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.

A Question to Put to the Ayurveda Crowd

Health minister Harsh Vardhan spoke again in support of Ayurveda and “alternative” medicine yesterday, as reported in The Hindu (Harsh Vardhan bats for Ayurveda):

Dr. Vardhan recommended that the National Institute of Mental Health and Neuro Sciences (NIMHANS) commit itself “to promoting Ayush” (Ayurveda, Yoga, Naturopathy, Unani, Siddha and Homoeopathy). NIMHANS and SVYAS should work in coordination and share scientific expertise, he said. “The supremacy of Indian fields of medicine has been established… Today, we do not have to convince people about yoga and Ayurveda.” However, the country needs evidence-based medicine, he said, adding that research on practices such as meditation and yoga could help empirically prove the efficacy of these Indian health systems.

The bit about evidence-based medicine is most welcome. My suspicion though is that they are not serious about it. His remarks here and previously (see Ayurveda, Unani, Siddha and Homeopathy to be included in AIIMS system: Harsh Vardhan) suggest that he has already decided that Ayurveda works, and the evidence-based support is going to be selectively painted on – perhaps dishonestly – to give it a respectable veneer.

In a previous post titled How Ayurveda Works (Not Really) I argued against Ayurveda based on issues of plausibility. Perhaps we should also keep this different question handy to put to them:

Can you describe some Ayurveda remedies which were examined using the techniques of evidence-based medicine, found ineffective, and therefore discarded?

This would give some idea of whether they are seriously following evidence-based medicine or not. Mind you, this question is very valid even for modern medicine, as Ioannidis and co. have found – biases like publication bias are very real in modern medicine (Why Most Published Research Findings Are False). So if you put this same question to a doctor or researcher of modern medicine, you won’t get as many examples as you’d like. But you will find some, as a little searching on Google reveals. You will also find disputes, re-evaluations and controversies, like in the case of statins. So, in the future when our health ministry has its way on AYUSH, we should see at least this amount of failure and controversy in the news. If my suspicion is correct, we will not – instead we’ll see one positive result after another. Time will tell.

 

A Year of Grand Slam Data: Men’s Tennis and Women’s Tennis

Since the 2013 US Open, I’ve been collecting the statistics published by the grand slam tennis tournaments in a spreadsheet. This was prompted by a discussion on sexism in tennis about a year ago, where I saw someone say he didn’t watch women’s tennis these days as it was “full of unforced errors”. So I decided to have a look at what the stats were. And since they publish stats not only on unforced errors but many other measures as well, and they use an identical tabular format (links: Aus, French, Wim, US), it was easy to compare and aggregate them.

I chose a number of “metrics”, some I’m sure most tennis fans will agree on, some based on what I like in tennis. I also did a per-game/per-set normalisation to get around the 3-set/5-set difference (more on the number-of-sets issue later). Here are the metrics I chose:

(1) Winners per game (the more the better), (2) winners rate (the more the better), (3) unforced errors per game (the lower the better), (4) unforced errors rate (the lower the better), (5) winners to unforced errors ratio (the more the better), (6) points per game (the more the better), (7) games per set (the more the better), (8) %age of straight-sets matches (the lower the better), (9) %age of final-set matches (the more the better), (10) %age of tie-break sets (the more the better), (11) double-faults per game (the lower the better), (12) service breaks rate (the more the better).

Before looking at the data, try to do a estimate in your mind of what you think these numbers will be like.

The Data

Here are the results: you can view the Google spreadsheet here (hopefully the Excel-to-Google conversion preserved all the formulas), or you can simply see the aggregates in the screenshot below (click to enlarge):

Spreadsheet showing aggregated statistics of the four grand slams. (Please see article body for the main results in text form.)

Spreadsheet showing aggregated statistics of the four grand slams. (Please see article body for the main results in text form.)

The results (aggregate of all 4 tournaments):

(1) Winners per game: men 2.0, women 1.8

(2) Winners rate (as % of total points): men 31%, women 27%

(3) Unforced errors per game: men 1.7, women 2.1

(4) Unforced errors rate (as % of total points): men 27%, women 33%

(5) Winners to unforced errors ratio: men 1.14, women 0.83

(6) Points per game: women 6.6, men 6.3

(7) Games per set: men 9.8, women 9.2

(8) %age of straight-sets matches: men 50%, women 69%

(9) %age of final-set matches: women 30%, men 17%

(10) %age of tie-break sets: men 18%, women 9%

(11) Double-faults per game: men 0.2, women 0.3

(12) Service breaks rate (as % of total games): women 35%, men 20%

Arguments

Arguments that women should receive less prize money than men are more generally arguments about value – i.e. does men’s tennis have more value than women’s tennis. The measurement of this value can take many forms – prize money is one of them; other forms are things like the amount and nature of media coverage, and the amount and nature of public appreciation. The higher the prize money, and the more and better the media coverage and public appreciation, the more the tennis is valued.

