LIKE MANY OF THE recent ones that have gone before it, 2008 has been a year of fearfully ugly conversations. Sixty years on, as the pieties of a hardwon freedom have faded from view, the idea of India has come to be fought over in increasingly violent terms. Majority versus minority. Hindutva versus Soft Hindutva. Right versus Left. Left versus Far Left. Caste versus Scheduled Caste. Shining India versus Simmering India. Liberals versus Neo-liberals. State versus State. The Centre versus the Rest. And Jihad against it all. Right action has long been forfeited in India. Now, in an increasingly fractured polity, as power becomes ever more difficult to come by, most public figures have dropped even the fig-leaf of temperate speech. Shoot them, burn them, pay them back in the same coin, our leaders urge us. And maddened by their calling, maddened by the absence of the rational voice, like insane flocks behind insane shepherds, we rush to bloody our meadows.
What is this sense of rage and hate and injury driving us all? Are there embryonic seeds of genuine grouse beneath all the aggravated rhetoric? Are there real issues to be picked out of the violence swirling around us and examined in calmer, more neutral light? Fixed positions and an unbending sense of righteousness make one dangerously opaque. What makes extreme
views most dangerous is that they are only the amplified face of a vast middle ground that thinks it feels the same injuries. It is a suicidal vanity, then, to label others and stop listening. Provocations, a series of interviews with stakeholders in the ideas of India, speaks to people across trench-lines. Airing our prejudice, triggering conversation. And, with luck, introspection.

Can you begin by telling us a little about your life, and why you came back from the US? 
I was born in Ahmedabad in 1968. My father is a religious man and went to the US, but he wanted us to grow up in India so he left us with our grandparents. I was educated in both Islamic and secular studies in Azamgarh. Later, my parents became US citizens and called us there, but I came back. I wanted to be a pilot but also wanted to focus on my religious studies. I went back for college in Chicago and stayed two years but didn’t like it there. I was one of the brightest students in the university but no one would speak to me because I had a beard. And if I raised any questions in the social science class, it was akin to a blast! There used to be a pin-drop silence. I came back to India, got married. In 1984, I came in contact with SIMI and liked it very much because their vision was very close to Koranic ideas. I became an ordinary member; later I was twice president of the Gujarat chapter, and also edited its mouthpiece Islamic Movement from Delhi. After leaving SIMI (it’s mandatory to do that at age 30), I went back to Ahmedabad and opened a printing press. In 2001, because of the charged anti-Islam environment, SIMI got banned. The police started harassing me and closed my press, so I brought my kids to Delhi. Soon after I was arrested under POTA and spent 27 months in jail. The charge against me? I used to be a SIMI activist and had pasted a poster. Though I was no longer part of SIMI, the judge called me an existing SIMI activist because I had taken an oath to remain in the service of Islam and work collectively to establish Islam, and according to him, no collective activity can be unarmed. I was sentenced for seven years.

What were these Islamic ideals that attracted you? 

Most of all, I liked the approach of the leadership. The Shah Bano case and Muslim Personal Law was being debated at this time. The Supreme Court had made an intervention. I found the SIMI leaders’ speeches to be very rational and thought through. I also liked the fact that they were very bold: they said what they felt. But because they only spoke after deliberation, their words carried weight. This was key to the SIMI ethos. Issues were always debated internally. Discussions might stretch for days, but the attempt was to arrive at a unanimous decision – without pressure, just through extended argument. Elections were also held in a very clean way. I was very attracted by this democratic approach and transparency. In our own society, we had been brought up to have a kind of blind religious faith and bow to tradition and our elders. There was also a gender bias; women were not allowed to study. SIMI challenged all this. It was religious of course, but its beliefs were rationalized. It was not blind faith. When Communism attacked faith on the basis of rationality, it replied in defence of religion, based on rationality. We said we do this for such and such reason. This approach is embedded in the Koran. But the Koran is in Arabic and not everyone understands it. This is why I joined SIMI and though we have had to face so many troubles because of this association, I have no regret. I don’t feel I did anything wrong or hurt anyone. Or that we did anything that would divide society or the country.

