This is another one of those posts that I have been considering writing for a long time, and now suddenly seems like the right time. Because, in a certain way, things are finally beginning to shift. And I want to do everything I can to help in shifting that conversation.
Disclaimer: This is very much what the headline says, a “101” post. There are many people who have written much more and in much greater depth on these issues. But if you are just now thinking “Islamaphobia, what is that and what does it look like in Indian film?”, this might get you started.
Barkha Dutt published a harsh critique of Padmavat in the Washington Post. Out of 10 paragraphs, only one addresses the issues with the depiction of Muslims in the film. But it is also the last paragraph, the final message she wishes to leave us with. And, frankly, I am happy to see the issue of Muslim representation addressed at all.
“Islamophobia” is a pretty phrase, it implies that the problem is a pathological fear of Muslims. But what it hides is bigotry and hatred and the violence it incites, not fear. And what is even more dangerous is that this bigotry and fear is increasingly mainstream. What gives me hope is that, finally, it is beginning to be addressed and discussed in the mainstream, both in the West and in India.
(“Not in my name” is a new movement in India, as of this year, against lynching and other violence towards religious minorities by the Hindu right)
Islam has a complicated history of relationships with other religions, but no more complex than any other major religion. Sometimes Christian-based countries would choose to claim a tie with Islamic countries based on the “brotherhood of the book”. At other times, they would focus on the differences between the religions in order to incite conflict. We can see that easily just by looking at the recent history of Afghanistan. When the Russians were invading in the 80s and the local tribes were allying with the West, the Muslims in that region were stereotyped as noble, brave, wise, honorable. And this influenced popular culture in a whole variety of ways. For instance, I just read the book Dune for the first time recently, and the fantastical version of the noble tribes in the forbidding planet hiding vast riches in that book was clearly inspired by the romantic vision spreading through popular culture at the time of the noble tribes in the forbidding area of Afghanistan. But once the Taliban became increasingly powerful in the mid-90s, leading to the American invasion, you find those same “noble” Muslim stereotypes, now turned on their heads, becoming the obsessed and dark and evil figures.
(This same stereotype made it to India as well. “Noble” Afghani Muslim Amitabh in 1994, “evil” Afghani Muslim Ranveer Singh in 2018)
The west and the east are not separated entities, so western stereotypes influence eastern and vice versa. But within that understanding, India has a unique way of dealing with their Muslim minority in popular culture. Partly because India is such a varied country, and their Muslim population is obviously varied as well with a distinctly different histories region to region.
There have always been two main narratives in Indian popular culture, as I see it. First is the Muslims as a source of culture, laws, justice and fairness. Mughal-E-Azam is perhaps the peak of this vision, beautiful architecture, dance, music, poetry, combined with a scrupulously just and responsible attitude towards ruling. You can see a similar vision in artifacts as recent as, for instance, Magadheera. In which the Muslim invaders are established as fierce and terrifying for much of the film, but then they appear and are revealed to be professional, fair, and more noble than the corrupted Hindu villain.
This is the main narrative, but there are other narratives based on other regions. A reminder that both “India” and “Muslim” are not monolithic identities. In Kerala, “Muslim” might mean nothing special in particular, just another of the multiple possible identities. Or it might mean heavily influenced by the Arab traditions of Islam rather than the Indian traditions thanks to the unique guest worker system between Kerala and Arab countries. In Hyderabad, it means a community of politically active social activists, complete with their own dialect of Urdu. There is no one “Muslim” identity within India, or in fact anywhere, and the varied language based popular culture products of India reflect that.
That is, the first option for Muslims in Indian popular culture reflects that. Islamic culture as a source of justice, art, history, with varying shadings based on the location of the film and the industry from which it came. But the second option, that has no shadings. Which is a sign that it is a lie. Because no people are the same, any time an argument relies on saying “Muslims are born like this”, “Jews are born like this”, “Christians are born like this”, “Hindus are born like this”, it is a lie.
The second option for Muslims in Indian popular culture is a combination of prejudices, borrowed originally from British propaganda, and then adopted and expanded by extremist hate groups such as the RSS. By this theory, Muslims are essentially “rapacious”. Both meaning that they have an uncontrollable sexual desire, and that they have an uncontrollable desire to conquer and destroy. We see this in the Muslim attacker in films as varied as Hey Ram and Padmavat. Especially we see this in historical films.
(And of course we see this narrative reflected in real life, the fantasy of the “love Jihad” in which Muslim men use their sexual power to seduce Hindu women thereby destroying Hindu society)
The anti-Muslim hate groups rely on a twisted version of history in which every group that happened to be Muslim is somehow connected to every other group. The “Direct Action” movement in Calcutta in 1946 is somehow related to the bombings in Bombay in 2008, for instance. And both of these are related to the Muslim who lives next door to you who has never said an unkind word to you. Every other historical or social factor is removed except for religion, thereby creating a false narrative in which all of Indian history can be simplified to the Muslim “other” attacking the Hindu “us”. Facts that do not fit this narrative, such as the entire 100 year history of British rule, the assassination of Mohandas Gandhi, Indira Gandhi, and Rajiv Gandhi by Hindu, Sikh, and Tamilian extremists, the various brutal and inhumane acts by Hindu rulers through history, and of course the several massive Pograms by Hindu groups against Muslims in various cities, are all erased.
