Bonding Social Capital

In a post titled “Social Capital and Cultural Capital” last year, I talked about the British class survey which measured a specific type of social capital – “the number and importance of social contacts”. This type of social capital is referred to by social scientists as linking social capital – the connections we have to people of importance, influence, who can get things done.

There are various other types of social capital used by sociologists. One type generally recognised today is bonding social capital. Bonding social capital is that which exists within a social group, and consists of shared norms and values, reciprocity, trust, expectations and obligations. Social “group” seems akin to the social identity model used by social psychologists – an “in-group” formed through categorisation, identification and comparison (here is a good primer on Social Identity Theory which explains this). We all belong to various social identities – based on gender, ethnicity, wealth, nationality and caste for example. Bonding social capital is the capital we get by virtue of being part of the in-group. Note that like social capital in general, bonding social capital is an asset – a resource that you can use (consciously or not) to your benefit. Secondly, it comes from social structure and processes – the social mechanisms described by sociologists and also the social-psychological processes described by social psychologists.

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The Indian Culture Tamasha

kiss-of-love-protest.jpg.image.784.410

A couple kissing inside a police van while they were being taken away by the police from the protest site in Kochi. Photo: Josekutty Panackal/Manorama

Recently after the vandalising of a restaurant in Kozhikode (Kerala) by the Bharatiya Janata Yuva Morcha (the youth-wing of the BJP) people in cities across India have taken to protesting moral policing, with protests being titled ‘Kiss of Love’ (it even has its own Wikipedia page!). From there on what came about was a competition between the progressives and the conservatives of this country regarding who knows the Indian culture best. A similar competition erupts every time the religious right in our country declares homosexuality or short dresses as against Indian culture. Progressives try to reason with Kamasutra and the temples in Konark and Khajuraho. But what they do not understand is that every time they fall back on that mythical creature  called the Indian culture to validate actions of people living in modern societies, we lose and we lose big. This Tamasha, this charade, that the progressives and conservatives play is dangerous and does more harm than good.

In the case of trying to rationalise LGBT rights in India, Devdutt Pattanaik asks two questions that liberals and progressives need to answer before we begin educating the cultural vanguards about liberated sexuality in ancient India.

… how does attitudes towards homosexuals in ancient India affect modern-day attitudes? Is our approval or disapproval of same-sex affection and intercourse dependent on ancient values?

And further adds a note of warning:

… we must remind ourselves that the ancient sources that censure homosexual conduct, also institutionalised the caste system and approved the subservience of women.

While we accuse the conservatives of cherry picking from the scriptures to forward their parochial agenda, we often ignore the part where we cherry pick from the same set of scriptures to justify our rights. The intentions might be different, but the consequences of both are the same. It affirms the status quo.

Let me make it clear about what I think of those citing religious texts and mythologies. You endorse one quote, you endorse everything that comes with it. So for instance, those who cite the Kama Sutra for the different techniques of kissing to validate people’s right to display affection in public are also, in my eyes, endorsing the fact that the work was written by Vatsyayana primarily for savarna men. They are endorsing the fact that women were, except for young brides for the sake of their husbands’ pleasure, were considered unworthy by Vatsyayana to read and learn Kama Sutra. And also regressive and horrible prescriptions like the one on how the wife of one’s enemy is to be used as a tool for revenge, or Vatsyayana’s admonishment of homosexuality, or his categorisation of non-vaginal sex as the job of a kliba (eunuch) or a prostitute. So my dear progressives and liberals take it on the chin and accept the fact that when they say something like “not our culture”, it probably is true.

We need to realise the fundamental flaw in justifying human rights with texts and philosophy written thousands of years ago. It doesn’t help in anyway to bring in change, instead it strengthens and affirms the status quo. This reminds me of that one tweet by a Muslim feminist in response to those claiming that one doesn’t need feminism when there is Islam: I know Islam gave women rights a thousand years ago, but can we please have them now (paraphrased). Human rights cannot be reasoned on the grounds of an outdated idea. It needs to be justified on the grounds that the beneficiary of these rights is a human being and hence totally deserve to enjoy it. Anything else is just not good enough.

P.S.: For those who still feel the need to validate their public display of affection with Indian culture, here is what a friend of mine has to say: “Since I’m Indian, anything I do becomes a part of Indian culture.”

Memories of 1984

A short collection of memories of Delhi during the 1984 anti-Sikh pogrom.

