Fundamentalism, Liberalism and Muslims – Review of Hasan Suroor’s ‘India’s Muslim Spring’: Abhay Kumar

ABHAY KUMAR reviews Hasan Suroor’s India’s Muslim Spring: Why is Nobody Talking about It?, Rupa Publications, New Delhi, 2014.

Hasan Suroor is a London-based veteran journalist. He began his career with The Statesman and later he worked as The Hindu’s UK correspondent for over a decade. He continues to write in newspapers on important issues such as Muslim identity, secularism, communalism and Islam. He was brought up and educated in Delhi after his family left Lucknow for the national capital post-Partition. Their new destination, at least in the beginning, did not receive its guests warmly as his parents’ identity as Muslim worked as a hurdle for them to rent a flat in New Delhi. Eventually they had to seek refuge in the Muslim-majority Ballimaran of the Walled City where his mother worked as a Communist Party activist. Suroor, who is regarded as one of the “progressive” and “liberal” voices among Muslims, has recently been in news for an interesting thesis which he offers in his new book, India’s Muslim Spring: Why is Nobody Talking about It?

He argues that for the first time since Independence a “seismic” and “tectonic” shift has taken place in Indian Muslim community with an emergence of “liberal spring” among new generations Muslims, who were born after the late 1970s. For Suroor, the elder generations of Muslim were “fundamentalist” and “emotional”, “intolerant” of freedom of speech, prioritized “cultural” and “identity” issues over substantive ones, had “contempt” for women and blamed others for the plight of Muslim community while the young Muslims are just the opposite of their elders; they, are  “tolerant”, “pragmatic”, “moderates”, “secular”, “cosmopolitan”, “optimistic” and “confident” and “forward-looking” as well as “nationalistic”. In short, he creates a binary between fundamentalist old Muslims versus liberal young Muslims.

Notwithstanding his argument that these young Muslims are secular, liberal and modern, Suroor at the same time, in the book, depicts them as deeply religious as these young Muslims greet each other with salaam-alekum instead of more secular aadab, dutifully offer namaz, keep fasts, grow beard, avoid haram-meat and so on. Does not he contradict himself by saying that the new generations of Muslims are, at the same time, both deeply religious and secular? He would strongly argue that the new generations of Muslims have been able to reconcile these contradictory values. For him, the appearance of religiosity and the rise of Muslim consciousness among young Muslims are reactions to Islamophobia post- 9/11 and the fact that they wear their religiosity on their sleeve does not come in the way of their being liberal and moderate Muslims. In the words of Suroor, ‘the younger generation of Muslims is more inclusive, more cosmopolitan and more forward-looking than their parents’ generation was. Don’t judge them by their beards and hijabs. Go and talk to them, which is what I did, and you might be surprised, as I was, to discover how well-adjusted, optimistic and nationalistic today’s Indian Muslim youth is (p. xii).’

To recap, he contends that for the first time since 1947 there has been an arrival of “Muslim spring” amid “religious fervor” as the moderate sections of Muslims, argues Suroor, are now in a position to dominate fundamentalist forces. In what follows I shall examine his claim and argue that his generalisation of Muslim spring is not empirically sustainable. Besides, I will also problematize some of his views about Muslim community. 

A Critique of “Muslim Spring” Thesis

As mentioned above, his thesis of Muslim spring is based on an untenable binary of fundamentalist old generations of Muslims versus liberal and new generations of Muslims. The author does not provide sufficient empirical materials to convince readers that the old generations of Muslims were indeed fundamentalists. However my interest lies in understanding, ‘Why does a well-informed journalist like Suroor often wail that the early generations of Muslims were not liberal?’ One plausible answer may be found in the works of anthropologist Talal Asad, whose book (Formation of the Secular, 2003) gives a critical insight to recognise the violence of secularism. Asad shows how a secularist—such as Suroor in India–operates within the notion of linear progress of time from a traditional, religious and communitarian self into an individuated, autonomous, rational, secular and moral self. Thus the secularist Suroor is deeply uncomfortable with “Muslim” organisations, “self-styled” communitarian leader and ulama (religious leaders) and he, therefore, does not miss any chance to bash mullahs by projecting them as villain! Even if Suroor likes or dislikes it is a fact that the hold of these Muslim organisations and communitarian leaders, whom Suroor calls fundamentalists, seems much stronger in Muslim community than a secularist like him is willing to recognise. I think Suroor would have done much more relevant work had he instead studied how these organisations and communitarian and religious leaders enjoy so much supports among Muslim community.

