Re Presentation

A response to an email exchange on Chomsky, dissent and extremist Islam on an internal MCRC mailer… An alumnus invited comments on an article by Ali Eteraz (The Huffington PostChomsky Dissent Not Enough). What troubled me was NOT the article, but the mail preceding it. A well intentioned mail by a young liberal (and since categories are important for her – a Hindu) media professional, with a lot of concern/ empathy for the “Muslim” community but there’s something about it… Also this message was not cleared on a Jamia Millia internal mailer – no surprises for guessing why – perhaps when they are through with building gates with fancy Arabic sounding names that probably no student/ visitor understands, they will take stock of the reality of how closed in they have become!

hi there….i heard Jamia is opening a center dedicated to left wing activist
Noam Chomsky…thats cool…but here’s an interesting write up on radical leftie
dissent and extremist Islam that needs to be seen in perspective. minorities all
over the they religious, cultural, linguistic, racial, sexual etc etc
are often persecuted.

whether its Muslims in Gujarat or Pandits in Kashmir or Christians in
Orissa….3 wrongs don’t make a right. in india the `left-liberal intelligensia’
(i consider myself part of atleast the first half of that phrase) justifiably
speaks up against oppression of Muslims and Christians.

but what abt places where Muslims are in a majority…. shouldn’t we speak as
strongly abt oppression of minorities, women etc in the same voice there. why
should we allow Hindu right wingers like the BJP and Bajrang Dal to appropriate
that space? do we reduce our credibility as liberals by not speaking up when
extremist Islam (as ugly as extremist Hinduism) raises its ugly head?

i have lived and worked for 3 years in Dubai, UAE and have seen the ugly
concoction of Western style capitalism and Islamic extremism… .oppressive
censorship, no rights for women and minorities, barbarian laws (like cutting off
a thief’s hand) etc.

so i choose to speak against extremism everywhere.. .against Hindu Shiv Sainiks
in India…the killers of our innocent Muslim brethern in Gujarat, Kashmiri
terrorists who killed and ousted Hindus from the state & who would throw acid on
the face of a girl not wearing a burqa, Pakistani radicals who co-erce Hindus
there to convert….oil rich sheikhs with harems on the one hand and anti-women
laws on the other….

thats where people like noam chomsky and arundhati roy (both of whom i
otherwise admire) let me down….lets pls not have double standards. as roy
herself once said, “its not abt Hindus or Muslims, its about fundamentalism. ”

comments invited….read the following piece… incidentally written &
forwarded by a muslim….

it would be good to make our group mailer more than just a forwarding of job
postings…. those are good to have but it could also be a means to stay
connected & united as alumni plus an exchange of ideas stated respectfully. ..

if we genuinely care about the minorities in our country and the world
over…we must have the courage to speak up against those who misrepresent them.
we must have the courage to go against the current and stand alone if the need
be. just lip service like “hindu, muslim, sikh, isayee….sab hain bhai bhai” is
not enough.

the difficult questions must be asked. people are killed in the name of
religion in our country….and this is a vital question of our times. as indian
citizens we must all be concerned about the India we will leave behind for our

comments invited….



Hi N______,

Thanks for posting this article – It is very well written, as was a lot of
writing on The Huffington Post. Though I am aware of the facts cited in the
article, there is something in your email that disturbs me and I cant quite
figure out what it is. The opening of Noam Chomsky Complex, housing the Centre
for Jawaharlal Nehru Studies in Jamia Millia Islamia- provokes an alumni to
write an email on Islamic extremism. Hmmm. Interesting, but let me begin with a
few caveats:-)

A] When I write/ forward something from my email address of
iram_ghufran@…, I do not write as a Muslim – If and when I do that, I
will make sure that all are informed on the list – Then, that particular piece
and only that piece of writing, should be read as one written by a “Muslim”. I
refuse to be bracketed in quasi administrative categories of religion and gender
to voice an opinion 😉

B] I am not making a case for the Left in India.

