Born a Muslim: Some Truths About Islam in India begins with a gripping personal narrative that explores the roots of Islamophobia and the misery it causes to Muslims in India, who face discrimination and hatred as a result of their faith and appearance.
Ghazala Wahab, the author of Born A Muslim: Some Truths About Islam in India and Dragon on Our Doorstep. She is the executive editor of FORCE, where she writes on homeland security, terrorism, Jammu and Kashmir, left-wing extremism and religious extremism and contributes a column, First Person. She contributed a chapter on the changing profile of terrorism in Jammu and Kashmir in the book Operation Parakram: The War Unfinished. A career journalist, Ghazala has worked with The Telegraph and Asian Age.
Ghazala Wahab weaves together Personal narratives, Islamic history, non-fictional stories, news, women, and interviews with a wide range of people to show how people and state indifference, as well as widespread bias have made Muslims feel even more unsafe. The book provides an exhaustive description of the Muslim experience in India as perceived by the author and the numerous persons she has interviewed.
Regular and pervasive bias towards India’s Muslims has been on the rise and may be found all over social media platforms. It is unfortunate to see such a huge population being treated in such a blatant manner in a diverse country, which is falling farther and further behind in religious freedom, as reported by USCIRF.
“There has always been discrimination, both officially and unofficially, after independence and partition, there was discrimination against Muslims in civil services and armed forces, and a lot of it was official in the sense that there was a policy and that they should not be enrolled in certain streams of governance or intelligence services. At the social level, Muslims had discrimination in terms of housing and discrimination in schools and colleges where Muslim students would be pointed out or isolated in their educational institution.“Ghazala Wahab
At a time when religious freedom in India is taking a drastic turn downward, we spoke to Ghazala Wahab about how Muslim identity is shifting and the pervasive harassment and violence against religious minorities.
Q: You have been nominated for the Kamaladevi Chattopadhyay NIF Book Prize 2022 for your book “Born A Muslim: Some Truths About Islam in India”, which has already won the Tata Literature Live Book Of The Year award and the Atta Galatta- Bangalore Literature Festival Book Of The Year award. Have you been expecting such a positive reaction? What does it mean to you?
This has been surprising, and I am extremely grateful for that. I never imagined that I would get any award, and I am really grateful for all the attention that the book has got. My wish is that with this attention, hopefully, people also read it carefully and find something to reflect upon it. When people read, they should be able to think that maybe they have misunderstood certain things about Islam, this is for both Muslims and Hindus and other religions, and maybe they need to revisit their old prejudices and perception about both the religion and the practice of religion in India.
Q: This book couldn’t have arrived at a better moment when Islam and Muslims are the targets of widespread scepticism and hate in the country. Please tell us when and how the thought of writing a book on such a relevant subject developed.
The idea of the book had been with me for a very long time. I edit a monthly magazine on national security and defense, and in the course of my magazine work, I have been writing extensively on the subject of terrorism, internal security, and a little bit of communal violence as well. When I was working on this area, I have always felt that it was not just the Hindus who had miss giving about Islam. Even Muslims misunderstood a lot of things about Islam. They used to take it (religion) as fate. A large number of Muslims grew up on the idea of fate, what the religion expects them to do and what is the ideal behaviour for a follower of that religion. So this issue used to trouble me, in my own personal experience of growing up in a family which was both liberal as well as conservative and a family which was also kind of negotiating its space in a modern world trying to hold on to very deeply religious values.
With all this, I felt that I had something to say, I had an opinion on these issues, and I must put them down, so that is how the idea of the book came about. As far as timing is concerned, my first book, Dragon on Our Doorstep, came out in 2017, and after the book came out, I was just sitting and wondering what to do and what book to write next because when you start writing, you get in the momentum so that discipline becomes a part of your life; the discipline of reading and reflecting and then writing, I didn’t want to lose that momentum I wanted to continue with that frame of mind, and I was keen to write my next book, and that’s how the book started.
Q: Personal narrative, Islamic history, non-fictional stories, news, women, and interviews all come together in your book. Were there any challenges in finding the right voice? How did you find a way to weave so many disparate ideas into a cohesive whole?