Having lamented that the old generations were conservative and fundamentalist, Suroor suddenly begins to celebrate the flowering of liberal spring among young Muslims. But his claim lacks empirical evidence. As he himself points out that Muslim is not a monolithic community and the community is sharply divided on class, caste, sect, and regional lines, ‘How could he then base his thesis on just a few interviews?’ As he mentions that his method is based on “good old-fashioned journalism” in which he appears to have interacted with a dozen of urban middle class Muslims mostly in Lucknow, Aligarh, Meerut and Delhi. Among his interviewees are a businessman, a hotel executive, a young theatre actor, a car dealer, a young Muslim graphic designer, a mass-communication student etc. Are they representatives of around 14 crores Muslims of India?  The persons whom Suroor interviews come from a well-off social background and their views are likely to be articulated from their locations. Therefore, Suroor commits an error to equate their views with the views of the entire community. He also fails to critically evaluate the statements of his interviewees. Further, Suroor ends up propagating some highly problematic assumptions and suggestions about the Muslims community, which often come through his interviewees. Let me begin with one such interviewee, who ends up supporting free-market economy.

First, Razia Siddiqui, 28, who works with a multinational corporation, completely dismisses the idea that market excludes a large section of people. Instead, she gives an argument based on meritocracy. ‘Post-globalization, opportunities have increased manifold. Institutions only look for the right attitude and sincerity in individuals. I have never come across a meritorious and diligent Muslim who has not progressed. It is not a case of discrimination; it is a case of working hard, working diligently, and keeping oneself away from negative thoughts of all kinds. Unfortunately, Muslims have remained so archaic in their approach that they become a case of missed opportunities (p. 138.).’ At another place Siddiqui cites the life of nuclear scientist and former President of India Dr. A.P.J. Abdul Kalam as a role model, who has reached the top from such a modest background. However, the problem with such a formulation is that it reduces poverty to an individual level and overlooks the fact of inbuilt unequal social relations. Similarly, Suroor, despite his inclination towards the Left, celebrates last two decades of growth in India, arguing that there has been a high expansion of higher education for Muslims women but he overlooks the fact that the State, as argued by Marxist political economists, has also rolled back in this period and there has been a massive cut of expenditure on social sectors. At times, he seems to contradict himself when he mentions that Muslims are facing discrimination but his overall argument appears to have been informed by limited set of data. As the Sachar Committee and the Mishra Comission have shown, the Muslims of India, with their internal variations, are socially and economically a backward community. Therefore, they need urgent ameliorative policies from State but Suroor’s celebrated young liberal Muslims instead solely blame individuals for the plight of the community.

Second, at another place, an interviewee of Suroor claims that India is “the safest and best place for Muslims” in the world. The politics of such a statement is that it silences the cries of millions of Muslims who are victims of post-Independence communal violence. For example in recent times, within a hundred kilometers from the national capital New Delhi, as many as 50 thousands Muslims remain displaced in Muzaffarnagar communal violence. Six months after the violence, many of them are still living in relief camps amid the reign of social terror. Had Suroor visited these camps and interviewed them about whether India was the safest place to live for Muslims, the answer would have been quite different. His claim that young Muslims are well integrated in mainstream, stands questioned as thousands of young boys and girls–who have been living in these camps–remain uprooted from society.

Third, Suroor argues that the young Muslims, unlike their elders, are pragmatic. But what does this pragmatism mean? On one occasion, Suroor seems to suggest that pragmatism for Muslims means their willingness to support and vote for BJP/Modi! He, therefore, offers Muslims a suggestion, ‘if voting BJP in special circumstances was in their interest, vote BJP.’ I think this is a very problematic statement. Suroor, who has written against communalism for decades, seems to argue in favour of compromising with it. He may call a Muslim supporter of Modi pragmatic but millions others, who are waging a relentless struggle against communal-fascism, would beg to differ with him.