Debarred: Muslim women in Islamic societies: imprisoned in ideals?
Photo: Reuters

SIMI had a poster which read “No Democracy. No Nationalism. No Secularism. Only Islam”. Many would see this as shocking and anti-India. You assert you are not. So what was your thinking behind this?
Our fundamental premise is that this world is not self-created. This complex universe, full of such powerful energies — it would all implode with even the slightest mismanagement. But everything in Nature happens with such precision, everything works according to its function. This tells us that there is something governing and controlling it all –we believe this is Khuda. He has not just created us, he has told us our function. If you go against the ordained functions, there will be upheaval in society. Of all creation, only human beings have the freedom of choice. But Islam directs that choice. A man who is thirsty will seek water: if he doesn’t get clean water, he will drink drain water, but water he will seek. In the same way if human beings won’t accept god as god, he will turn to his race, but he will seek direction from something to make his choices. When you make a choice, you have to some reasoning why this and not that. Islam makes these choices easier. It prohibits alcohol, drugs, smoking, lending on interest. Look at the current economic crisis in the world. Much of that has risen over the practice of lending on credit and interest. Just to exercise choice, you don’t need to make these mistakes again and again over generations. Only a fool would insist on it.

What does your poster have to do with all this?
‘Democracy’, ‘secularism’, ‘nationalism’ are all man-made ideas imported from the west. They were largely born out of the war with Christianity. In the medieval ages, the Church which emphasized blind faith dominated every aspect of life, and its excesses became associated with the idea of god itself. But the Dark Ages of Europe was the best and most enlightened time of Islam. When this world came into contact with Islam in medieval Spain, it learned a lot. Science, invention, medicine and the pursuit of knowledge flourished in Islamic Spain. There was the renowned philosopher Avicenna and the inventor of algebra, Al-Khwarizmi. Knowledge — uloom – is highly valued in Islam. We believe God is all-knowing, so to increase knowledge of the world is to increase knowledge of Him. This flood of uloom touched the Christian world and triggered the Enlightenment which countered religion based on blind faith. But there was a big adverse impact on Islamic Spain – the stories of the Inquisition make one’s hair stand. (There were lots of reasons why the Church had become like that – one reason was that Christ’s teachings were not in writing. There is no existing Bible in the language he spoke so one has to rely on translations.) The point I am making is, the impact of Spain on Christianity was that a conflict with the Church and by extension, God Himself, was born in the western world. The French Revolution was another big event which fashioned the ideas of democracy and secularism. Nationalism? Hitler had a big hand in that. Two World Wars were fought in the name of nationalism – everyone of the same religion, all white, but they devastated each other for nationalism. All these concepts fundamentally deny God and His role in our collective lives. They only sanction his role in our personal life. Then the question arises – who has the moral right to make laws for our collective life? Every individual. But this is obviously not practical, so we are back to square one. Choose your representatives, go to Parliament, debate, resolve, make laws. But in such societies, you can have many debates, many laws, and still get the opposite effect. To give you an example, America had no ban against drinking, yet seeing its ills, they had to bring in Prohibition in the 1920s. But instead of reducing the evil, things got so bad, in 1933, they had to lift the ban. See bans are not enough, there has to be a motivation as well. Who is making the rule? Is it an undisputed moral authority that a society subscribes to with its heart and mind? The problem with democracy as it is practiced is that it makes the individual the sovereign. So it is not democratic debate and discussion, not just the most informed or educated or convincing voice whose opinion carries weight, it is sheer numbers that is given emphasis. People are not counted but weighed. Look at India itself – many of the ills we face today is because of electoral politics – the game of numbers that passes for democracy. And India is being torn apart by sub-nationalisms. This is why we say ‘No Democracy, No Nationalism, No Secularism’.

But to say “Only Islam” suggests a sense of superiority and desire for dominance that instills dread in others. To say your way is the only way creates instant hostility. 
People misunderstand what we mean when we say “Only Islam”. The Koran says there can be no force in the matter of choosing one’s religion. In fact, it says if you meet an idol-worshipper or non-believer in a time of war, talk to him until he listens to what you believe in, but even if he doesn’t, take him under your protection to a safe place. We don’t want to create dread; we are only asserting that the things you have picked as solutions are not solutions at all. Democracy and secularism and nationalism are not solutions – they will only make our problems more grave. Islam will provide the right solutions. When you are marketing something, you have to be very confident of your product. Consider that poster an advertisement – because of that you are asking me about Islam today. Now let’s deliberate on the matter. Question what we are trying to say. Where did you import the idea of secularism? This is not a Puranic or Vedic concept. We don’t believe in secularism because it is against religion.

