Ghettoes of the mind

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Making several mistakes at once

Mukul Kesavan

In India, the words Muslim and ghetto seem to go together. The word ‘ghetto’ comes from medieval Venice where it was used to describe the quarter of the city where Jews were required to live. ‘Required’ is the important word in this definition; Webster’s second definition of the word expands upon the coerced nature of this segregated togetherness: “a quarter of a city in which members of a minority group live especially because of social, legal, or economic pressure”.
Predominantly Muslim neighbourhoods in India are often ghettoes in this precise sense of the word. Muslims live in them because they can’t afford rents in non-Muslim localities or because they feel unsafe elsewhere or find it near-impossible to rent or buy homes in other localities from non-Muslim house owners.
My mother used to rent a small flat above the garage in her home in Delhi. An estate agent she knew called to say that he had the perfect tenant: a single woman, who lectured at a nearby college. My mother was pleased; a working woman herself who had married very late in life, she was predisposed towards independent single women. There was, however, a ‘but’: the prospective tenant was a Muslim and the estate agent needed to know before he arranged a meeting if that was a problem for my mother. Affronted, my mother asked if he asked that question of every house owner. “Everyone,” he said firmly. “I don’t want my client embarrassed in a face-to-face meeting.”
This is an anecdote but it’s a leaf in a forest of anecdotes exactly like this one. I had a distinguished colleague whose first name didn’t give her Muslim identity away so she would often get to meet house owners to rent a flat only to be told it had been taken the moment the penny dropped. Another colleague, a young lecturer called Nazim masqueraded as Naveen to rent a cheap room in a lal dora neighbourhood, one of the many villages swallowed up by the expanding city.
When Indians talk about Muslim ghettoes, they tend to disregard the involuntary aspect of this clustering. In bhadralok minds, a Muslim ghetto is the result of a shunning of modernity (and therefore cosmopolitan urban living), a determination to send their children to medieval seminaries instead of Kendriya Vidyalayas and a natural affinity for the company of their own kind. In this view, the Muslim basti is a rash of burqa-and-topi iron filings, tightly grouped within the magnetic field of a mosque.
The Muslim ghetto thus defined becomes a microcosm of the Muslim condition: a backward community held back by a self-harming and blinkered view of the world. From here it is a step to arguing that Muslim emancipation depends on Muslim self-help: these bearded men and shrouded women must bootstrap themselves into the modern world by shifting their loyalties from the fatwas of the pajama-ed maulana to the exhortations of the trousered modernist.
This Muslim ghetto out of Mere Mehboob or Chaudhvin ka Chand is home to a small selection of types. The woman in a burqa is one such, about whom a great deal has been written both in the West and, more recently, in India. Her male counterpart is the bearded man in a skull cap who wears a dirty-white kurta and a pair of flood-level pajamas that stop at his ankles.
Now this man exists just as the woman in the burqa does. The fact that they are stereotypes doesn’t make them less real. In Jamia Millia Islamia where I teach, you can see dozens of young men dressed exactly like this, most of who have done their schooling in a madrasa and then travelled to the great city to go to university. So far, so true to type. What is interesting is that these young men who are hugely outnumbered by young Muslims in denims who crowd the same campus, become emblematic of Muslim-ness in the minds of non-Muslims. In exactly the same way, women in burqas come to stand in either for Muslim women or Muslim backwardness.
One way of achieving perspective on this is to look at other communities. No one, for example, thinks of a bearded and turbaned Sikh as a walking anachronism or as the antithesis of the modern man despite the fact that the overwhelming majority of Sikhs sport beards and turbans. New York is home to nearly 2 million Jews out of which a very visible minority of Orthodox Jews wears skull caps, old fashioned hats, white shirts, black jackets and black trousers. Long, twisted tendrils of hair frame their faces. People think they are quaint and anachronistic but no one thinks that their orthodoxy defines America’s Jews. The reason they don’t is that tendrilled Jews, turbaned Sikhs and tufted Hindus aren’t seen as the rearguard of a failed community; bearded Muslims are.
Muslims are radically under-represented in middle class circumstances in India, so it is tempting to attribute their poverty or their backwardness to their Muslim-ness. The burqa and the skull-cap are a shorthand for that quality. If Muslims were more prosperous than they are, if they were, say, as prosperous as Sikhs, bearded Muslims wouldn’t be seen as representative of the community because their quintessential Muslim-ness couldn’t then be used as an explanation of a community’s failure.
But Muslims in India aren’t prosperous. They are by some measures more deprived than Dalit communities. The readiness with which Muslims are urged to cast off their burqas and skull caps the better to emerge from their ghettoes, isn’t always an expression of concern for their welfare; it’s often a way of holding them responsible for their plight. Muslims, in this view of the world, are losers; and they are losers because they are stubbornly and excessively Muslim. The Bharatiya Janata Party’s ostentatious concern for the plight of Muslim women and its contempt for the bearded Muslim aren’t hard to understand but the secular modernist’s critique needs explanation.
It is inappropriate in civil company to blame the poor for their poverty.
(Cont’d on page 5)
(Cont’d from page 4)
But it is still acceptable to publicly admonish poor people in skull caps and burqas because they haven’t embraced reason and modernity. For modernizers, backward Muslims are lineal descendants of the feckless poor, both guilty of the cardinal sin of failing to help themselves. The Victorian philanthropist commended the deserving poor dedicated to the ‘chapel, the friendly society and the co-op’; in just this way must the backward Muslim be seen to embrace individualism, modernity and the market to win the approval of his benevolent yet bracingly liberal compatriot.
We shouldn’t attribute Muslim isolation and backwardness to patriarchal bad practice in Muslim communities. If polygamy were outlawed and if the burqa was progressively given up, the rights and freedoms of Muslim women would be expanded. This would be good in itself. What this progress wouldn’t do is liberate Muslims from their ghettoes because that confinement has little to do with Muslim traditionalism and orthodoxy. That single lecturer looking for a tiny flat and my colleague routinely ambushed by the abruptly filled vacancy, weren’t applying from inside a burqa; they epitomized the modern Indian working woman: single, independent, actively looking to live a life not defined by religious identity or male relatives. How is the Muslim to embrace a market that is set to reject her by default?
The gendered orthodoxies of Muslim communities should be separated from their backwardness. The one doesn’t lead to the other. The Muslim poor are no more responsible for their poverty than any other kind of poor. Less so, if anything, because their condition isn’t mitigated by affirmative action, it is aggravated by prejudice. The work of several scholars, notably Anirudh Krishna, has shown how hard it is to climb out of poverty in India and how easy it is to slide deeper into it. To argue that Muslims are held back by an unconscionable hostility to the modern world and that their backwardness is down to bad Muslim leadership is to make several mistakes at once.
It is to absolve the State of its duty of uniform care: education, public health, security and basic procedural equality. It is to give civil society a free pass on prejudice and discrimination. And it is to succumb to the idea of the saviour: the absent but longed for leader who will lead his people into a new dawn. A republic’s citizens shouldn’t (and shouldn’t have to) look to community redeemers to do the secular work of State and civil society.
(Courtesy: TT)