C] I completely agree with you that the problems of Kashmiri pundits and their
exile is not given due consideration by the State, the Left leaning
intelligentsia, the non Left liberals, the neo cons et al.

D] Your accusations regarding Noam Chomsky and Arundhati Roy are not new. Though
Ali Eteraz’s text is well written, I disagree with him. If Roy speaks against
illegal detentions and rapes and tortures and deaths in Kashmir, the onus of
speaking about the exile of lakhs of Kashmiris (Pundits and non Pundits) does
not automatically lie with her. There are hundreds if not thousands of educated/
aware/ articulate liberals all over the country who can do the job. I do not
need a Chomsky or a Roy to say that a huge number of Kashmiri pundits are living
in abysmal conditions in camps, that the State is not concerned about their
political rights nor their futures. Besides, Arundhati Roy and Noam Chomsky are
not writing for ‘Muslims’ alone. A close reading of texts by these people shows
a larger conceptual thematic at work. Their writings have mostly been a
critique of the State and big business through an investigation of State
policies. Chomsky’s work, take ‘Manufacturing
Consent’, for instance, has been, about the role of media in representing and
reporting stories of ‘American atrocities’ in Latin America (Slavadore,
Guatamala, Peru) where the victims were largely practicing ‘Christians’ in a
‘Christian’ ‘dominated’/ majority society. When Roy wrote against the State’s
policies on the Narmada issue, she was not writing for generic and
constitutionally determined categories of ‘tribals’ or ‘Hindus’, when in fact it
can be safely assumed that most of the victims were ‘tribals’ and ‘Hindus’.

Coming back to your email, there is an evident concern about the ‘bad press’
that Islam and “Muslims” are getting – but is the category of religion
sufficient to make sense of contemporary Islamic extremism? In my opinion,
religion as a category provides for a very limiting understanding of social
realities and lived experiences. Religion rarely has space for dissent,
specially monotheistic faiths like Islam. Creating an acceptance for dissent in
religious practices of Islam has had a history that is fraught with conflict.
The Hurufiyas, Bektashis, Ahmadiyas, Sufis etc have all suffered a puritan
backlash at some point or another. Since, I am not an authority on Islam, I will
not venture into the territory of what Islam as a religious practice codifies/
deems illegal. The facts mentioned in Ali Eteraz’s article are true. Kurdistan,
Afghanistan, Lebanon, Pakistan, Iran, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Italy, England,
Germany, Holland, Canada – It seems as if there is a fast
spreading, virulent virus of terrorist attacks, fatwas, illiteracy, bigotry,
etc etc – that seems threatening – and I understand your fear. But I’m not sure
if the answer is within Islam (as a religious practice).

Whether we agree/ disagree, Islam is practiced in a lot of ways throughout the
world and the Koran is interpreted in various ways . This has allowed Islam to
accommodate a variety of pre Islamic/ ‘non Islamic’ practices into its fold.
I’m sure that many of us would agree, that a lot of these practices are today
under threat, by what can be termed as extremist Islam – largely dependent on a
Wahabi reading of the Koran and the Hadith. But at the end of the day, one cant
say that the Wahabis are “un Islamic”. So, who will decide what is “Islamic” and
what is not? A particular kind of reading of the Koran will show intolerant
views on adultery, homosexuality, pre marital sex etc – while another will not –
So at this juncture discussing finer points of Islamic jurisprudence seems as
futile as the idea of a religion that “essentially teaches us to be loving,
responsible, non-materialistic and spiritual human beings”. What if it does not?

Honestly speaking, I am a little skeptical of looking at Islam as a homogeneous
faith/ religion. Each of the situations (Saudi Arabia, Iran, Turkey) you
mentioned arises out of a complex set of circumstances – social, historical,
political, economical and ideological – though one can conveniently trace the
source of all problems to the Wahabis – who see Islam as an exclusive club,
where membership is governed by strict codes of ‘religious’ behaviour –
anything outside it, is deemed kufr, shirk, haraam etc However, I will also say
that blaming it all on the Wahabis is a convenient route that many liberal
scholarship on Islam in the recent times has taken. It’ll be sad if September
11/ December 13/ July 07 are seen as incidents arising out of extremism in Islam
exclusively. Extremism in Islam as a religious practice – Yes. But what else?

