Here I am publishing a recent interview I did with Yusuf Unjhawala (@yusufDFI). Yusuf is an out spoken critique of radicalization of youth in various Muslim communities in India, a voice of moderation and a proponent of equal rights for Muslim women. Yusuf is very active in social media. He has a large following of supporters and a long list of opponents too. Yusuf is also an influential voice in Indian social media on defence matters and is an administrator at www.defenceforumindia.com
In this interview I ask him some questions which were difficult in my view, but the ease with which he has answered them gives me confidence that these are not so difficult to be shied away from.
In this interview I ask him some questions which were difficult in my view, but the ease with which he has answered them gives me confidence that these are not so difficult to be shied away from.
1) To start with, please share some background about you. We know that you are an editor at Defence Forum India and have also written for publications like Swarajya Magazine on defence matters. But your main occupation is your business. A family business I assume. How did India Defence Forum India happen? From where did your interest in defence matters begin?
Answer: First of all thank you for considering me worthy of an interview.
Yes I am a businessman by profession. Not surprising as I belong to the Dawoodi Bohra community which is a trading community. Although many have moved into professional courses. I myself am a Mechanical Engineer.
My interest in defence has been from school days. I wanted to join to armed forces but it was not to be. But interest in defence and strategic affairs always remained.
In 2009, the forum www.defenceforumindia.com was started as there was space for creating an outlet for young and old on issues of defence. Twitter and facebook had not caught on in a big way and forums were more structured and focused.
2) Commonly when people look at India they look at it in terms of its modern administrative units i.e. the states. Another way to define India is to look at it in terms of its various communities. These communities are spread across physical boundaries but may also consider a certain geography as the root of their sub-culture. You belong to one such community which has earned a lot of respect and good will in India. The Bohra Muslims. Could you tell us something about the community from your perspective? What has been the reason for the community having made such positive contribution to society and earned good will?
Answer: The Bohra community derives its theological doctrine from the Fatemids of Egypt. It belongs to the Shia sect and within Shiasm, its part of the Ismaili branch. Fatemid dynasty that ruled was a time when “Caliphate’ and the political rule was one as per Ismailis. They ruled much of North Africa also known as Maghreb. From Egypt to Morocco and also parts of Middle East. At the end of the dynasty, the Imam went into seclusion and a post of vice-regent was established in Yemen called Dai commonly called Syedna.
They sent their missionaries to India and managed to convert people. So most Bohras are converts although normal migration and settlement would have happened from areas outside the current geography of India.
The Bohras got their name from Gujarati word vepaar meaning business. You will find Bohras all over the world. Bohras literacy rate is high both among boys and girls and that is probably why the Bohras stand out among other Muslim sects of India.
Bohras came into their own during the world wars especially the first. They supplied material for the British war effort and made a lot of money. Most of them had moved from their native villages in Gujarat to Bombay, Kolkata and later on to Chennai back then in search for their livelihood. Those who made this big money wanted to give back to the society and formed various trusts that ran schools, colleges, medical facilities etc. That they also got educated and the inherent docile nature of the Bohras have endeared them to everyone.
3) You have commented on some of the issues among the Bohra community. Like the issue of Female Genital Mutilation, recent influence of Arab culture and on the leadership of the community. What are some these issues that are subject of much debate and 'churn' in the community? What are your views on these?
Answer: Female Genital Mutilation or FGM has been prevalent in the Bohra community for centuries. One theory says that since the Bohras are a mercantile community with the men going on long tours in search of business opportunities, they got the women to undergo FGM to suppress their sexual desire. There hasn't been any debate within the community on this issue and years of what probably was a community or cultural practice acquired a religious color which has made sure that the topic will remain off the table of discussion. Also there was very little education on the subject for both the men and the women. The process is carried out by untrained elderly ladies of the community in utter secrecy on 6-7 year old girls. The girls have no clue as to what they have gone through.
All this has changed with the advent of social media which has exposed more people to the issue and there has been discussion within the community but its all hushed hushed. A few months back the Syedna cryptically announced that the process has divine sanction and must go on. This makes it difficult to even debate on the issue let alone get rid of it.
