Some Myths About Muslims

(This article first appeared in http://kafila.org. It is being reproduced here with permission, considering its apt for the current situation of Intolerance in India)

By: Shankar Gopalakrishnan

As the 2014 elections begin, the time has come again to state the obvious. In the context of massive propaganda campaigns, the subtle use of stereotypes, and the fact that both the Western and the Indian media share certain basic biases, many people end up believing in a range of myths about the adherents of the world’s second largest religion. This is a quick attempt at exposing those myths.

Myth: ‘Muslim’ countries are never secular. Muslims do not tolerate minorities in ‘their’ countries but demand minority rights in other countries.

The world’s largest Muslim majority country is Indonesia (total population approximately 25 crores, larger than Pakistan). Indonesia is a secular democracy. Indeed, its population is almost a mirror image of India’s – 88% Muslim, 9% Christian, 3% Hindu, 2% Buddhist, etc. (as compared to India, which has a population that is 80% Hindu, 13.4% Muslim, 2.3% Christian, etc.) Indonesia’s national slogan is “Unity in Diversity.” Yes, Indonesia has occasional riots and bomb blasts, but so does India.

In reality the majority of Muslim majority countries in the world are secular. Several large examples include Turkey, Mali, Syria, Niger, and Kazakhstan. Despite having Islam as ‘state religion’, Bangladesh’s government is also secular in law. The same is true of many other countries. Only six countries in the world claim to use Islam as the basis of their law making – and their total population is roughly the same as the population of Indonesia, Turkey and Kazakhstan combined. In other words, the vast majority of Muslim majority countries are secular, and the vast majority of Muslims live under secular governments.

Myth: Not all Muslims may be terrorists, but most terrorists are Muslims.

Even if we accept the government’s definition of who is a terrorist in India, this is entirely untrue. In India, less than a third of the organisations banned as “terrorist” under the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act are Muslim organisations. Internationally, the group that engaged in the most suicide bombings in the world was the LTTE in Sri Lanka – a militantly atheist group whose members are mostly of Hindu and Christian origin.

It is also not true that Muslim organisations engage in the most violence in India. Between 2005 and 2014, as per the South Asia Terrorism Portal, twice as many people were killed in ‘terrorist incidents’ by Northeastern militant organisations and “left wing extremism”. These are all non-Muslim organisations, and the largest Northeastern organisation in this period (ULFA) has a mostly Hindu, upper caste leadership.

Besides, the definition of “terrorism” that the government uses is contradictory. Killing twenty people by a bomb blast is considered terrorism, but the killing of thousands of people in 1984 or more than a thousand people in Gujarat in 2002 (or, for that matter, the killing of 40 people in Muzaffarnagar, 68 people in Orissa in 2008, etc. etc.) are not. All riots involve planning, stockpiling of weapons and systematic attacks. Why then are they not considered terrorism?

Myth: Muslims have always been fundamentalists and are ‘more religious’ than followers of other religions.

Recent history shows that this is a lie, and also exposes where current “Muslim fundamentalism” comes from. Just forty to sixty years ago, in most of the major regions of the world with high Islamic populations – Indonesia, the Middle East, north Africa – the strongest political forces were secular leftists. This took many forms: the Indonesian Communist Party, the Nasserite and Baa’thist regimes in Egypt, Syria and Iraq, the Iranian government of Mohammed Mossadegh, etc. In these countries, especially in the Middle East, it was the United States and its client states (such as Saudi Arabia) that sponsored, financed and armed right wing and religious fundamentalist organisations, precisely in order to counter the strength of the secular leftists whom they opposed. Israel’s role in propping up Hamas to counter the PLO is also well known. This reached its height in the 1980s with the war in Afghanistan, with the US bankrolling and training the people who later founded Al Qaeda. It was during this period as well that the US financed and supported the Zia regime in Pakistan in its “Islamisation” drive. The current strength of the Islamic fundamentalist movement in the Middle East is a result of American strategy, which involved finishing off all leftist resistance while tolerating and encouraging Islamic fundamentalism.

Above all, to repeat the key point, Islamic fundamentalism is a political phenomenon created by a particular history – just like Hindutva, Christian fundamentalism and every other form of right wing movement. The myth of the inherently fundamentalist Muslim owes a lot to European mythmaking around the Crusades and subsequent efforts to prop up their empire in India. But people continue to recycle colonial self-justifications as if they are true.

Myth: Muslims always start violence. Hindus only ‘retaliate’ or ‘act in self defence’.

Every single group that has ever engaged in mass killings has claimed to be ‘retaliating’ or ‘defending themselves’.’  The September 11 attacks in the US were justified as “retaliation” for the killing of lakhs of people in Iraq (through sanctions) and in Palestine by the US and Israel.  If you believe the emails being sent before the Delhi and Ahmedabad bomb blasts in 2008, the blasts were “retaliation” for police atrocities and the massacre of Muslims in Gujarat.  In 2008 Christians were massacred in Orissa in “retaliation” for the killing of a VHP leader. Going back further in history, the Nazis justified the Kristallnacht– their first state-sponsored riot against Jews, in which thousands of synagogues and homes were destroyed – by claiming it was “retaliation” for the murder of a German diplomat and necessary to ‘defend themselves’ against ‘international Jewry’.

The reason for this is simple – the only way to convince people to commit inhuman atrocities against other people is to make them believe that they are “defending themselves” or “paying back.” The sheer inhumanity of talking about “retaliation” is obvious. Would those who claim “Hindus only retaliate” be comfortable if a Bihari militia were to massacre Maharashtrians as “retaliation” for attacks by the MNS and the Shiv Sena? Would they accept if Northeastern armed organisations carried out massacres of Delhiites in “retaliation” for atrocities and racism against Northeasterners in the capital? It is a mark of how low we have come as a society that so many people go around mouthing these slogans today, as if gangrape and massacres can ever be justified by “retaliation” and “self-defence.”