It is unfortunate that Kashmir was appropriated by religion, that Iraq is seen
as a “Muslim” problem, that Palestine (itself wrought by internal politics
between “Islamic” groups) and Hezbollah (with its love- hate relationship with
the ‘commies’ in Lebanon), are seen only through the prism of Islam. The
American currency – each Dollar note contains the statement ‘In God we Trust’ –
Who is this God? Is it a secular God? Is s/he a Christian God of the Americans
that funded the Taliban, that stifled most of the movements for democracy in
West Asia?

Why is it that Indians are welcomed and Pakistanis are hated in Kabul? If all
‘Muslims’ follow ‘one’ Islam, then there should be a ‘Muslim brotherhood’ – But
that is clearly not the case.

I am sure you will agree that anyone who objects to ‘right wing’, does not
automatically become ‘left wing’ and am not sure what the credentials are for
entering the ‘liberal intelligentsia’ club – so my location at the moment is in
flux. I very strongly feel that its high time when we drop the social niceties
of – “God is one and all religions are paths to the same God”! We can continue
arguing for and against the “muslim” veil till kingdom come, we can keep going
back to the rich cultural traditions of the Islamicate world in order to make
sense of its violent present, we can keep interpreting and re interpreting the
interpretations of the Koran in search of statements that will allow us to claim
the faith as peaceful, but we also have to re orient our thought on Islam and its
extremist face to take into account contemporary politics and genealogies of
political Islam.

Also if you are at a liberty to travel, please visit Riyadh and try to meet
Aisha al Mana – You must have heard of her – or meet any of the women who
participated in the demonstration to allow Saudi women to drive alone. I know of
a Saudi lady who had her passport confiscated for 4 years because she drove a
car – by her self! Dissent proved a little too expensive but the struggle is


PS : I am not very comfortable by your seemingly romantic ideas on religion.
Many atheist friends would disagree on that front- but its a discussion for
another time and place 🙂

PPS: Censorship on the Jamia site is disturbing but not unexpected. A University
campus that can be stormed by about 2000 policemen, where innocent/ unsuspecting
students can be beaten and arrested -many still bearing the marks of the police
lathis. ( – Well! Thats
Jamia for you. We in this group have had incidents of Temporary Silences,
where people have been ‘muted’ and sadly there was no public outrage at the
censorship – I guess it was deemed’ important by the moderator to silence that



When Hindus wear the burkha
Jyoti Punwani

1 Oct, 2006 1005hrs ISTTIMES NEWS NETWORK

Malti Laad is looking forward to going shopping with her friends next week. It’s Ramzan after all, and, she points out, “Hamari Diwali bhi to hai.” As the group of veiled women samples the goodies on Mohammed Ali Road, they will help Malti buy what’s on top of her Diwali shopping list: a black burkha. The one she wears now belongs to the school where she teaches.

As Malti talks to me inside the school’s air-conditioned audio-visual room, a middle-aged, bearded male enters announcing his presence with a loud “excuse me”. Without a pause in the conversation, Malti pulls down her double-layered naqaab (face veil). As I try to adjust to the pair of kohl-lined eyes that this jovial 23-year-old has suddenly transformed into, the man walks towards us with glasses of water, his head turned firmly away from us.

The Al-Jamiatul-Fikriya Islamic English School in central Mumbai, which is run entirely on Islamic lines, is full of such surprises. A bearded man in a white kurta pyjama and namaz cap welcomes me in fluent English, commenting on the sudden downpour. Then I see a string of teachers appear, their eyes looking out from black veils as they greet me, “Good evening, ma’am.” Some of them are Hindu.

It was not easy for any of them to accept a job which entailed shrouding themselves from head to toe in black. They discussed it for hours at home. (A pre-condition for the job was a no-objection letter signed by their parents.) Some candidates were hesitant but their parents suggested that they try it out. Others were told by their elders to think long and hard before deciding.

