Sharjeel Imam and Saquib Salim
Najeeb Ahmad, a first year MSc student of Biotechnology, was beaten up on 14 October, 2016 by a group of people in Mahi-Mandavi hostel after an alleged scuffle, and he mysteriously disappeared the next day. It is for the first time that a student from a central university has disappeared, leaving no trace. It has been argued by Student Islamic Organisation, YFDA and many Left leaders of the campus like Shehla Rashid that an ABVP mob assaulted Najeeb because of his Muslim identity, and that there seems to be an Islamophobic atmosphere in the campus. This argument raises serious questions as JNU has been a fort of mainstream Left politics and student activism (CPI, CPM, CPI[ML]) and some other smaller, clueless yet more voluble Left “organisations”. If a residential campus dominated by Left wing parties, famed for their self-professed secularism, witnesses such brutal attacks by “Islamophobic mobs”, then who is responsible for the attacks, and, more importantly, for Najeeb’s disappearance?
The standard answer to such questions from the Left leaders is that ABVP has grown in strength and that Muslims are not feeling safe in this campus. However, on closer scrutiny, this answer seems unsatisfactory as the Left rhetoric, which claims itself to be secular, enjoys hegemony in this campus in terms of number as well as academic respect. If we probe deeper, it turns out that Left rhetoric has been inherently anti-Muslim as well, and has been frequently sprinkled with hate speeches and outlandish caricaturing of Islamic faith.
And we are not referring here to informed or uninformed discussions about women’s status in Islam and their freedom or triple talaq or caste among Muslims, issues which are highly contested in the diverse world of Islamic theology itself. Innumerable scholars of Islam are arranged against each other on all of these fronts. We will focus on statements and opinions about matters which are far more fundamental to Islamic faith, and how the treatment of these issues tend to alienate the already victimised Muslim youth of this nation. Najeeb, for instance, was a religious youth, and subscribed to a particular strain of Barelvi Sufism according to the frequent Facebook posts he shared about the great Sufi Ghaus-e-Azam.
Let’s demonstrate this kind of rhetoric with examples.
Harsh Vardhan was an office bearer, and currently a member of All India Students’ Association (AISA), a Left wing student organisation. In this Facebook post, he claims that some Muslims are terrorists at least partially because of their religion, and that there are tangible defects in their book (Quran) which apparently encourage them towards violent activities. This gentleman has not read or understood the scholarly work linking geo-politics and terrorist acts, let alone critiquing the loose and ambiguous category of “terrorism”, but one would expect that a basic historical reading of Quran. Its reception among Muslim masses across centuries and continents could have been cited as evidence. This statement is a generalisation which seems to claim that reading Quran can lead you to terrorism. This is a blanket stereotyping of the whole community, and an Islamophobic statement. However, many AISA activists decided to defend this post as an example of rational discussions and “free speech”.
Shehla Rashid, in one of her posts, decided to explain to us what hate speech is by giving an example where she used a derogatory word for Muhammad, and claimed that this statement does not amount to hate speech. Part of the problem is that logic is not the forte of these thinkers, because if one knows a little bit of Islam, then one would realise that there is a consensus that Muhammad is the primary human model in the Islamic faith. Hence, the criminal category which was associated with Muhammad in this post would implicitly mean that Muslims, the followers of Mohammad, are being put into the same category. Aligarh Muslim University Students Union reacted, and one cabinet member Ghazala Ahmad lodged an FIR against Shehla for hate speech. The JNUSU and Left intellectuals jumped in to defend Shehla Rashid, and all of a sudden, the AMUSU was termed a regressive campus, to the extent that Ghazala was called a puppet in the hands of a patriarchal AMUSU.
Another childish post, which is symptomatic of the general Islamophobia current in left circles, lashed out at Islamic feminism.
A student of Modern History, and an AISA cadre should know better, as there is no dearth of academic scholarship of the resistance of Muslim women in the secular as well religious domains throughout the last century produced by Muslims as well as non-Muslims. Sadly, that is not the case. The term ‘Islamic feminism’ has been used for more specific and difficult projects of women scholars of Islam who seek to foreground the different and complementary nature of Islamic knowledge through women’s perspectives, which sometimes leads to the radical abandonment of Victorian family model altogether.
The other objectionable part is where Mohammad has been charged with schizophrenia, which is a direct attack on Muslim identity and faith. We don’t know how a historian can diagnose the medical condition without original sources. What was surprising was that some Leftist scholars defended this post as an example of rational thinking.
Our last example is the most troubling one.
This is the category of fake news, which as a rule will include all the news about the supposed “fatwas”. First of all, a clarification is needed: A fatwa is a non-mandatory legal opinion given only by a registered Mufti to any seeker of ethical standards of Islamic faith. The clarification is important, because it might seem to an untrained reader of these newspapers that any call towards violence by any bearded Muslim can be called ‘fatwa’. This is what the fatwa has been reduced to in popular imagination. The president of JNU Teachers Association Ayesha Kidwai shared this on her timeline:
This fake news piece is originally two years old, but was shared by her on Sunday, despite the fact that for two years, all the major news organisations like The Huffington Post, The Guardian etc have pointed out that it is fake news. The Grand Mufti himself clarified that he didn’t issue any such fatwa. The issue here is not whether we agree completely with the Grand Mufti’s vision of Islam, which is hotly contested among Muslims of all shades, but that these intellectuals cherrypick every suitable headline which seems to denigrate some Muslims.
We do not intend here to target these individuals, and divert the discussion to the presence of a few bad apples. We think that these posts are representative of ingrained anti-Islamic bias in the Left rhetoric in general. It is for this reason that many Muslim students from marginalised regions are often misled into thinking that their Muslim identity and Islamic faith and individual practice is necessarily at odds with high sounding ideals of the Leftist parties which are upheld in academic terms in the campus. Through their hostile rhetoric and peer pressure, the liberal Left here mocks and shames the Muslim youth for their Islamic faith, and wants to impose an ideal code of conduct and mode of thinking for the students. At the same time, it helps in pandering to their Islamophobic base as well.
The authors are research scholars in Modern and Contemporary History at Centre for Historical Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University.