First Person | Issues of Image

Changes will have to come from within

Ghazala WahabGhazala Wahab

A phone call five weeks ago: ‘Did you read the report?’ trilled an old friend on the phone. ‘During the Iftar party at the White House, Bush said that they have now got a copy of the Quran for the library.’

Yes, I muttered. They have to keep at least some Muslims on their side.

‘No,’ she insisted. ‘There is a genuine curiosity about Islam today. Everybody wants to read what it says about Jihad, infidels and so on. Even I have been thinking about picking up an English translation.’

Really, would you have the patience to read it?

‘Actually, I am going to buy an abridged version, those small paper-backs you know.’

Ah, the made-easy variety. But what is it that you want to know, I asked with genuine interest. There are over 5,000 books on various aspects of Jihad in the market today. Forget about the historical and the contemporary Jihad, somebody has written about the future Jihad as well.

‘More the merrier,’ she said. ‘You know what they say about repeating a lie so many times that it becomes the truth. So, positive aspects of Islam have to be brought out regularly, to create a positive image. You may think it foolish, but Islam can certainly do with some image management.’

Thought-process four weeks ago: There is some merit in what she says. There indeed is a need for people to understand what this second-largest religion in the world is all about. People must have at least some understanding about the real Islam, as it is practiced by the majority of Muslims. I remember a lady with whom I used to share an auto-rickshaw to work many years ago, once remarked that at heart Islam is a violent religion because it teaches its followers to kill infidels. She said that somebody told her that Quran has verses exhorting the devout to kill in the name of Allah. I was disturbed by this and since my knowledge about Quran at that time was elementary, I merely said that it does not sound logical that any religion would teach something like this. So there is a case here to educate the non-Muslims about the real Islam. But then do Muslims understand the real essence of Islam? Aren’t they hostage to ulemas and maulvis? Don’t they run to them for fatwas on strangest issues? So, even an average Muslim needs to understand his faith. Hence, even as scholars enlighten non-Muslims on Islam, somebody who can speak the language of the majority of Muslims should tell them what their faith really means, so that they do not succumb to the hate propaganda by the neo-Jihadis.

Thought-process three weeks ago: What is real Islam? Can there be a thing called ‘the real Islam’, especially when it has a number of sects and sub-sects, each claiming authenticity and each open to interpretation? Moreover, something written many centuries ago has to be seen in the context of its times and environment. A lot of verses in the Quran were in response to the customs prevalent in the decadent Arab society. Can they apply to Muslims in India or in Europe, today or in the future? Today can anyone say with utmost certainty that what he believes in is ‘the real Islam’? So where does one begin the exposition on real Islam?

Action one week ago: I called up my father for an expansion on the theme. He dismissed my labour of love, saying that this thought process itself was pointless and reflective of times when everyone has become obsessed with religion. In the Seventies, it was fashionable to be irreligious, which is why people kept their faiths at home. However, today it is just the opposite. Being religious is in.

And not just being religious but overtly so. As a result, there is less tolerance. Religion now is a commodity being hawked, on the streets, in the temples, mosques, community centres and even television. ‘Earlier, we had one channel and two serials to contend with,’ he said, ‘but today we have 50 channels catering to all religious groups. Earlier listening to a religious discourse meant making the effort at a particular time and day and many people did not do that for the bother it involved. But now everything is at your fingertips. You can expose your sensibilities to mediaeval thinking in total privacy of your home. How much can you resist? As you become more self-conscious of your faith, your tolerance for others decreases.’

Conclusion: Talking of real Islam itself smacks of absolutism and hence intolerance. We do not need to talk down to people about what their religion says and what it implies, because everyone has a version. The need is to enhance their capacity of comprehension to such a level that they can distinguish for themselves what is reasonable and what is not. Going back to the lady in the auto rickshaw: Indeed, there is a verse in Quran, part of which exhorts the believers to slain the non-believers. But that is not the whole verse. The verse refers to war and concludes by saying that if they repent and fulfil their devotional obligations you must let them go. Unfortunately, today, communal non-Muslims are not the only people using half-verses; the so-called Jihadis are doing it as well. Hence, image makeover has to come from within and not without.