With the thirty-year anniversary of the 1984 anti-Sikh pogrom around the corner, Hartosh Singh Bal’s Caravan article “Sins of Commission” is worth reading in full. It describes all that happened then, and all that has happened since – thirty years, nine commissions of inquiry, zero justice.

I was in Delhi back then, and have been trying to recall my memories of those days. I decided to ask others to share their memories as well, and put all the accounts together into this blog post. I’m not sure what I hope to accomplish with it; I just know that it’s important to remember all this — “the struggle of memory against forgetting”, to use Milan Kundera’s famous quote.

The bloodied bodies of two murdered Sikh men lie piled onto a cart, on the New Delhi railway station platform. Men can be seeing standing on the right looking at the bodies; one man walks past while looking.

The bloodied bodies of two murdered Sikh men lie piled onto a cart on the New Delhi railway station platform (November 1984). Men can be seeing standing on the right looking at the bodies; one man walks past while looking.
(Photo via IndiaTV; links to source.)

The memories follow below; each numbered account is from a different person.

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Traffic Safety in India

Lecture titled “Accidents, Mythologies and Science of Traffic Safety” by Prof. Dinesh Mohan of IIT Delhi (with notes).

Via South Asia Citizen’s Web (a fantastic site, add it to your feed) I came across a video of this lecture on road safety in India by Dinesh Mohan of IIT Delhi – a well-known proponent of road safety research in India. It’s part of a monthly public lecture series on science, held at the India International Centre in Delhi. I highly recommend watching it when you get time (it’s 1h:30m long including Q&A), but since it’s a rather large video file some might not be able to – so I took down notes while watching it. Here they are. (Note that the notes aren’t exhaustive or error-proof!)

Initially the fatality rate was growing at 4% a year, which increased to 6% around the time Maruti was introduced. For the last few years, it’s increasing by 8% a year. Due to increase of “energy levels” (more vehicles, bigger roads and highways) – but not better “designs”.

There are around 20 countries with decreasing fatality rates (e.g. Netherlands, UK). The decrease started around 1965-70, probably due to a wide variety of changes including safety regulations.

About 400 people are killed every day. About 1200 people are permanently disabled every day. About 8000 people are hospitalised every day.

There is a lack of data on the profile of accident victims (which vehicles etc.)

Paradigm shift from “Adapt PEOPLE to manage traffic SITUATIONS” to “Eliminate risk factors from road traffic SYSTEMS”. Both road design and car design was changed dramatically via regulation.

Instead of blaming and educating people, better to treat people as “normal” and focus on the system.

Car industry has not changed its attitude. Sexist, macho, not concerned with safety. Airbags still not the default for ALL models.

No correlation between fatality rate and per capita income. There are safe countries amongst both the rich and the poor.

Accident injury should be considered using epidemiological models just like other diseases – damage to the human being from the environment that it lives in. It is a public health problem. Accidents are not “acts of god”. The “agent” of the disease is mechanical energy. To reduce injury, reduce the energy i.e. reduce the velocity, increase the distance, increase the area of contact. Our cars today are much safer due to these simple principles.

Behavioural science – it takes a few thousand hours of driving before you become a safe driver. All drivers have high crash rates in the first 2 years of driving. Children need a few thousand hours on the road to understand speed. Human beings are not good at judging speed.

The “theory of rare events” – the more rarely a certain risk factor is encountered, the larger its effect on accident rate.

The “theory of complexity” – the more information a road user must attend to (per unit time), the higher the probability of error. No cellphones!

Two slides from the lecture - they show a diagram of a hypothetical accident where a speeding car hits a motorcycle and the rider (who isn't wearing a helmet) is killed.

Two slides from the lecture – they show a diagram of a hypothetical accident where a speeding car hits a motorcycle and the rider (who isn’t wearing a helmet) is killed. The first diagram shows the existing practice of focusing on individual behaviour – the car driver is booked for rash and negligent driving, and culpable homicide. The second diagram shows the recommended approach of trying to fix systems – such accidents could be reduced by systemic practices such as – bright light at junction, roundabouts, speed cameras, police presence, and helmet laws.

