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City of Brass

This is a guest post by Zeba Iqbala real estate development advisor who lives and works in NYC. In her free time she is active in supporting and promoting causes that are close to her heart. As a Muslim American with deep ties to India – she has no dearth of causes! 

The terrorist attacks in Mumbai have really shaken me to the core. I lived in India for 13 years – and love it dearly. I know and love (and hate too – of course) the Maximum City aka Mumbai – and cannot bear to think of this vibrant, generous city under seige. 

Religion is pretty much a taboo topic in India – and I grew up a pretty secular Indian. In the past 10 years, I have become more thoughtful about religion – and have always been torn between my Muslim and my Indian identities. And now – – I am even more torn. As an Indian – I am extremely angry and upset.  India is a secular country with great promise and extremists are trying to tear it apart – ruining it for all hardworking decent and honest Indians. I am deeply worried for the safety of close friends, family and fellow Indians because quite honestly – I think this is only the beginning of attacks like this in India. India is vulnerable as a target and unfortunately this attack on ‘posh’ India was quite successful. 

As a Muslim though – my feelings are so much more complex. I will not be apologetic for my religion. In my mind these were not religious attacks in the name of jihad. And  – I do not want Indian Muslims or Pakistanis or any Muslims to be punished in any way for the acts of extremists. I hope that South Asians (in South Asia not just in America) will unite in light of this tragedy. And globally – I hope that Muslims/Muslim countries do not suffer because of these attacks. But my deepest and most immediate worry is for Indian Muslims. They are on the ground, very vulnerable and very misunderstood. Muslims (the poorest are affected the most) are suffering desperately in India from underrepresentation in government, high levels of illiteracy and poverty, and rising levels of communal tension. Attacks like these do not help. I hope that as a result of these attacks South Asian Muslims will unite as Muslims not just South Asians. I hope that Indian Muslims will invest in  the future of Muslims in India and not run from the religion or from association with the religion. 

Only time will tell.

Related reading – As the Fires Die: The Terror of the Aftermath by Biju Mathew in SAMAR

The Hajj begins today. Millions of pilgrims gathered in Mecca are donning ehram and leaving for the journey to the Plain of Arafat today. Tomorrow, the pilgrims gathered upon Arafat will pray all day, while standing and facing towards Kaaba. Actually, given how many millions of pilgrims are en route, and that the final stretch of 2 miles must be on foot, the bulk of the pilgrims won’t even arrive until late tomorrow afternoon.

The journey to Arafat is in many ways the most literal part of the pilgrimage that is Hajj. Pilgrimages are possibly the most sacred form of piety, right up there with fasting, common to all religions and faiths. Muslims do the Hajj, Jews go to the Wailing Wall, Hindus to the Ganges, Christians to the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, even the Baha’i and Buddhists have mandatory pilgrimages of faith. All share the common theme of purification and cleansing and forgiveness, of transcending the human condition and attempting to join with the divine.
As the pilgrims on Hajj make their way to Arafat today, it’s incumbent on all of us who are left behind to seek to make that journey in our own heart and try to attain as much of that cleansing and resolve for piety as we can. 

The only thing on the television this Thanksgiving weekend was CNN. The events in Mumbai completely dominated our family get-together, not least because as Dawoodi Bohra muslims, we have extensive circles of friends and family in the city, as well as in Gujrat state. So as with the Godhra riots of a few years back, India’s 9-11 takes on a deeply personal significance to my own kith and kin.

And, in a way, it’s 9-11 all over again not just for Indians but especially for those of us who are Americans of Indian origin and muslim faith. Just after 9-11, the muslim-American community felt under siege, jumping at shadowed threats from within and suspicious hostility from outside. The nation drew together, it seemed, but muslim Americans felt excluded, out of their fear. 
Thinking back on that period of time in the immediate aftermath of the attacks in New York and DC, I am reminded of the sea of American flags that flew, stirringly, from every corner and car windows. I confess I did not fly one myself, however. I wanted to, but for two conflicting reasons. One to express my pride in my country, but the other out of fear, to avoid the stares I was starting to receive, to appease the demons of my own paranoia, which even now I have no way of knowing was what part justified and what part imaginary. That part of me that wanted to fly a flag to say to the world, “look! I’m not a terrorist! Target your anger elsewhere!” seemed to taint the part of me that said, “look! I’m an American too! Include me in your resolve!”. In the end, I chose not to fly one at all, reasoning that the emotion needed to be pure. All muslims in the US have a similar story, of their own paranoia and fear and anger at the literal hijacking of our faith by the extremists, and the atrocities committed ostensibly in our name, and how they colored our relationships with our fellow citizens.
The terrorists had briefly succeeded, in driving a wedge between muslims and non-muslims, in America. They hit us where it mattered – in our unity, our tolerance, our values. They failed in driving us fully apart, but the scarred wound remains on American culture. Who can forget Representative Keith Ellison, the first muslim-American elected to US Congress, being asked point-blank on CNN Headline News by host Glenn Beck, “Sir, prove to me you are not working with our enemies” ? What about the shamefully xenophobic response to the Dubai Ports World deal – in which prospective Secretary of State Hillary Clinton played a major fear-mongering role? What about the ridiculous outcry about Rachel Ray’s scarf, or the shape of the Flight 93 memorial? How about the effective war on muslims being waged by the Republican Party as a whole, even on members of their own ranks, and finding outlet against Barack Obama
The impact on the muslims in India is likely to be similar. Muslims already suffer under suspicion analogous to that experienced by Jews in pre-Nazi Germany; muslims are seen as money-grubbing, dirty, or “in control of everything” according to various conspiracy theories. The shocking carnage in the Gujrat riots in 2002 came about with state government complicity – reflect on the implications of that!
Ultimately, muslims will react to the tragedy in Mumbai, not just as fellow Indian citizens horrified by an attack upon their beloved homeland and the city they love, but also as muslim-Indians, acutely aware of the paranoia that the attacks have sent spiraling even more deeply into the collective Indian psyche. Of all the dozens of op-eds and essays written about Mumbai in the past 72 hours, this one by Jawed Naqvi in Pakistan’s DAWN stands out the most, because the emotion therein is instantly recognizable to me:

