Muslim politics must be rid of 'Masjid-Madrassa' syndrome to become relevant again

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Of all the challenges Indian Muslims face today the hardest, they say, is dealing with their systematic political marginalisation with even their traditional allies — the Congress and other avowedly liberal mainstream parties — reluctant to be seen in their company for fear of being portrayed as anti-Hindu. For a community long used to be courted as an electoral asset — a solid vote bank, if you will — it hurts to be suddenly treated as a political pariah.

The extent of its political isolation is evident from the fact that in the ongoing campaign for Assembly elections there's barely any discussion of the once-prized Muslim vote. The so-called "Muslim factor", once regarded as crucial to the outcome of an election—especially in north India and more particularly Uttar Pradesh — is conspicuously missing in campaign speeches. To be sure, some parties have fielded Muslim candidates but their nomination has more to do with other considerations than necessarily their Muslimness. For example, in Western UP, a number of Muslims have been chosen because first and foremost they are Jats, a powerful lobby, whose votes could tilt the balance in many constituencies.

Meanwhile, amid a sense of abandonment, frustration, and anger over what they see as their potential disenfranchisement, many Muslims have started to drift towards sectarian Muslim groups, notably Asaduddin Owaisi’s All India Majlis-e-Ittehadul Muslimeen though an overwhelming majority has reservations about his agenda which feeds political and communal polarisation.

So, where do they go from here to make themselves politically relevant again? To be honest they don’t have too many options in the prevailing climate compounded by a lack of a credible Muslim leadership. Several ideas are bouncing around but they seem more like a knee-jerk reaction than a coherent strategy to deal with the threat of political evisceration.

One such idea, said to enjoy considerable support, is an en masses Muslim boycott of all elections in future which, it is argued, might prompt political parties to sit up and realise the importance of the Muslim vote. After all, there are millions of Muslim votes at stake without which many avowedly secular parties will struggle.

“All these years, they’ve got used to taking us for granted because they think we have no other option but to vote for them. But once they lose these votes, they will realise our value,” one senior Muslim academic involved in such discussions told me.

Other random ideas doing the rounds include launching a secular political party/movement in tandem with other marginalised groups; Muslims voting only for Muslim candidates in their constituency; or those who commit to address their concerns.

Unfortunately, however as I pointed out earlier, none of it adds up to a coherent, well-thought-out response to a politically existential crisis. The debate reflects the confusion, anxiety, and impotent rage of a politically isolated, traumatised, and leaderless community in the throes of an existential crisis.

But what Muslims need is not a gimmicky short-term fix like the proposed election boycott but a long-term survival plan keeping in mind the changed political landscape and cultural polarisation. A plan focusing on issues beyond the community’s preoccupation with religious and cultural identity. Its message should be: let’s forget hijab, give personal law a rest, and stop worrying about ancient and dilapidated Muslim monuments...In other words, stop throwing red meat to your detractors who have thrived on Muslim sensitivities around issues of religious and cultural identity.

Quite apart from the fact that for too long we have been providing oxygen to our detractors' agenda, more importantly we have been guilty of neglecting the real bread-and-butter problems — education, jobs, housing, security — that matter more to millions of ordinary Muslims than arcane identity issues. Many of the community's problems, including the majoritarian backlash, can be traced to its misguided priorities but it’s never too late for course correction.

But for any plan to achieve a measure of success, moderate Muslims (practising but moderate Muslims as distinct from tub-thumping Left liberal atheists) will have to roll up their sleeves and start actively engaging with their community's affairs. Writing op-ed pieces and pontificating at seminars is not the same thing as engaging directly with people and helping them broaden their outlook and understanding of issues. To a large degree, we are where we are today is because moderate Muslims have been reluctant to dirty their hands thus allowing mullahs and other sectarian vested interests to take over the community’s leadership.

Nothing short of a palace coup against the “mullahcracy” is needed to reshape Muslim politics and make it relevant again. And, therefore, any long-term survival strategy must have at its heart a plan to rid the community of the masjid-madrassa syndrome that has plagued it for so long and done such damage to its real concerns.

Hasan Suroor is an independent commentator. His book on Hindu-Muslim relations is due out in the summer.

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Muslim politics must be rid of 'Masjid-Madrassa' syndrome to become relevant again
Muslim politics must be rid of 'Masjid-Madrassa' syndrome to become relevant again
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