Western Concerns Over Moderate Indian Muslims – Aijaz Zaka Syed


Indian Muslims

This exultation over Muslims’ loyalty to India and their apparent indifference to the charms of global terror is indeed touching. But why do we not see the appreciation of this reality on the ground? Why doesn’t their lot change with the rest of the country? Why do they remain permanently in the dock?


[dropcap]I[/dropcap]n the past couple of years, there has been a regular stream of opinion pieces and special reports, most of them originating in the West, seeking clues to the big existential puzzle — the mysterious moderation of Indian Muslims. A New York Times article by Jake Flanagin this week screamed: WHY INDIA’S MUSLIMS HAVEN’T RADICALIZED?

It’s a question that seems to trouble everyone from the big media – from Murdoch’s Wall Street Journal and New York Times to the Washington Post to their counterparts across the pond.  

They almost seem to rue the fact that Indian Muslims, the world’s second largest Muslim population and largest minority, has inexplicably remained untouched and unaffected by the global phenomenon of “Islamic extremism.”

The more cautious Europeans have been equally puzzled by the meekness of Indian Muslims. It is not said in so many words but the nuanced suggestion and implication is not lost on anyone.

That at a time when their brethren elsewhere — true to their image of bloodthirsty fanatics — are going berserk everywhere, why in God’s name do they defy the good old traditions and stereotypes to retain their sanity?

The ever reasonable Economist attributed it to the thousand year legacy of Sufi Islam in the subcontinent. Generally speaking though, the ‘moderation’ of Indian Muslims is seen as an exception that stands out like a sore thumb! And there’s more surprise than satisfaction, if you know what I mean.

Our friend Thomas Friedman of the New York Times has repeatedly dwelt on the issue attributing the self-assurance of Muslims to the strength and inclusive nature of Indian democracy. There may be some merit in Friedman’s argument but it’s his patronizing, overbearing, ‘white man’s burden’ complex that gets one going.

Back in 2009, Friedman talked of “a “growing trend” among Indian Muslims wherein community members refused to bury the bodies of suicide bombers. “That’s why India’s Muslims, who are the second-largest Muslim community in the world after Indonesia’s, and the one with the deepest democratic tradition, do a great service to Islam by delegitimizing suicide-murderers by refusing to bury their bodies. It won’t stop this trend overnight, but it can help over time,” he wrote.

“The fact that Indian Muslims have stood up in this way is surely due, in part, to the fact that they live in, are the product of and feel empowered by a democratic and pluralistic society. They are not intimidated by extremist religious leaders and are not afraid to speak out against religious extremism in their midst. It is why so few, if any, Indian Muslims are known to have joined Al Qaeda.”

At least three Indian states with large Muslim population have been put on alert after Al-Qaeda chief Ayman Al Zawahiri's call. AP photo.
Indian states with large Muslim population were put on alert after Al-Qaeda chief Ayman Al Zawahiri’s call. AP 

In his predictable felicity with facts, the New York Times’ global expert forgets that India has so far, mercifully, been alien to the phenomenon of ‘suicide bombers’. There have been no suicide vests even in Kashmir, bordering Pakistan, which had been rocked by insurgency and separatist movement in the 1990s with the so-called cross-border infiltration.

Jake Flanagin, however, comes across as more empathetic and understanding. “Despite the enormity of India’s Muslim community, one finds little mention of them in Western media reports on modern Islam. Perhaps because, in the wake of Sept. 11 and in the midst of the war on terror, the West’s chief concern with the global Muslim community has been its capacity for fostering extremism — and India’s Muslims remain largely un-radicalized,” notes Flanagin.

This is something that hasn’t been entirely lost on India’s leaders beginning from Dr Manmohan Singh who proudly assured his guest, a certain George W Bush, that no Indian Muslim had joined the ranks of Al-Qaeda.

Responding to Al-Qaeda’s recent marketing pitch targeting South Asia, Prime Minister Narendra Modi told Fareed Zakaria that if anyone thought Indian Muslims would dance to the tune of groups like Al-Qaeda, they were delusional. “Indian Muslims would live and die for India,” declared Modi in the feel-good interview primed ahead of his US visit.

