Thursday, May 27, 2004

With Enemies Like These... (Or, equal time for religious fundamentalism)

He started by accusing me of 'Hindu bashing' in response to this post when in fact, I had done nothing of the kind. I pressed him on the accusation; he came up empty. Instead he changed his tack:

When will a discussion about secularism from your stables talk about Islamic fundamentamentalism, Sikh fundamentalism, Christian fundamentalism and the interconnections between them and Hindu fundamentalism?

This could be a fair question, except for the last part, which doesn't make any sense ('the interconnections between them and Hindu fundamentalism'). [I also enjoy the Bushism of 'fundamentamentalism'.] But here was my reply:

Note yesterday's link to a review of Susan Jaboby's book -- a critique of Christian fundamentalist revisions of American history. Secondly, last month I did attack George Bush's references to God in his speeches.

I don't deal much with Islamic fundamentalism because there are a thousand blogs that do so already. Needless to say, I am opposed to Jihadism, and am skeptical even of moderate aims at 'Islamic democracy' such as Jinnah envisioned. I do believe that some Muslim leaders in India espouse fundamentalist views that are harmful to Indian democracy. (For instance, I was outraged by the banning of M.F. Husain's "Meenaxi".) Perhaps that is something I can focus on more in the future...

I haven't dealt with Sikh fundamentalism or Khalistanism because it is essentially defunct as an ideology. There are people who espouse it, but they are politically irrelevant and completely without influence. If such people were to make news in some way, I would talk about it. (If, for instance, there are updates on the the Air India bombing case in the weeks to come, I will not shy away from it.) No 'Sikh fundamentalist' has been in the news in the two months that I have been keeping this blog.

I realize I missed the most important point. The reason it has been important to focus first and foremost on the dangers of the Hindu nationalist movement is that it is they who have been in power for the last five years in India. They are the ones who have the express interest and, in some cases, the votes, to make India a 'Hindu nation'.

India will never be a Muslim nation, a Christian nation, or a Sikh nation. Thus, extremist viewpoints on the part of minority groups, often expressed from positions of no political authority, are less concerning than what is said by L.K. Advani, Murli Manohar Joshi, or Sushma Swaraj, who were until last week either Cabinet officials or elected members of Parliament. What L.K. Advani says is more important than what Imam Bukhari says because Advani's views could very easily become law. Those in power always require the most scrutiny.

Gender issues in the Indian Muslim Community; Thoughts on Uniform Civil Code
That said, statements by minority leaders can lead to actions. The Islamic leadership in India, while still expressly secularist (by necessity), nevertheless frequently does things that are counterproductive; they need to be called to account. In my view, there are serious problems that need to be dealt with, especially on the women's rights question. I am one of the few people on the left who feels strongly that India does need to move towards a Uniform Civil Code; right now there are separate marriage laws for the different religious communities. Institutions like polygamy, 'triple talaq' (where a man can instantly divorce his wife), and the failure to provide sufficient alimony and child support are aspects of the Muslim Marriage Act that should be changed.

To be clear, I am not saying that Islam is exceptionally hostile to women. Many of the unfortunate elements of the Muslim Marriage Act were also characteristic of the Hindu Marriage Act until reforms were put in place beginning in 1955. Things like 'maintenance' (alimony), the outlawing of dowry, and the possibility of head-of-household status for women, have been gradually introduced through reforms to the Hindu Marriage Act -- generally meeting great resistance. These types of reforms have not been equally applied to the Muslim Marriage Act.

Incidentally, the differential Marriage Acts have problems that affect other communities. Scheduled Tribes, for instance, are also permitted polygamy (for more information, go here and here).

The rest of the statements by my accuser are on the order of incoherent rantings. He accuses me of Hindu bashing in my post on Naipaul when in fact I was merely Naipaul bashing. He accuses me of attacking Kai Friese for mentioning Hinduism, when in fact what I was doing is calling out Kai Friese for not mentioning religious minority concerns in his hack job in The Village Voice. Finally, my accuser makes a bizarre claim about 'Christian fundamentalism' in India which seems to me to be highly paranoid: "For Christian fundamentalism, look at missionary activities. Look at the messages. Look for contempt expressed towards idol-worshippers." Um, when was the last time Indian Christians started a communal riot? And what 'messages'? What 'contempt toward idol worshippers'?

Reality check: Christians have been in India longer than Muslims and they still constitute less than 3 percent of the population. They are not a threat to anyone. The Christian fundamentalism we have to worry about isn't the kind found in Kerala (if it even exists), it's the kind found at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.

Reality check 2: Hinduism is not in danger, and it is not under attack. Despite what you hear from the right-wing alarmists, Hindus are not about to be wiped off the face of the earth; last I checked, there were some 800 million + of them in India (compare to 15 million Jews worldwide). It will be four hundred years before Hindus become a 'minority' in India if current birth rates continue (which they hopefully will not-- there isn't room in India for 10 billion people). Take a deep breath, and relax. No one here is out to get you.

[No comments on this post; I need to get some writing done today. If you have any thoughts or responses, I would be grateful if you would email them to me. And please specify if it is ok for me to quote you in a further post on the blog.]