I handed out candles to a group of evidently upper class women. A friend, a woman journalist who doesn’t normally have patience with communal gossip, overheard their conversation. She whispered to me that the women were suspicious of me. She thought it had something to do with my beard and the Afghan cap I wear on cold evenings. Only when I introduced myself and declared that India needed a dictator did they look relaxed. I said Narendra Modi was my hero, even though he sports a different kind of beard. This was a ploy that works when there’s no scope for serious discussion. The women said the country needed Modi as prime minister. I endorsed the view so that they could sleep peacefully that night. We parted on this cordial note.

On the way back, my friend and I discussed how beards had become particularly suspect since the advent of Osama bin Laden. And here, the Mumbai terrorists who themselves were probably clean-shaven pub-crawling college kids, had deepened mistrust that was not just rooted in facial hair. They had succeeded in their mission to drive a deeper wedge among Indians as evident at India Gate.
[…]
Film actress Nandita Das was among the mourners that broke into a dozen groups or more, each more worried than the other about what was happening to India. Nandita has just made a film about the social isolation of Muslims in Gujarat. She told me some of her close friends had wondered why she was sympathetic to Muslims, and one of them even asked if she had a Muslim boyfriend. What I know is that she has a Gujarati mother.

Let me share a bit of an email Nandita sent to her friends the day before the funeral. It said: “It hadn’t hit me hard enough till Thursday morning…I have to say, it had very little effect on me. My predictable response was, not again…more people will die, more fear, more prejudice and more hatred. But at some level the response was instant and cerebral. But this morning when I got up things felt different. Got a message from an unknown no: “See what your friends have done.” Strangely a close friend of mine got a similar message last night, but from an acquaintance. Just because Firaaq, my film, deals with how Muslims ‘also’ get affected by violence, the terrorists are supposed to be my friends!

“Today a common young Muslim man around town is probably the most vulnerable. I got many messages from my Muslim friends who feel the need to condemn it more than anyone else, who feel the need to prove their national allegiance in every possible way. They are begging to be not clubbed with the terrorists, a fear not unfounded. Then of course there were tons of messages from well-wishers across the world who asked about me and my loved ones’ safety. I too did the same. And strangely that was when tears started rolling down my cheek, almost involuntarily. Guess the thought that if our loved ones were fine, it’s all ok, seemed like a bizarre way to feel. When will our souls ache when anyone is hurt, even those that we have never seen and will never see? The more I wrote back in sms’s and emails that I was ok, the more miserable I was feeling.”

There are 200 million muslims in India – one out of every five Indians. Can a line be drawn between them and their fellow citizens? Can anyone serio
usly conceive that the actions of a deranged dozen is representative of the attitudes of millions? That is the fear that the terrorists are trying to sow – and Mumbai, glamorous and cosmopolitan and diverse, was the perfect target – the crown jewel of India’s democratic and pluralistic ethos, just asking to be shattered by those who care nothing for India, or Islam – only chaos for its own sake. 
Related: my thoughts on the first anniversary of 9-11. Also, I wrote extensively about the Gujrat riots in 2002 and the history of muslims in India.

brasscrescent_vert.gifThe voting phase for the Brass Crescent Awards has now begun (though a bit later than expected). We have some really great blogs for you all to vote on, so head over and make your choices!

As it says on the official site, the Awards are named for the Story of the City of Brass in the Thousand and One
Nights. Today, the Islamsphere is forging a new synthesis of Islam and
modernity, and is the intellectual heir to the traditions of philosophy
and learning that was once the hallmark of Islamic civilization – a
heritage scarcely recognizable today in the Islamic world after a
century’s ravages of colonialism, tyrants, and religious
fundamentalism. We believe that Islam transcends history, and we are
forging history anew for tomorrow’s Islam. These awards are a means to
honor ourselves and celebrate our nascent community, and promote its
growth.

Join us – it’s as simple as heading over to the Awards site and casting your vote!

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