Fourth, Suroor seems to agree with the views of a Meerut businessman and a Jamia Millia Islamia student who talk about the neglect of education on the part of Muslim community and the need to take a leaf from another minority community’s book, Parsis. While his emphasis on the need to have a self-introspection among the Muslim community is welcome, my differences with Suroor lie in his equating the issues Muslims with those of Parsis. Needless to say, history and social and economical conditions of Parsis and Muslims are quite different. Muslims, much more than Parsis, encounter anti-Muslim prejudices in society in their every-day life. And unlike Parsis, Muslims have been victims of many State-sponsored riots since Independence.

Fifth, the secularist Suroor, who is burdened with the ideology of “secular nationalism”, does not give an impartial account of history too. While discussing the history of Partition, he is overtly critical of the Muslim League and Jinnah but he is completely silent about the role of the Congress.  Though he is right to point the finger at the role of elite sections of Muslims who saw the creation of Pakistan as beneficial for serving their own interests but he does not even mention in passing the failures of the Indian National Congress. Historians have rightly shown that the Congress, which had powerful Hindu communalists, masquerading as nationalists, within its fold, was not willing to accommodate the legitimate demands of Muslims, paving the way for Partition.

Besides my disagreement with some of his basic arguments, Suroor also makes some factual errors in the book.  I was surprised to find that a writer on Muslim issue and Islam was not able to write the correct meaning of salam alekum , which is peace/blessing be upon you, not “God is great” as he says (p. xi.).

Contrary to Suroor’s assumptions and views, Muslims, particularly the youth, continue to face a serious problem of unemployment and discrimination at the hands of State and society. The account of Suroor fails to sufficiently capture the growing frustration of Muslims youth. Instead of locating Muslim youths’ participations in various struggles for wages, employments, dignity and civil rights, Suroor sticks them with his pet labels (“liberal”, “nationalistic” and “well-integrated”). My critique of Suroor’s labels does not mean that Muslims are just the opposite of what he argues, i.e. fundamentalist or anti-nationalist. What I mean is that Suroor’s thesis of Muslim spring is not attentive to capturing the complexities of contemporary Muslim lives.

Abhay Kumar is pursuing PhD at Centre for Historical Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University. He can be reached at debatingissues@gmail.com

13 thoughts on “Fundamentalism, Liberalism and Muslims – Review of Hasan Suroor’s ‘India’s Muslim Spring’: Abhay Kumar”

  1. “Historians have rightly shown that the Congress, which had powerful Hindu communalists, masquerading as nationalists, within its fold, ”

    Can you please name these communalists in Congress and references to which Historians and their works which show them to be communal ? Thanks.

    1. Why don’t you do some work your self and find out, There are shelves of libraries full of stuff. Kabhi kabhi khud bhi kuchh kar lena chahiye:)

  2. Is any where in the book writer says that “Muslims DO NOT face unemployment and discrimination at the hands of State and society”?
    If he do not then what made you assume that on behalf of the author?

  3. Yes , I agree with your view that Suroor’s interviews cannot be generalised as he concentrates on those samples which are mostly non-poor section of Muslims having pro-economic reforms outlook which creates a false consciousness among them as it happens to be among the urban Middle class non-Muslim youths also . Why is it so that the middle classes in general have become pro-market and supporter of Modi brand of development which is more aggressive than the Congress and AAP brand of Market ? It is also a question of the psychology of the herd that people get carried away with the success story of middle class in the free-market having the lack of critical understanding about the dark side of the market forces which you rightly pointed out how the state in increasingly withdrawing from the social sector . You are right also in pointing about the lack of Suroor’s understanding regarding the discrimination of Muslims where he himself had to settle into the Muslim locality without having an option of getting accommodation elsewhere .

    The success of an Individual extra-ordinary person like APJ Kalam cannot be generalised , and it is also true that the unfreedom of the masses of Muslim cannot get freedom with the success of an individual . As we have even politicians like the ”pragmatist” Shahnawaz Hussein and Naqbi supporting the communal forces and even defending the role of Modi in state sponsored killings of Muslim in Gujrat . Definitely , Suroor is applying the method of media interview different from deep sensitive ethnographic theoretically informed narratives .
    Very sensible review of Suroor .