Summary of studies:
– no clearly proven relationship between knowledge and attitude on one hand and behaviour on the other hand.
– Education programmes by themselves are usually insufficient to change behaviour.
– Contrary to the view that education cannot do any harm some of these programmes have been shown to make matters worse, esp for young children. Cochrane review of road safety programmes for children shows that effects on injury are unknown. Similarly, school based driver education increases crashes, because it encourages early licensing.
– Teaching licensed drivers how to drive better has no effect (again Cochrane review).
– Fines as penalties and deterrents have little effect. Only when subjective probability of detection of sufficiently high – i.e. when you think you’re going to get caught – that’s when you follow the law. Making penalties higher as an isolated measure has little effect.

Sweden’s “Zero Vision” road safety bill is based on the notion of “allowing” accidents to occur, but at a level of violence that does not threaten life or long-term health. The system must also be such that it accomodates the individual who has the worst protection and the lowest tolerance to violence. The responsibility of every death or loss of health in the road system lies with the person who designed that system.

IIT studies on fatalities by road user type in around 10 cities shows that:
– pedestrians, bicyclists and motorcyclists constitute 80% of fatalities. Interestingly, probability of fatality in an autorickshaw trip is lower than that in a car trip.
– vehicle role at societal level (adjusted for exposure) shows that cars are the worst – they kill others as well as occupants. Autorickshaws are the best.
– data from US cities suggests that cities with wider and longer roads have more fatalities

Other findings:
– buses must be moved away from pedestrians, bicyclists and motorcyclists.
– roundabouts reduce fatalities by 70-80%.
– when a pedestrian is hit by a car moving at 30kmph, probability of death is 10%. At 50kmph it becomes 80%.
– mixed traffic on highways is dangerous. largest number of deaths on highways is pedestrians.
– illegal speedbreakers put up by villagers are saving around 20-40 thousand lives a year.
– medians on highways are dangerous. Other solutions like guard rails should be implemented.
– Alcohol accounts for about 40% of the fatalities.
– If motorcyclists use their headlights during the day, fatalities reduce by 10-15%. (Because others can see them better.)
– Establishing a good central government “lead agency” is essential. Create jobs and expertise. No country in the world has improved road safety without doing this.
– The “National Road Safety and Traffic Management Board Bill”, 2010 has been pending in parliament for three years. The govt refuses to push it. This is after the 4 years it took for the bill to be formed.
– Free left turns inside cities should be forbidden.

Postscript: Please take a look at Nirmukta’s Organ Donation Campaign and register to be an organ donor after death. Given the number of road deaths we have – all those organs are going to waste – at least some good can come of these tragic and unnecessary deaths on the road.

 

‘Indian’ from India

Today being Columbus Day in the US, here’s an old clip of the ever astute and hilarious Hari Kondabolu:

And Arvind pointed out this clip from Good Will Hunting, where the two kinds of Indians are differentiated based on dots and feathers. I know the “dot” refers to dotheads, a pretty ignorant stereotype about Indians originating from the fact that some Indian women wear a “dot”. And though I’m not familiar with American Indians, given the context, I’m guessing that the “feather” reference is an equally silly stereotype.

 

Haider – everything that’s wrong with Appropriation

Vishal Bharadwaj released his latest film, Haider. Set in the mid-90s in Kashmir Haider is an adaptation of Shakespeare’s Hamlet. Before we begin, it should be noted that this is a film conceptualised, directed, produced, and starred largely by Indians, or non-Kashmiri Indians. Such an overwhelming absence of Kashmiris, in itself, makes the film an act of appropriation. But many are unconvinced regarding how that can be possibly bad or a problem in itself. Why can’t the privileged speak for the underprivileged? A similar question was once asked by Rahul Pandita,

A few years ago, confided a friend, a prominent Dalit intellectual had mentioned my work at a book launch. At this, another Dalit intellectual remarked: ‘But he is a Pandit after all!’ Now I don’t know why this should be a problem! As a Brahmin, does it make me less sensitive to the plight of the poor or the marginalised? Why is it such a big deal that I can wear my Janeu, recite my Hanuman Chalisa, and yet go to Bant Singh’s house in Bhurj Jabbar, thirstily gulp down a few glasses of water, and tell his story? Where is the contradiction?

and Kuffir gave an appropriate reply to this privilege-blind question,

yes, why is it such a big deal that he wears a janeu etc? i don’t believe the practice of rituals etc make a brahmin. so giving them up won’t make one less of a brahmin, either, in my view.

the big deal is that bant singh can’t just get up and go meet rahul pandita in delhi or mumbai or wherever he lives, gulp down a few glasses of water, and tell his story. bant singh was attacked because he wanted to do exactly what rahul pandita does. get up and go do the things he wanted to do.

the big deal is that rahul pandita has the freedom to do so and bant singh doesn’t.