Most commonly one hears the argument that since men play best-of-5 and women play best-of-3, therefore men’s tennis deserves more prize money (i.e. it has more value). Leaving alone the fact that the WTA is willing to play best-of-5 too (links: Major obstacle to women’s call for five sets, WTA chief says women ‘ready, willing’ for five sets), the main flaw in these arguments is inconsistency – if number of sets really determines value, then that metric ought to be applied uniformly across the board rather than only on two sides of an arbitrarily chosen divide of men’s tennis and women’s tennis – i.e. it ought to be applied to all tennis matches, period. So a man who loses in 3 straight sets should receive less prize money (and less and worse media coverage and public appreciation) than a man who loses in 5 sets – because going by the logic of that particular metric, there is a difference in value the two men have provided. The same principle holds for any of the metrics above, or any other metric of your choosing, such as market demand (ticket sales, TV ratings etc.). Today the prize money is already equal, so what of the other measures of value – the media coverage and the public appreciation? It’s quite easy to see the inconsistency – a men’s match is treated kindly even when it ought not to be (as per these metrics). The media tends to be generous with praise and emphasizes the positive rather than the negative, with far more interview quotes and coverage for the men in general. One example from recent times – Maria Sharapova’s final-set defeat to Angelique Kerber in this year’s Wimbledon only got one sentence of coverage in The Hindu. Yet it devoted several paragraphs to Andy Murray’s straight-sets defeat (on a different day) – and this discrepancy in coverage was repeated on many days. This issue is something that would be worth doing a proper study on.

The fact that nobody is demanding “variable value” based on such metrics, yet noises about men-vs-women keep being made, indicates just how deeply embedded gendered thinking is – the divide shows up artificially even when it isn’t relevant, all the while appearing to be perfectly natural. (If you did make this proposal there would be an outcry against it, from players and fans alike – particularly if it involves prize money. I think the reason goes back to Michael Sandel’s Moral Limits of Markets. Market evaluations and incentives have a degrading and corrupting effect on certain goods and practices, and sports is one of them. Sports is bound up in all kinds of human emotion and values – honour, courage, beauty, skill, triumph over adversity – perhaps that’s why we wouldn’t like this idea. It also explains why we get angry when players aren’t loyal to their teams and play for the highest bidder.)

Another thing worth noting is, it’s debatable whether the 5-set format is better. It results in less straight-sets matches, but it also results in less final-set matches than the best-of-3 format. Yet you don’t see anyone arguing, “Women play more final-set matches, so women should receive more prize money”. Which leads me to to think that reason “5 sets” is used in the argument is that it’s what men play. Personally, I find a three-straight-sets match even worse than a two-straight-sets match, because the loser had three opportunities to win a set – over two-plus hours of my life which I’m never going to get back – and he couldn’t do it. A final set is the only thing I’m willing to watch in a tennis match these days, unless I have an emotional investment in one of the players. So I think the tennis authorities should instead revamp the scoring system entirely – neither best-of-3 nor best-of-5, but something completely different. Games like badminton, volleyball, squash and table-tennis have all experimented with scoring changes to make the game more appealing, so it’s worth trying. There will be objections to it, but I suspect these objections will mostly be a case of status-quo bias.

Finally, all the above is even before you take into account other important premises that ought to be included in any argument about men’s tennis and women’s tennis: the biological advantage that men have, and the barriers of sexism that women face and men don’t: implicit bias, explicit bias, objectification, sexualisation, infantilisation, body shaming, and policing of “femininity”. So taking all this into account, I conclude that we ought to value men’s tennis and women’s tennis equally, and also that the tennis authorities should look into changing the scoring system to make the game more appealing.

PS: any errors you find in the spreadsheet are honest mistakes; please point them out if you find any. I got tired of validating the data and the formulas and was seeing stars by the end of it, so I’m just going to go ahead and publish this post now.

 

 

On Why Gandhi Is Casteist

http://cp91279.biography.com/1000509261001/1000509261001_2033463483001_Mahatma-Gandhi-A-Legacy-of-Peace.jpg

Today in the morning I was greeted by an article in the Open Magazine on my news feed. The article titled Arundhati Roy’s Ahistorical Fiction, was a retort to Roy’s speech for her Mahatma Ayyankali address at the University of Kerala, where she was quoted for criticising Gandhi’s “casteist tendencies“. Before I continue I must say this beforehand that I am not without problems with Roy’s work, especially with her recently published introduction to Ambedkar’s Annihilation of Caste, but for different reasons. This post is not in defence of Roy. My problem here is with writer’s assertion of Gandhi’s anti-caste credentials.

From the time of Gautam Buddha in the 6th Century BCE, several great reformers have attempted to reduce or eliminate the injustice and inequity created by the caste system in India. They did not succeed. It was only in the 20th century that, under the leadership of Mahatma Gandhi, the people of India made the struggle against the caste system an integral part of their quest for freedom from British rule and succeeded in declaring untouchability a crime under the Constitution of the Republic of India.