It is not against religion, it separates religion from issues of governance in a modern nation.
You cannot give meaning to words you have not yourself created and which already have a universal interpretation. Secularism comes from Europe and it means anti-religious. If you are secular, you cannot be religious. Now take democracy. Islam believes everyone must have a stake in governance. (Quotes from the Koran) “Their decisions must come from deliberations amongst themselves”. And it is Islam that came up with the idea of shura 1,400 years ago which says a ruler cannot have unbridled power and must heed the advice of representatives appointed by the people. So Islam is not antithetical to democratic functioning, we are only opposed to a democracy that places sovereignity in the people. On that particular interpretation, Islam is opposed to democracy. There has to be a moral authority higher than people’s opinion.

By that logic, every modern democratic society has a Constitution that has been collectively agreed on and holds the rules by which communities agree to live. It is the highest moral authority.
We would argue that this is very deceptive. You cannot compare India with other modern nations. In most nations, language, religion, race are all same. In our country, there are no commonalities. India is a physical state not an ideological state.

How else do you suggest modern societies should construct themselves – especially in a country as varied as ours which has Hindus, tribals, Christians, Muslims, Buddhists. Islamic rule?
Well, Islam did rule India for 800 years and, as a collective entity, India was most vast under Aurangzeb. Under many of these Islamic rulers, there was a lot of peace and prosperity. Only 15-20 percent converted to Islam, the rest lived according to their own religions and customs. There were wars between armies for power but no conflicts between ordinary people based on religion. To bind a society together, you need some common binding threads. If every individual has a separate god, everyone’s wish is separate, how do you forge a society? Hindus believe some came from Manu’s head, some from his heels, so how can Brahmins and shudras be a common entity? You can polish the facts any way you want – but the point is, pre-Islam Hindustan was not one country. Even the Gupta kingdom included only the Hindi belt, and even the British left 265 separate kingdoms. Here some worship Ram, some worship Ravan. Now Ganesha is being promoted as a unifying concept. The point I am making is India is a very complicated concept. It can’t just be spelled out in an instant. It has no common language or culture. Is our secular, democratic Constitution keeping this nation together? It’s debatable. You say you are secular but democracy is an idea that appreciates majority over minority. You cannot separate the experiences. Take Advaniji – he runs his politics based on religion. We are automatically excluded because our religion is different. No police station will have a masjid, almost all will have a mandir. No court will have picture of Mecca or Medina but will have pictures of Hindu gods, many judges wear tika, the current Election Commissioner wears his caste across his forehead — we are not opposed to any of this. I am just saying the practical aspect of these secular ideals etc are not visible.

SIMI’s stated objective was to reinstate the Khilafat. These are not tenable ideas in a new, diverse modern world. 
See no one can dispute that the idea of Khilafat is closely related to he Koran. But Syed Shahbuddin – a Mulim leader – convinced us that though this is a core Islamic thought and ideal, it is inapplicable in practical terms. Its consequences would be too much, so we have not focused on it any more.

Let’s talk about the Shah Bano case and Muslim Personal Law. Here was a woman asking for rights from within your society. But there was such an outcry. Can’t one discuss the issue of uniform civil code outside the shrill demand of the Hindu Right? Can’t we look at building a consensus on this here? 
You cannot look at the Shah Bano case in isolation. That was one particular incident. But Islam has a complete system. By and large women in Islamic societies don’t have these problems. Islam has given women rights that no other society has. They may be implemented badly, but the rights exist. Muslims never burn their girl children, it is in Punjab and Haryana that you have maximum female foeticide. In Islam, women have a right to property and education and to ask for divorce (khulla), even though there are elaborate procedures laid out for this. There is no injunction against widow remarriage or returning to one’s father’s house. On the other hand, in many cases, Hindu widows still suffer badly, and divorce was not possible among Hindus. Women might be burnt as satis but the father’s house from which a bride left in a doli would never take her back. Her arthi (ashes) can never leave from her father’s house. By and large, we don’t have these problems in our society. So for one Shah Bano, did one want to jeopardize everything? See, the fundamental point again is, what would be the authority for creating this uniform code? Such a strict law has been passed against women’s harassment in India. What has been achieved? It’s been turned on its head and now in many cases, women are harassing entire families for money. I think applying a common code is completely impractical — in fact inapplicable. Do you know where the concept of Personal Law came in Hindustan? When the East India Company came to Surat, it requested Jehangir that since this is a Muslim country under Islamic Law – can we have our personal law govern our personal lives. They were granted this right. That is the precedent. And now the coin has turned so much, you don’t want us to follow our personal laws even within our own homes, you want to dictate how our wives or women will live.

