“When I Say I Am A Muslim And Try To Define Myself, One Begs The Question – What Kind Of Muslim?”

Posted on June 23, 2015 in Society, Staff Picks, Stories by YKA

By Zehra Kazmi

While most of us are celebrating Ramzan this month, in China, the Chinese government has decided to ban civil servants, students and teachers from fasting during the month of Ramzan in the ethnically Uyghur Muslim dominated province of Xinjiang. Uyghur rights groups say China’s restrictions on practicing Islam in Xinjiang have added to ethnic tensions in the region, where clashes have killed hundreds in recent years. China believes it faces a “terrorist threat” in Xinjiang, with the state blaming “religious extremism” for the growing violence. The logic behind not allowing the people of a sensitive region to peacefully observe their most important festival might seem like a clearly flawed policy move to most of us. In fact, people like me in our cozy homes in secular, pluralist India might even heave a sigh of relief that we are in a country that allows us to practice our faith without any restrictions. While that realisation is definitely a happy one and mostly true, it might cause us to fall into a deceptive lull of complacency. It was only a few months ago that the current government decided to celebrate Good Governance Day on Christmas.

muslim woman

This majoritarian desire to assimilate and homogenize everyone is what is responsible for most ethno-religious conflicts in the world. A single identity never encapsulates the true essence of any individual’s context. Honestly, when I say I am a Muslim and try to define myself by saying just that, one begs the question – what kind of Muslim? A Shia or a Sunni? A Pakistani Muslim or a Nigerian Muslim? A rich, English-speaking Muslim banker or a poor, Maithili-speaking Muslim farmer? A man or a woman? A Bohra or an Ahmadiya? An Ansari or a Syed? Liberal or hardline?

The socio-cultural experiences of each kind of Muslim can be starkly different from each other. Then why this concern of the west to homogenize the image of the Muslim as the bearded man, armed with a Kalashnikov and one who speaks a distinctly harsh dialect of Arabic? For many Muslims, September 11, 2001 was a date that changed the meaning of what it means to be one. From that date hence, it became crucial for any Muslim to explain to their hesitant new acquaintance how extremists were a minority in their religion and in that very same breath qualify themselves as “moderate” Muslims, as though the rest of us were not “moderate” enough.

These generalizations might leave me livid at the way the media chooses to represent Muslims but the fact of the matter is that bad PR is one of the biggest problems that we are facing today. Obviously, I would be lying if I was to deny the presence of extremism in the Islamic community and you would have to be incredibly gullible to believe me. The threat of extremism is a real, tangible one and it is staring at us right in our faces today. So while most Muslims aren’t terrorists, there have been enough Muslims participating in terror to cause a certain negative perception to build and perpetuate itself in our society’s consciousness.

Muslims are also to blame for that, because we have definitely not made a strong enough effort to break that stereotype. That is why it is extremely important to recognize the work of individuals and groups who are fighting to combat this image of Muslims. Reza Aslan is one of the most important academics of our times not just because a clip of him shutting down a Fox News anchor who questioned a Muslim’s motives behind writing a work on Jesus went viral, but also because his scholarly criticism has been widely appreciated. Asra Nomani is an Indian-American journalist and author who ensured Muslim organizations in America to issue substantive affirmation of women’s rights in mosques. Mahmoud Mohammed Taha was executed for “apostasy” since he stood steadfast in his refusal to accept the interpretation of the sharia offered by the Sudanese government. Graphic novelist Marjane Satrapi broke the stereotype of burkha-clad voiceless Iranian woman with her strong-willed and opinionated characters. Even entertainers like Aziz Ansari and Nasim Pedrad, (who deal with more universal concerns in their work) as well as more directly involved comedians like Azhar Usman, have contributed in creating a counter-discourse to the one which the media is so keen on feeding to us and which we often seem keen enough to prove right.

Whether it is the media’s insistence on painting all Muslims in the same colour, the decision of governments to fiercely clamp down upon dissent and assimilate everyone in their hegemonic narratives, or our community’s resistance to change and acceptance of liberal values; they are all manifestations of the of the same impulse of intolerance that brings together the most unlikely compatriots – the white media baron running an organization like Fox or the mullah in Waziristan calling for death to all kafirs. No society can flourish by hoping to refuse the recognition of our differences. Their acceptance and celebration is the only chance we have at staying together.

This article is part of Youth Ki Awaaz’s special coverage of Ramzan this month. Follow Ramzan With Zehra for more.