Islam, India and the question of class

The trials and tribulations of Muslims in Narendra Modi’s India offer instructive, if dispiriting, lessons for religious minorities everywhere.

Muslims offering namaaz in Mumbra, Mumbai.
Muslims offering namaaz in Mumbra, Mumbai. Credit: Dinodia Photos / Alamy Stock Photo

They call it the House of War, dar al-harb, and a hostile setting it is indeed. Stray from the enlightened despotisms of the House of Islam, dar al-islam, where sharia law holds sway and see for yourself, so Islamic teaching has it. Living under infidel rule, whether democratic or dictatorial, is asking for it.

There’s no denying that Muslim minorities everywhere find themselves locked in a battle with the wider societies to which they belong. Because of their alien worldview, their sartorial and linguistic alterity, they appear as threats to dominant value systems, progressive as well as reactionary. At times, majorities fear a dissolution of ideological unity (the challenge posed to republicanism and liberalism, for instance), at others of a society’s racial character (white, Han), and, at yet others, of its confessional orientation (Christianity, Hinduism, Buddhism, even atheism).

All three, to a greater or lesser extent, combine in French exhortations to laïcisation, a roaring republicanism joining hands with an assertive atheism carrying a xenophobic undertow. The guerre à l’outrance has exacted a toll on both sides. The beheading of a schoolteacher with a cleaver – for his temerity in showing caricatures of the Prophet Mohammed to illustrate the concept of free speech – is only the latest sally in this culture war. It occasioned Macron’s ‘republican reconquest’, which proceeded with the closure of mosques and madrasas as incubators of fundamentalism, not to mention a proposal to outlaw ‘virginity certificates’ and gender segregation in pools; the hijab was banned in 2010. It has won him plaudits from the press but left its target audience unimpressed. Polls show that fifty-seven per cent of French Muslims under twenty-five prefer sharia to secular law. Even a moderate imam in Drancy feels the need to preach wearing a bulletproof vest, having inflamed opinion with his campaign against antisemitism. Bundled into the banlieues, French Muslims of Maghreb and Sahel origin decry second-class treatment – and rightly so.

Over in Germany as well, Muslims stand accused of being an imperium in imperio. Mostly of Turkish background – heirs of the so-called gastarbeiter, guest workers of the sixties – they remain in hock to Ditib, the Turkish-Islamic Union for Religious Affairs, run by a Turkish state institution that controls two in five German mosques. It sends Turkish imams to preach in Turkish at Turkish taxpayers’ expense, which worries the German authorities. In an ironic mirroring of Christianity in the Ottoman Empire, Berlin now prefers an autocephalous mosque. Just as there is a church tax, the Kirchensteuer, with German Christians tithing nine per cent of income, proposals are underway for a mosque tax to underwrite an Islam with German characteristics. German Muslims understandably scoff at such provincialist ambitions, which undermine the universalist pretensions of Islam.

As in Germany, so in the Netherlands, where opposition parties from the far-right PVV to the leftish D66 did not miss a beat when supporting Prime Minister Mark Rutte’s crackdown on Muslims protests in 2017. Dutch authorities prevented two Turkish ministers from canvassing ahead of a constitutional referendum, earning the opprobrium of Muslims. The situation in Switzerland is similar. Eleven years after a referendum banned the construction of minarets on mosques, the Swiss approved a burqa ban in 2021, joining Austria, Belgium, Bulgaria, Denmark, and, of course, France.

All the same, ever fewer thinkers subscribe to Samuel Huntington’s assertion, fashionable during the 9/11 wars, that European Muslims constitute an unassimilable, ‘indigestible’ minority. Fewer still would stand by Ed Husain in his belief that British Muslims – incontrovertibly better integrated than their Continental counterparts – are in thrall to anti-Western ‘caliphism’, a judgement arrived at on the strength of a few conversations with a few exceptionally bigoted Deobandi clerics. Still, that 72 per cent of British Muslims ‘reject the idea that Western liberal society is incompatible with Islam’ nevertheless leaves a not insignificant minority that accepts the notion. Its marginal, though vociferous, ranks burned The Satanic Verses in Bradford, more recently causing a Batley grammar school teacher – a Samuel Paty this side of la Manche – to lose his job and go into hiding for showing a Charlie Hebdo cartoon of the Prophet in a class on free speech. It was here, in the West Yorkshire constituency of Batley and Spen, that Labour lost the ‘Muslim vote’, as it were, to the maverick leftist George Galloway, whose support for Palestinian and Kashmiri causes had a special resonance for the community.