Yasinbhai, I am not saying western societies or Hindu society does not have inequalities or oppression of women. But you cannot be blind to the fact that the status of women in conservative Islamic societies is a huge question mark. You keep women in purdah, you don’t let them work. 

That is not true. Visit Islamic countries – Pakistan, turkey, Qatar, Dubai, even places like Saudia Arabia. Many Islamic countries are not up to the mark as far as Islamic ideals go, but women are working everywhere.

Only in certain kinds of jobs. And why the purdah? 
You may ask why can’t an areoplane be brought down anywhere, but a plane will break if you bring it down anywhere, it has to be brought down on a runway. That which is most delicate must be looked after with utmost carefulness. Women have a delicacy, a fragile nature that needs protection. Islam wants to create such a society that bad elements won’t get an opportunity. In Saudi Arabia, rape is punished by lashings. How many incidents of rape do you think are there?

The war of stereotypes: Muslim boys arrested as terrorists, wrapped in keffiyeh

This line of argument is just too disturbing. If you won’t even let your women out, be independent, make choices, speak out, how can you talk of rape statistics? Have you asked your women what they feel about all this? Have you asked them which of them want to stay at home and which of them want to spread their wings?
Islam says women are the keepers of humanity. They may not be scholars like Aflatoon themselves but they are the mothers of scholars and are treated with huge respect. It is not that we don’t let women work, but it is true that we think a woman’s primary work is the family. When a woman goes to work, the home and family is neglected. And a home is where human values are built. Europe and the US wanted total freedom and equality. What has that brought them? They are struggling with the breakdown of family values. They don’t want to look after their old, they don’t want to have children, everything is based on individualism. I’d understand if all that independence had led to a stream of women presidents in the US – but nothing like that has happened. To make one Indira Gandhi, you want to fiddle with the balance of everything? In some quiet moment, reflect for yourself, has all this really freed women from male chauvinism, or is it all a sham? The fundamental thing is, women are physically and emotionally differently; their necessities are different. Because Islam has specified it, you mind that.

Don’t just be an advertisement for Islam, Yasinbhai. I am not against Islam per se. But every society goes through a process of reform and modernization. What place would a woman like me have in your ideal society? You yourself said you like my writing. I have children but I travel alone, I go to remote places for my journalism. If I was locked up at home by your logic, neither you nor I would ever have known that I could write! Just one example — the Nobel Prize winner Shirin Abadi was a senior jurist until the Cultural Revolution after which she was reduced to being a clerk in the same court. Are you not going to introspect about things in your society? 

I am not trying to convince you about Islam. I am just using the opportunity to explain to you what perspective we think from. Perhaps there are ills in this way, but do they outweigh the ills in other societies? In many western, capitalist societies, they pay women less because they say women are less efficient. If she has to look after home and office, what else will she be, poor thing? If you put a car tyre in a bus, it won’t work; but if you put it in a car, it will run faster further than a bus. There is a function that god has ordained for women – if you keep her within that she will prosper the most —

We can’t agree on this. There may indeed be many women who prefer to stay at home or wear burkhas, but that should be a matter of choice, not codified. 

It is important to talk – if we meet a few more times, perhaps I will accept ten percent of what you are saying, and you will begin to understand five percent of mine.

There are huge walls between communities in India. What do you understand as the core reason for this?