President Pranab Mukherjee, another pillar of Indian political establishment, reprised the theme during his foreign sojourns this month.  In interviews to Norwegian media, Mukherjee emphasized that hardly any Indian Muslim has been involved in terrorism.

“There may be one or two out of 150 million people but all of these are imported. These are coming from outside. Indigenous terrorist activity in India is extremely negligible and whenever such signs are visible we take appropriate steps,” said Mukherjee, a former finance, foreign and defense minister under three prime ministers.

Of course, this new-found faith and confidence in Indian Muslims whose loyalty to the nation has perennially been suspect, and not just in the eyes of the PM’s Hindutva family and followers, is touching. 

What makes no sense though is the special treatment that Muslims continue to receive at the hands of security and intelligence agencies and an increasingly hostile media which essentially speaks the line and narrative it has been fed by the security establishment. The legend of the so-called Indian Mujahideen continues to grow with more and more young men being rounded up as the IM members.   

On the one hand, you have these touching tributes to Indian Muslim’s patriotism and loyalty insisting they are part and parcel of the mainstream. On the other hand, anything goes off anywhere, the first reaction of police and intelligence agencies is to go for the nearest Muslim.

No wonder India’s prisons are teeming with the ‘usual suspects’, far outnumbering their share in population. If “hardly any Indian Muslim is involved in terror activities,” as the President insists, why does he perpetually remain the enemy of the state?

We all know what happened under Modi himself in the ‘Vibrant Gujarat’ and I am not talking about 2002.

So this exultation over Muslims’ loyalty to India and their apparent indifference to the charms of global terror is indeed touching. But why do we not see the appreciation of this reality on the ground? Why doesn’t their lot change with the rest of the country? Why do they remain permanently in the dock? These are questions that India’s leaders need to ask themselves if they indeed care for this much exploited minority.

Coming back to the Western concern, if Indian Muslims remain “peaceful and unradicalized”, they are not an exception. Even those taking to extremist ways elsewhere were not born that way, nor did their faith force into it. It was thrust upon them by decades of injustice, wars and oppression and you know by who.

When the world is divided into ‘with us-or-against us’ battle zones and you kill and drive people from their homes and cities under one pretext or another, you can’t expect a Gandhian ‘thank you’ in return.

Still, if India’s Muslims haven’t gone that way and retained their sanity, thank God for that! However, as Pankaj Mishra argues, they have far more serious problems to deal with, than fantasize about signing up for Al-Qaeda and ISIS armies.

Economically dispossessed and socially deprived on many counts, Muslims have long struggled on the margins of Indian society. Long demonized as the vote bank of the Congress and other ‘secular’ parties, the meteoric rise of Modi and the unprecedented communal polarization in the 2014 polls has reduced Muslims to a political zero.

Uttar Pradesh, with a population of nearly 200 million and 20 per cent Muslim population, failed to elect a single Muslim MP. On the other hand, the hysterical targeting of the community under one pretext or another, from terror to love jihad, continues unabated although elections are over and Modi’s party is comfortably ensconced in Delhi and in many states.

It’s as though Muslims are being deliberately driven over the edge hoping they would fall into the waiting arms of global terror. Whoever is playing this dangerous game must be prepared for its catastrophic consequences.

As Mishra warns, “the radicalization of even a tiny fraction of 180 million Muslims would not only fatally undermine India’s claims to democracy and secularism. The not-so-reluctant fundamentalists would make the country seem as ungovernable as its neighbor.”


All opinions and views expressed in columns and blogs and comments by readers are those of individual writers and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Caravan



  1. Yours has indeed an interesting attempt to explain why the Indian Muslims
    are not joining the ongoing radical Islamic movement that has virtually
    engulfed the Muslim population in the rest of the world.

    Your piece having been in the public domain now, we felt it was necessary
    to put the facts straight. Even though not being a Muslim, I may have no
    moral right to speak on this subject, the facts on the ground known to all
    are simple.