On the question of influence of Arab influence within the community, yes I have seen more use of Arabic words in sermons in the mosque. The Bohras are all Gujaratis and for a long time it was Gujarati which was the language of all communication. In the last few years, this has changed where a language called “Lisan-ud-Dawat’ (Language of Missionary) has become widely used. It consists of Gujarati, Hindi, Persian and Arabic words but lot of Arabic words these days which common folks dont even understand. Bohras are told Arabic is the divine language as Gods revelations in Quran is in that language. Ordinary bohras don't know the language nor do they make any effort to learn it. It is only taught in the Bohra universities that trains the clergy. I must say that bohras still use Khuda Hafiz and not Allah Hafiz and Ramzan and not Ramadan which is finding traction among other Muslims in India.
About the churn, if you are hinting at the ongoing power struggle following the demise of the previous Syedna, then yes. It split the community. Most “seem” to be with the son of the previous Syedna, Mufaddal Saifuddin and has become the dominant faction and carries the Dawoodi Bohra tag. The other faction has been called the Qutbi bohras although its not they who have named themselves as such and still call themselves Dawoodi bohra and claim to be the successors of the previous Syedna. The case is in the court. A court order will not change allegiance of people as they stand today but its more to do with the enormous wealth that the ruling cleric commands which is at stake.
The dominant faction has been using all the tricks in the book to shore up or show numbers including use of smart cards to track attendance of community members on various occasions and events in the mosques and those who don't come are questioned.
4) You have actively commented on this phenomenon which is described as Islamism. How would you define it? What is this ideology and why is it a matter of concern?
Answer: In simple terms, Islamism is political Islam. The use of Islam for political goals which will result in worldwide Islamic rule or Caliphate. It's adherents espouse a puritanical way and want to live life as it existed during the Prophet’s time. Non-muslims are called Kafirs and are expected to either convert or be dhimmis and pay protection money. This is what happened in the past and Islamists want to revive what they call the golden era of Islam when Muslims ruled large areas from Europe to India. It's a supremacist ideology which has no regard for other religions. They don't entertain any debate on their practices and can get very violent as we see in many parts of the world. They follow a very strict and extreme version of Sharia law and deny women equal rights. They conduct violent jihad against “Kafirs” and finding causes with the purpose to establish Islamic rule across the world.
It is a matter of concern as this has led to spiralling of terrorism. No country is safe. India off course has been at the receiving end of terror from Pakistan. Its a state sanctioned Jihad and Kashmir is only an excuse.
The other issue that India faces is radicalization of its own Muslim population due to the extensive use of social media by the extremists in propagating their ideology. We have seen many Muslim kids to to Syria and join ISIS. there is a rise in the extremist wahabi ideology which is funded by Saudi Arabia. The home ministry is cognizant of the fact that money has come into India to fund mosques and madarsas with preachers from outside coming in propagating an extreme version of Islam. That is why a few months back Prime Minister Modi called on Indian Muslims to fall back on the Sufi ways that has always flourished in India over the centuries.
5) By and large the Muslim communities in India have escaped this ideology and most people reject it. But one knows that there is active influence being exerted by some sections/forces. Who are these forces? How can the various Muslim communities escape this? What do they need to do to keep the young generation on a positive path of prosperity and positive contribution to society?
Answer: Muslim community in India has escaped it by and large as they are Indic in origin and followers of sufi ways. But like I mentioned earlier, there is a wahabi influence these days. Add to this vested political interests are making matters worse.How can we address this is one question, will we be allowed to address this is another considering the politics that's played around.
One thing that is certain is that Muslims need to get educated. Get into public schools and study in multi-cultural environment. It's not that it will stop radicalization as we have seen doctors and engineers conduct terror attacks but it will to a large extent get them out of the narrow world that they live in guided by their faith and be more aware, respectful and considerate of other faiths and cultures. It will take them away from the narrow minded clerics who shape their worldview and motivate them to question and demand answers regarding practices and issues within the community and in fact get onto the path of reforms within the community.