Finding the right voice was not a challenge at all; that was the first thing which was in place because this is my style of writing even in my magazine, when I write my column, it is written in the first person. And it is written in an intimate manner where I talk directly with my readers. So I weave in a lot of personal experience in my writing, and I have been doing this for many years now.
“The ajlafs are the lowest of the low among Muslims, and these are the people who are demanding that they should be recognised as Dalit Muslims. Thus, there is an interplay both at the social level and political level, where your position in society is determined by the caste, whether it is Muslim or any other community so, religion is not the biggest differentiation in India these days, but caste is, in this respect. But caste is also a unifier in other respect that Pasmanda politics talk about, Dalit pichda ek saman Hindu ho ya Musalman (your caste will unite you and your religion is immaterial) it is where the politics of the caste appear.“Ghazala Wahab
I like this style, as it gives me some sort of connection with people, who are reading my book. Even if I don’t know who the readers are, I just feel that if I am writing in that intimate manner and if I am putting myself out there in public, then I will not be received cruelly, I will be received with empathy, and that is how it was very natural. My style of writing has been there for a long time, where I have weaved personal reportage and research.
Q: Please tell us about your journey as a Muslim woman writer. What kind of difficulties did you face during the field research for your book?
To be honest, I did not face any difficulty as a woman; I faced the difficulty of access to certain people, and I think that would have happened to anybody, irrespective of gender because it’s difficult to find a Muslim scholar who is also open to discussion. Most Muslims are very didactic in their thinking, they don’t like arguments, and they don’t like discussion, especially on the subject of Islam. So, finding people who could have a discussion with me and who could help me dispel my doubts about Islam was the difficult part of my research.
The other difficult part was to find people who would go on record. There were a few people who were very open about talking and sharing their own sentiments about their experience, but some of them did not want to be quoted; they were worried about their name appearing in print. The difficulty was to convince them that they will not be misquoted and they will not be put out of context, but as far as gender is concerned, I did not face any issue with that.
Q: I came across this interesting take in your book that, ‘Islam was envisaged as a classless and casteless religion but could not overcome the human obsession with social hierarchy and power.’ Which do you think has contributed more to these caste distinctions, culture or politics? Has the caste distinction had any effect on how Muslims are treated in India today?
The caste system in India among Muslims is the worst-kept secret. When I was a child, the perspective of Islam was limited to three castes, that is, Sheikh, Syed and Pathan, because marriage was desired between these three communities. So, my curiosity emerged from this, and I used to wonder if there is a caste hierarchy in place; everybody in my family used to tell me that there is no caste system.
Even when I was doing research for this book and I was asking people curiously about Muslim castes, the ashraf and the ajlaf, they denied the existence of caste. It is only people who are involved or engaged in the fight for social justice among Muslims that talk openly about caste in Islam, otherwise, people refer to their caste as a ‘community’, which creates the illusion of no caste.
And we don’t get to see how the caste system among Muslims affects them. When I was researching, and I started observing and reading a little bit more, I realised that it was affecting the people who were at the receiving end, people from the ajlaf caste. It was affecting them in a way that their access to education, their access to employment, and their access to upward mobility are severely limited. The majority of poor Muslims come from this demographic group (ajlaf), and because they are poor Muslims so they are at the receiving end of any anti-Muslim violence. Whenever there has been Hindu-Muslim violence or an assault by the police, the Muslim people who suffer are usually from this demographic group, so the cast plays a role in this manner.
The ajlafs are the lowest of the low among Muslims, and these are the people who are demanding that they should be recognised as Dalit Muslims. Thus, there is an interplay both at the social level and political level, where your position in society is determined by the caste, whether it is Muslim or any other community so, religion is not the biggest differentiation in India these days, but caste is, in this respect. But caste is also a unifier in other respect that Pasmanda politics talk about, Dalit pichda ek saman Hindu ho ya Musalman (your caste will unite you and your religion is immaterial) it is where the politics of the caste appear.
