‘Inter-faith Dialogue a Must to Preserve Democratic Set-up”

MAULANA SYED JALALUDDIN UMRI was recently elected the Amir or President of the Jamaat-e Islami Hind. In this interview with NIGAR ATAULLA and YOGINDER SIKAND he talks about his vision for the Jamaat in the coming years.

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MAULANA SYED JALALUDDIN UMRI was recently elected the Amir or President of the Jamaat-e Islami Hind. In this interview with NIGAR ATAULLA and YOGINDER SIKAND he talks about his vision for the Jamaat in the coming years.

Could you tell us something about yourself and your background?
I was born in a village in North Arcot district in Tamil Nadu in 1935. I studied in an Urdu school in my village and then went to a well-known madrasa in Oomerabad, the Jamia Dar us-Salaam, where I completed a nine-year fazil course. After that, I spent a little more than two years at the Jamaat-e Islami Hind’s headquarters, then in Rampur, in Uttar Pradesh. There, I studied informally from various scholars. In 1956 I joined the Jamaat-e Islami as a member and began working with the Idara-e-Tasneef, the Jamaat’s research and publications department and continued there for around 15 years. Thereafter, I shifted to Aligarh, where I edited the Jamaat’s monthly Zindagi for some years and then took to editing the quarterly Islamic research journal Tahqiqat-e-Islami, which I have carried on for the last 25 years.

What particular areas would you like to focus on as the new Amir of the Jamaat-e Islami?
I think we should carry on in the same broad direction as before, although giving particular attention to some issues that have not perhaps received the sort of focus that they should have. One of these is inter-faith or inter-community dialogue. The Qur’an stresses this and says that Muslims should seek to dialogue with others, no matter what their religion. This is also a means to tell others about Islam.
The Jamaat has been doing this sort of work for many years, such as through publishing translations of the Qur’an in various languages and bringing out a Hindi magazine, Kanti, since 1958, which has a large number of non-Muslim readers. But I feel that we must give more focus to dialogue work than we have in the past. Islam has been present in India for more than a thousand years, but yet a large section of non-Muslim Indians remain ignorant about it. They wrongly think that it is the religion of a particular community of people known as Muslims, while actually Islam addresses itself to the entire humankind. And so they mistakenly think that if some people among such a numerically large community as the Indian Muslims commit a wrong act, in doing so they are dictated by their religion, which is not true. After all, there are people who do bad deeds in all communities.
So, dialogue is also essential to tell others about Islam and to remove the misconceptions they might have about Islam and Muslims.
Inter-faith dialogue is necessary to preserve and protect the democratic set-up of the country, so that each community is given its rights, including the right to freely practise and propagate its religion. If there’s no dialogue there will be conflict and that augurs ill for the progress of the country as a whole. Through dialogue we can tell others about the Islamic perspective on various social and ethical issues. We want democracy to get strengthened. A vibrant democratic environment guarantees such processes of dialogue and reaching out, leading to a cultural fusion which can pave the way for the peaceful co-existence of different cultural streams in this country. We, of course, do not want to force anything on anyone. You can listen to what we have to say if you want, or else you can refuse, but that democratic space for articulating different views must be preserved.

So, what you are saying is that dialogue is also a means to address issues of common social concern. Is that right?
Yes, of course. The Jamaat’s efforts to reach out to non-Muslims have so far been quite limited, restricted mainly to a particular class. The question is of how to make this effort more mass-based.
Islam has not become an issue for India, except in a negative sense, as reflected in the negative stereotypical images of Islam and Muslims in the media. We need to make efforts to see that Islam is focused on in this country, but in the positive sense – in terms of providing solutions for the country’s problems, through which people of different communities can work together for common purposes.
Unfortunately, we have not made use of the media as we should have for this sort of work, for which there is much scope and potential.

Given this, do you feel the need for any shift in the Jamaat’s media policy?
Certainly. We need to use the mass media to clear people’s misconceptions about Islam and Muslims and to show them the positive role that Islam and its adherents can play in addressing problems facing the country. The Jamaat brings out magazines and periodicals in various languages, but these have not been very effective in influencing public opinion, because they are read mainly by Muslims themselves. If a story or a report is published in one of our magazines, it does not receive attention outside a limited, mainly Muslim, circle. But if the same story is published in a ‘mainstream’ newspaper it does. It becomes an issue. This reflects the fact that our media is not very effective in reaching out to a wider, particularly non-Muslim, readership or audience. One exception to this is the Malayalam daily that we publish from Kerala, Madhyamam, which has a large readership, including among non-Muslims, and which also plays a role in shaping or influencing Kerala politics.

Some years ago the Jamaat set up what it called its Media Cell. How has that been functioning?
I don’t think it has been very effective. The Media Cell limited itself to documenting articles or reports in the media that concern Muslims and providing information on such issues to Jamaat leaders. I think we need to move much beyond this and build up a proper media team. This holds true for other Muslim organisations as well, so that their voices are heard beyond the confines of the community, too. Now, for this, I think it is crucial to reach out to non-Muslims in the media. There are many Hindus and others in the media who strongly believe that different views should be allowed to flourish. We need to approach them to put forward our views and the concerns of Muslims.

