By Isobel Ingham-Barrow
In September last year, Zaynab Hussein, a Muslim mother from Leicester, was taking her children to school when Paul Moore ran over her with his car. Moore then proceeded to hit an eight-year-old girl in a hijab, before returning to the scene where Zaynab lay injured on the floor and running over her again.
Meanwhile, Islamophobic hate crimes recorded by the Metropolitan Police Force in London have risen from 1,115 in 2015/16, to 1,665 in 2017/18 – an increase of roughly 50% in just two years.
Examples such as these are overt symptoms of Islamophobia in our society. However, there are also symptoms that are much harder to detect:
– the CV that is passed over because it boasts a Muslim sounding name;
– or the British-Pakistani man who is repeatedly assumed a threat at the airport on the basis of his beard;
– or the child who feels unable to ask questions in class because she is worried she may be swept up into the apparatus of PREVENT.
Taking all these different examples into account, the APPG (All-Party Parliamentary Group) for British Muslims recently launched an inquiry into a working definition of Islamophobia. In line with that inquiry, Muslim Engagement and Development (MEND) released their report “More than Words: Approaching a definition of Islamophobia” in an event in Parliament today. With contributions from leading academics and experts in their fields (such as Tariq Modood, Nazir Afzal, Todd Green, Lasse Thomassen, Aaron Winter, and Aurlien Mondon, to name but a few), the report is not intended to force a specific definition onto the APPG. However, it is important in its exploration of the roots and causes of Islamophobia, how and why it is fuelled, and its socio-political and personal consequences.
Islamophobia remains a contested term amongst political and academic debates. Some deny Islamophobia exists at all, and others resist attempts to define it for fear that it would be elevated to such a position that it cannot be ignored. However, a definition is important because it provides much-needed clarity in legislation that is intended to protect vulnerable minorities.
Once established, terms such as sexism, homophobia, racism and anti-Semitism became important tools to oppose and tackle the various discriminations and prejudices these labels embody.
It is now time to afford official recognition to a definition of Islamophobia.
While a full working definition can be found in the report itself, MEND’s definition of Islamophobia can be split into two parts:
The overt part: Islamophobia is a prejudice, aversion, hostility, or hatred towards Muslims.
The “hidden” part that affects all Muslims both as individuals and as collective groups: that is the discrimination that excludes or limits Muslims’ equal exercise of fundamental freedoms in the political, economic, social, cultural or any other field of public life.
According to MEND, the reasoning behind this definition is to secure Islamophobia, not just as hate crime and abuse, but also for it to be recognised in the ways that it works to exclude Muslims from all realms of civic life, whether that be through workplace discrimination, or through institutional Islamophobias that discourage Muslim voices from participating in democratic debates.
For some time, there has been considerable debate as to whether the term “Islamophobia” is appropriate, accurate or even counterproductive. This has led individuals and organisations to propose the use of other terms such as “anti-Muslim hatred”. However, MEND, along with the Runnymede Trust and various other experts in the field, argue unequivocally that the term “Islamophobia” is the most appropriate terminology.
Firstly, Islamophobia is a term that holds currency within public discourse and is well established within popular understanding. Many victims of Islamophobia may not have the technical vocabulary to fully explain their experiences. However, the long-standing existence and usage of “Islamophobia” means that the term has meaning for those whom it affects. Ultimately, if you want to help victims, you have to engage in a way that is meaningful for them. Therefore, “Islamophobia” is not a term that will be easily replaced within political, activist or victim vocabularies.
Secondly, differences between terms such as Islamophobia and “anti-Muslim hatred” reflect differences in focus and understanding of the phenomenon. Therefore, they produce different approaches and priorities in tackling it. If you don’t fully understand the problem, you are not going to solve it.
For example, while “anti-Muslim hatred” may be used to describe hate crime, verbal abuse, and harassment, it hides the damaging effects of anti-Muslim agendas within politics and media and, therefore ignores the dangers of discrimination and socio-political exclusion. In other words, “anti-Muslim hatred” covers the first part of MEND’s definition (hatred and hostility) but not the second part (discrimination and exclusion).
On the other hand, “Islamophobia” provides a broad understanding that explicitly identifies the phenomenon in all its forms and which, therefore, provides a useful tool in finding strategies for tackling it.
