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Kerala, Somalia and the myth of Semitic bounty

By Umar Nizar for TwoCircles.net,

Before Narendra Modi, two others mistook Malayalees for Somalis. They were marines guarding an Italian vessel, Enrica Lexie- Maximilliano Latorre and Salvatore Girone. One of them has since been repatriated and the other still languishes under an `Assange-like’ house arrest.
The journal `Outlook’ once called Kerala, India’s biggest hoax, and rightly so. All that is progressive and laudable about Kerala can be summed up in one word, `remittances’. Though the popular destination for Malayalees seeking jobs abroad still remains the Gulf countries, the pioneer emigrants from the state were not Malabar Muslims, but Christians from Central Travancore who migrated to the United States in the 1950s.

The myth of global Muslim affluence and bounty is dispelled by the mere mention of Somalia, know not for its pastoral traditions, but for famines that plague this East African nation with a rich heritage. But Kerala being what it is, the taunt was taken as a general assault on the state as such. Even before the Modi-taunt which was related to a fake video that was circulated online of children feeding from garbage pails, Somalia has always been in the horizon, as a supposedly derogatory adjective to classify dark-skinned people.

Evangelical Christian and Muslim organizations also hint at the relative affluence of their respective communities. The fishing community, once cosmopolitan has been radicalized on communal lines and their erstwhile way of living is increasingly being rendered unfeasible. Once they interpreted for Vasco da Gama, and now they get shot at and killed by Italian marines. Salah Punathil writes: “ At several times, the religious identity of the Marakkayars as Muslims was depicted as something dangerous, as their religion had always been perceived as a threat to the law and order. Such notions hinge on Muslim identity, en¬abled by reproducing old and new stereotypes of Muslims operating both at the local and global levels. At the local level, Beemapalli is identified along with the Muslim-dominated district called Malappuram in north Kerala and labelled as an unruly territory.’’

The Mappila School Of Sociology

The educational system in the state is a shambles due to politicking as well as academic pettiness. A large number of Muslim students from Northern Kerala seek education outside their state in India and abroad. JNU in New Delhi is home to a large section of them. So is AMU (the University even had to start a local centre, there were also rumours of radicalization). One could be forgiven for mistakenly taking Arabic to be their topic of choice. It is not. Rather, most of them prefer sociology, or even history. The Centre for Study of Social Systems at JNU in New Delhi has been a second home to many scholars from Malabar. Following the shift in the demographic profile of students in JNU and the implementation of the Mandal Commission Report, students from North Kerala have increasingly made it to this elite centre of higher learning. There are guidance organizations like the CIGI (Centre for Information and Guidance India) which have been instrumental in facilitating this influx. CIGI, an avowedly non-sectarian organization is one of the largest career guidance networks in India. Also crucial in this context have been the various seminaries under the Darul Huda Islamic `University’ in Malappuram, which models itself on Middle-Eastern and North African centres of learning, aspires to some kind of medieval Islamic glory and imparts classical and modern education at subsidised or pro bono terms to students from deprived sections. On their website, Darul Huda describes itself as, “Darul Huda is a grand mix of young boy students in 8-23 age-group coming from various parts of the country and from rich/poor and educated/uneducated family backgrounds. Darul Huda life brings them up with a great brotherly feeling and familial solidarity irrespective of their family status and parental standings’’

By various quirks of fortune and the egregious ways in which scholarships are dispensed by foreign universities, some of the alumnus of the seminary have made to universities like Leiden in the Netherlands. They occupy a luminal position vis-a-vis mainstream Islam, located at a vantage point to look at Muslim society while at the same time being privileged enough to analyse it as participant observers. The Wikipedia page on the seminary puts it rather eloquently: “Students of Darul Huda have also studied abroad at major institutions includingUniversity of California, Berkeley, International Islamic University Malaysia, Al-Azhar University, Egypt and Leiden University, the Netherlands. ‘’

Many of the Mappila sociologists are affiliated to various religious groups that proliferate in this region of Kerala. At first the pole star of their cosmos was Ali Shariati, a controversial ideologue of the Iranian revolution, whose name incidentally figures in a positive light in Ashish Nandy’s retracted article. Nandy wrote,“ The victims still derive solace from their religions and, when under attack, they cling more passionately to faith. Indeed, shallow ideologies of secularism have simultaneously broken the back of Gandhism and discouraged the emergence of figures like Ali Shariatis, Desmond Tutus and the Dalai Lama — persons who can give suffering a new voice audible to the poor and the powerless and make a creative intervention possible from within worldviews accessible to the people.’’. But recently it is Talal Asad, whose star is on the ascent.

The age of Asad:

Talal Asad’s initial claim to fame was that he was the son of Muhammad Asad, a Jewish convert to Islam, who wrote `The Road to Mecca.’ This book looks at Islam through the eye of a sympathetic westerner and has been a hit with western educated Muslims everywhere. No other writer since Edward Said has captured the imagination of the Muslim academic as Talal Asad. In his work, `Formations of the Secular: Christianity, Islam, Modernity,’ Asad says that: `The secular, I argue, is neither continuous with the religious that supposedly preceded it (that is, it is not the latest phase of a sacred origin) nor a simple break from it (that is, it is not the opposite, an essence that excludes the sacred). I take the secular to be a concept that brings together certain behaviors, knowledges, and sensibilities in modern life.’ Works like `The Politics of Piety’ by Saba Mahmood have been influential. But curiously, none of these works cut closer to home and most of the Malabar Muslim sociologists choose to protect their fiefdom from outside interpretation.

(Author is a research scholar at JNU)