Intolerance. Not caring about others feelings, forcing others to conform to your ways. Dharma ke naam pe adharam. The demolition of the Babri Masjid was a very big assault. A big rift. It completely exposed our supposed secularism and nationalism. Muslims have debated this issue a lot and the fact is, the binding factor in this country was respect and tolerance for each other, not imported concepts like secularism. It is the British who created riots between Hindus and Muslims, otherwise communities lived side by side in respectful coexistence. And Muslims in India are among the most peaceful (sharif) people. Leave aside Kashmir – and even Kashmir only over the last 15 odd years – other than that, Muslims here are completely peaceful. It is other borders that are burning. As long as your beliefs don’t harm another, there is tolerance. If there a conflict arises, there are courts, there is the law. Shariat says a murderer should be killed unless the victim’s family forgives him and a thief’s hands should be cut off. I believe this is a just and effective deterrent. Of course, I can’t emulate that here because it is not an Islamic State. We have different laws. Though in Saudi Arabia and Afghanistan, people leave their houses unlocked without worry, whereas our jails in India are overflowing.
When we criticize the concepts of secularism and nationalism, we are not saying that we don’t observe the laws of this land. All my documents are in place, I never travel without tickets, I never steal from the government. We are just warning that the road you are going on is one of doom. There is a kind of despair growing. You call this a secular country?
To give you one example, men like Narendra Modi and LK Advani are roaming free, but I was arrested in front of my children and spent 27 months in jail. What do you think they felt every moment over those months? They were made to realize that they are second class citizens. They know their father is not a thief, not a drunk, not a criminal – just because he advocates Islam, the police have put him away. How can you erase this impression? This could have been compensated in many ways – by taking up my case, or raising the restrictions on me, whatever the route. Instead, now every time there is a blast, you land up at my doorstep. Newspapers carry the news that I am under strict surveillance, my phone is tapped, etc. Terrible lies are told about me. Are you erasing walls or increasing them? Forget the past, forget compensating me for any injustice: just stop any more injustice.

The other route was to go after those who are conducting a hate campaign and punish them strongly. But you are not ready to do that. Look at Raj Thackeray, Bal Thackeray, Sadhvi Pragya Sharma – no sane person would stand up for them. But just because she is Hindu, everyone is rallying around her. She has only been booked under Section 302. No section 121, 122, 124 — nothing. If we even burst a cracker – we get 121. You invoke Section 153 against me for urging shops to close in protest of 6 December, 1992. Even the FIR says, I urged “peaceful protest”. So what is my crime? I didn’t take permission from the police. Another time, Mahavir Jayanti fell on the same day as Bakr Id and the VHP asked Muslims not to sacrifice goats that day in respect of majority emotion. I said, let’s debate this. I said what we can eat is dictated by the Koran and cannot be negotiated. If things like this are to be decided in terms of majorities, then we who eat meat are a bigger majority; Jains are a micro minority. Then follow our customs. Eat a little meat. Everyone was aghast, but the advantage was no one fingered Bakr Id again. You understand? I just wanted to show the emptiness of these arguments. They filed a case against me, but no case was filed against those who wanted to stall an established festival of Islam. This is not the way to bring down walls.

Another time, Uma Bharati challenged Muslims to subsume themselves to Hindu cultural practices. I said, alright, but first demonstrate why. Why should we follow Krishna who steals the gopis’ clothes while they bathe, or Ram, who puts his wife through an agniparisksha on the recommendation of a dhobhi?

If you speak like this, even I will feel affronted, Yasinbhai. This displays an essential disrespect. You are reducing cultures to their most simplistic articulation. I would counter what you are saying with scorn about the houris and wine Islamic Heaven promises the chaste on earth. The point is, your culture stresses on purity while ours emphasises play and imagination. But if you speak like this, you will reinforce the idea of a clash of civilizations. 
No, it is not that we disrespect your religion or culture. (Quotes a valedictory poem from Iqbal in Urdu praising Ram.) All I am saying is that because you have no written texts, either these stories are extrapolations, or your concept of God is not something I can subsume myself to. I am demonstrating that it is impossible for us to entertain what the Hindu Right wants us to do. See, Shomaji, there is no real fight. You know, I have been to the US and Saudi Arabia but when I go to Ahmedabad, there is a kind of fragrance that fills my soul. My home there has now become a terrible, dirty colony, but still in my dreams I see the Ahmedabad of my youth. One feels a great love for one’s birthplace, but you can’t hawala that love and turn an untruth into a truth.

The Hindu Right wants to destroy MF Husain and Muslims want to destroy Taslima Nasreen and Salman Rushdie. You might consider their work bad art, but do you support the violence unleashed against them? 

Rushdie and Taslima are a black mark against humanity. The way they have abused the Prophet — what can I say? Why should we accept them? Write about genuine issues and we will confront them, but if you make allegations without proof! In the case of Husain, I don’t know much about his paintings, but as far as I know, his paintings are within the tradition of Hinduism, Ajanta, Ellora temples and what the shastras allow. But if he is doing something beyond the shastras, if he is misrepresenting any aspect of Hindu religion or gods, then he too does not have the right.