But will it be allowed to be addressed? History has shown that clerics and politicians will not allow reforms. Prominent example is the Shah Bano case in which Muslims forced PM Rajiv Gandhi to legislate against Supreme Court order that went in favor of Shah Bano for maintenance after her husband divorced her. Or take the ongoing debate on triple talaq where again a Muslim woman has sought a ban on the practice which doesn't exist even in Islamic countries but strongly backed by clerics and Muslim politicians in India. The problem is they quickly declare any attempts to correct the wrongs as a war on Islam. Makes it difficult to reform both by the courts or by the reform minded members of the community.
The government has to figure out a way to clip the wings of clerics from the personal lives of ordinary Muslims. Engage with the intellectuals and common Muslims alike and delegitimize the role of self appointed and self serving thekedars of Indian Muslims like the All India Muslim Personal Law Board. The supreme court has already called the issuance of fatwas as unconstitutional. We can go a bit further and legislate a limited role for clerics in the lives of Muslims to just leading the prayers.
Another thing that the government will have to take measures to stop provocative and radicalizing content that proliferates on social media.
6) Why do the influential people from various Muslim communities push Islamism under the carpet? Some don't like to use the term since it seems to in their view portray Islam itself in negative light.
Answer: I think the violent nature of Islamists prevents people from speaking up. We have seen what has happened to writers in Bangladesh who have been murdered. Then there is the use of blasphemy laws in Islamic countries which prevents people from speaking freely. In India too there are similar forces which scares people from raising their voices.
7) What do non-Muslims need to know about Islamism? How to single out this Ideology and separate it from wider Muslim religious traditions? How can non-Muslims positively address this?
Answer: I have already described what Islamism is all about. Thanks to internet and social media, there is awareness about it today.
I would also say that there are two parts to the issue. One that happens outside India and one that's within. There are different socio-political dynamics, i might add geo-political in the larger context.
In many cases what happens outside is applied to Indian Muslims which probably is not right. The situation in Europe for example is different & cannot be applied to India. Indian Muslims are ethnic of the country whereas there is a migratory,multi ethnic and multi cultural Muslim population in Europe & it has its own problems today with regards to integration with the rest. Indian Muslims are integrated into the larger population being of same ethnicity, language & Indic culture.
So there should not be any broad brushing of ordinary Indian Muslims who are culturally Hindustanis.
Then there is a geopolitical angle to Islamism in which the wahabi ideology is trying to penetrate across the world and use it to influence native policies. There is also a Shia-Sunni rivalry primarily stemming from Saudi-Iran power struggle. This led to propping and support of very violent groups of people in trying to achieve dominance.
Coming to Indian context, you have a few self styled Muslim leaders with political objectives indulging in competitive Islamism. Trying to push common Muslim population further into a more hardened form of Islam. This will only lead to further isolation of Muslims from the mainstream. Muslims as it is are at the bottom of the socio-economic ladder in the country. Isolation will only worsen the situation leading to more inward looking and greater chance of radicalization.
What the larger non Muslim community can do is to push Muslims into introspection by taking up various issues. The issue of Triple Talaq for instance or FGM has found support from wider population who agree that the practice is wrong and that rights of women need to be protected. This will emboldened Muslims to rise against such practices and break the wall or barrier that exists in not questioning.
8) Recently there have been some developments. Long after Shah Bano case now the case of triple talaq is in supreme court. There is also the case of entry of women in Haji Ali dargah sanctum. How are these being seen in the community? I would like to understand not just your view but that of the various Muslim communities.
Answer: Being from the Bohra community, I cannot speak on behalf of the larger Muslim community. But in this regards, Bohras are much better off. Women are allowed to pray in mosques & can go to any dargahs of Bohra saints or past Syednas and pray albeit there is clear separation of men and women within the premises. Also within the Bohra community there is no instant Talaq. It's difficult to get a divorce as all efforts are made to reconcile first.
But going by the reports and statements of clerics & some Muslim politicians, it's clear that they don't want to give women equal rights or their dues or give them a life of dignity. Recently Haji Ali dargah agreed to allow women in. So that is a welcome development. That there was a move to block women was surprising as women have been prominent in the spread of Sufism.