Even so, these aren’t existential incompatibilities. What’s more, they’re playing out in an eirenic register. Not so in China, where, under the banner of the Global War on Terror, the US supported Beijing’s crackdown on the Eastern Turkistan Islamic Movement. Thus began the pogrom against Uighur Muslims in Xinjiang, a million of whom have been consigned to forced labour in internment camps. Across the River Amur, Muslims fare no better. Putin takes a dim view of the twenty million or so of them in his country, having cemented his rule on the back of a war against Chechen secessionists. A hateful blend of racism and Islamophobia greets Kyrgyz and Uzbek construction workers on their arrival in Russia, home to the largest Muslim population in Europe. Here, too, there is a geopolitical dimension. Salafism has secured a toehold in the Northern Caucasus, spawning sympathy for ISIS and disdain for Putin’s ally, Bashir al-Assad of Syria.

South Asia is also no stranger to sectarian conflict. The Bodu Bala Sena in Sri Lanka, an extremist Buddhist outfit cynically tolerated by the Rajapaksas family, time and again incites violence against Muslims. Meanwhile in Myanmar, Rakhine Muslims were rendered stateless in 1982. For seven years now, the military has been flattening villages and forcing the Rohingya to flee as Aung San Suu Kyi looked the other way. The suppression has prompted the creation of a Muslim militia, the Arkan Rohingya Salvation Army, which, in turn, has provided a casus belli for the junta to go after Muslims.

Where does the world’s largest Muslim minority fit in this saturnine landscape? India’s problem with Islam, it appears, is at once similar and dissimilar. There is, in the first instance, the instinctive hostility of the Hindu majority – some eighty per cent – to a people so thoroughly different to them. Both are totalising faiths that don’t take well to nonconformity. One turns on caste, the other the Quran. It has been the achievement of Indian democracy to tether the irreconcilables to a single, seemingly egalitarian order, with the Constitution filling in for caste and the Quran, while accommodating both in its carapace. Yet a carapace is all it really is. The meat underneath is unquestionably of softer material.

All of which is to say that the state is one thing, and society another, the one professing (for the better part) Enlightenment secularism, the other exhibiting an unvanquishable religious effervescence. Of late, however, the ravine between the secularism of the state and religiosity of society is rapidly disappearing in a return of the repressed. A Hindu society requires a Hindu state, so Narendra Modi has it. Accordingly, his party has set about showing Muslims their place.

In other ways, Islamophobia in India is sui generis. The denigration of Muslim cultural markers, common enough in the West, makes little sense. Hindus have traditionally been more polygamous than Muslims; though recent surveys suggest a diminutive inversion of the historical trend. The veil, equally, cuts across religious lines; caste and region are better predictors than faith. Likewise, rare is the charge of foreign allegiance. The BJP sometimes accuses Indian Muslims of being closeted Pakistanis, but the charge doesn’t stick. For its part, ISIS has no cachet for Indian Muslims. Islam is native to South Asia, and many of its most vibrant currents – from Deobandism to declensions of Sufism – are of local provenance. Muslims in France may on occasion look to North Africa, in Germany to Turkey, in Britain to South Asia, but Indian Muslims are unwaveringly parochial. Infrequent enough, the outward gaze is reserved for the hajj, more an obligation than an obsession. The umma, to be sure, is often an object of positive identification, especially for the higher-born, but then again, it is only conceived of in the abstract. It is to a higher authority, for example the holy book or the ‘community’ tout court, that a Muslim may answer to; hardly ever to a foreign temporal ruler.

This nevertheless rankles Hindu nationalists. Muslims, Modi and his ilk believe, have been cosseted for too long by the secular state, with the result that they have become insufficiently Indian. It’s a quaint argument when one remembers that Muslims are underrepresented in the professions and overrepresented in prison. In fact, Modi’s own rule confirms the opposite: not cosseting but rather state neglect. Before he became prime minister, he earned infamy for his role in the Gujarat riots of 2002, doing precious little when they occurred and making light of them after the event. Almost all of the dead were Muslim, as has generally been the case with all riots since independence. Indeed, the very word is a misnomer. ‘Riots’ imply a degree of mutual damage. Here, given their clinical character and lopsided death tolls, ‘pogroms’ is more like it. The mushrooming of detention centres (of the sort familiar to Uyghurs) in the north-east since Modi’s reelection in 2019, coupled with new citizenship laws (of the sort familiar to the Rohingya) to potentially disenfranchise millions of Muslims, portend a darker future.

As I show in my new book Another India, though, it is as much the push of Hindu nationalism as it is the pull of Muslim exceptionalism that is driving the two communities apart. This I have called an ‘ashraf betrayal’, after the upper-caste Muslim elites who have set the agenda for Muslim politics in India. Uninterested in bread-and-butter issues – indisputably of greater import to their poorer, lower-caste brethren – the ashraf after independence developed a political repertoire that turned entirely on cultural concerns. This was the upshot of a singularly religious worldview, dripping with condescension toward non-Muslims and the secular state, whose ‘man-made laws’ (as opposed to divinely revealed truths) they derided.