There was a book called Rangeela Wasool I think by Swami Shraddhanand which hurt Muslims deeply. The swami was killed by a Muslim rickshaw-puller. Later, the rickshaw-puller was also hanged. But if he had not killed the swami, anyone could have done anything in Hindustan. Animosity against Islam is a fact. A universal fact.

What do you understand to be the reason behind that?

The injunctions of Islam that stops exploitation. Injunctions against things like lending on interest, alcohol, gambling. How will they like Islam? Where would that leave shining Las Vegas bloated on millions of dollars of gambling? Islam is a very beautiful religion – don’t tell lies about us. Bring out real facts about our drawbacks; we are ready to give you an explanation.

What would you count among your own self-criticisms?

Many things – but right now, the biggest one is the failure of the Muslim leadership to highlight the way in which Muslims have been subjugated in the name of democracy and secularism. Such an atmosphere has been created, so many innocents have been thrown into jail, that afraid of death, the police and the courts, no leadership is willing to come forward and speak. In a democracy, people are supposed to be able to speak their truths and realities and no one can be prosecuted for the mere expression of something. But that is not the case here. You are calling all our brightest young men, computers engineers, doctors, etc as terrorists, you are bringing their morale down, but Muslim leaders are saying nothing. There should be a mass agitation against these allegations.

The Hindu Right alleges that the Muslim community does not denounce terror activity enough.

This is a lie. We have spoken against terrorism consistently. But why should we do more? Are we accepting that there are terrorists among us? India has an enemity with Pakistan and gets blasts done in Karachi, they in turn get blasts done in Hyderabad – this has no relation with Islam or Muslims. They speak of “home-grown terror” – there is no such thing! They have tried so hard to prove links between Osama Bin Laden and Mullah Omar, but out of 20 crore Indian Muslims, there is not one! Not one! I say “homegrown terror” is either a figment or the product of the IB. What are these modules you are busting? They are blasting RDX but you are seizing AK 47s! The Muslim from Kerala who was recently killed in Kashmir – his mother publicly said, she will not accept his corpse. The parents of other arrested boys have said that if it is proved their children are involved in terror blasts, they will disown them and not oppose them being hanged. All this is just propaganda. It is just a way of psychologically denouncing us so much that Muslims themselves will not dare to say or even think any of these are wrong allegations.

To give you just one example, when I was arrested, the Indian Express wrote “Poster gets POTA”. I asked the journalist Seema Chisti, Didn’t you even think twice? How can a poster possibly get POTA? No matter how heinous a poster, it is only an expression! It can invite 153 A, 153 B, but POTA is meant for a terrorist act. It is defined as an act which affects the life of a person or may affect the life of a person physically. In Vaiko’s case, the Supreme Court ruled that unless you are directly or indirectly involved in a terrorist act, mere association with an organization that is suspected of terror activity cannot invite POTA. So the case against him was dropped. But in the case of Yasin Patel – you don’t question anything because he is a Muslim and the stereotype is so deep-rooted.

The truth is, we are all on the same ship. You may have secured first class, we are in second class. You tell us don’t come up here for water, so we start making holes in the ship’s base to get water. You say, let them do it, we are safe here on top, so what does it matter? Is this attitude right? If there are holes in the ship – holes in the system –eventually we will all drown.

They say Musalmano ka do sthan – ya kabarsthan ya Pakistan. But how many Muslims migrated to Pakistan? Double that number live in Hindustan. They won’t go to Bangladesh, so they will ask for two more partitions. Still there will be some left, even if we beat them all into being terrorists, still their bastis will increase because we have 2, they have 20. I don’t know where these 20 are but they exist. (laughs) All this is just propaganda. Just votebank politics. You are isolating a community that has immense guts.

