The great divide - ?The hardliners are getting marginalised by the day?

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By Lyricist Javed Akhtar decries the Beslan massacre. Journalist Sajid Rashid is attacked for his views on hardliners in his community. Satish Nandgaonkar reports on the war waged by Muslim moderates against Muslim radicals
  • Published 12.09.04

Cross purposes: Javed Akhtar (left); Muslim cleric Syed Ahmed Bukhari

It?s not often that poet Javed Akhtar picks up his well-honed quill to pen something as prosaic as a letter to the editor. Earlier this week, however, the massacre in a Russian school in Beslan prompted the lyricist to voice his anguish in a public letter. But the words were not those of Akhtar, the poet. It was, instead, the pen of Akhtar, the president of the Mumbai-based Movement for Secular Democracy (MSD).

As the world marks the third anniversary of the 9/11 attacks in the United States, Mumbai is going through its own state of churning. A movement is slowly building up in the city to tackle not just Hindu fundamentalism, but Muslim bigotry as well. And as the Muslim moderates resist attacks ? physical and verbal ? from the Islamic radicals, the MSD is gaining ground in a city where Muslims are still a besieged people.

The MSD was in the news recently when its vice-president, journalist Sajid Rashid, was stabbed by two unknown men (see box). Rashid believes that the attack by the armed men was an attempt by Muslim hardliners ? often severely criticised in the paper he edits ? to stifle the moderate Muslim voice which is being heard more than ever before. ?The hardliners are getting marginalised by the day,? agrees Javed Akhtar. ?The average Muslim wants change.?

That the MSD, set up in October 2003, has been growing in stature in Mumbai is not surprising for this is the city where Muslims have a prominent and popular face. Some of the leading lights of the Hindi film industry, for instance ? from the top actors and directors to musicians ? are Muslims.

But this is also the city where Muslims have been cornered or targetted, both by the Hindu and Islamic fundamentalists. The 1992-93 riots that followed in the aftermath of the Babri Masjid demolition hit out at the community, just as the March, 1993, bomb blasts ? masterminded by Muslim criminals ? further pushed the community into a defensive corner. And then came 9/11, the riots in Gujarat and the US-led attacks on Afghanistan and Iraq. Attacks on Muslims across the world went hand-in-hand with a perception of the Muslim as an aggressor.

It was against this backdrop that the MSD was set up. ?It was formed because we were concerned about the growing perception about Muslims,? says Javed Anand, an editor of the Mumbai-based journal, Communalism Combat, and one of the founders of the MSD. ?Hardliners would make outrageous statements claiming to be representatives of the Muslims. Syed Ahmed Bukhari?s statement that Osama Bin Laden should be born in every household is anti-national,? adds Rashid.

One of the issues that the MSD has taken up in recent times is that of the triple talaq. A debate has been snowballing on whether Muslims should continue with the currently practised form of divorce where a Muslim man can divorce his wife by pronouncing talaq thrice at one go.

The moderates and intellectuals in the community, as well as a large section of women, have been demanding the adoption of a Quranic practice of divorce spread over three months or over a period of three menstrual cycles. But a section of Muslim clerics and hardliners believes that the triple talaq is an integral part of the Shariat and changing or abolishing it would mean violating the Islamic jurisprudence.

The liberals have been using different platforms to make their voice heard. Just before the July 4 meeting of the All India Muslim Personal Law Board (AIMPLB) on issues such as the triple talaq, the MSD addressed a press conference urging the Board to abolish the practice. To reach out directly to the ordinary Muslim on the street, the MSD has also been touring the country, visiting Lucknow, New Delhi, Allahabad, Kanpur and Aligarh to advocate moderate stands on contentious issues such as the Haj subsidy, purdah, triple talaq, population control, gender discrimination and the uniform civil code.

The MSD is also for reform in Muslim personal and family laws because it believes that the laws are often unfair to women. ?MSD also stands for the right to freedom of expression,? says Javed Anand.

To get their stand across to the people, MSD is forming study circles in different parts of India. ?We have also consciously taken a decision that MSD should not become a club of intellectuals,? says Javed Akhtar. ?So, we try to address a cross-section of people which includes educated and illiterate people from various strata of Muslim society. The overwhelming popular reaction is that we are belling the cat,? he says.

