Imaginary Categories, Real People

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Bracketing people into categories they neither identify with nor have any agency in creating it is as wrong as it is futile. The case of the ‘moderate Muslims’ is a prime example.

By Saad Razi Shaikh for 

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In his book ‘Secularism confronts Islam’, the French author Olivier Roy observed that ‘when Muslims are called to adopt a reformed and liberal Islam, they’re expected to situate themselves in relation to an analytical framework that has been prepared for them without asking the meaning of their practices and the nature of choices involving their identity.’ This is an interesting remark to consider especially in light of the recent article titled ‘The Root Cause Fallacy’ by Javed Anand. While lambasting the Muslim response to the unfortunate events happening in France, Anand relied heavily on the category of the ‘moderate Muslim’ and duly furnished a long list of dos and don’ts for Muslims in general and the category of ‘moderate Muslims’ in particular. But this is where Anand stumbles. Categories are not pre-given, they emerge in a certain context, and it borders on intellectual bankruptcy to borrow them without critique or question.

In an article titled ‘I am not a moderate Muslim’, Shireen Younus observed that, ‘The qualifier of “moderate” suggests that there is something innately violent about Islam. It leads to the false conclusion that a small group of “moderates” is standing in opposition to a large swath of violent, ISIS-supporting radicals. This is simply not true because the reality is the complete opposite. When the media talks about “moderate Muslims”, they are perpetuating a dangerous narrative of Islam as a violent religion that is at odds with American society.’ This is one criticism of the many against the usage of this label. Many other academicians and commentators have questioned its usage, as also the deeply problematic assumptions it is premised upon.

Yet, if the tone of Anand’s article is anything to go by, the choice of the right terminology doesn’t come across as one of his stronger points. He favours terms like ‘Muslim sickness’ and ‘sickness in lived Islam’ without caring to explain or justify either. He further latches onto a new category of Muslims called ‘Islam apologists’ without defining it. Does he assume these terms and their underlying assumptions to be part of ‘common sense’ or everyday language? Each of these terms assumes as something being fundamentally wrong with Islam. Does Anand hold the same to be true? If so, he is welcome to join the dubious group of people who have argued the same, albeit with greater clarity and courage.

It is possible to list out the long list of condemnations by Muslim scholars and public figures against violence in the name of religion (an enterprising student in the US did so). The social media feeds of everyday Muslims, the scholarly debates in conferences and universities, the public rallies and the general indignation felt by common Muslims against acts of terror can be easily documented if one wishes to. But it may well be futile, for thanks to our benevolent saviours, it is no longer enough to critique terrorism committed in the name of religion. We are also obliged now to accept that it is the religion that is the root of the problem and we are apologists if we argue otherwise. We are thankful that Anand has broadened the basket of ‘choices’ available to Muslims. With the existing ‘terrorists’, ‘moderates’ labels, we have been blessed with a new category, the ‘Islam apologist’. There is a possibility of more imaginative categories coming in the future, but we must not wait with bated breaths, for the ‘sickness’ in them may well be the same. The sickness is not in the stars of the Muslims, it is in the fraudulent labelling of them by their saviours and opponents alike.

Both Islamophobia and terrorism seek to pigeonhole Islam into a single monolithic category, both take it as a given that violence in the name of religion is justified, both harbour visions of a world destined for conflict. Both in their insidious ways try to bind Muslims into practices and categories that bear no resemblance to their ‘lived Islam.’ Theirs is a world that is scarred in its memories, jaded in its outlook, and aggressive towards any critique from outside. The tragedy for the ordinary Muslims is that both groups have taken it upon themselves to explain Islam to the world.

A truly liberal perspective would be able to rise above the failings of both these views. The test of being ‘liberal’ is not in adopting the prevailing notions of liberalism uncritically. Rather, it is in allowing a diversity of opinions, questions over sources of knowledge, contestations over the framing of issues and the resolve to disagree, irrespective of whichever way it pinches our sensibilities. Muslims can affirm the killing of the cartoonists was wrong, while also taking offence at the caricaturing of beliefs most dear to them. It is a fallacy of the narrow-minded to ask Muslims choose one or the other, the old trope of ‘with us or against us’.

Sadly, it is this jaded binary that Anand favours. Anand’s categorization is imaginary but the Muslims he targets are real. If through his articles Anand wishes to self-flagellate, he has all the rights to do so. But he need not ride on the name of the entire Muslim community for it. As he would no doubt agree, the actions of one single individual can have consequences for the entire community.

Saad Razi Shaikh is a freelance journalist based in Mumbai, focusing on community initiatives and popular culture. He has written for publications like The Indian Express, NewsLaundry etc.