  4. I agree with many of Abhay Kumar’s critical comments on Hasan Suroor’s book on Indian Muslims. Over the decades many a well intentioned secular Muslims have become tired of the continued economic backwardness of the Muslims while other previously backward communities eg SCs, OBCs have progressed. That frustration reflects as anger with the Muslim organizations/leaders. They blame Muslim leaders/organizations who protest for better human rights, equal space in the social uplift programs (education, socioeconomic programs) and security from police brutalities, for being obscurantists, non-secular etc. They wrongly presume that only if Muslims accept the communal forces like BJP and Hinduttava parties, continue to forget continued injustices, and vote for them, these Hinduttava parties will shed their prejudices against Muslims. Suroor is one of them.

    But the fact remains that BJP’s record of 66 years is there for us to see. BJP is committed to the RSS ideology which is to make all religious minorities as second class citizens in the Hindu Rashtra. For 66 years they have always opposed even the smallest relief for Muslims; indeed they call it appeasement of Muslims. We had 6 years of BJP/NDA rule at the Center. In those years they did not even slightly improve giving just benefits to Muslims, or giving them representation in parliament and State Assemblies etc or their parties. So why will they do it if they come back to power at the Center? Is Suroor asking Muslims to accept second class citizenship?

    I agree with Abhay’s comment that Suroor is dead- wrong in labeling all of the older generation as non-secular. Indeed Muslims in our parents’ generation who were youth in 1947 had a very fair representation of secularists. The proportion of non-secular Muslims is pretty much the same today as it was in 1947. It is the bad experiences and injustice that some Muslims face that makes them disappointed with secularism. In addition to BJP the secular parties (Congress, SAPA, BSP, Communists etc) have also dragged their feet in giving any relief to the depressed Muslims, although they have fooled them with promises and lip service. The Sachar Committee report tells all of it. This over all lack of justice for Muslims molds the attitudes of some Muslims away from secularism.Whether they are old or young does not make that much difference.

    Suroor’s observations are based on the middlecclass Muslim youth who have not been harassed by police, had reasonable educational opportunities and whose living standards are ok and who are therefore not disappointed with society.

    It is time that Surror and his ilk stop referring to the Pakistan phenomenon. That happened 66 yeas ago and that generation is gone. Today’s Muslims have their own experiences in independent India and they base their views on those experiences (some of which Abhay has mentioned).

    The upper-middleclass Muslims like Suroor who represent about 25% of the community, should realize that they can not make deals with BJP etal on the backs of the two-thirds of the community whose condition has remained unchanged since 1947, as India has made much progress. Indeed the popularity of AAP suggests that the whole country, not only minorities, are fed up with institutionalized injustice and fooling of the common man.

  5. Suroor is right though in saying that the Muslim youth, college students etal in the last about 20 years have become more enthusiastic towards modern attitudes and more in tune with mainstream India. That is because with globalization being prevalent the whole nation has become more enthusiastic about modern behavior patterns. Also in the first few decades following 1947, the awful string of communal riots and the constant barrage from Hinduttava forces made Muslims alien in their own land and very unsure if they were welcome in the mainstream. Gradually they shed that fear complex and started mingling in the mainstream. We all remember the awful 1970s and 1980s when BJP and their associates openly targeted Muslims.

    Growing up in India in those days I have very vivid recollection of how in public places, travelling in trains etc I had to endure so much verbal abuse, taunts and intimidation.
    Muslim women in hijab/burqa, men with beard and or cap were frequently looked at with deep suspicion and targeted with disdainful comments. So if they developed a feeling that they should cling together for safety and dignity, how could they be blamed for it.

    Suroor’s observation that most of today’s Muslim youth are more religious though is erroneous. For sure considerable dilution in attachment to religious practices is the characteristic of today’s Muslim youth in India. But then that is a national trend among all communities in India.