One of the main accusations against the word “Islamophobia” is that it is an attempt to stifle free speech and all criticism of religion. However, it has never historically, nor should it presently, be seen in this light. MEND’s report goes to great pains to highlight this point.
Islamophobia should not be understood as a protection against questioning or criticising religion. Nor should it be seen as an attempt to enforce restrictions on freedom of speech.
However, there is no absolute right to freedom of speech when it can harm others and society has always done what is necessary to protect individuals from abuse and violence. Indeed, under the Racial and Religious Hate Crime Act, 2006, Jews and Sikhs are protected against insulting, abusive of threatening words and behaviour. Therefore, including Islamophobia into this framework does not result in limiting freedom of speech further than what already has existing legal precedents.
The prospect of developing an official working definition of Islamophobia is hugely important in the challenge to tackling the hostilities, hatred, discrimination and exclusions that British Muslims face on a daily basis. Meanwhile, work such as MEND’s report highlights the importance of understanding all the different forms that Islamophobia takes and the mechanisms that drive it. It is only if we truly understand Islamophobia that we can effectively tackle it.
A world of meaning in the name Ashok
By Gopa lkrishna Gandhi
We bear the names we bear forever. They are us, our identity. And yet they are the one thing about us we are not responsible for. They have, after all, been thought of, chosen for us by those who have named us — our guardians, parents, grandparents. In fact, by our generations.
And they have been determined by current trends, styles, preferences.
Ashok, as a name, is now passé. This is not said statistically but impressionistically. The school in New Delhi where I studied in the 1950s had many Ashoks in it. My own class of some thirty had three, one of them, Ashok Dilwali, being one of India’s greatest photographers today. In the class of a hundred where I teach today, there is not one Ashok. Nor, for that matter, in the university itself — of 1,400 students.
It could be just a ‘vogue’ thing. Ashoka as a name does not appeal any more.
But, first, to look at the naming of the first Ashoka.
The rock inscription at Maski in Raichur, Karnataka, discovered in 1915 by C. Beadon, a British gold-digger, that first shone a light on his name and honorifics, calls him: Devanamapiyasa Ashokasa. The one in Gujjara, Datia, Madhya Pradesh gives it more fully: Devanamapiya Piyadasi Ashokalaja.
Devanamapiya (Beloved to the Gods) and Piyadasi (Dear to Behold) are obviously names that he acquired during his regnal years. But Ashoka, meaning ‘One Without Sorrow’, obviously, was given to him by his family. Legend says, by his mother.
Generations of Indians named their sons and daughters after him.
Daughters? The ‘a’ ending in Ashoka when pronounced ‘aa’ acquires the feminine gender as in the case of the noble Ashoka Gupta (1912-2008). And she certainly did more than anyone can to stem sorrow. Born to the writer, Jyotirmoyee Devi, and Kiron Chandra Sen, Ashokadi was a freedom fighter and rescuer of women victims of the genocide in Noakhali. Later, she did more than any woman I know in our times to alleviate sorrow and distress among neglected and exploited women and girls through the Mahila Seva Samity that she founded. Jawaharlal Nehru was a student of history before he was a maker of his destiny. His daughter, Indira Priyadarshini, known to history as Indira Gandhi (1917-1984), invokes the Mauryan’s title. I do not think her father could have conjured that name without the Ashokan nomenclature in his mind.
Until a few decades ago, boys in Gujarat used to be quite frequently named Ashok. The first ‘Gujarati Ashok’ who comes to my mind is Asoka Mehta (1911-1984). The great socialist was born to the distinguished thinker, historical-novelist and writer, the short-lived Ranjitram Vavabhai Mehta (1881-1917), who is specially remembered for his as yet untranslated Gujarati novel, Ahmed Rupande, about a Hindu girl marrying a Muslim boy. And as the Gujarati litterateur, Tridip Suhrud, has unravelled, this Asoka’s mother was Shanta. Perhaps she it is who named him. A founding member of the Congress Socialist Party, Asoka Mehta kept a certain distance from Jawaharlal Nehru but accepted, curiously, a rather light ministerial office under Indira Gandhi. The other eminent ‘Gujarati Ashok’ is Ashok Desai (b. 1942), the distinguished barrister and former attorney general of India, whose appearance in Sakharam Binder famously led to the striking down of State pre-censorship of dramatic performances.
