric as is the Congress Party’s manifesto. Some of the contentious issues that go against its claim of a ‘united India’ are the party’s insistence on pursuing the Ram Temple agenda that has been at the heart of the party’s rise to power – an extremely divisive and religiously divisive agenda. How the party reconciles this with its vision of ‘unity’ remains questionable.

It is interesting to see that both the parties accept the status quo of market-led reforms, with neither of them questioning the international trade flows, capital flows and other macro-economic aspects of how Indian economy is structured and how it impacts the common man, on a day to day basis. This seems to be off the table, for obvious reasons. Neither party wants to question the consumption habits of the 300 million plus strong middle class.

In conclusion, one can argue that no matter who comes to power at the center, problems of corruption, lack of opportunities and lack of law and order in some parts of the country will not disappear. The rhetoric of ‘clean-governance’ by Mr. Modi seems to be just that, as his government is also accused of favoring business houses and has relied on cronyism as much as the Congress. Further, as Ram Guha, historian and popular commenter says in this interview, the tide is turning in BJP’s favor because of the disgust Indians feel towards the Congress, that has not ‘delivered’ on the promises it made. He says “But there’s such an air of disgust with the present government, so people are willing to overlook his angularities because he can’t be worse than what’s come before.  The culture of democracy has been advanced, admittedly in an ugly way, by social media, [and by] expressing opinions freely through street protests and institutions of democracy such as state legislatures and courts.” Speaking of the youth and their lack of enchantment with Rahul Gandhi, he says “But that doesn’t mean though that they are enchanted by Modi. Some will go with regional parties, or AAP. In large sections of the country, the BJP has no presence at all.” Finally, one may look at the notion of ‘development as freedom’ that Amartya Sen, India’s most celebrated economist has argued for. His is an inclusive agenda for development and this is clearly articulated in his book Development as Freedom, where he makes a case for equating development to personal freedom. Unless people are able to pursue what they want, and are able to succeed, within some measures; they are not truly free, Sen points out. He is an advocate for both the processes that would bring about freedom and also the actual result of increasing freedoms. In democratic lingo, this would be a call for both procedural and substantive freedoms. He points to notions of development and their direct relevance to freedom – that of the growth of democracy and drop in famines in a country, as an example. So the question then becomes : Which party or group of leaders are able to provide this element of societal and economic freedom to all Indians? Irresepctive of the complex relations of power, caste, hierarchy and corruption; the party that gives this to the Indian people deserves to be the one that governs for the next five years.




Dinner with an M.B. supporter- Democracy in the Middle East (DIME) #1

As everyone was preparing for the end of Ramadhan in the U.S, I was busy moving into a new apartment, close to the mosque on North Main Street in Blacksburg. Among other things, this new location gives me access to the mosque and also a grocery store. I am thankful for this, and to test out how long it would take me to walk to the mosque, I headed over to the mosque to pray, the day I moved to the new place. Not only did I end up eating a sumptuous meal with a total stranger, who turned out to be a Muslim brotherhood (M.B) supporter, but I also got a close look into the mind of someone who captures the complexity of emotions and thoughts that many M.B supporters are going through, given the current political and social instability in Egypt.

The conversation went something like this:

Me: “Salaam brother,” what time is the Taraweeh prayer today?

Stranger: Not for another hour brother. Have you broken fast today?

Me: No. I am not fasting today. Please go ahead and break your fast.

Stranger: Sure, but why don’t you join me. I have a lot of food her, and can’t finish it myself. Let’s eat together. Please join me.

Me: Sure, thank you. Be with you in a minute.

I joined the stranger, who we shall called Mohammed, perhaps the most common first name in Egypt. Turns out he is a PhD student in the Engineering school at Virginia Tech. After the preliminary courtesies, he enquired about my background and what I was doing in Blacksburg. I told him that I am a PhD student myself and studying Philanthropy in the U.S

Mohammed: That’s interesting. We have a lot of charity and giving in our society. There is a saying that no one dies of hunger in Egypt.

Me: That is interesting as well. I do know that Egyptians are generous people, but what about the current situation and unemployment in Egypt? What do you make of it?

Mohammed: Well it is bad, but not as bad as the media make it out to be. All my friends have jobs, the educated ones at least and may be they don’t have exactly the job they want, but they are not starving. The current political turmoil has everyone anxious, but trust me, it is not as bad.

Me: That is an interesting perspective, you seem to be an optimist.

Mohammed: Well, yes I am an optimist but also a realist. I don’t think media are portraying what is going on in Egypt clearly. There is a lot of misleading information and half-truths out there.

Me: Such as?

Mohammed: The fact that the second “revolution” was in fact real. I think it was orchestrated entirely, to get the Morsi government out of power. While I used to support Morsi and even voted for him, I think he was unfit to rule. I am happy that he is out of power, since he could have destroyed the country, but his ouster certainly not democratic.

Me: Do you still support M.B?

Mohammed: As a party, it stands for solidarity and social justice, but I think under Morsi, it went to extremes, and I don’t support that. Extremism was their undoing. I think there is a possibility of compromise and I would like to see that happen. Ultimately, we are talking about our country, and not political parties or the Army

Me: But isn’t that paradoxical? A party that took away the rights of their opposition and forced their way through, with little regard for the minorities’ viewpoint?

Mohammed: Yes, precisely, the M.B has been persecuted for decades and once they came to power, they did not know how to govern. This, in my opinion is the issue. A mediated settlement with all parties involved, is something we should aim for. Fighting over ideological issues is not going to help anyone.

Me: So would you consider yourself a M.B supporter now?

Mohammed: I would consider myself a reformed supporter. I think we have seen how badly they have governed, so need to chastise them and also keep checks on their power. But to keep them out of the public sphere would be foolish. They were banned during the Mubarak regime, had to organize and operate clandestinely and only with the Morsi victory did they get a chance to rule. But the fact that they went over-board and let nepotism be the state policy was damaging.

“The M.B supporters put the party above their nation, and that was their downfall,” he pointed out, rather poignantly.

Mohammed represents a side of the story that of often not told, in the narratives of Egypt or M.B, that of a self-critical loyalist, one who is willing to criticize and often pull back his support from a party that he believes represents the aspirations of the average Egyptian. While it is best not to quote numbers and statistics, that no one is sure of, such anecdotal narratives to provide a window, although in a limited manner, into the minds of M.B loyalists. If this is how even if a small minority of them are thinking – then I am optimistic for Egypt. This line of thinking represents a reform movement, one that challenges traditional authority and can be the seeds of change, in the long-term. The fact that this is emerging internally, within the supporters of M.B is another positive sign.