Shri Sadanand Dhume misses the point

In a recent Wall Street Journal article on the subject of Zakir Naik’s debarment from Britain, Shri Dhume tries to tell us why secularism has failed in Hindusthan. While doing that, he slips badly. 

Let me run with his article and explain – 

The Trouble with Dr. Zakir Naik 

Britain’s decision to bar an influential Muslim cleric from entering the country underscores the failure of Indian secularism. 

By Sadanand Dhume 

If you’re looking for a snapshot of India’s hapless response to radical Islam, then look no further than Bombay-based cleric Dr. Zakir Naik. In India, the 44-year-old Dr. Naik—a medical doctor by training and a televangelist by vocation—is a widely respected figure, feted by newspapers and gushed over by television anchors. The British, however, want no part of him. On Friday, the newly elected Conservative-led government announced that it would not allow Dr. Naik to enter Britain to deliver a series of lectures. According to Home Secretary Theresa May, the televangelist has made “numerous comments” that are evidence of his “unacceptable behavior.”  

Pala – Shri Dhume assumes two facts. The first is that the people in Hindusthan who gush over ZN are a heterogenous bunch and the second is that the British decision to bar ZN was unanimously backed by British society. The real facts are somewhat different. The people who gush over ZN are uniformly liberal-secular, if non-Muslim and well, Muslim, if Muslim. That’s no generalization. On the other hand there is no unanimity amongst the British on the Home Office’s action. It helped that the current regime is predominantly Conservative. It has also helped that the English Defence League has made enough threatening noises against the Muslim event ZN was supposed to address. However, Britain’s polity and society are as fractured as Hindusthan is when it comes to dealing with the threat of Islam. This last point is not even touched by Shri Dhume in this piece. 

The good doctor’s views run the gamut from nutty to vile, so it’s hard to pinpoint which of them has landed him in trouble. For instance, though Dr. Naik has condemned terrorism, at times he also appears to condone it. “If he [Osama bin Laden] is fighting the enemies of Islam, I am for him,” he said in a widely watched 2007 YouTube diatribe. “If he is terrorizing the terrorists, if he is terrorizing America the terrorist, the biggest terrorist, I am with him. Every Muslim should be a terrorist.”  

Pala – The point is not if ZN’s views are nutty or vile. The point is if his views sync with those carried in the Koran and Hadith. Currently, there is nothing to prove otherwise. Shri Dhume will do well to address how non-Muslims should deal with that reality. 

Dr. Naik recommends the death penalty for homosexuals and for apostasy from the faith, which he likens to wartime treason. He calls for India to be ruled by the medieval tenets of Shariah law. He supports a ban on the construction of non-Muslim places of worship in Muslim lands and the Taliban’s bombing of the Bamiyan Buddhas. He says revealing clothes make Western women “more susceptible to rape.” Not surprisingly, Dr. Naik believes that Jews “control America” and are the “strongest in enmity to Muslims.” 

Pala – Again, none of the above described views are at variance with what is stipulated in the Koran and Mohammed’s acts as described in the Hadith. The concept of ummah is less a benign brotherhood and more in the frame of a nation-state. Muslims may be missing most of the parts of the State’s apparatus that governs their nation but those that can be enforced locally, is being enforced. For instance Shari’a codes including the insistence on burqa, acts against apostacy (treason against the nation/ummah), the demands for Shari’a courts etc. The contempt of Jews is wholly in order wrt Islam. I don’t see where ZN is out of line. 

Of course, every faith has its share of cranks; and, arguably, India has more than its share. But it’s impossible to relegate Dr. Naik to Indian Islam’s fringe. Earlier this year, the Indian Express listed him as the country’s 89th most powerful person, ahead of Nobel Laureate economist Amartya Sen, eminent lawyer and former attorney general Soli Sorabjee, and former Indian Premier League cricket commissioner Lalit Modi. Dr. Naik’s satellite TV channel, Peace TV, claims a global viewership of up to 50 million people in 125 countries. On YouTube, a search for Dr. Naik turns up more than 36,000 hits.  

Pala – ZN is a crank only if Shri Dhume is ready to admit Mohammed and his successors in his list of cranks. ZN is mainstream by right of being a Muslim amongst Muslims. Not by virtue of him being listed among powerful social elite. More unpardonable is Shri Dhume trying to broad brush the ZN effect with his “every faith….”. Here’s where he loses his credibility. 

Nobody accuses Dr. Naik of direct involvement in terrorism, but those reportedly drawn to his message include Najibullah Zazi, the Afghan-American arrested last year for planning suicide attacks on the New York subway; Rahil Sheikh, accused of involvement in a series of train bombings in Bombay in 2006; and Kafeel Ahmed, the Bangalore man fatally injured in a failed suicide attack on Glasgow airport in 2007. 

