Walking the razor’s edge
Aruti Nayar

Muslim Modernities
Tabish Khair’s Essays on Moderation and Mayhem
Compiled & edited by Renu Kaul Verma Vitasta Publishing. Pages 302. Rs 295

The first thing that puts this lucid collection of essays apart is the sincerity that shines through. There are no attempts to obfuscate issues, use complex arguments or jargon to confound the reader. It is this honesty that marks Tabish Khair’s writing as does the careful, rather cautious, use of language. He uses words with discretion and it is the predominance of reason, and not passion, that defines this anthology of 34 essays. He was born into a Muslim family at Gaya in Bihar and belonged within the community of Indian Muslims to a large minority, the middle class professional.

He was also brought up on a concept of civilisation that was not driven or defined by the West. It is this concept that he brings to his arguments. With an enviable ease, he steers his way through loaded and volatile issues, always trying to understand—and whenever possible —answer painstakingly.

Be it in "A blessing For My Children" or "9/11: Conscience and Coffee", the writer struggles to make sense of the world around him and explores how the fact of being a Muslim has affected his world view and others’ perception of him. He argues, religion is just one marker because he is the sum total of many things that constitute his nature and nurture both and is resentful at being straitjacketed only by his religious identity. As he says in an essay, "To be born into a minority is a blessing and a curse. The blessing is that one belongs in different ways, one learns to see different perspectives, one speaks many languages, one is aware of many histories, one is both this and that". Khair’s personal journey is dotted with memories and incidents that have become milestones or defining‘episodes’ for him. Be it as a child who saw no difference between a Hindu body and a Muslim one (as he asks ‘Don’t Hindus have a nose and two eyes?’), to a young teenager forced to travel for reasons of safety in a train under an assumed Hindu name, finally to a journalist who objects to his religious identity ‘used’ by the mangement to portray authenticity—it is a journey that raises more questions than it answers.

The point Khair establishes with great clarity in the essays, written over a period of time in newspapers and magazines, is how educated and advantaged Muslims like him run the risk of being disowned by the Ummah as unbelieving, half-hearted followers. On the flip side, such a balancing act has become central to their existence because in a simplistic, reductionist world-view, Islamic terrorism or Muslim terrorists are generic terms and a secular world vs the Muslim world is the presumed order of the day.

"I do not see any need to qualify ‘Muslim’ with ‘moderate’: I know many deeply religious Muslims (and Christians and Hindus) who are more tolerant and accepting than some totally irreligious people. It will be a great day for not only Muslims but the world when ordinary Muslims will not need to, will not be forced to defend themselves with words like ‘moderate’ prefixed to their religio-cultural identity."

More than religion, the reason for terrorism lies in the model of capitalism that focuses on consumption. According to the writer, we live in a world where capital is global, labour is (mostly) not global, and there is no mainstream attempt to offer international solutions to these global problems. We basically have narrow and hobbled local reactions—this can take the shape of religious or ethnic bigotry. "It can also take the shape of ‘welfare socialism’, as in much of Europe these days: this is socialism without its internationalist aspect. But if you take internationalism out of socialism, you are left with national socialism, which (as we know) was another name for fascism".

What he is trying to say is that bigotry and intolerance are part of a larger socio-economic ethos, an ethos that afflicts the West as much as the East, and the only way forward —for all of us— is to formulate new and effective internationalist politics that put people, all people, before capital. "If this sounds utopian, so be it. Flying through air sounded utopian until someone did it".

In an interview Khair had mentioned to a Danish journalist about how a mob had surrounded his house in Gaya after an article on Islam had been published in a national daily. It was only after his father, a much-respected local doctor, reasoned with them that they dispersed. He was surprised when the article appeared bearing the heading, ‘Indisk forfatter-talent betalte dyrt for at st`F8tte Salman Rushdie’ (Budding Indian writer pays dearly for supporting Rushdie). The mob thronging his house was the result of small town conservatism and intrigues rather than global Islamism. As he puts it, "My natural reaction to this heading was to decide not to speak about the matter to any Western journalist in the future". Khair explores the nuanced complexities of "the in-between spaces that I occupied and wished to narrate". If these in-between spaces are reduced to usual stereotypes then silence is better than speech. He can feel free enough as a writer, partly because "I am on the margins of everything ‘Indian English’ or ‘post-colonial’—having grown up in Bihar and then moved to Denmark (instead of USA, UK or Canada). I write in isolation. Between screaming and silence lies the dilemma of the nowhere people who neither subscribe to the West-defined notions of secularism nor the retrogressive fundamentalist definitions of religion and identity. As Khair says in ‘A Muslim Consciousness: The Space for Definitions’ it is the hardening of definitions`85the constricting of the space of definitions that bothers him. The solution lies in enlarging the shrinking space for dialogue.