In this version of the popular culture narrative, there are only “bad” Muslims and “good” Muslims. The “good” Muslim is one who, essentially, rejects his communal identity in favor of his national one. He is shown in the film as a rarity, an outsider in his community. Even the most well-meaning films can still fall within this fallacy. Kajol in Fanaa, Mukesh Rishi in Sarfarosh, even Kunal Kapoor in Rang De Basanti are shown to be outside of their communities, they are people of the Islamic faith, but they are not “Muslim”.
(This is why I find My Name is Khan so unique, it is aggressively claiming a Muslim identity, both in terms of the religious philosophy and the day to day practice, the community, the public identity.)
And it is this version that began to make it’s way into the West after 9/11. I first noticed it years ago in the television show The West Wing. Which has all kinds of issues, due to Aaron Sorkin’s ability to say very stupid things in a very smart manner. And one of the stupid things he began to say, over and over again, was that Muslims were somehow “different”. In a show that constantly trumpeted the rights of the oppressed, very proud of pointing out anti-semitism, in purporting to be feminist, in being the voice of liberal progressives, somehow it was completely acceptable to minimize the Muslim identity to “tribal”, to woman-hating, to violent and unpredictable and all sorts of other things. Yes, you can find examples of all those critiques within the various Islam-based societies in the world, just as you can find them in societies based on any other religious framework. But what is disturbing is when those critiques stop being addressed to specific cultures and communities and begin to be addressed to simply “Muslims”. Especially in a cultural product which is claiming to be speaking for the thinking feeling compassionate people of America.
Somehow, after 9/11, the fear implied in “Islamaphobia” became an acceptable excuse for all sorts of behavior. You could say things out loud like “Muslims are naturally violent”. You could make Muslims into the new one-size-fits-all villain in TV shows and movies. And if anyone confronted you, you would say “after our country has been attacked, I think it is all right for me to be afraid”.
But, NO! It is never okay. Never. To attack a people because of their religion? That is morally reprehensible and there is no excuse for it. There is no “logic” that can explain it, no claiming of victimization that can make it forgivable. It is simply wrong. To spread such lies, and become complicit in the violence they cause, ties you to groups as ancient as the Spaniards of the 1600s who exiled the Moors with orders:
“The Moriscos to depart, under the pain of death and confiscation, without trial or sentence… to take with them no money, bullion, jewels or bills of exchange…. just what they could carry.”
And as modern as Bal Thackeray who argued:
There is nothing wrong” if “Muslims are treated as Jews were in Nazi Germany.”
I was in college in the early 2000s, and the Muslim students group was desperately trying to wake people to what was happening. They provided free Korans, with passages highlighted which explained Islam’s stance on women. They attended and helped organize religious dialogue sessions between all the various student groups on campus. The Muslims who I knew, who lived with me in the dorms, who I had class with every day, who I volunteered with, was on committees with, joked with and argued with and shared my life with, were as varied as any other group of humans. Meaning they were flawed, funny, sensitive, young, thoughtful, and kind. And they were hurt and struggling with the way their country and the greater culture in which they existed was suddenly seeming to reject them.
(Another reason I love My Name is Khan, it addressed that shock of waking up to a new world where it was suddenly unacceptable to be who you were. Finally told the story I had been watching play out day after day for 9 years)
Perhaps if I had been somewhere else in this era, attending a different school with a less diverse and vocal student body, or living in a smaller town with a smaller Muslim community, I would have experienced the acceptance of anti-Muslim hatred differently. But I don’t think so. I was raised to love people, to reject falsehood, to believe in the American promise of religious freedom, and the language that was slowly spreading through our country and becoming acceptable was just blatantly wrong and unacceptable. I know, in India, there were similar people through out the same modern era, speaking up for the Indian constitution which guaranteed religious freedom and that India would not be a religious state, the promise of modern India which was intended to be open to all religions. And this was somehow not even an acceptable topic of conversation.
Some sources and people and communities have been saying the same things over and over again. Which is perhaps why there has been a narrative of “Political Correctness” and “fake” Islamophobia and so on. People saying it is an invented issue, it is being brought up too much, people are “touchy” and so on. But the reason we are so “touchy” is because nothing we say appears to make a difference. Maybe it is irritating to hear the same talking points repeated, but we will keep repeating them until hate crimes against Muslims stop rising, until lawmakers stop spewing hate speech, until the real world consequences of these popular culture messages stop occurring.
I have spent 15 years yelling as loud as I could to make my voice heard, and finally it appears that someone is hearing it, and taking up my same cry. In new places and in new ways. The Padmavat review on Rogerebert.com mentions its support of extremist Hindu culture and Muslim stereotypes. In America, the Muslim community is (finally) getting the support it deserves, is part of the political conversation, is recognized as an oppressed group worthy of defense instead of somehow “other”. In India, Swara Bhaskar’s letter is gaining traction in letting people criticize extremist religious narratives, a counter-narrative movement is beginning to start, saying “Islamaphobia” no longer gets you an eye roll and a “what’s that?”, but at least the beginning of an attempt to listen and understand.
Which is what I hope for this piece, that it will spark at least an attempt to listen to and understand what I am saying, that it will make you look more closely at what you have found “acceptable” to say and listen to in recent years, the “understandable” assumptions you have been guilty of, and the “harmless” cultural products you have enjoyed. And to look at the extremist comments this post will no doubt incite and think about if you want to be associated with those beliefs and those commentators, or if you are a little smarter, a little more caring, a little more humane than that.
And if you have also felt like you are yelling into the emptiness with no one hearing you for the past 15 years, this is to tell you that you are not alone, I heard you, I care, I am trying my best to help.