LK Advani, Arun Jaitley, Vajpayee – they all have Muslim friends in their personal lives, in their political life, they do something else. Like builders who burn down slums for land, then use the same slum people for construction. Straight after the blasts, Advani called for elections. My good man, elections can come 6 months later, first fix the problem. Are you so irresponsible that for mere premiership, you are willing to jeopardize the whole country? This is the cause behind everything. Votebank politics. Muslims have condemned terrorism more than anyone – and unnecessarily. Take these blast now. If we even accept for argument sake that it is being done by some radical Muslim wing — this shadowy Indian Muhajideen – all the its reasons it cites in its emails are oppressions in India: the demolition of the Babri Masjid, Gujarat 2002, Bombay 1992, Personal Law etc etc – how is this extra-national or anti-national or pan-Islamic? Yet, you raise this bogey, if Muslims are involved, it is because of pan-Islamism. Kashmir has been such a long and intense movement here, have Indian Muslims joined their war? There is no Taliban here, no connection with Mullah Omar or Osama. If you keep accusing a woman – beyond a point she will say okay, if you say I am bad, I’ll do something bad. Though I assert we still haven’t reached that stage here in India. For narrow political and personal gain you are tearing the fabric of this country. How long will Modi rule? Ten years? Advani – five years? But Hindustan is eternal. They accuse SIMI of being pan-Islamic, but they foisted the I onto SIM – we just saw ourselves as Students Islamic Movement. We are advocating Islam, we want to make our country Islamic because we believe it is Islam which will make this country progress. What is wrong with this? What is wrong with this? If I experience Islam to be a good benign thing in my life and I want to extend that to my brothers and friends, what is wrong with that? You accuse us of force again and again, but offer some proof. Offer some proof of this.

The concept of jihad – one knows what it means in the Koran as a text. But it has come to mean something else in the contemporary world. What is your position on issues like Osama and 9/11 and the Taliban and jihad? 

See, one could easily condemn all of it, but we have to do this cautiously and take it up issue by issue and examine the circumstance around it. You have to understand that there is a great pressure even for Muslims themselves to stereotype and condemn Islam. Jihad is undoubtedly part of the Koran – but you have to see the context in which the jihad is being fought. In every circumstance where armed Muslim groups are fighting – Palestine, Chechnya, Afghanistan – they are fighting forces much stronger and more heavily armed than themselves, and where there has been some grave and open injustice. Start with the Taliban and Osama. This was created and sponsored by the CIA and Benazir Bhutto – not only to fight the Russians in Afghanistan but to prevent a democratic, liberal and moderate leader from coming to power in Afghanistan. It suits international forces and the arms industry to make the most radicalized face of Islam come to the fore. In Iraq, it is the US which propped up Saddam Hussein to block Iran. In Sudan, it bombs a medical factory. In Pakistan and elsewhere, it has consistently supported and propped up dictators. Most recently, it has instated Mr Ten Percent. And then, it turns on its own creations and starts bombing Afghanistan and Iraq and Pakistan, killing thousands and thousands of innocent civilians. In all this bombardment, the bogey of WMDs turn out to be a lie, but it gets to lay its oil pipelines or access big construction projects. People across the world might criticize the US for all this, but no nametag is given to its actions. Is there a war against Islam? If there is, declare it. Then the response to it will become clear. There should be no proxy war.

See, I understand what you are saying, I understand the need for self-criticism and reform in many spheres, but first we have to appreciate and acknowledge the ideal in Mecca, we have to give the respect Islam deserves. After that we can take up each thing, issue by issue and examine it for its rights and wrongs. Take the Shariat – in its idealistic form it is to be respected; how it is being implemented can be scrutinized. It is the same for the Indian Penal Code. We have to take a very cautious approach in how we condemn and criticize things because increasingly, with the explosion of information, TV, books, audio – suddenly there is actually very little real knowledge of anything.

SIMI’s Ikhwan conference in Kanpur came in for a lot of criticism. It was seen to be engendering dangerous liaisons. Can you tell us about that?

See we protested against Arafat when he came to India and this was seen as shocking because India was close to the Russian block at the time. As far as our support of Hamas and Sheikh Yasin goes, I fully stand by that. Hamas is very inspirational. It may have a militant wing, but it also sets up banks, schools, engenders a sense of self-reliance against the might of the entire Israel State. Sheikh Yasin is a cripple, but his eloquence stirs one. Why should we condemn Hamas? For its armed struggle against Israel? Israel which has tanks and guns and fighter planes and has strafed thousands of innocent civilians. As for Saddam, SIMI condemned Iraq when it invaded Kuwait, it has condemned its atrocities on the Kurds, but you must remember it is the US that propped up Saddam in the first place.

One more contentious issue – the Ram Mandir in Ayodhya. Last week, in an interview, a Bajrang Dal convenor said if Muslims had made a compromise with this, many communal issues would have lost teeth. Looking back, do you think there could have been another route? 