  6. My take on the book: My issues, or rather concerns, with the author and the book under review are not that he is not saying anything new. In my view, the author should be lauded for his courage to revisit some of his long—held prejudices and second hand understanding of Indian Muslims in general and practicing Muslims in particular. My concerns hover around him being over-simplistic on crucial issues, elite in his perspective, lacking basic research, and not spending much time with the subject. Hence, the author is bound to ignore various important aspects about the changes occurring in Muslim societies in India, which the author has termed as ‘India’s Muslim Spring’; the book has ended up being a sort of a ‘Confessional Document of an Elite Muslim.’

    http://www.hardnewsmedia.com/2014/03/6250

  7. I am quite surprised by the review of Suroor’s book, especially because the excerpts printed in The Hindu and elsewhere seemed promising. It is unfortunate that Suroor chose to base his book on interactions with a minuscule sample of urban young Muslims to draw his conclusions of such a broad demographic.

    As someone who was until recently a member of this sector of population (still young, just not Muslim) I have a few observations though, and I can promise my sample size is much bigger than Suroor’s. Post 9/11 there is definitely more awareness among the urban lot, including the Indian. They are definitely not shy of both acknowledging themselves as both part of the wider Ummah as well as distinctly Indian. So the dichotomy does exist in some ways: uphold Indian secularism and demand rights under its ambit, but also vouch for an idealistic global Caliphate secretly but not actively struggle for it in anyway. In other words, I would say they are more adept at the dual identity game that their previous generations failed at.

    But simultaneously, they are also absorbing more fundamentalist versions of the faith, ditching the traditional and tolerant Sufi/Barelvi ideas for more puritan Deobandi, and thanks to all the Gulf influence, Wahabi ideology. YouTube and other social media has also exposed them to the global trends within Islam, especially in the US. Apologists like Zakir Naik have been ditched for more approachable and less controversial (and might I add less demanding) internet sheikhs like Mufti Menk and Nouman Ali Khan. Their approach clearly follows the Christian evangelical methodology, emphasizing personal character, faith and symbolism over overt political objectives and hate mongering. Equally though, for every ‘moderate’ sheikh there is also a fundamentalist one with equal popularity, my observation is they do not find much traction beyond their political assertions, especially among Indian Muslims.

    The young Muslim’s apologetic positions are also responding to other challenges. Baby steps are being taken for feminism: The F-word remains a taboo but women are becoming increasingly vocal about how Islam protects women’s rights. Homosexuality is morphing from disease/perversion to a ‘test from Allah’, creationism to intelligent design.

    However, for each of these tiny steps forward, there are violent, reactionary jumps propagating retrograde Shariah, second-class status to women and hate-mongering for the other. The Indian Muslim is as confused as his global counterpart when it comes to Islamic theology in these times. The only definite progress is reconciling their dual Indian and Muslim identity.

  8. Despite documenting the positive change that largely went unnoticed in the clamour of fighting Muslim terror, the book has a few misses and lapses. Though the author admits that his research was confined to major cities, none of the cities in south with considerable number of Muslim population find place in the book. Infact, in the absence of the baggage of partition, Muslims in south India had shown the way in many fields, especially in education and political empowerment of the community.

    For example, Muslims in Kerala often have been cited as a role model due to their considerable improvement in their socio-economic status. While questioning the sectarian politics of the Muslim leadership, the author fails to take note of major political experiment by the Muslims in Kerala and most recently in Assam. However, he describes Muslim’s support for Modi in 2010 civic elections in Gujarat as an example of pragmatic politics. While discussing the vote bank politics of parties, the author completely exonerates the Left saying, “Barring the Left, political parties of all hues have shamelessly exploited Hindu-Muslim differences to build their respective vote banks.”

    In reality, the 30-years of Left rule in West Bengal and the partisan politics of CPI (M) in Kerala have already exposed the faultlines of Left politics.

    The book also does not mention anything about the neo socio-political movements emerging from the community, though it is very early to predict their future.

  9. However, complexity of being cannot be the distinguishing lament of only muslims of today. It can be attributed to almost all communities in India, bereft of straight forward leadership and facing massive corruption. Muslims are facing what almost every other Indian is facing – Skewed opportunities, biased religious leadership and a political class ready to exploit the mass’ ‘beamed upon’ grievances. Yes, the muslims of today in India have come a long way forward to take part in our great national melee but they merely join millions of non muslims Indians walking the same path. That’s where a unified civil code is important. Its a great leveler keeping in mind the justice of a mighty mass that does not distinguish individuals but a co-joined mass
    need for betterment.

We look forward to your comments. Comments are subject to moderation as per our comments policy. They may take some time to appear.

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s