More recently, his advocacy in Nandini Sundar led the court to pass defining orders on the dilemma that surrounds the crossfire between violent Naxalites and vigilante groups supported by the State.
India’s other end, Bengal, has also had notable Ashoks.
Ashok Kumar (1911-2001), the great film star, was not Ashok to start with. His lawyer father, Kunjlal Ganguly, and mother, Gauridebi, named him Kumudlal but Bollywood renamed him Ashok. Not a bad idea that, for Kumudlal and Devika Rani would not have quite clicked as a pair in Achhut Kanya (1936). Ashok Mitra (1928-2018), a pre-eminent Marxist economist and political leader, was Indira Gandhi’s chief economic adviser, being succeeded there by Manmohan Singh, and then Jyoti Basu’s finance minister for 10 years. Ashokbabu’s acuity was matched only by his acerbic tongue, be it in explaining a nuance of economic policy or analysing recent history.
We are fortunate to have amidst us today, another ‘Bengali Ashok’, the theoretical physicist, Ashoke Sen FRS (b. 1956). His parents, Anil Kumar Sen (himself a former professor of physics), and Gauridebi, chose for their son a name from history over another from the world of science. Working in the Harish-Chandra Research Institute in Allahabad and recipient, in 2012, of the world’s biggest science award, the Fundamental Physics Prize (three million dollars), Ashoke Sen is working on the ‘string theory’. I do not know and (given my cerebral limitations) can never know what the ‘string theory’ means.
But I am sure Ashoke Sen knows that in the city — Allahabad — where he and his wife, the physicist Sumathi Rao, live, is situated one of Emperor Ashoka’s most famous pillar edicts. And the life-career of this pillar contains what may be called its own ‘string theory’ — about a string of historic vandalisms.
The Ashoka pillar at Allahabad was used as a writing slate in the 4th century CE by Samudragupta of the Gupta Empire to write his own panegyrics in Sanskrit, describing himself as ‘Parakrama’ and the owner of a body which (in D.R. Bhandarkar’s English rendering) was “most charming, being covered over by the plenteous beauty of the marks of hundreds of promiscuous scars, caused by battle-axes, arrows, spikes… and many other weapons” received during his wars and conquests, including those of the south of India. The Great Gupta’s space-snatch was followed by that of the Grand Moghul, Jahangir. In beautiful Persian, this one was carved — jabbed, one should say — by the then Prince Salim’s favourite calligrapher, Qalam, to describe, in vainglory, Moghul lineage and a visit in 1575 to the sangam, of Akbar’s minister, Birbal. Actually, it does worse than Samudragupta’s engraver. It superscribes this right onto Ashoka’s text. It overwrites, by cutting its usurping text with cynical contempt on the Ashokan Edicts III and IV in the original Ashokan Brahmi. Qalam did not know — could not have known — what that Pillar Edict III says in Magadhi Prakrit. It says: “The following lead to sin — fierceness (candiye), harshness (nithuliye), anger (kodhe), pride (mane), envy (isya).” But if Jahangir had come to know it, he is unlikely to have been impressed.
Ashoka’s pillar in Allahabad became just a surface for others to try to immortalise themselves on.
And now, not on the pillar but on the city that hosts it comes the latest ‘bead’ on the ‘string’ of gratuitous replacements, displacements — the re-naming of Allahabad as Prayagraj. No one contested the place of Prayagraj in our psyche, least of all Allahabad. But there it is: Allahabad out, scratched out. Prayagraj scratched in.
This is not how it used to be.
The Republic of India adopted Ashoka’s lion capital for its national emblem. It adopted his ‘chakra’ for the central motif of its national flag. Its first president, Rajendra Prasad, renamed the Ball Room of Rashtrapati Bhavan as Ashok Hall. And the nation’s ‘peacetime equivalent of the Param Vir Chakra, awarded for the most conspicuous bravery or some daring or pre-eminent valour or self-sacrifice other than in the face of the enemy’ is named the Ashoka Chakra — hugely imaginative!
The future of Ashoka’s heritage in India calls for concern.