But do you see a tendency on the part of the non-Muslim Indian media to present Muslims and Islam in a particular negative light?
Such tendencies are there, but we must not generalise. Yes, some forces have a vested interest in propagating such stereotypically negative views about Islam and Muslims. Once, a non-Muslim told me, ‘Muslims did this and that in India when they ruled the country’. I simply answered, ‘I am not a historian. I can only talk of Islam. I can only say if a deed done by a certain person calling himself a Muslim – be it the Mughal Emperor Babur or Akbar or Aurangzeb – was in accordance with Islam or not. I cannot defend any ruler simply because he claimed to be Muslim, if his actions were not in accordance with Islam’. I told him, ‘You should not equate Islam with Muslims or with Muslim rulers’. Unfortunately, that is what a large section of the media actually does.
But, that said, one has to say that there are many fair-minded Hindus and others in the Indian media. They want to present the facts about Muslims and Islam in an objective manner, because they believe that Muslims, as fellow Indians and as human beings, ought to have their rights as well as lives protected. In fact, some of these people were far more vocal in highlighting and protesting against the recent massacre of Muslims in Gujarat than Muslim media persons. We need to reach out to such people. This we can do through organising seminars, conferences, etc.. The Jamaat has tried doing this, but we really must expand our work in this regard. Further, we should encourage Muslims, including those associated with the Jamaat, to enter the media, including the non-Muslim-owned media, where they can present Islam and Muslims in an objective and fair manner and highlight the problems of the community.

The Jamaat has been accused of seeking to dialogue with anti-Muslim Hindutva forces, including the RSS. This, for instance, happened in the 1970s, during the state of Emergency declared by Indira Gandhi. Is this a fair assessment? And is there any point of dialoguing with such groups whose ideology is itself based on a violently anti-Muslim agenda?
See, during the Emergency, RSS and Jamaat people were together in prison. Just because the RSS was banned, the Government banned us as well, in order to present itself as ‘balanced’. So, in jail we lived together from morning to evening. We had the opportunity to dialogue only with them, not because we felt that they were the only people we should dialogue with, but because there were few other people with us in jail. So, that was just a question of chance. However, you can say that after Jamaat activists were released from jail they did not make full use of the opportunities they had to engage in dialogue work at a broader level. Maybe they were too caught up in trying to revive the Jamaat after being in prison for almost two years.
Now, as for your question as to whether or not there is any use dialoguing with Hindutva groups, I say that let anyone be anything, that should not stop us from our task of telling others about our faith. After all, there were many people who were very opposed to Islam at the time of the Prophet, but the Prophet did not stop his preaching, and, ultimately, they were impressed by what he preached and by his example and so they accepted Islam. So, human beings can change their views over time. But, of course, if you feel that after consistently trying to convince someone of your stand he refuses to listen then you should turn your attention to others.

Some Muslim leaders and organisations argue that Muslims must dialogue particularly with other similarly marginalised communities in the country, such as Dalits, Adivasis and other so-called ‘low’ castes, instead of seeking to dialogue with ‘upper’ caste Hindus. What are your views on this?
See, Islam is for all people, not just for a particular community. So, we have to reach out to all. However, it is true that historically, in India and in many other places, Islam appealed particularly to the poor and the oppressed. But this it did not by instigating the poor against the rich but by stressing the rights that the poor have on the rich and the fact that we are all fellow creatures of God. In God’s eyes, it is piety, not poverty or riches that count.
That said, yes, I agree that we also need to address other marginalised communities living in India. This should be based on the conviction that all peoples must get the rights that the Constitution of India promises them as citizens of the country. We must support every group, irrespective of religion or caste, to get these rights if they are denied them, because the state itself says that these rights belong to all. If anyone commits aggression or oppresses someone else, we, as Muslims, have the duty to denounce this.
Dialogue between Muslims and Dalits and other such marginalised communities has not really taken any systematic form. Sometimes such groups seek to cooperate with the Jamaat or with Muslims at the political level, on political issues and for political purposes. They really do not have any concern with what Islam has to say. Their point is simply that we are marginalised and so too are you, and so we should join hands. But I feel that this should not be the only issue for unity. We must also be able to tell them about how Islam can address their problems and concerns.

There is talk now of the Jamaat considering joining the field of electoral politics. Is this true?
Yes. Earlier we had decided to participate in local level elections in some states, and in some places we have actually done so. This is in order to provide an opportunity for us to serve people. But because we are not very influential now, we have decided that at the state or national level we should support those parties who champion rights for all as against parties, such as those based on the Hindutva ideology, that seek to impose a particular culture on all Indians.