So it was that the supercilious ashraf successfully lobbied for the preservation of Muslim personal law, of sharia derivation, in the Constitution: unilateral divorce without alimony (a male prerogative) and unequal inheritance (sons entitled to twice the share passed to daughters) are among its provisions. The main preoccupation of Muslim politics, moreover, has been to carve out further concessions for the community (read: the Muslim elite): inter alia, the exemption from state oversight for the Aligarh Muslim University, Muslim India’s Oxford as it were; sacralisation of ‘Muslim’ monuments as religious sites; indemnity from taxation for the Muslim rentiers in charge of auqaf, only notional charities.

Governed by separate laws and ghettoised on account of Hindu prejudice as well as their own preference, Muslim India has only ever precariously cohabited with Hindu India. Unsurprisingly, this has made the task of the BJP infinitely easier, lending credence to its arguments and swelling its ranks. Indeed, an astonishingly large number of Hindus appear unperturbed by its unsettling record: the lynching of Muslims accused of cow slaughter by Hindu militias, the bulldozing of Muslim homes, the purging of Muslims from history textbooks, breaking up of interfaith marriages, and so on. Nearly a decade into his rule, Modi has the country’s institutions in a vice-like grip. Parliament and the executive are, more so than previously, creatures of the party in power. The judiciary and the civil service are likewise compromised. Defying the time-honoured tradition of anti-incumbency, support for Modi is only growing. First elected in 2014 with a 31 per cent vote share, the BJP took 37 per cent five years later; doubtless it will augment further next year.

It’s a tall order for Muslims. Simple political solutions are in short supply. As it is, Indian Muslims will have to plump for one of three strategies: constitutional, communal, class. The first, much beloved by the Muslim middle class, has proven a cul-de-sac. Carping about the Constitution has achieved little, materially speaking, and indeed, will matter less and less if India’s democratic backsliding continues. Tens of thousands of Muslims massed on town centres to protest the new citizenship laws – to no avail. Indeed, the spectacle repelled more than it attracted; polls showed overwhelming support for Modi’s amendment. For one thing, the Constitution is no longer seen as a hallowed heirloom but rather as a product of its time, cobbled together by the Congress elite in a manner to perpetuate its hegemony, which lasted for a good half-century following independence in 1947. The new dispensation has little time for the old verities. For another, the message of the protestors – all the digs at Modi’s working-class origins, burqa-clad women bearing placards enjoining the prime minister to make tea, not laws – struck a sour note. At all events, the protests crumbled in the face of police brutality and mass incarceration.

If constitutional politics commands greatest support among the Muslim middle class, communal politics is the preferred strategy of their upper-class cousins. This is the world of wheeling and dealing, the natural habitat of, variously, Muslim politicians, priests, and princes. Theirs is a politics premised on difference, a caricatural exaggeration of confessional dissimilitude, but one which nevertheless binds both sides together in the spirit of ‘tolerance’, insufferable displays of it deployed to full effect. The truth is that such operations have little purchase beyond the boardrooms in which they are concocted. Mahatma Gandhi and Maulana Abdul Bari entered just such a pact in the early interwar period, uncommonly religious Muslims agreeing to relinquish cow slaughter and uncommonly religious Hindus championing the cause of the Ottoman caliph, whose autonomy had become an idée fixe for Muslim clerics in India. As it was, the shotgun marriage did not last very long, and Hindus and Muslims were at each other’s throats not long after. Indeed, the feverish show of religiosity backfired, leaving the country in the throes of conversion mania. A similar experiment followed in the sixties, with Muslims (again, clerics in the lead, career politicians in tow) closing ranks behind the Majlis-i-Mushāwarat and hoping to influence politics through backroom parleys with Hindus. Nothing came of it.

Finally, what of class politics? Here, it must be said, is a strategy that has never really been tried. But it is one that is perfectly suited to Indian Muslims, and, indeed, to Muslim minorities in all democratic societies. For what we talk about when we talk about Muslim minorities really is class. Muslims in the West are typically petit-bourgeois migrants, so poorer than their host populations. Similarly, Muslims in India are poorer than Hindus on account of Partition. The ones that left for Pakistan were typically commercial and landed people; the lower orders stayed on in India. Mobilising along class lines, then, makes eminent sense – all the more so in the Westminster model of democracy that rigs electoral outcomes against minorities. Muslims might find this a dispiriting thought, but perhaps the best way to preserve their religion in the House of War is to change the subject.


Pratinav Anil