On the triple talaq issue, we now have comments from the Allahabad High Court which has observed that triple talaq is against the right of Muslim women and is unconstitutional. Justice Mushtaq in the Kerala High Court just a few days back said that justice has become elusive for Muslim women and the remedy lies in the codification of the divorce law. Justice Mushtaq went on to say that fear that uniform code on marriage will offend Sharia is a myth. The matter on triple talaq is also pending with the Supreme Court. The usual suspects who claim to represent Muslims are not expected to reform and keep harping on the keeping personal laws intact in the garb of right to religion. So it will need outside intervention by either the courts or the parliament to uphold individual rights which are violated in the name of religion.
9) What is the role of All India Muslim Personal Law board in Muslim life. How do people look at it? Who do they represent? What have been their positive contribution or otherwise?
Ans: the AIMPLB is an NGO which has assumed the role of being representative of all Muslims in India. Successive government indulgence and patronage has made it assume that. I don't know how many common folks even know about it. This has to stop. In this regard, the Allahabad HC comment comes at good time where it observed that “No personal law board is above constitution”.
10) There is view among some Indians that India is an artificial creation, that became a nation due to British occupation and they unified India. There is another view, that sees India as a civilization state. Some would say constitution makes India some others would say it is the civilization that has made the state and the constitution. Some fear that using such a formulation excludes people who do not consider themselves to be part of the civilization. How do you think an average Muslim looks at this? Do they not find themselves from the same civilization? Do they find such an Idea threatening?
Ans: LOL. India or Bharatvarsh has existed for thousands of years. This idea that India was born in 1947 is false. Anyways that's a topic in its own.
But since you refer to what an average Muslim looks at it, let me state India known as Hind has been mentioned by the prophet in a positive manner. It's another matter that Pakis concocted a ghazwa hadith.
The Muslims of India as people are no different from any other citizen. They are converts to Islam but that doesn't mean they become unrooted from what they are.
But in recent years thanks to competitive Islamism & influx of radical version of Islam, the need to be different has come up. So women who till a few years back who wore saris, salwar kameez, are now wearing burqas. Men are growing long beards, wearing topi. Words that were very native to India are now being discarded in favor of Arabic.
Pakistanis who detached themselves from Indian roots in search for Arabic, Turkic identity, got into an identity crisis. Indian Muslims should guard against that. The clerics again play an important role in this regard as they are the ones who preach in mosques & teach in Madarasas.
11) What are your views on education for Muslim youth? Is modern education alone a solution to radicalization? After all Jinnah was educated in the west and he belonged to a community of Muslims who had a very composite culture. His mother's name was Mithibai. His Grandfather had converted to Khoja Islam and his family was a prosperous merchant family. All parameters and conditions seem to suggest the so called composite culture of India, yet we see an Islamist in him. What else could an intelligent man have seen except the current state of Islamism in Pakistan when he asked for it? Similar story exists for Iqbal.
What do you think Muslim families need to do and what should their non-Muslim neighbours do, so that youth do not turn to this ideology?
And: Yes Jinnah was a suited booted, pork eating, wine drinking Islamist who was seeking legacy. I mentioned earlier that some of the big terror attacks were carried out by doctors & engineers. So yes education alone doesn't guarantee move away from radical Islam.
But in general, education in math, science, social science, history etc in public schools is required for Muslims to be at par with other citizens of the country which will help them secure jobs and better lives for themselves. Mix with all other communities & not live in ghettos, indulge in exchange of ideas that broaden horizons which allows them to question ills within the community, break myths etc.
What non Muslims can do? Continue to be themselves as their ancestors were in being accommodating. All 180 million Muslims are not extremists or terrorists. Once you base everything on the presumption that all Muslims are potential terrorists, it will make it difficult to fight radical Islam.
The fight against radical Islam is not going to be easy. It's going to take generations to reform. Educating current & future generations of Muslims in secular schools, regulating what's taught in mosques & Madarasas will help develop the minds of Muslims away from radical ideas.