Q: In your book, you wrote, ‘fewer lower caste/class Muslims, who are second or third generation converts, have started to revert to the identity of their Hindu forefathers, starting with the name change.’ Ultimately, having a Muslim name in our country carries a certain degree of danger. How has discrimination against Muslims in India increased?
Honestly, I have not come across anybody who had actually become a Hindu. I was referred to this family about whom I have mentioned in the book because this family had made outreach that they want to do the ghar wapasi (because the ghar wapasi campaign was going on in Agra), and they felt that by doing this, their lives and business would be protected.
There has always been discrimination, both officially and unofficially, after independence and partition, there was discrimination against Muslims in civil services and armed forces, and a lot of it was official in the sense that there was a policy and that they should not be enrolled in certain streams of governance or intelligence services. At the social level, Muslims had discrimination in terms of housing and discrimination in schools and colleges where Muslim students would be pointed out or isolated in their educational institution.
But what is happening now is that a lot of non-government vigilant group has emerged, which have added a layer of violence to the discrimination, they have operated under the broad umbrella of the ruling party, so here discrimination has now acquired a very dangerous form, it has become an everyday threat to Muslim’s life and livelihood. Now there is one element of violence from this vigilante group, and the other is from the law enforcement agency, they have become more vicious towards Muslims as compared to the past, in past even if somebody was discriminating against Muslims, there was a fear that the government would take action, but now that fear is no longer there.
Q: You have written a whole chapter on Muslim women in which you pointed out that Islam has tried to be as fair as it could be, in terms of giving women rights to property, to remarry, education and employment. Despite the fact that they have equality and liberty, Muslim women are among the most vulnerable groups. Why do you think that this is happening, especially in India?
In India, there is an additional layer of patriarchy and very dogmatic religious scholarship. Both of them together have ensured that women remain powerless, and they do not question anything. All religions theoretically have been more or less fair; if we look at Hinduism, women are worshipped as Devi, but that’s all in theory, in practical when women surrender their rights to question, when they surrender their right to education, then obviously they are at the receiving end of anybody who wins power. And the biggest and the oldest power group in the world from time immemorial has been the man; as our society evolved, they were the food gatherer, they were the ones who brought home the bread, so they carried greater power over other members of the society/communities/families, and they have been dogmatically guarding their territory and women have become part of their territory.
That is why in Islam also so much effort is expanded on keeping women subjugated by ensuring that women have to wear clothes in a particular way or have to appear in public in a particular way, so much of effort is exerted to ensure that women remain within the religious system and to remain secondary to the men. So, I think it is a combination of conservatism as well as patriarchy.
Q: When you wrote about Muslim women, you said that their identities were talked about all over the country because firstly due to the triple talaq issue and now the protest of the shaheen bagh. How do you think this affects the way people in India consider and regard Muslim women in the current scenario?
The current scenario has changed a little bit, especially after the CAA-NRC protest broke out, most women were housewives, and women who never stepped out of their houses before, were talking to the media giving impromptu interviews and being so articulate about their position. But overall, the perception remains that they are the most disempowered group within the community, and to some extent, this perception is correct because they are indeed the most disempowered members of society. But it is also true that a large number of Muslim women are stepping out within the conservative phase work they are expressing their position, and they are desired to remain part of both education system as well as the workspace.
Q. What are your hopes for Muslims as a community and for Muslim women in particular?
What I wish for Muslims is that they should not only study but keep abreast with the technology advancement and make sure that the courses they select and the time & money they invest in their education should be wisely done. The other thing I wish is that, if Muslims are practising Muslim, they should learn about religion on their own, it should not be shackled, and it should not be something which is dictated to them by vested interest groups, whether the ulemas or conservative members in their communities in the mohallas or their families.
I think both of these things apply to Muslim women also, and I also want to tell Muslim women that if you feel and if you think that you are being used by the male members of their community to further their political agent, please take your heel and step back because you should not be used as a sacrificial lamb to some of their agenda.
FII thanks Ghazala Wahab for her time. You can follow her on Twitter.