To begin with, however, the liberals were not sure of the response they would get. ?But we were pleasantly surprised to find that 95 per cent of the audience in these cities agreed with our views and were eager to join in,? says Sajid Rashid.

But there is, at the same time, a sense of disquiet among the Muslims about the MSD, for the organisation takes on the hardliners on several issues that the Hindutva Brigade has also been highlighting. ?The MSD seems to have a hidden agenda,? says Mohammed Saeed Noori, general secretary of Mumbai?s Raza Academy. ?It is not clear exactly what they want. If they support anti-Islamic things, then it will not be tolerated. I believe that they are against the purdah which is central to Islamic tenets.?

By attacking the position of the hardliners ? supported by some of the leading Urdu dailies ? the MSD knows that it has been courting trouble. The first to come under attack was Javed Akhtar. Articles in Urdu dailies have described Akhtar as anti-Muslim. ?Javed saheb,? one of the papers warned, ?the day is not far when you too will be counted among the infamous blasphemers such as Salman Rushdie and Taslima Nasreen.? A series of articles called the MSD members ?munifiqeen? (infidels) and accused them of working against the tenets of the Shariat.

Says Maulana Athar Ali, spokesperson of the Ulema Council and vice-president of the Samajwadi Party?s Mumbai unit: ?Javed Akhtar and the so-called reformists have no moral right to speak. Did Akhtar marry according to the Muslim Personal Law? He did a registered marriage in court. If he doesn?t follow the Muslim Personal Law, what right does he have to talk about reforms in the Muslim Personal Law??

With the growing bitterness fomenting trouble, the MSD had submitted a memorandum to Mumbai police commissioner Anami Roy exactly a month before Rashid was attacked, saying that his life was in danger. In the memorandum, signed by Marathi writer-playright Vijay Tendulkar, Javed Akhtar, Javed Anand and editor Nikhil Wagle, it demanded that the police take legal action against Urdu Times ? one of the papers most virulent in its attack on the MSD.

The hardliners are not sitting back either. Recently, 32-year-old Urdu writer Rehman Abbas lost his teaching job at the Anjuman Islam school after radical groups threatened a protest over his maiden novel, Naklistan Ki Talash. They termed as ?obscene? portions of the novel on an affair between a Mumbai University student and his lover. The novel is the story of an educated Muslim youth whose increasing alienation in a post-1992 Mumbai leads him to a Kashmiri terrorist outfit.

?They thought the novel was obscene because the two lovers exchange kisses and decide to stay away from matrimony,? Rehman Abbas stresses. ?They accused me of being a kafir,? says Abbas, who, spurred by personal experiences, is now penning a new novel on hypocrisy among a section of Muslim leaders.

But like many others, Abbas views the attack on moderates as a positive sign, convinced that it would lead to reforms within the Muslim community. ?The attack on Rashid shows an increasing sense of insecurity among Muslims who do not like a mirror being held up to them,? he says.

And Akhtar believes that the time has come for the moderate Muslims to step out of their homes. ?The educated Muslims have been liberated long ago, but it remained an individual exercise. Today, especially after the Gujarat riots, they have realised that their destiny is linked with that of their community,? he says. ?That?s why they have realised that it is no longer enough to be educated and liberated themselves. They should share their education with the community.?

As for Rashid, the journalist believes that a battle is on. ?The attack has actually reduced my fear,? he says. ?I will fight on.?

night of the long knives

Journalist Sajid Rashid’s eyes dart intermittently at every shadow that passes the wide open door of his fourth floor flat in Dongri. There is reason for that, for a fortnight ago, Rashid was stabbed by two unidentified Muslims near his office. Living in a densely populated, Muslim-dominated locality like Dongri can give a sense of security to most Muslims in a deeply-polarised, post-riot Mumbai. But, for Rashid, the threat comes from within. Trouble has been brewing ever since Mumbai’s second largest Urdu daily accused him of insulting the Quran this summer. And then, on August 24, Rashid was stabbed near his office. Rashid, 48, had just stepped out of his office in Mahim for a cup of tea when a man asked him: “Sajid tumhara naam hain? Tu Quran ki tauheen karta hain?” The men stabbed him twice in the back and then disappeared in the dark lanes of Mahim. Profusely bleeding and terrified, Rashid walked back to his office and was rushed to a city hospital by his colleagues.

“They did not want to kill me. They wanted to scare me and frighten what I represent,” says Rashid.