What finally clinched it was not just the attractive salary (Rs 7,500 for an 8 am to 5 pm day), but also other factors, varying from a long spell of unemployment to the need for work experience, from the school’s proximity to home to the desire to get away from politicking seniors in other schools. For all, the favourable first impression of their working environment was a strong factor, an impression that was confirmed when they began working here.

They cite the “cozy atmosphere and the supportive staff” as the main advantages of the school.
Care is taken not to offend their religious sensitivities, they say. “I was told at the very beginning, ‘We are not going to convert you,'” recalls Nalini Mohite. While one of the teachers admits that she’s hesitant to eat non-vegetarian food here, another points out that during Shraavan, the canteen makes special vegetarian fare. Visiting preachers who come to talk on Islam are informed that the staff includes Hindus. (Apart from one Christian, 35% of the non-teaching staff and 19% of the all-female teaching staff, is Hindu.)

Twenty seven-year-old Prerna Krishna commutes three hours every day, but has turned down offers from other schools because, “For me what matters is the work environment and the students’ response. The students (all Muslim) reciprocate our concern for them, and the staff is very co-operative.”

And the burkha? Doesn’t it matter at all?

Interestingly, none of them knew when they responded to a newspaper ad that they would have to wear it. Senior teachers recall being told about the ‘dress code’ during the interview. Then the school got wiser and began informing applicants about it when they called them for the interview, “so as not to waste their and our time,” says supervisor Shireen Parveen.

“Wonderful, I thought, when I was told there was a dress code,” recalls Nalini. “Now I won’t have to bother about looking smart every day.” Her elation dipped sharply when the dress code was spelt out. “But the Hindu HRD manager reassured me and showed me the Christian telephone operator wearing a burkha. ‘If she can, why not I,’ I thought.”
Nalini had experienced dress codes earlier. Sarees had been compulsory in her previous job, “making me look middle-aged, especially since I used to wear my mother’s,” says the vivacious 28-year-old. “And in my final year of college, I had to give up jeans. So I told my parents, ‘It’s not a burkha, it’s part of school discipline.’ After all, I’m not being asked to expose, but to cover myself. Nothing wrong with that.”

Initiated into the garment by supervisor Parveen, the girls find the burkha convenient. The entire school is air-conditioned and the garment keeps them warm. But the veil takes weeks of getting used to, even though they can lift it up in the two areas where they spend most of their time – the classroom, where it’s important for students to be able to hear them and see their expression, and the staff room, where they can remove the burkha altogether, since all their colleagues are women. “But we don’t, it’s become a habit now,” Nalini says. But in the presence of the maulanas who impart religious education or the male non-teaching staff, they must remain veiled. “It’s better for us, na,” says Nalini, “we don’t come in contact with them.” Malti too has rationalised the garment’s significance. “However modestly we may dress, men’s eyes always fall on our bodies, sometimes resting here, sometimes there. But in a burkha, what can a man see?” she says laughing, adding regretfully that she can’t say this to her Hindu friends. Prerna too has given up trying to make her friends understand.

For all this, none of them would dream of wearing the burkha after school hours. Once outside, “we go back to our religion,” Prerna says. So, inside, it’s a uniform, outside, it becomes a badge of religious identity. Perhaps that’s why, though the burkhas are taken home to wash, they are not put out to dry. Neither neighbours, nor relatives outside their immediate families, know they wear it. “I used to hang it out, till a colleague told me not to,” says Nalini.

The school’s founder, Suhail Shaikh has offered to assuage any doubts the parents of the Hindu teachers might have. But only one father has approached him so far.

“I assured him that his daughter would be safer here than in any other school,” Shaikh says. In fact, the only objection came from a donor who refused to make any further donation when he learnt that the staff included Hindus. But that has not shaken Shaikh’s resolve to reward talent instead of faith.

Not surprisingly, the burkha and the environment in which they wear this attire, have begun influencing them. After the July 11 blasts, they find themselves countering those who label all Muslims as terrorists.