One needs to locate appropriation within privilege (sometimes used as a polite alternative to inadvertent oppression). When Bharadwaj, an (non-Kashmiri) Indian, chooses to speak about human rights violation in Kashmir or when Arundhati Roy, a Savarna, chooses to introduce Ambedkar, they do so with the freedom afforded to them by the privileges they carry with their social identity. When they tell the story of the underprivileged while being from the side of the privilege, they establish an hierarchical relationship akin to that of charity. When they narrate the story they also have complete discretion over the narrative and the tenor. They can choose to include or omit whatever or whoever they want to. And consequently the outcome ends up being a story that will be plagued by a narrative, more or less, conditioned by their privilege.

In the end this narrative becomes the authoritative one. The one on which the oppressors, the privileged, and the far-removed would fall back for reference. Look at the fact that almost every course on Ambedkar would primarily include a screening of Jabbar Patel’s Dr. Babasaheb Ambedkar or when it comes to Gandhi it is Richard Attenborough’s Gandhi. [And this is also the how an overwhelming section of the Savarna-dominated Indian academia are of the opinion that “some of the best works on Dalits are written by non-Dalits”]

So let’s come back to Bharadwaj. To be honest, I did like the film as an adaptation of Hamlet. But in this case I see no reason in divorcing the art from the politics, so here goes. (needles to say SPOILER ALERT)

  • Firstly, the portrayal of the Oedipus Complex between a “half-widow” (a term used for the wife of a disappeared person not declared dead, see here and here) and her son. Even if one is to take the argument that Hamlet had a certain infatuation for his mother (an argument that is highly contentious to this day), to show that using a half-widow, a lived reality of scores of Kashmiri women, is just not done.
  • Secondly, the manner in which Bharadwaj dealt with the conflict it is clear that he borrowed heavily from New Delhi’s narrative of a scheming, politically greedy Kashmiri ruling class, as presented by Khurram (Claudius) and Parvez (Polonius), misleading gullible Kashmiris against the Indian state in the name of Azadi. But before that, we need to revisit the original Hamlet and the politics of the nation surrounding the story. In Hamlet, the corruption and degradation of the Danish political system is entirely because of the Danish people, or atleast its political elite. Gertrude, Hamlet, and Claudius are supposed to represent the different streaks of the Danish political class. Gertrude representing the helpless and the pragmatic, Hamlet representing the agitated and the idealistic, and Claudius representing the corrupt and the greedy. Bharadwaj, to be fair, did the same with Ghazala, Haider, and Khurram. But Hamlet’s Denmark is not Haider’s Kashmir. Hamlet lamenting about Denmark being a prison has a completely different connotation from when Haider remarked that Kashmir is Kaidkhana. Demark in Hamlet was imprisoned by the Danes themselves, but Kashmir in reality is imprisoned by the Indian State. Yet what we see is a Kashmiris repressing Kashmiris, killing Kashmiris, lying to Kashmiris, and getting fooled by Kashmiris. Locating all of this in a film about the conflict, and not a film merely about the life and times of average Kashmiris is extremely colonial. In this entire picture we see the Indian State, represented by the military, as a distant oppressor, who does not deal with Kashmiris themselves (a picture far removed from reality, atleast in the mid-90s).
  • Thirdly, the reduction of the entire Azadi movement to Inteqam (revenge). Sure, it would have been too much to expect for the filmmakers to present the Kashmiri struggle for self-determination as an Inquilab (revolution), but it was not even given the dignity of a Bagavat (rebellion) either. For the film it was merely a vain and petty act of vengeance by the Kashmiris against the Indian military and perhaps the State. Again, the makers were staying true to the original story rather than reality, but one thing was very visibly missing in the entire film: Hamlet’s dilemma.
  • Finally, absence of Haider’s dilemma when turning to the other side. In the original, Hamlet consistently ponders on the basis and the morality of his actions and his intentions. Until the ‘Mousetrap’ Hamlet was completely unsure about the claims made by the ghost. In fact, the very reason for “the play within a play” was to ascertain his uncle’s guilt. This dilemma, this progress of the character from a confused rebel to a convinced murderer was absent. This is a little concerning, when one takes into account that Haider becomes a rebel after meeting the Roohdar (ghost). It is as if he convinced himself almost immediately that he has to kill his uncle and turn against the Indian State (the euphemism of ‘going across the border’ is used, insinuating that the militancy is fomented by Pakistan, or at leas from Pakistan). There was no dilemma, no doubt, but absolute conviction to the words of a stranger who calls himself “the ghost”. The omission is of such gravity that one really must question the intent of the makers.