The entire article is sickeningly dedicated to maintaining Gandhi’s messianic status as some kind of anti-caste revolutionary. The author makes several incorrect assertions in the article, but I will list down only some of them (or at least ones I found to be extremely disturbing).

1. Let’s begin with the paragraph quoted above. The author sweepingly declares all anti-caste movements, except that of Gandhi’s as a failure. He even went to the extent of appropriating the hard work of Ambedkar, the Constitution of India and the stringent anti-discrimination laws put in place by the Constituent Assembly, to Gandhi. The fact that Ambedkar was the chairman of the Drafting Committee and that Gandhi wasn’t even present in the Constituent Assembly, escaped the attention of the author. Furthermore, he forgets that it was because of Ambedkar’s prolonged efforts that led to the Untouchability Offences Act and the Protection of Civil Rights Act to be legislated in the year 1955, not Gandhi’s. The only thing that can be attributed to Gandhi would be that it was under his leadership that the Indian National Congress included ‘abolition of untouchability’ in its manifesto, nothing more.

The greatness of Gandhi lies in the fact that in the course of his public life, he came to realise this, and once he did, he struggled hard to break out of it. He tried to exorcise the devil. He went out of his way to serve those who were referred to as ‘untouchables’, helped them gain a measure of self-respect by calling them Harijans, the ‘children of God’.

2. He went out of his way to serve those who were referred to as ‘untouchables’… What exactly did he do? It would be pertinent here to point out that Gandhi for most of his life did not engage or endorse any anti-caste movement, including the 1927 Mahad Satyagraha, despite the fact that he was in a position to do so (he acquired the titles of Mahatma and Bapuji shortly after his return to India in 1915). It was only in the mid-20s that he began engaging publicly and politically with caste, and even when he did, he (deliberately or otherwise) confined himself with the practice of ‘untouchability’. His opinions regarding caste and intercaste marriage evolved at a very glacial pace, and I suspect it was because there was no other person other than Ambedkar who continuously challenged him and his authority. Still, we find the extremely regressive writings coming from him till the late 30s, for instance the infamous 1936 article in the Harijan The Ideal Bhangi, where he stated the work of a bhangi, which is to clean other people’s shit, as an honourable occupation,

I call scavenging as one of the most honourable occupations to which mankind is called. I don’t consider it an unclean occupation by any means. That you have to handle dirt is true. But that every mother is doing and has to do. But nobody says a mother’s occupation is unclean.

He in fact even blamed the Dalits for their own plight and dehumanising social stature, and demands that they give up their “filthy” habits.

I know many scavengers eat carrion and beef. Those who are doing this must abstain. Many of them are given to the evil habit of drink. Drink is a bad, filthy, unclean, degrading habit. A man who drinks intoxicating liquor forgets the distinction between wife, mother and sister. I would beseech you to give up all evil habits…

Some will obviously argue that his sanctification of sanitation work as “honourable” was not superficial as he himself practised it in his ashram in Sabarmati and demanded his other inmates and even his wife, much to their chagrin, to do the same. True, he did clean toilets and even made his followers and comrades do the same, and he did so as an act to demolish the basis of untouchability. But that doesn’t change the fact that he wasn’t casteist. Why?

3. Opposing untouchability does not mean opposing caste, just the way opposing slavery doesn’t necessarily mean opposition to the idea and construct of race (case in point, the racist anti-slavery crusader Abraham Lincoln). This is the biggest and the most glaring fallacy in the author’s argument, and similar arguments are made by several historians and intellectuals (you will find some of them at end of the TOI news article that I have linked above). Gandhi till the fag end of his life believed in caste (which he called varna) and advocated against intercaste marriages. He was also trenchantly and adamantly against any kind of affirmative action or separate electorate for the non-Savarnas, to the dismay of both Jinnah and Ambedkar.

But still you will find all kinds of Savarna historians, from the marxist Romila Thapar to the liberal Ramachandra Guha, defending Gandhi’s anti-caste credentials one way or the other. The reason for this is obvious. After Periyar, Gandhi (apart from Shahaji II of Kolhapur and maybe Vinayak Savarkar) is the only Savarna historical figure that came the closest to actually doing something for the Dalits. Yes, he’s the second best Savarna anti-caste “revolutionary”, but turned out to also be the most blatant casteist of the lot and the best advocate of status-quo of his time. And it is but a natural reaction for the Savarnas to hold on to his Mahatma-ness in the face of damning evidence. Any attempt at questioning Gandhi at the caste front, makes you either an attention-whore or a someone incapable of seeing the greatness of the Mahatma. Here, the Hindutvavadis have nothing worry about, and righfully so, because they still have Savarkar who with regards to his engagement with caste is far better than Gandhi.

But the progressive Savarnas need to buckle-up, because even their Goddess has now started questioning the progressive credentials in ways they did not expect.