The Congress-led Government-appointed Sachar Commission has just come out with its Report, which clearly shows the levels of marginalisation that Muslims suffer in India. Do you think the Government will act on the recommendations of the Report?
I don’t know if the Government is at all serious about doing anything about these recommendations or if it is simply using the Report as a vote-grabbing gimmick by pleasing Muslims by making promises that it will not keep. The Report does not tell us anything new. Previous Government-appointed commissions, such as the Gopal Singh Committee, made the same point about Muslim marginalisation. But at least the Sachar Commission has prepared a detailed document, with figures and statistics to back it, which can be used to counter the Hindutva claim about alleged ‘Muslim appeasement’ and to show the level of Muslim marginalisation. Suppose a Muslim organisation had prepared a report like the Sachar Commission Report, making the same arguments and presenting the same statistics and facts, many non-Muslims, as well as the Government, may not have accepted it. They might have accused it of being unreliable and biased simply because a Muslim organisation had commissioned it. But now a Government-appointed Commission has highlighted the deplorable conditions of the Muslims, so no one can deny this.
So, as I said, I do not know if the Government will act on any or some or all of the recommendations of the Sachar Commission. All I can say is that, besides making some announcements, so far nothing practical has been done by the Government in this regard.

That’s about the role of the state in addressing the fact of Muslim economic and educational marginalisation. What role do you see for Muslim organisations like the Jamaat?
The Jamaat has been involved in setting up educational and health institutions in a modest way. This is particularly the case in South India, where individuals associated with the Jamaat, along with local people, have set up schools, colleges and hospitals, several of which also cater to non-Muslims, too. I think we need to increase our focus on social and educational development-related issues, to benefit Muslims as well as non-Muslims. We need to work out means to promote both modern as well as religious education among the Muslim youth especially, because, particularly in the north, Muslims lag behind in education and the school drop-out rate is very high. Without modern education the community cannot progress and so this should be one of our major priorities. Of course, we have limited resources for all this, because, after all, we are not a state!

In South India the Jamaat seems better organised and more socially engaged than in the North, although the majority of the Indian Muslims reside in North India. Perhaps this is also true for other Muslim organisations. How do you account for this?
Yes, this is true. Before the Partition, North India was leading. Most Muslim leaders, religious and political, came from there, especially from Delhi and what is now Uttar Pradesh. But the Partition hit North Indian Muslims particularly badly. Many middle-class and modern educated Muslims of the area migrated to Pakistan. Then came the Zamindari abolition, which hit the Muslim landlord class in the north. This, and the sub-division of small holdings, reduced large numbers of Muslims to penury. In contrast, the Partition did not affect South India much, except for small pockets like Hyderabad. Few South Indian Muslims migrated to Pakistan. Economically, too, they were saved the drastic decline that the North Indian Muslims faced, because there were and still are strong Muslim trading groups in the south. Then, unlike in South India, in large parts of the north, Muslims, in their opposition to British rule, also opposed English education, which made them lag behind. Also, historically, relations between Hindus and Muslims in South India have been much better than in the north, which, for centuries, has witnessed so many battles and conflicts. Because of this, Muslims in the south have been able to organise themselves and establish institutions for the community in a much more effective way than in the north. In Tamil Nadu, where I come from, Muslims form just around five per cent of the population, but there is a substantial well-educated and prosperous class among them. In contrast to the north, Muslims are more respected in Tamil Nadu. So, for instance, you won’t find anyone deliberately annoying Muslims by playing music before mosques there and so on. Although communal forces are getting strong in the south now, I think this difference with the north still remains, by and large.

Given the fact that various Islamist groups are engaged in the Kashmir conflict, what role do you think an Islamic organisation such as the Jamaat-e Islami can play in finding a solution to the problem?
There is no alternative to better relations between India and Pakistan. The Kashmir conflict can only be solved through peaceful dialogue. We have had three wars over Kashmir already and we are not any closer to a solution for this. Both India and Pakistan are atomic powers and if they decide to fight each other, not just Kashmir, but the whole of the subcontinent can go into flames. The best way out is to recognise that Kashmir is an issue and then arrive at a solution that satisfies India, Pakistan and the peoples of Jammu and Kashmir.

Some Islamist groups in Pakistan and Kashmir claim that the Kashmir conflict is essentially a war between Islam and ‘infidelity’. How do you see this argument?
No, no, the issue is entirely political. It has nothing to do with religion. It is not, as some might say, a conflict between Islam and infidelity. What the Kashmiris are asking for is the right to political self-determination. I don’t know of any Kashmiri militant group which claims that its struggle is aimed at establishing an Islamic system of governance in Kashmir.

But groups like the Lashkar-e Tayyeba and the Hizb ul-Mujahidin, for instance, make that sort of claim.
No, this is wrong. They might say that they want to establish Nizam-e-Mustafa or an Islamic state, but, in actual fact, the conflict does not relate to religion as such but to the fact that in 1947 Kashmir was an independent state and that its inhabitants had the right to decide their own political future. I don’t think the conflict is about establishing an Islamic state, in contrast to what some groups might claim. Actually, one does not even know what the Kashmiris actually want. Some might want independence. Others might want to join Pakistan or India. But, as I said, the only way out is through peaceful dialogue, not violence, and the sooner the parties to the conflict realise this, the better.