All in all, Bharadwaj created an adaptation of Shakespeare, where he tailored and truncated the experiences of the Kashmiri people to fit the script. If Kashmir was so secondary and merely a setting to the entire plot, he could have set the adaptation anywhere in the whole of India. Instead he chose Kashmir, possibly to drive home a political argument. If that’s so one can not judge and review the film merely for its artistic value. The politics of the film is equally, perhaps more, relevant. Haider (as Ashwani Mishra of Kashmir Dispatch points out) is representative of an emerging liberal nationalist argument, where the abuse by the military and the draconian nature of the AFSPA while is recognised, the conflict is still seen as petty and the calls for Azadi as deluded.

In conclusion, everything that is wrong with the film is because in the end all of it boils down to appropriation of the lived experiences and narrative of a people for commercial gains, in which distortions are but natural. One needs to be extremely wary these days when someone chooses to tell the story of another.

Freedom of Expression without Harm, a Caste Privilege

I have two roommates who are staunch Hindutvavadis, highly Islamophobic and big time fan boys of Narendra Modi. I on the other hand a secular humanist, left-leaning atheist have to live with them and many a times have made my anti-Modi, anti-Hindutva stand very clear.

Only recently did I realise that they consider me to be a Brahmin* (they enquired to me about the janeu/sacred thread and I instinctively lied that I cut it off way back), and I realised that the only reason they tolerate me is because they think of me of belonging to the highest caste. They never use cusswords when talking to me, while it is pretty usual for them to do so with each other. Neither do they disregard whatever I say, they take me seriously sometimes with reverence. Now I notice that they do not even touch me or my stuff and that I am always designated with the pronoun ‘Aap’, although I am clearly much younger to them (people in Maharashtra, especially Mumbai, very rarely use Aap in common parlance).

I am extremely uncomfortable with such a relationship, but now I am actually afraid of clearing this misunderstanding. These guys are violent and extremely chauvinistic. They have little when it comes to respecting an individual as an individual for simply being human. Me being a Brahmin in their eyes is what is clearly giving me the immunity from their punches. And I, honestly, do not want to risk this immunity by correcting them and making it clear that I am just a degree lower** to what they assumed me to be.

This will never give me a clear conscience. But I realised that my caste name as Nair gives me powerful immunity in this extremely prejudiced society. It always has and I know it always will. I knew I enjoyed caste privilege, even when people knew that I was not a Brahmin. It is with these guys I realised the extent of my privilege, which is keeping me safe and unscathed. It has till now very clearly kept my free speech and expression protected, and has kept me away from real harm. My case did not take place in some remote village in the hinterland. This is the centre of our country’s largest metropolis and among the urban English-educated class we so blindly believe to be progressive. This is how caste works in India.

*It seems many in Mumbai consider Nair to be synonymous with Iyer, and hence the confusion
**I will not make preposterous claims that I am “casteless”, “beyond caste” or “have left my caste behind”. Because caste is not a choice. It’s a social reality, much like gender and cannot be erased as long as you live in a casteist society.

Modi, the Woo Peddler

ModiIn his address to the UN General Assembly today, Modi said this:

Noting that Yoga is “an invaluable gift of our ancient tradition”, he said: “It is not about exercise but to discover the sense of oneness with yourself, the world and the nature.”

“Yoga embodies unity of mind and body; thought and action; restraint and fulfillment; harmony between man and nature; a holistic approach to health and well being,” he said.

“By changing our lifestyle and creating consciousness, it can help us deal with climate change,” he added.

Modi came up from the ranks of RSS, so I guess it’s not all too surprising to see him peddle the spiritual mumbo jumbo that is standard fare in those circles. There is a whole lot of nonsense surrounding spirituality and consciousness. Like this and this for example.

And then earlier this month, Modi said this about climate change:

“Climate change? Is this terminology correct? The reality is this that in our family, some people are old… They say this time the weather is colder. And, people’s ability to bear cold becomes less.

“We should also ask is this climate change or have we changed. We have battled against nature. That is why we should live with nature rather than battle it,” he said.

