Islamophobia and Communalism: Two Sides of the Same Coin?

In a recent piece published in The Wire, political scientist Ajay Gudavarthy writes about the ‘difference’ between Islamophobia and communalism. The premise of Gudavarthy’s piece is that Islamophobia is a term more pertinent to the ‘fear’ and subsequent persecution of Muslims in the West – that is, North America and Europe, where Muslims are “viewed as an unknown variable”.

Though Gudavarthy mentions incidences where the two (communalism and Islamophobia) overlap (for example, cases from Gujarat in 2002, and Europe), he claims that the two terms are completely different and must never be confused.

This categorical distinction however, leaves the large overlap between the two terms unexplained. What Gudavarthy has failed to address is that, despite the long, shared history of Hindus and Muslims in India, most of us in India know so little about Muslims and their cultural life.

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Gudavarthy attributes the rift between Hindus and Muslims in India to “... a deep sense of historical injury born out of the belief that Muslims dominated and used violence against the majority Hindu community. There is hatred and prejudice against Muslims, and an organised political process of ‘othering’ them. The nature of this violence in India, unlike the Western nations, is neither random nor episodic...” The political scientist basically says that the term ‘communalism’, to describe prejudice against Muslims, is more pertinent to the Indian context, than ‘Islamophobia’.

But ‘communalism’ doesn’t only define the well-planned execution of riots by the State, but also has roots in society. Let me elaborate on this through how I experience communalism and why I feel Islamophobia is a relevant term in the present context of India too.

My Experience As a Muslim

I experience communalism much more by way of day-to-day interactions than by any organised violence. We know almost nothing about the India in which we live. In this ignorance, the image of Muslims being circulated as violent, aggressive, rich, oppressing since ages, ruling class, patriarchal, etc all add the fuel of phobia to the fire of ignorance.

It is said that a university allows a student to interact with people from different walks of life. But how much we students know about each other’s cultures, I wonder.

I meet students who tell me, “Zeeshan you are my first Muslim friend. People of your community are significantly different. I could never muster up the courage to talk to them”. But I know that universities also have a lot of ‘liberal’ Muslim students. But who considers a Muslim without a beard as an ‘authentic’ Muslim?

‘Everyday Hate Against Us’

Similarly, I meet people who talk of Muslims as primarily having been a ruling class in India. So were all Muslims ruling India? A few weeks ago, a young student told me that Muslims are a rich people in general. When I pointed to this report in The Indian Express, which talks about poverty among Muslims, the young man retorted that he doesn’t believe in such reports.

This young man regularly shares posts on social media criticising the BJP. So it appears that some people may despise Hindutva, but they may (equally) dislike Muslims. I have been told by many students that Muslims are rich, privileged, conservative, patriarchal and what not. When a Dalit friend of mine once submitted a review of the book Politics of Inclusion (2009) by Zoya Hasan, it was declined on the grounds that a large section (‘upper’ castes) of the Muslims are ‘privileged’, and hence do not face discrimination as the book argues.

My uncle was denied a house in Kolkata. He was a junior officer in SBI and wanted to buy a small flat.

The secretary of the housing society told him that he likes well-educated people (who don’t need a bank officer!) but members of the society won’t accept a Muslim as their neighbour.

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‘Can’t Get Accommodation Because I’m Muslim’

Indeed, I experienced what my uncle did, when I was told by landlords in Mumbai that they do not allow Muslims in their flats/colony. A practicing physician in one of the institutes where I studied, had asked the secretary of her housing society not to allow Muslim students to rent houses.

Just listen to the discrimination faced by Muslims in universities, jobs and various state institutions. CVs are rejected by employers of private companies, teachers refuse to write reference letters for Muslim students who want to pursue higher studies, and the unusual delay in an already sluggish Indian bureaucracy. Many Muslims do not even realize that what they are facing is because of their religious identity.

‘No, All Muslims Aren’t Privileged’

My friends from West Bengal tell me how they are taunted by their other Hindu friends. “Why do you always support Muslims? They are already so privileged under CPI(M) and now TMC.”

Do the readers know that in West Bengal, Muslims are extremely backward, despite constituting 27 percent of the population (Dalits are 23 percent). A friend has lived with Muslims for many years since the slum where he lived in was full of Muslims and Dalits. He tells me that Muslims are a rich and prosperous community. When I counter by asking if slum-dwellers are rich, he immediately gets defensive and replies, “But you know Gujarati Muslims are rich.” I wonder how many non-Muslims really know about Muslims, despite living in proximity for decades.

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Images as Truth: ‘Violent’ and ‘Privileged’ Muslims

Just look at the comments of people on social media, full of hatred and false information about Muslims. I am sure they have Muslim friends and neighbours who are genial with everyone. All these perceptions of Muslims continue and are indeed increasing even after having lived together for years, decades and generations.

Like the ‘(mis)representation’ as proposed by Edward Said in his Orientalism (1978), the truth is always in the ‘discourse’, always in the images as propagated by various vested interests. Representations are not truth, though they always appear so. People look at Muslims through the lens created by media/popular perception.

I can sense that people look at me through the lens already created by popular discourse/media. “You don’t look Muslim,” I have had to hear several times.

If you read Paul Brass’s essay (Development of an Institutionalized Riot System in Meerut City, 1961-1982, EPW 2004), he means the commonness of communalism when he coins the term: institutionalised system of riot production (IRS).

Similarly, in a short essay titled Modern Hate (The New Republic, 1993), Susanne Rudolph and Lloyd Rudolph tells us that Hindu hatred of Muslims is something new/modern, but is projected as an ancient rift / sentiment.

The situation has deteriorated over the past decade or so. People look at us, but they are actually looking at our ‘images’ already created by social media, which is perhaps the most powerful weapon today.

Muslims are looked as homogeneous community with no history and diversity. We have been ‘violent’ since ages, it seems. Thus, I think there is no wrong in using ‘Islamophobia’ in the context of India.

Islamophobia is much more normalised and rationalised than non-Muslim thinkers usually understand. Communal riots erupt when the already present flame of Islamophobia is stoked. The two reinforce one another. One is overt, another covert. One is head, another tail. But they are two sides of the same coin.

(Zeeshan Husain is pursuing a PhD in social sciences in JNU. He is a student of 'Uttar Pradesh society and polity'. He can be reached at @Zeeshan41296096. This is personal blog and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for the same.)

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