    Thanks to vote bank politics in India, the Muslims in this country
    (earlier—2001—estimated to be around 18 percent of the total Indian
    population but would now be around or above 25 percent) are now the most
    enviable lot.

    · They misuse the fundamental right of freedom of speech with

    · They enjoy Haj Allowance to go to Mecca, not available anywhere

    · Both the Central Government and State governments are in virtual
    competition to shower undue benefits/doles to them on the basis of the most
    untruthful report of the constitutionally illegal (challenged in the Delhi
    High Court, now admitted in the Supreme Court of India, waiting to be
    listed) Sachar Committee, followed up by the Ranganath Mishra Committee
    Report (action taken report on which not submitted).

    · A leaflet primarily based on a simple analysis of the 2001 Census
    Report of the government of India shows how the Muslims in India are much
    better of than the Hindus in respect of universally accepted four human
    development indices, including urbanisation, considered to be one of the
    best indicators of development. So, my dear friend, there goes the last but
    three paragraph of your note.

    In summation, we can only request you to take a test by yourself. Please
    ask any well- to -do Muslim or an average Muslim friend: given an
    opportunity and with required facilities provided, will he or she like to
    leave India permanently and settle down in any Muslim country in the Middle
    East country? You will not, Sir, get a single volunteer. This because the
    Muslims in India are treated as “sons-in-laws” of the government. It is as
    simple as that.

    We have not in this analysis brought in another important aspect. That is
    the sobering impact of the assimilative cultural ethos of the Hindu
    civilisation, that has accepted and given shelter to all persecuted
    religions of the world. The Hindus have done so despite the fact that they
    have suffered, as stated by one and all including Will Durant, the most in
    history at the hands of invading and cruel Muslim invaders over the ages.

    And, Sir, the course of radicalisation of Indian Muslims as at present
    throws up enough indicators which way is the wind blowing. To name a few:
    the impact of declaration of the Caliphate by the ISIS on some sections
    among the Sunni Muslims led by a senior Maulana cannot be ignored; the
    Popular Front of India In Kerala is nothing short of a militarised body;
    the growing number sleeper cells of the SIMI and IM will only help the
    process. Well, Sir, we shall keep our fingers crossed.


    • I don’t know what you want to highlight sir. You are ignorance of some facts, a) now the government abolishing the subsidy provides for the Haj and Muslims have not objected because of their improvement in financial status. b) On the other side Government also facilitates the majority of India like every time Kumbh Mela is held, the State builds infrastructure for the hindu pilgrims. It organizes Amarnath and Mansarovar Yatras and doles out compensation for pilgrims who lose their life during pilgrimage. All these are done at a great cost to the exchequer of Indian government. last bot not least c) In the Indian system of governance there are certain as you referred ‘undue benefits/doles’ for every citizen not only for Muslims. Business class receives government undue favour; ST/SC/BC gets their undue benefits, and remember the government does not have any Muslims Ministry but it is a Minority Ministry and if it brings some schemes it is not only for Muslims but for all other minorities as well.

  2. Absolutely! I totally agree with the last few paragraphs. The so-called ‘meek’ Indian Muslims are actually being sensible fully aware as they are of their lot and their position in a Hindu-majority country which has laid out its agenda as clear as daylight: one either toes the line or then faces the consequences.
    And this has been characteristic of Indian Muslims since the Partition where they have tried so hard to build an identity separate from the Pakistani Muslim over the past 67 years or so. I hear a lot of debate on various issues within the four falls of my family home in India, but when these same people are outside, I notice the diplomacy, the seeming indifference to for example, the loud street processions robed in saffron chanting to cymbals, etc. I also notice how they eschew their words in public, ignore the wary glances of fellow travelers in trains and buses. It is clear that Indian Muslims work actively to avoid trouble anywhere.
    I admire this trait in Indian Muslims; tactful and living by the motto of ‘Live and let others live’, the Indian Muslims have been successful in staying out of the turmoil of extremist Muslim factions in other parts of the world.
    No wonder when it comes to foreign policy, the Indians far outsmart the Pakistanis.


Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here