That is again is your garden variety Hindu woo. Growing up, I heard stories about how our ancestors were more stronger, robust and lived longer than us. That belief is a derivation from Hindu cosmological idea of yugas – where Satyayuga is the bestestest of times and how it all went downhill from there and things will finally reach their lowest point at the end of Kaliyuga. Not-so-coincidentally, we currently live in the Kaliyuga. Hence Modi’s wondering that it is not the climate which is changing, but us humans who are growing weaker. Human biology be damned.

So those are the kind of beliefs our Prime Minister holds, and more importantly uses his position as an elected leader of India to preach them to anyone who’d listen. I wonder what other crackpot ideas are in store for us in the future.

The Muslim Face – on policing the resistance from within

The recent furore in the University of Yale for inviting Ayaan Hirsi Ali to deliver a speech has been for me the most unsettling of all the controversy that had Hirsi Ali in it. The thing about Hirsi Ali is that she is representative of the dichotomy that ex-Muslims in general, and ex-Muslim women in particular, have to go through, especially in countries where Muslims are a minority. One is to be seen as a traitor of one’s community for speaking out against the atrocities committed within and other is to be seen as an apologist for speaking out against unwarranted and bigoted suspicion and fear with which Muslims are seen by the majority. Kenan Malik has spoken about this in his article “Is There Something About Islam?“, in which the following anecdote is very telling.

The Danish MP Naser Khader once told me of a conversation with Toger Seidenfaden, editor of Politiken, a left-wing Danish newspaper that was highly critical of the Danish cartoons. “He said to me that cartoons insulted all Muslims”, Khader recalled. “I said I was not insulted. And he said, ‘But you’re not a real Muslim’.”

Ayaan chose to not be that real Muslim and chose to be the traitor. For which she became the darling of the conservative and the right, while attracting the scorn of liberals and leftists from privileged classes.

And it is this dichotomy that unraveled at Yale, once she was invited to speak. There are two things to be considered here. First is the academic freedom of Hirsi Ali as an ex-Muslim woman. Michelle Goldberg in the Nation have put this matter very well, by comparing Hirsi Ali’s and Steven Salaita’s cases.

… it’s worth recognizing that arguments privileging “respect” and civility above freedom on campus are always double-edged. If you believe that Hirsi Ali shouldn’t be allowed to speak because she denigrates Islam and makes many students uncomfortable, then it’s hard to see how you can simultaneously claim that Salaita, a professor who has tweeted, “Zionists: transforming ‘anti-Semitism’ from something horrible into something honorable since 1948,” deserves a place in the classroom.

Second is the expectations that are put upon ex-Muslims when they choose to criticise Islam and the practices within their respective communities. Here is the letter by the Yale Muslim Students Association, where the following statement is something that I found to be extremely repugnant.

While we have legitimate concerns from what we know, and while we cannot overlook how marginalizing her presence will be to the Muslim community and how uncomfortable it will be for the community’s allies, we are hopeful that the discussion is constructive and that Ms. Hirsi Ali speaks only to her personal experiences and professional expertise.

Not only does the above statement have the implication that they are being generous by not denying her her experiences, but they expect her to limit her expression to her experiences and “expertise”, read she’s not qualified to speak on Islam. So she is allowed to express herself but not allowed to interpret her experiences with Islam. Similar arguments were made by Hindu apologists against Kancha Ilaiah, a Dalit ex-Hindu writer and academic, for his trenchant and passionate criticism of Hinduism. In fact as a friend once pointed to us in Nirmukta, Hirsi Ali’s and Ilaiah’s experiences parallel each other. Both are denied the right to be passionate and also denied the right to hate the very institution that was the cause of their experiences. Despite being much close to oppression than privilege they are denied to opine and interpret on the same institution in the manner they deem fit.

But it doesn’t stop there. Here is the statement by the Yale Humanist Community, one of the signatories of the above letter,

As a diverse group of undergraduates with a membership that includes ex-Muslims and atheists from Islamic cultures, we do not believe Ayaan Hirsi Ali represents the totality of the ex-Muslim experience.

True, she may not represent the totality of the ex-Muslim experiences, but her experiences do belong to that totality. Her experiences and interpretations of the same constitute the larger ex-Muslim experience, and she has every right to be taken as seriously as any other ex-Muslim in that regard. One may disagree with plenty of her opinions, especially ones regarding minority rights of Muslims, but one simply doesn’t get to trivialise her experience by making such patronising statements as saying she does not represent the whole.