For a certain kind of politician the Pillar Edict III quoted above will have no effect. And the following edicts of Ashoka would be a no-go: “It is verily concord of all religions that is meritorious (shamavaye va shadhu).” (Rock Edict XII)
“King Priyadarsin reverences persons of all sects… But the one root is the guarding of one’s speech so as to avoid the extolling of one’s own religion to the decrying of the religion of the other.” (Rock Edict XII)
“For upholding the dhamma I shall send once in every five years a class of officers who are not harsh (akhakhase), not cruel (achande), and are of gentle disposition (sakhinalambhe).” (Kalinga Edict I)
And he is most unlikely to name his son Ashok.
Vikramaditya, yes, or Harsha, Kanishka, Ranjit, Pratap.
As one may say in Tamil-English — chance-ay-ille.
Amit Shah more powerful than Advani ever was
By D.K. SINGH
“Who is Amit Shah?” ran the headlines when he was appointed BJP general secretary in charge of Uttar Pradesh on 19 May 2013. Then-BJP president Rajnath Singh was on the defensive, arguing that it was “not a crime” to appoint Shah, an accused in an alleged fake encounter case at that time.
Two thousand days later – the landmark reached last Sunday – the rise of Amit Shah in Indian politics has been phenomenal, one of the rare instances of a political non-entity (outside the home state) making it so big on the national political scene in such a short time. Not many BJP presidents could claim to have the kind of aura and clout across the country that he has. Union ministers start shivering when they are called for a meeting with Shah ahead of a Cabinet reshuffle. In the past, many of them got news of their sacking from him only.
After Atal Bihari Vajpayee and L.K. Advani, the only BJP president who is in so much demand among party candidates for campaigning in their constituencies is Amit Shah.
It’s quite an achievement for a leader who had been in jail for three months – in connection with the Sohrabuddin Sheikh fake encounter case – and who got out on bail in 2010 only to be told by the Supreme Court to stay out of Gujarat and given time till the next morning to leave the state. Few noticed him when he would get in and out of the Gujarat Bhawan where he stayed in the national capital.
Arun Jaitley, the Leader of Opposition in the Rajya Sabha at that time, was chatting with a few journalists in his chamber in Parliament one afternoon in 2013 when a bearded man entered and touched his feet. He had got relief from the apex court in one of the cases. The journalists present there recognised Shah but he wasn’t important enough for them to digress from an interesting conversation with the senior opposition leader.
Shah has come a long way since then. The last 2000 days have been a period of metamorphosis for him: from a reticent, seemingly unambitious state minister whose personal and political life appeared doomed after his incarceration in connection with fake encounter cases into a confident and outspoken BJP president who is now seen as the alter ego of Prime Minister Narendra Modi.
Another Vajpayee-Advani jodi is in the making as Modi makes a conscious attempt to model himself on the former prime minister, an RSS pracharak who rose over divisive ideology and politics to become a darling of the people as a ‘vikas purush’ or development man. Whether by design or default, Amit Shah is also taking after Advani of yore, a ‘loh purush’ who takes the hard line on issues perceived to be dear to Hindus.
When RSS chief Mohan Bhagwat raised the Ayodhya Ram Mandir issue in Delhi on 19 September, Shah ignited a debate on the same subject the next day at a book launch in the national capital. The BJP president has described Bangladeshi “infiltrators” as termites and made Assam’s National Register of Citizens a testimony of the party’s stance against illegal immigrants (read Muslims).
Soon, there will be a BJP government in Bengal and no one will dare stop Durga Puja or Saraswati Puja, he roared in West Bengal, referring to the Trinamool Congress government’s restrictions on idol immersion last year. In the run-up to the 2017 Uttar Pradesh election, he promised to ban slaughterhouses and liberate people “from the fear of Atiq Ahmad, Mukhtar Ansari and Afzal Ansari”. There are instances galore of how Shah doesn’t miss an opportunity to project himself as a hardline Hindutva proponent a la L.K. Advani.
Those who knew Shah in his early days in Gujarat say that he always held strong views although he didn’t articulate them publicly. He was a votary of a powerful state. Those old-timers also recall how difficult it was for the Congress to open its election office in Sarkhej assembly constituency from where Shah contested 2007 assembly election. He used to be a soft-spoken leader then, without any tinge of bitterness in his voice.
He is a changed man now. The ruling party he heads has perfected the art of using the instruments of the state while he has become unapologetic about his and his party’s pro-Hindu credentials. Opposition candidates find it more challenging to stay in the electoral game.