You must examine the history of the Ram Mandir in great detail. This is a non-issue that was made into a huge issue for cynical political gains. In 1877, the British courts ruled that the birthplace of Ram was in the Chabutra. For years, kirtans and namaaz was offered side by side at the chabutra and namaaz. For 50 years there was no further claim either on the mandir or Sita Rasoi.

Suddenly in 1949, a moorti was found in front of the masjid and it was said, god had revealed himself there. The masjid became a disputed site and was locked. There was no agitation. Then in 1985, in modern, secular India, Rajiv Gandhi decided to open the locks and allow a shilanayas for Ram Lalla. You know all that happened afterwards – the garv yatra, the charged atmosphere. Suppose for an instance, the masjid had been brought down for the mandir. Would it really have stopped there? There were so many more claims – right up to the Qutub Minar. India has such a complex history – you cannot start uprooting all of it without destroying its unity.

Is the Muslim community guilty of isolating and ghettoising itself? The Sachar Committee Report —
The Sachar Report is a two-fold conspiracy. This is part of Congress politics – it does not want to do anything substantial, just indulge in tokenism. It had made many promises before elections but did not fulfill any, so it set up the committee. This wept crocodile’s tears. It wanted to prove to Muslims that they are in such a terrible position. The truth is, Muslims are not in such a bad position. Yes, government jobs are not available for us, and Muslims accept that. But the report did not map how the community has progressed through self-employment. Also, no matter how down trodden, very few Muslims will be entirely illiterate because they have to read the Koran. If you can read Urdu, you can read Hindi. Most Muslim kids get a madrassa education – not one paisa for this is given by the State. But if you consider even me illiterate, I have no defence. As the Judge in my case said, he only knows Koran and hadeez, he doesn’t know anything else. And if you term anyone who follows Islamic teachings as conservative, what can I say? So the Sachar Report was only a negative report, it wanted to assess where their strategies had got us, how low have Muslims fallen. It’s a pity, no one asked Yasin Patel. I would have told them, you don’t need a committee, just implement things.

But if there is a bias in Education Ministries where crores are spent, what will Muslims get? You are asking me to introspect. But ghettoisation has become a kind of second nature for us. It is forced on us. Very few people have the energy and strength to think against the tide, ordinary people are just struggling to live. To tell you the truth though, no matter how much money the Muslim community puts up for its madrassas, it cannot be successful until the government fulfills our demand and gives us funds for our education. Our teachers at college level are paid Rs 2,500, whereas their secular counterparts would get around Rs 60,000 and the luxury of libraries and time and sabbaticals to study. How can our teachers compare? You cannot expect the same quality. This is one of the issues SIMI was emphasizing on – that as tax payers, the government should spend on our education, and on that education which as a community we want to give ourselves. Every community survives on the strength of its customs – be it religious or cultural custom. This is why I think the idea of a uniform common code is madness. You could have it in the US or European countries because there is so much homogeneity there. But you cannot compare India and US. You cannot compare India and Pakistan. India is a completely different thing. Totally different.

Do you know when Bengal was under Islamic rule a visiting traveler said there was hundred percent literacy there. But after the Mutiny of 1857, the British systematically removed Muslims from the army, the civil services and from educational institutions. Fort William College – the first college to be set up by the British was done on Wakf property, but they did not admit a single Muslim student. There was a huge uproar, so then they included two. But there has been a systematic program of removing Muslims from the mainstream. To detail that is a long story.

See, we want to keep our hearts open and talk, but there is so much intolerance now, no one wants to talk. Actually, political forces do not want us to get together and talk. Look at how much we have talked – but instead of you, if there was someone else here, there would have been blood spilled by now! (Laughs) At least you can tell Prakash Sharma (Bajrang Dal leader interviewed last week for this series) that you did manage to talk for four hours to a POTA-accused hard-core Muslim. We have lived together on this land for 1000 years, I don’t know why he feels they cannot talk to Muslims. The fact is, I came back from the US because no matter what, this is the country where I feel there is most acceptance and tolerance.

One final question. Tell me when there is so much distrust of the US, why does your family want to live there? 

For dollars, what else! (laughs) But that question is in bad taste. Merely living or working in a country does not make one a slave. It does not prevent one from asserting the truth.