Myth: Hindus do not kill based on their religion. Only Muslims do, because their religion requires them to.

In Gujarat in 2002, in Delhi and other cities in 1984, in Bhagalpur in 1989, and in most other riots, the overwhelming majority of those who died were from minority communities (Muslims, Sikhs, etc.) Then we have the recent instances of bomb blasts by Hindutva organisations. The majority of the killers in all of these incidents were Hindus, and the organisations that drove the killings called on them to kill non-Hindus. Would it be accurate to say they killed because Hinduism required them to do so? No, clearly, in all those instances, the attackers and the organisers were political groups seeking political goals (and dressing them up as religious goals). This is exactly what far right Muslim groups do too.

Every religion has groups that urge conflict with other religions, and holy texts in every religion contain things that endorse atrocities (just look at the what the Manu Smriti says about women and Dalits, or the Old Testament of the Bible says about massacres of non-Jews). This does not mean that followers of those religions follow those texts literally. The vast majority of Muslims, like the vast majority of Hindus, Christians, or any other group, have never killed anyone and never will.

Myth: Muslims are united and act together, while Hindus are divided and weak.

Every election study ever done has found that Muslims vote in the same manner as any other community votes – for facilities, on the basis of the candidate, whether they like a political party, etc. In practice also Muslims are no more united than any other group; they have internal divisions on religious, caste, gender, regional, language and countless other lines, just like any other community in India. If Muslims were “united”, one would expect that they would be represented well in Parliament. In fact, Muslim MPs constituted only 5.5% of the outgoing Lok Sabha, even though they are more than 13% of the population.

If anything, in today’s cities the idea of “Muslims all live together” has been created by discrimination against them and them being forced to live in particular ghettos. Meanwhile, in voting, people worry about their own physical safety; just as a Bihari will not vote for a Shiv Sena candidate, most Muslims would not vote for the BJP. This is, once again, common sense. A party which has built itself around calling you foreigners, terrorists and anti-nationals is not likely to win your vote.

Myth: The government favours Muslims and pampers them.

On the contrary, official data indicates systematic discrimination against Muslims.  The Sachar Committee found that availability of bus stops, roads, bank branches etc. is lower in Muslim majority areas, even when compared to nearby villages with a Hindu majority. Muslims on average received only 2/3 the loan amounts disbursed to other minorities.  The proportion of Muslims living in pucca houses is lower than the general population, both in cities and in villages, even if compared to others at their level of poverty.  Muslims form less than 3% of the IAS officers and 4% of IPS officers, even though their population is about 13% of the total. Overall, the Sachar Committee concluded that on average Muslims are at roughly the same socioeconomic level as Dalits and adivasis.

Similarly, in a study published in the Economic and Political Weekly in 2007, the authors responded to 548 job advertisements from private sector companies with three identical applications – one with a high caste Hindu name, one with a Dalit name, and one with a Muslim name. Even though the applications were otherwise identical, the Dalit name was approximately one third less likely to get called for an interview, and the Muslim name was two thirds less likely. In both the public and the private sectors, Muslims are denied opportunities across the board.

Myth: But Hindus cannot buy land in Jammu and Kashmir!

Non-Kashmiris cannot buy land in J&K – just as non-Himachalis cannot buy land in Himachal Pradesh, outsiders cannot enter Nagaland without permission, non-Uttarakhandis can buy only small plots in Uttarakhand, etc. Many parts of India have these regulations to protect local populations. The issue has nothing to do with religion.

Myth: The Muslim population is increasing faster than the Hindu population, especially because Muslim men can have many wives. Their aim is to become the majority.

The National Family Health Survey has found that young Muslim women have the same fertility rate as young Hindu women of the same economic level. The slightly higher growth rate for Muslims overall is due to the fact that, on average, Muslims are poorer than Hindus. Common sense would also indicate this. Kerala, which has a Muslim population of approximately 25%, also has the lowest population growth rate of any State in the country. Poverty and lack of facilities are far more important than religion in deciding how many children you have. The fertility rate of Muslims in States like Tamil Nadu and Kerala is far below that of Hindus in Uttar Pradesh, Bihar or Rajasthan, for instance.

As for Muslim men marrying many wives, it is blindingly obvious that this can make no difference to population growth, since if one Muslim man has two wives, that means some other man will have no wife (given that the populations of men and women are roughly equal). Meanwhile, the NFHS found (in the only survey that looked at this) that approximately 5.8% of Hindu men have multiple wives, while only 5.73% of Muslim men do.

Myth: Muslims got ‘their’ country when Pakistan was created, now they should leave ‘our’ country.

The first active political leaders to talk of separate countries for Muslims and Hindus were those who would later be part of the Hindu Mahasabha. Bhai Paramanand, later president of the Mahasabha, demanded this in 1905. The demand for Pakistan did not emerge from the Muslim League until 1940, and then as well it was a political demand by a political party. Huge numbers of Muslims opposed the idea of Pakistan, including the biggest Islamic religious school in India – the Deoband seminary – and President of the Congress party, Maulana Azad, who was one of India’s greatest freedom fighters. The demand for Pakistan was a demand by a political party, not a demand by Muslims as a whole.

In short, it’s simple: Muslims are human beings, with as much diversity and free thinking as any other group of people. In this climate of intense hate-mongering against Muslims, it’s necessary to reject these racist myths and instead stand up for a world that values human dignity.

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