Saturday, March 1, 2003
T H I S  A B O V E  A L L

Adopt the country that adopts you
Khushwant Singh

AT the writers’ conference in Neemrana Fort, Sir Vidia Naipaul got into an acrimonious argument with the Dutch wife of the American Ambassador. Unwittingly, it was I who was sharing the table with them started the debate. I asked the Ambassador’s lady why there was so much hoo-ha in Holland for according special rights to its immigrant Muslim population to run their own schools and observe their customs. She replied, "We have a long tradition of allowing people to live in the manner they like, stick to their faiths, run their schools and speak their languages. Now we have a Right-wing political party which insists that people who make Holland their home must follow Dutch customs and manners."

"Then why do they leave their countries?" snapped Sir Vidia. I was inclined to agree with him following the adage "While in Rome do as the Romans do".

I have thought over the matter many times as I have innumerable friends who have settled in England, Canada and the USA. They stick to their faiths (nothing wrong in that) but they impose their mother tongues on their children, make them go to mosques, temples and gurdwaras, organise camps where preachers emphasise the need to remember their roots and distinct identity.

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The issue is discussed in Faces of American Islam by Daniel Pipes and Khalid Duran in Policy Review. Although America has all world’s religions represented, Muslims have problems not shared by other religious minorities. Jews, Hindus, Buddhists and Sikhs, though they have their own places of worship and speak their languages, by and large fall into the mainstream of American life. Islam has a long history of confrontation with Christianity. Whoever they be, both Muslims and Christians carry the burden of past hostility on their shoulders.

It is estimated that America has around three million Muslims (1 per cent of the population) from over 100 countries: China, Malaysia, Indonesia, Bangladesh, India, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Africa, Iran, Turkey, Chechnya and others. They have little in common besides their faith. Furthermore they remain a divided community. Most are Sunnis, 10 per cent are Shias, a small percentage Ahmedias with their own mosques and burial grounds.

The first wave of Muslim immigrants came with the slave trade, which began in 1501. Most Black slaves came from African countries. Their families were broken up as White buyers divided them between themselves. They were not allowed to build mosques or observe Muslim rituals. By the 1860s almost all had been converted to Christianity.

A second group consisted of captured Muslim soldiers. A third wave came just around the turn of the century and included Punjabi farmers (Muslims and Sikhs) to the West Coast. Anti-immigration laws and racial prejudice put an end to it. The main Muslim immigration came after 1965 with a flood of Pakistanis, Bangladeshis, Iraqis, Turks and Egyptians. It has not stopped. Most of them fled their countries because of fear of persecution e.g. the Kurds and Chechens; others because their countries were ruled by despots and dictators who had little respect for civil liberties. Though they came to a free country, they brought their anti-Christian prejudices with them. Religious fundamentalism was deeply rooted in their minds. Their leader Omar Abdel Rahman, the blind Sheikh convicted of attempting to blow up New York city landmarks, said: "I came here to smell freedom; I found it to be suffocating here." They lent willing ears to the call for jehad by Osama bin Laden. American installations, embassies, and garrisons were attacked in Saudi Arabia and Africa. Americans and British plans were destroyed on the ground and in the air. Heads of Muslim states like Gaddafi of Libya, Ayatollah Khomeini of Iran and Saddam Hussein of Iraq who openly declared America as enemy number one of Islam became heroes of the Muslim world. Then came the bombing of New York Trade Center, the Pentagon and Los Angeles airport on September 11, 2001. Muslim fundamentalist violence against non-Muslims has been going on for the last 13 years. The present attacks are not very different from the crusades of the Middle Ages but are made with modern weapons.

Muslim dilemma has lessons for non-Muslim immigrants living in foreign countries as well as Indians from one part of the country settled in another. The first is that when you decide to make your home in another country, you must do your best to conform to the rules of the society in which you live and integrate with the mainstream. You can stick to your faith but separate schools and colleges is not a good idea. Likewise, Indians making their homes in states other than their own must learn the language of that region and become a part of that community. The best example of people who have integrated well is that of the Parsis. They fled from Iran and settled in Gujarat. They stuck to their Zorastrian faith but abandoned Farsi and made Gujarati their language. They gave more to India in the way of industry and charitable institutions than any other Indian community.

All about Indore

Madhya Pradesh has some of the oldest and the most beautiful sights of historic and tourist interest:Khajuraho, Sanchi, Bhopal, Bhimbetka, Orchha, Mandu and Pechmarhi. Its biggest city Indore is not one of them. I visited it briefly twice and found that it had a non-descript collection of bazaars, a huge temple studded with mirrors but no architectural pretensions, a few palaces of the Holkar dynasty — not very much more. However, some of the nicest people I know are from Indore. Among my latest acquaintances is Dicky Holkar, scion of the erstwhile ruling family. Although he is known as Maharaja of Indore, he prefers to live in Maheshwar, the older capital of the state. His passion is to revive the old craft of weaving sarees for which this town was once famous. Maheshwari sarees are back in the market.

What else did I know about Indore? Rani Ahalya Bai (1767-1795) who came to be nationally revered as a builder of temples; Jaswant Rao Holkar (1798-1811) who tried unsuccessfully to persuade Maharaja Ranjit Singh to join him fight the British; and Yashwant Rao Holkar (1926-47), the last ruler who fell foul of Sardar Patel and had his dominions merged with Madhya Pradesh. I also recall Hukum Chand who made a vast fortune trading in opium before he went into industry and philanthropy. If my memory does not fail me, he also had a surgeon flown in from Europe who implanted monkey glands in him and his wife Kanchan Bai to restore their youth and longevity. The news was splashed in all the papers at the time. Ialso met the eccentric P.C. Sethi when he was Home Minister under Indira Gandhi. And I have passing acquaintance with the new ruler of Madhya Pradesh, Digvijay Singh, Chief Minister on whom I pin my hopes to keep the country secular.

I know a little more about Indore through Prachi Dixit, one of the nice people I referred to. She has been teaching English literature in university for over 23 years and has edited an illustrated brochure Ballad of Indore: Down Memory Lane sponsored by Nai Dunya, owned and published by the Chhajlani family. It tells you of its past, its beauty spots and its great sons and daughters. There is more to Indore than I thought.

Who wants war?

Who wants war? None but the power-mad

The dud of dictators in the name of democracy;

Who dreads terrorism the most today?

The father of Afghan Taliban

Financially, politically, naturally, openly!

Let Saddam go to hell, but who will tell

The big bully

The universality of world hatred

For its lamb and the wolf story,

Its bellicosity, self-righteousness, autocracy,

Its imperial longings, its crude oil diplomacy?

Who’ll tell the big bully of Vietnam fame

That peace, dear sire, should now be the name of the game,

That this dame hypocrisy must not be flirted with daily?

Who’ll tell the big bully?

Who? This world that needs its aid

To manufacture a missile, to make a blade?

Is it afraid only of an equally and North Korea,

Our brave America!

(Courtesy: Kuldip Salil, Delhi)