Another argument that comes against Hirsi Ali is that feeds the anti-Muslim/Islamophobic frenzy of the right and the conservative. But how fair is it to police her speech and expression by putting the blame of bigotry of the, well, bigots on her? Bigots have historically appropriated and misconstrued sane arguments for their own agenda, many a times even by going against the original intentions. How fair and constructive is it to point fingers at her, instead of engaging her?

Such policing and patronising of resistance within Islam while bringing down the credibility of secular humanism, greatly harms the larger struggle for a tolerant and secular future. Excluding the likes of Hirsi Ali will do none of us any good.

The Muslim Face and the Image of Islam

Two articles have prompted me to write this post. One by Kenan Malik titled “Is there something about Islam?” and the other by Mehdi Hasan titled “What the Jihadists Who Bought ‘Islam For Dummies’ on Amazon Tell Us About Radicalisation”. Both deal with certain crucial questions that are almost always missing in current discourses on Islam, Islamism, and Islamic Terrorism. These questions are especially necessary when the world has to deal with the current crisis of the Islamic State in the Arabic world.

To what extent does Islam Influence the actions of Muslims, especially actions that are violent?

I understand that many here would have problems with me quoting Hasan, and for valid reasons, but his article is an interesting read if anybody is interested in understanding how or why the head-choppers of ISIS are behaving the way they do. He doesn’t answer them, but does present us with an approach in which non-Muslims can deal with these issues. The first question that needs to be answered is what is the relationship between the scriptures and the actions of Muslim terrorists. Hasan gives us the example of two self-proclaimed Jihadists, Yususf Sarwar and Mohammed Ahmed, who pleaded guilty of terrorism in Syria and who have also recently (after returning from Syria) reported to have bought a book titled Islam for Dummies. Hasan tries to argue that religious literacy has little to do with acts of violence by believers, in the name of their belief.

I for one, do see the point in his argument. Take for instance, the self-proclaimed Caliphate of ISIS and compare that with the historical Sunni institution of the Caliphate. The first Rashiddun Caliphate that was established after the death of Mohammed was structured according to the Islamic nation built by the prophet in Medina. This Islamic polity was based on the Constitution of Medina, a charter signed by the leaders or representatives of various warring tribes in the region which is today known as Hejaz. One of the responsibilities of the Caliph was also to extend protection of life, trade, property and personal faith of non-Muslims who pay taxes, in accordance with Islamic conjectures, and who owe their allegiance to the Caliphate as its subjects. Apart from that the first four Caliphs were also elected by a constellation of leaders (and also some elected representatives) of all tribes that follow the Muslim faith and accept the Caliphate (this primitive system of representational/oligarchic democracy is also believed to have its roots from the then defunct Roman Republic). All this is very much unlike the murderous gun-trotting butchers that call themselves the Islamic State.

Malik too raises this argument in his article regarding violence committed by Muslims, and the portrayal and treatment of such violence.

The relationship between religion, interpretation, identity and politics can be complex. We can see this if we look at Myanmar and Sri Lanka where Buddhists – whom many people, not least humanists and atheists, take to be symbols of peace and harmony – are organizing vicious pogroms against Muslims, pogroms led by monks who justify the violence using religious texts. Few would insist that there is something inherent in Buddhism that has led to the violence. Rather, most people would recognize that the anti-Muslim violence has its roots in the political struggles that have engulfed the two nations. The importance of Buddhism in the conflicts in Myanmar and Sri Lanka is not that the tenets of faith are responsible for the pogroms, but that those bent on confrontation have adopted the garb of religion as a means of gaining a constituency and justifying their actions. The “Buddhist fundamentalism” of groups such as the 969 movement, or of monks such as Wirathu, who calls himself the “Burmese bin Laden”, says less about Buddhism than about the fractured and fraught politics of Myanmar and Sri Lanka.

