Beyond Tablighi Jamaat: Representation and mis-representation of Islam in times of Covid-19

After every attack anywhere in the world, the impression goes: is there any connection with Islam? Such is the power of obsession with Islam that media has brought to us

Photo courtesy- social media
Photo courtesy- social media

Prem Anand Mishra and Dr Saad Ahmad

After every attack anywhere in the world, the impression goes: is there any connection with Islam? Such is the obsession with Islam that media has brought to us. The enmity between Islam and the West was shaped by memories from the crusades and medievalist-scholastic zeal that evolved in the Western 'culture' and which embedded in the minds that Islam as an idea and religion is unqualified for the modern world.

Edward Said was not the first who explained this regressive binary: us vs them, the masculine West vs the faminine others (read Islam and Arabs in general) but the influence of Foucault helped his critique of Orientalism in his seminal work in 1978, how, the West perceived other cultures, considering its worldview as the master-phenomenon that happened only once to the world.

Thus, the standpoint that power/knowledge helped exploit the concept of othering for the sacred geo-cultural pyramid. The borrowings of the clash of civilisations also plucked sensibilities, historically trended in the name of cultural-missionary interaction as European Christianity and Eastern Islam, agonised cultural fault lines making Islam and Muslims a threat to western values. At the darkest passage of the twentieth century, the so-called knowledge industry introduced this cultural subjectivity in everyday modern life and wisdom.

The trouble, however, has been the response from Muslim countries highly in touch with modernity. If the response to the Western expansion was in the form of 'inward search for authenticity' among all religions and cultures, a chunk of fire caught the 'Islamist anger' too. Envied with modern political development, Islamist started discovering their own ways of looking at things, mostly through black and white lenses. Thus, Islamophobia and fundamentalism are two disturbing stories of modern times. Their imagination and representation are making the world upside down.

The crisis of representation or misrepresentation can only be perceived in the realm of three basic propositions: the global factor, the role of the state and the Islamists totalitarianism. The western perceptions of Islam circulated globally through the mass media revolving around Islamic fundamentalism (a regressive response both from the conservative and Islamic modernists) and rabid Islamophobia.

The cosmopolitan character of Islam through its lived tradition, diversities, the strands of various cultural traditions, its worldly philosophy and practices of reasoning (Ijtihad) lost its meaning to the analogical tool which as largely binary in nature. With the rise of such a dominant narrative, the birth of Islamism/Muslimism shaped an ideology, seemingly totalitarian: political-Islam is the solution for everything.

The historical conditionality helped these ideas become dominant, but as a famous French Marxist scholar on Islam, Maxime Rodinson writes, Islam is different in its text and practices. As any verse that draped into allegories cannot have a literal meaning, Quranic verses too are subjected to serve the ideology. With the rise of mass media, the mis/representation of Islam, however, became a global phenomenon. Islam was perceived either through hegemonic discourses of the West or represented by Islamists as a real face. The analogy that everything relies on binary and the hijacked representation makes the society vulnerable.

The global collective identity etched in the idea of ummah also suffers from this binary between western perception and Islamists interpretation. The connotation of a collective consciousness among Muslims cannot have the political reality often projected by Islamists. Western power has always preferred dictators to safeguard their interest and opposed any form of application of democratisation in larger Muslim world. For a political recovery, the shrewdest slogan among Islamists was 'back to the seventh century' Arabia, proved paradoxical to the Islamist claim as well because a vast amount of Islamist politics draws its logic from the very sense of modern it strongly criticises.

With the rise of right-wing politics in India, the global hate industry has found another cash-rich business- dehumanising Muslims. If global media's obsession with Islam is the artwork of Islamophobes and Islamists of the West, national media's obsession with Muslims as the enemy has a telling story connected with Hindutva which is often projected as capable to redeem the ‘Bharatvarsh’.

The recent case of Tablighi Jamaat, an Islamic missionary group, formed in the early 20th century, has become the vortex of many surreal questions. It would be innocuous to say that, with the reference of Corona infection, the Jamaat was not at fault; instead it was responsible for becoming the super vector and India was not exceptional to its callousness. The spectre of fervent communalism emanating from a section of media has painted the entire community as an internal enemy and has fuelled the virus of hatred endangering the Muslim identity.

Since before the independence, Tablighi Jamaat has been committed to puritanism, to purify according to the Six principles drawn from the lives of the pious companions of Prophet Muhammad. Its post-independence existence in Indian society remained limited to reforming Muslims, evidently from inside. Though it rejects any attachment with politics in external matter and fiqh (jurisprudence) in subjective preferences, global perception of Jamaat is associated with global politics too. While, India's Jamat is purely ritualistic and emphasises on correcting individual behaviour and dressing style according to the Sunnah (Islamic tradition), as it claims.

The larger question, however, remains that is Islamophobia on the rise in India and if so, who is more responsible for this: the consumption of the Islamist politics from the West adopted for waging war on the Muslim body and mind, Hindutva project, or a media habitual of chewing disgorges. Another related aspect to the case of Tablighi Jamaat comes from double minoritization of the minority.

The religious identity conceived through the political lens is a dangerous idea and needs a rational response to de-mystify the regressive binary constructed in exchange of Orientalism and reverse orientalism debate. The common virus in India will not die with the Tablighi Jamat, but it is a systemic power relation that will survive and surpass even after COVID-19. The politics of misrepresentations that shaped the language of Islam and the West is a global industry, and the recent Jamat case is just an Indian version. Indian media and the state are spreading the same virus that West has employed in their social and political laboratories.

Muslims need to look back in their history and great traditions and refuse to allow the Islamist to represent the billion-ordinary people. Although, Islamophobia is on the rise but so has been the fundamentalism. There cannot be a place for exceptionalism; otherwise, this will lead to the same dangerous path which Finkelstein calls 'The Holocaust Industry': any criticism of Israel will naturally make ones anti-Semitic.

Any criticism of any Muslim group cannot be a common assault. It is a ploy that has been used by the states, Islamists and even so-called liberals who have become the fellow travellers of Islamists. Such ideological position is poisonous and only helps the hate industry. Islam is like any other religion that has diversity and respect for selfhood and humanity. They need to represent themselves, and respond with an open mind to such binaries.

Prem Anand Mishra is a doctoral candidate at Jawaharlal Nehru University

Dr Saad Ahmad is associated with Jamia Millia Islamia, New Delhi.

Views expressed in the article are the authors’ own

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Published: 17 Apr 2020, 7:00 PM