Sunday, June 15, 2008

There's something about Indian secularism

There's something about Indian secularism
-M J AKBAR 18 May 2008

The Muslim bid for the conquest of Western Europe ended in the stifling summer of 1683, when Grand Vizier Kara Mustafa, son-in-law and commander of the forces of Sultan Mehmed IV, retreated from the gates of Vienna on September 12 after a two-month siege. He had been invested with the highest honours of the Ottoman Empire, the Imperial Seal and the Key to Kaaba; his standard was no less than the Sancaci Sheriff, the Holy Banner. On the last Saturday in December, Christmas Day, he paid the price of defeat: two executioners sent by his father-in-law waited for him to complete his mid-day prayers, then throttled him. The Turk, "the terror of the world" in Shakespeare's line, master of eastern Europe, and Islam, had been stopped before they could race through disunited Germany and France.

The war over the croissant is still without a victor. On page 365, the Compact Oxford English Dictionary refers you to "crescent" when you peer through a magnifying glass at "croissant". In slightly quaint English, "crescent" is thus described: "Adopted as a badge or emblem by the Turkish Sultan, and used within their dominions as a military and religious this has been to Christendom in recent times the most formidable and aggressive Mohammedan power and rhetorically to symbolize the Mohammedan religion as a political force, and so opposed to the Cross as a 'symbol of Christianity'." Europe described a Turkish Jihad as a Crescentade; the British used this term to describe the Barelvi upsurge in India that lasted for half of the 19th century.

How did an image of Islam become a breakfast favourite of Catholic France? Popular legend has it that a Viennese baker, working at night, heard a subterranean rumble, alerted the authorities and thus uncovered Turks tunnelling their way below the city walls. He asked for no greater reward than the exclusive right to bake pastries named after the crescent. Voila, the croissant!

Turks have a less romantic view. They believe that the Viennese learnt the art of making the croissant, and drinking coffee, from them during that long siege.

Does it matter what the truth is? The croissant is perhaps the most pleasant byproduct of war in history; others are less savoury. The Western image of the Muslim in modern times was created largely by fear of the Turk, the terror of Shakespeare's age. Muslim armies twice threatened the heart of Europe, once when the Arabs crushed Visigoth opposition in Spain in 711 and soon reached within a hundred miles of Paris, leading Gibbon to famously wonder whether the azaan would have been heard from the minarets of Oxford.

The second time was when the Turks swept up to Serbia and Belgrade, swallowed Constantinople and reached the doors of Vienna via Budapest. The extraordinary success of Muslim arms created a reputation of invincibility, breeding fear. Fear is the father of prejudice; prejudice the mother of distortion. The Sultan's harem, for instance, was extended into the image of the "lustful Turk", staple of Victorian erotica, rather than treated as a privilege of the ruling class, familiar in other societies as well. Every Turk, and by extension every Muslim, became a fornicator and potential rapist. The scimitar became a symbol of inequity and forced conversion despite evidence to the contrary: Muslims ruled in Spain for nearly eight centuries, but never was the Muslim population more than 25%. A sword is surely more effective.

When the great age of colonization made European powers masters of the world, they took their prejudice against Muslims along, infected local attitudes and shaped divisive policies. Muslim armies came to India in the same year as the Arabs entered Spain; Muslim settlements were already present along the Indian coast. Hindus and Muslims have lived together for thirteen centuries. But there is no Dante in literature written by Hindus; that is, there is not a single instance of any Hindu writer having vilified the Prophet of Islam. Similarly, there is, to my knowledge, not a single Muslim writer who was abusive towards Lord Ram or Hanuman. Indian secularism is quintessentially different from that of the West. It is not the separation of state and religion, but space for the other: coexistence on the basis of mutual respect. I do not have to believe in Hanuman to respect my Hindu brother's right to believe in the Ramayana; the Hindu does not need to believe in Allah to respect my belief in the miracle of the Holy Koran.

The world is beginning to appreciate India's brains. It should take another look at India's heart.

Appeared in Times of India, 18th May 2008

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