Nonetheless, when the doctor appears on a mainstream Indian news channel, his interviewers tend to be deferential. Senior journalist and presenter Shekhar Gupta breathlessly introduced his guest last year as a “rock star of televangelism” who teaches “modern Islam” and “his own interpretation of all the faiths around the world.” A handful of journalists—among them Praveen Swami of the Hindu, and the grand old man of Indian letters, Khushwant Singh—have questioned Dr. Naik’s views, but most take his carefully crafted image of moderation at face value.  

Pala – Shri Dhume does not explain why these people are so deferential toward ZN and his ilk. I am not at all convinced about a Praveen Swami or a Khushwant Singh taking on ZN where he should be taken on. These are folks who are not used to questioning the very existential basis of Islam in non-Muslim lands. That’s an infamia for them. At the same time these are not people who have frowned upon nor campaigned against Shari’a inspired disabilities imposed on non-Muslims in the Muslim world. That much is taken for granted for obvious reasons. My point is how does Shri Dhume think ZN and ilk needs to be opposed and if yes, who does he think is the best kind of person to do it? 

At first glance, it’s easy to understand why. Unlike the foaming mullah of caricature, Dr. Naik eschews traditional clothing for a suit and tie. His background as a doctor and his often gentle demeanor set him apart, as does his preaching in English. Unlike traditional clerics, Dr. Naik quotes freely from non-Muslim scripture, including the Bible and the Vedas. (You have to pay attention to realize that invariably this is either to disparage other faiths, or to interpret them in line with his version of Islam.) The depth of Dr. Naik’s learning is easily apparent.  

Pala – What is evident is ZN’s feats of memory. His learning as such may be limited to Islamic scripture. It is easy for his debating opponents to get intimidated when he can muster verses at the press of his mental button. However to assume that the secular-liberal species bow to him because he’s in a suit and tie and speaks English, seems superficial. They bow to something much more powerful. They bow in reverence to their multi-cultural, equality demanding, nationalism negating liberal God. It is this self-imposed shield that helps ZN along.  

But this doesn’t fully explain Dr. Naik’s escape from criticism. It helps that Indians appear to have trouble distinguishing between free speech and hate speech. In a Western democracy, demanding the murder of homosexuals and the second-class treatment of non-Muslims would likely attract public censure or a law suit. In India, it goes unchallenged as long as it has a religious imprimatur. However, create a book or a painting that ruffles religious sentiment, as the writer Taslima Nasreen and the painter M. F. Husain both discovered, and either the government or a mob of pious vigilantes will strive to muzzle you.  

Pala – Shri Dhume seems out of date. Western Democracies have long since learned to tolerate and even close their eyes and ears to Islam and it’s ways. (evidences, innumerable as they are, are available on demand). In Hindusthan, the reason such things go unchallenged is because of, firstly, the liberal premise that operates within our elite and secondly, the unrelenting demands of electoral politics. MF Hussain would not have been opposed by Hindus if he had painted his Prophet and his wives in the manner he painted Hindu Gods and Goddesses. It’s as simple as that. 

In general, India accords extra deference to allegedly holy men of all stripes unlike, say, France, which strives to keep religion out of the public square. Taxpayers subsidize the Haj pilgrimage for pious Muslims and a similar, albeit much less expensive, journey for Hindus to a sacred lake in Tibet. This reflexive deference effectively grants the likes of Dr. Naik—along with all manner of Hindu and Christian charlatans—protection against the kind of robust scrutiny he would face in most other democracies.  

Pala – This is ridiculous. Hindusthan is a deeply religious country. The Hindus are as religious as are the various minorities. It is stupid to place all men of God in the same bucket. Moreover tax subsidies to pilgrims have nothing to do with showing deference to religious figures. That’s not even the issue. The issue is why Islam or in Hindusthan’s case Christianity too, receives the kind of deference that is denied to Hindus and their traditions of various kinds. If France, Shri Dhume’s example, had the robustness he says it does, why does it have a Muslim problem? But I think Shri Dhume has limited his scope to ZN and assorted religious figures of “all religions”. Safe, but will achieve nothing. 

Finally, unlike Hindu bigots, such as the World Hindu Council’s Praveen Togadia, whose fiercest critics tend to be fellow Hindus, radical Muslims go largely unchallenged. The vast majority of Indian Muslims remain moderate, but their leaders are often fundamentalists and the community has done a poor job of policing its own ranks. Moreover, most of India’s purportedly secular intelligentsia remains loath to criticize Islam, even in its most radical form, lest this be interpreted as sympathy for Hindu nationalism.   