And yet, few apply the same reasoning to conflicts involving Islam. When it comes to Islam, and to the barbaric actions of groups such as ISIS or the Taliban, there is a widespread perception that the problem, unlike with Buddhism, lies in the faith itself. …

Before we continue, it has to be noted that neither Hasan nor Malik (or even me for that matter) declare that the radicals or fundamentalist never justify their actions or opinions on the religion that they follow. The point here is that the assumption that everything that Muslims do wrong is primarily because of whatever is written in their scriptures is not only lop-sided but also extremely problematic. Most of the time, the role of the religion is usually a cover for power struggle or for a very heinous practice. Take for instance, the practice of female genital mutilation among certain group of Muslims, and Sati that was practiced in India. In both case the proponent or the apologists argue(d) for it as a part of their religion, while neither is in any manner or interpretation prescribed in either religion. While the media has been reporting brutal murder of Shias, Christians, and Yazidis by the ISIS militants, not many are reporting the fact that it is the Sunni Muslim Kurdish militias in northern Iraq and eastern Syria that are putting up a brave fight against the ISIS. Even the part where the same Kurdish militias created a humanitarian route for both aid and supply, and an escape to a safe region for their Yazidi counterparts was heavily under-reported by major international news media, including Al Jazeera (see here and here). Another thing that did not come up in the news was how the world’s largest Sunni Muslim nation, Indonesia, dealt with advocates of ISIS, by instituting an outright ban of and a threat of revocation citizenship (see here and here). Both these examples are to give a context of the perceptions and narratives.

Who is a true Muslim? And who represents Muslims?

Malik also raises the question of the what, or rather who, is representative of Islam and Muslims in general.

The Danish MP Naser Khader once told me of a conversation with Toger Seidenfaden, editor of Politiken, a left-wing Danish newspaper that was highly critical of the Danish cartoons. “He said to me that cartoons insulted all Muslims”, Khader recalled. “I said I was not insulted. And he said, ‘But you’re not a real Muslim’.”

“You’re not a real Muslim.” Why? Because to be proper Muslim is, from such a perspective, to be reactionary, to find the Danish cartoons offensive. Anyone who isn’t reactionary or offended is by definition not a proper Muslim. Here leftwing “anti-racism” meets rightwing anti-Muslim bigotry. For many leftwing anti-racists, opposing bigotry means accepting reactionary ideas as authentically Muslim. For many rightwing bigots (and, indeed, for many leftwing bigots, too), there is something about Islam that makes it irredeemably violent, even evil, and that makes all Muslims potentially dangerous.

Here also, liberal so-called anti-racism becomes a vehicle for buttressing the most reactionary, conservative voices in Muslim communities and for marginalizing the progressive. It becomes a means of closing down debate, censoring criticism, and giving power and legitimacy to “community leaders’ spouting the most backward of views. “The controversy over the cartoons”, as Naser Khader observed, “was not about Muhammad. It was about who should represent Muslims. What I find really offensive is that journalists and politicians see the fundamentalists as the real Muslims.” Which is why many Muslims, ironically, often have more liberal views on free speech than many so-called liberal non-believers.

[…]

… The problem is also the attitudes of non-Muslim commentators, policymakers and activists, both liberals and bigots, as to what constitutes an authentic Muslim, the failure to see beyond the conservative or the reactionary as the true Muslim, the inability to distinguish between the faith of ordinary believers and the politicised use of faith for reactionary ends by power-grabbing, control-seeking individuals and organizations. The problem is also government policy, particularly in the West. Policy makers have all too often treated minority communities as if each was a distinct, homogeneous whole, each composed of people all speaking with a single voice, each defined primarily by a singular view of culture and faith. They have ignored the diversity within those communities and taken the most conservative, reactionary figures to be the authentic voices.

We need to seriously deal with popular image of Muslims, among non-Muslims. Take for instance, the Shah Bano case and the Indian National Congress’s bending over backwards for reactionary and regressive Muslims. This case is very much apt to describe what Malik is trying to say. Despite the support and advocacy by several major Muslim and ex-Muslim personalities, politicians, organisations, NGOs, academics for the Supreme Court judgement, the ruling INC misused the overwhelming majority it had in the Parliament to overturn the judgement putting Muslim women at the mercy of the regressive elements within the community. Let’s also take the fact that many a times when a non-Muslim politician belonging to centrist or centre-left political party has to reach out to the Muslim electorate they would usually pay visit to some very questionable and controversial ulemas and community leaders for their campaigns, whose influence and social capital within the community itself would be very limited.

To conclude, a nuanced treatment of the subject is the need of the hour. Divorcing Islam from Islamism and Islamic terrorism is not the way to go about, but neither is looking at the phenomena of Hamas, Hezbollah, and even ISIS purely from a anti-religious and anti-theistic stand. While fighting against Islamic radicalism and fundamentalism without apology is extremely necessary, it is equally necessary to recognise and promote the efforts from within the community against the regressive elements, by recognising the diversity within the Muslim world. Doing that is neither fence-sitting nor apologism.