Shah is arguably more powerful today than what Advani was during the Vajpayee regime. Much of Advani’s larger public persona could be attributed to his image as a hardline Hindu leader and a Ram Mandir crusader. Shah can’t reach that status now even if he travels down that path. But the times are different now. Shah doesn’t need to.
Pakistan-A state in denial
By Saad Hafiz
Pakistan living in a state of denial of its extremist problem is old news. Religious extremists who are in the ascendancy hold the country by the jugular. They are allowed freedom to dictate their regressive agenda and demonise the most vulnerable in society on the back of black laws. This state of affairs seems evident to everyone, but to Pakistanis themselves.
The reaction of the state to extremist provocations now follows a predictable pattern. Initially with fierce rhetoric on ensuring the writ of the state, then meek surrender to extremist demands. We saw this absurd approach during the recent standoff on the Aasia Bibi acquittal. The state, through its defeatist response, essentially rewarded the extremists for their belligerence and intransigence.
The highly inflammatory, anti-army and anti-judiciary statements from radical clerics that incited the people to violence — uttered by anyone else — would have invited the full wrath of the state. Calling for the removal of the army chief and threats to judges of the Supreme Court and the Prime Minister are treasonable offenses. The army brass and intelligence apparatus are very tough with persons who question state policies. Non-Punjabi nationalist politicians, members of the press and civil society have found this out to their cost.
The coddling of religious extremists is an insane policy. It has plagued Pakistan from very early in its creation. The country has already paid a high price for using extremists as assets and proxies. The army, but also desperate politicians are guilty of this self-serving and myopic policy. It has contributed to a general lack of respect for law and order, domestic terrorism and poor relations with neighbours.
The extremists are adept at exploiting the divide between state and society. Their simple solution to complex social, economic and political problems is music to many. An effective extremist tactic is to accuse state institutions and individuals to religious and moral corruption. They demand the purification of Islam from corrupt western practices adopted by the ruling elite. And harping on about foreign conspiracies and agendas is part of their strategy.
Overall, Islamist political parties continue to perform moderately in elections, most recently in 2018, garnering around 10 percent of the national vote. However, the radical Tehreek-i-Labbaik Pakistan (TLP) — led by clerics of the Barelvi sect — emerged as the top fifth religious party by vote bank in Sind and Punjab. The TLP is prominent in confronting the state on multiple occasions to further their extremist agenda.
The nexus of religion and politics has picked up a quick pace in Pakistan. The Islamist lobby is imposing their hard line views on religious freedoms and civil liberties. As a result, we can see the curtailing of personal freedoms and subordination of the role of women and minorities.
The rise of Islamic fundamentalism has also impacted the nature of politics in the country. Pakistan is being transformed into a hard-line Sunni Muslim state. Left on its own, the country’s small but vibrant civil society, active media, and established political parties are unable to halt the extremist advance on their own.
A chilling fact is that extremist ranks include young people from all social, economic and educational backgrounds. Endemic corruption and oligarchic control of the public sphere drives those disadvantaged by this system to look to Islam for salvation. The youth is particularly affected as the public debate is far removed from rationality and justice and more to the acceptance of a linear ideology.
It is too easy to equate the worldwide phenomenon of extremism to the rise of extremism in Pakistan. Firstly, Pakistani extremism has enjoyed state connivance to grow into a Frankenstein monster it is today. Secondly, unlike most stable democracies, the country’s constitutional and democratic institutions are arguably not strong enough to withstand the extremist onslaught. Thirdly, the extremists want to capture state power, which will have dire consequences.
Pakistan is losing the battle to balance religious tradition with the social, economic and political demands of the modern world. There is little support for a separation between religion and the state. Even fewer people see value in the idea that religion is and should be strictly a private matter.
Every country is entitled to create its favoured methods of governance. But Pakistan should allow its young people the opportunity to study the merits of liberal democracy and secularism. Just harking back for solutions from the golden age of Islam isn’t enough for a well-rounded education.
Perhaps the best antidote to extremism is to encourage free thinking and open inquiry. This progression seems the only way forward to pull Pakistanis out of the powerful grip of religious extremism.
It isn’t clear whether the generals and the civilian apparatus will ever find the will to turn back the extremist wave. They are perhaps afraid that dealing harshly with religious extremists could engulf the country as a whole. But to do nothing and stay a state in denial could mean the end of Pakistan itself.
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