Pala – It’s interesting to see Shri Togadia’s name popping up. It is also interesting to see Shri Dhume favoring the VHP leader’s critics. If Shri Togadia is simply an illustration of a “Hindu bigot”, then I should assume his critics to be illustrations of secular-liberals. I guess we’ll have to wait till Shri Dhume makes his case against Shri Togadia and his ilk. In the meanwhile Shri Dhume’s vast majority of Muslims remain moderate but often with fundamentalist leaders. That’s a square peg already in a round hole.  

I don’t know why Shri Dhume suspects the credentials of Hindusthan’s secular-liberal intelligentsia. What they have done and are doing, is fully understandable and true to character. Furthermore, I’m surprised Shri Dhume does not grasp his own logic – Hindu nationalism will always be there as long as this country exists with a Hindu majority. Therefore the secular-liberal will always defer to Islam.  

Unless this changes, unless Indians find the ability to criticize a radical Islamic preacher such as Dr. Naik as robustly as they would his Hindu equivalent, the idea of Indian secularism will remain deeply flawed. – The idea of secularism in Hindusthan was still born.  

Note – I believe as long as Hindu intellectuals don’t start to think as Hindus and stop thinking of themselves as secular-liberals, nothing will change for the better but will get progressively worse. Will Shri Dhume help to change this condition and thought process?

The facts are simple. Zakir Naik thinks and says what he does because he is a practicing Muslim. A non-practicing Muslim, the vast minority, will never go against him and his like until he remains a nominal Muslim.

Mr. Dhume, a columnist for WSJ.com, is writing a book on the new Indian middle class. 

– Namaste

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One Response

  1. The NDAite BJP would like to expand the vote base and the NDA to Orissa,AP while keeping it going in Bihar.On the other hand,the HindutvaBJP insists on a return to core issues.Both strands of thought have emerged out of the realisation that the probability of the BJP improving on its 2004 performance,in the absence of emotive issues,is quite low.There is a real possibility that in 2014 we will see a 1989 type situation rather than a BJP led NDA in power.The desire to build an anti-INC group & forge opposition unity is borne out of this.Modi’s ambition has added another dimension to this conflict because there are sections in both the NDAiteBJP & Hindutva BJP opposed to him.It would be wrong to say that leaders & cadres in the Hindutva BJP support only Modi.This dichotomy is noticeable in Gujarat itself.

    In addition to the above mentioned factors,the fear of being sidelined by Modi has also played a part in the drive by a group of leaders from both the NDAite BJP & Hindutva BJP to forge an anti-INC grouping or look for an alternative to Modi.There’s a lot of opposition to Modi in the Delhi BJP & sections of the Parivar.To a small extent,it is about self-preservation.A significant number of leaders in the BJP & the Parivar fear that after being in the party/Parivar for years,they would be cast aside by Modi.Its the fear of being thrown by the wayside after being used by Modi to come to power.And this fear is justified,if one considers the angst amongst Parivar leaders in Gujarat.

    It is a fact that Modi & Parivar leaders in Gujarat have not been on good terms.This is in contrast to what one may call a harmonious relationship between the BJP units & the Sangh in Karnataka & Madhya Pradesh.The gulf has emerged due to Modi’s “Go Alone” approach after 2002.Once in a while,there are reports of friction between the VHP & Modi and most VHP leaders gripe about Modi being “ungrateful”.I’m sure very few have taken note of the lobbying that goes on in the BJP Central leadership to avoid the post of Gujarat-incharge.The assignment has no takers because they have no say in any decisions regarding elections or organisational matters in Gujarat BJP.When it comes to Gujarat,the Delhi leadership is presented with a fait accompli by Modi.Modi & his coterie brook no interference in state affairs but at the same time when the going gets tough they expect Delhi leaders to come to their aid,even if it may not be in the best interest of the party.

    Mind you,I’m not forgetting the incredible pace of development in Gujarat & Modi’s immense contribution.But I’m talking about his rapport with other leaders in the BJP.The RSS has insisted,especially after LS09,on collective responsibilty & decision-making based on consensus & deliberations.But,in Gujarat,Modi has quashed dissent in the State unit.His writ is unchallenged.What will prevent him from employing similar tactics if & when he comes to Delhi? What’s to prevent him from appointing cronies in various state units? How is Modi’s iron grip on the BJP state unit any different from the INC under Indira in the 70s & 80s?

    Coming to another point that you made on Yoss’ blog: “Modi’s supporters rarely support the BJP as a non-Modi entity.”

    There is no doubt that a significant number within the BJP support Modi.What is worrying is the obsessive idolization of Modi.It is almost a cult and it is indifferent to others in the BJP/Parivar or its goals and ethos.He is placed on a pedestal higher than the BJP and the Sangh.And make no mistake,Modi has encouraged this cultish support.It is as if this group of supporters is unconcerned about the future of the BJP but it wants Modi to be declared as the BJP candidate for Prime Ministership.Is it the case that they are more loyal/committed to Modi than to the BJP? Isn’t there something seriously disconcerting about that?

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