What made Shabana Azmi conscious of her Muslim identity
Posted by jagoindia on May 10, 2009
Hasan Suroor, Friday, May 08, 2009
TRANSFORMED: From a “cultural” Muslim into someone acutely conscious of her Muslim identity. —
In a short film on her life and work, Shabana Azmi when asked how she would describe herself says: “I’m an actor, I’m a Muslim, I’m a social activist…”
Ms Azmi’s stress on her religious identity would seem strange to anyone familiar with her background — daughter of diehard Communist activists; childhood spent in a godless commune; and married, by choice, to a progressive, non-practising poet and film-maker. Had I misheard ? Was she quoted out of context?
Odd though her remark might have sounded, I would be lying if I said I was surprised.
For this is what post-Ayodhya and post-9/11 climate has done: made even notional and accidental Muslims conscious of their religion. I know Muslims who once despaired of religious tags but are now increasingly tending to go the Shabana Azmi way though, in India, the situation is not yet as dire as in the West where Muslims are going to absurd lengths to assert their Islamic identity.
At a question-and-answer session that followed the screening of the film at the Nehru Centre, Ms Azmi explained her transformation from being simply a “cultural” Muslim with a taste for “biryani” and Urdu poetry into someone who was now acutely conscious of her Muslim identity.
And, inevitably, she traced it to the demolition of Babri Masjid which she described as the most “traumatic” experience of her life; and the violence sparked by it.
“Until then, I had taken my composite culture for granted but for the first time, I was made conscious that I was not simply another Indian citizen but a Muslim. I couldn’t believe this was happening. My multicultural world was shattered with the Shiva Sena wanting proof of my loyalty,” Ms Azmi said.
And then came 9/11 after which every Muslim came to be seen as a potential terrorist.
“When we protested they said ‘no, no we’re not saying all Muslims are terrorists but it is also a fact that all terrorists are Muslims.’ What nonsense! Are all Tamil Tigers Muslim; are all Naxals Muslims; or are all Maoist guerrillas Muslims? Such sweeping generalisations don’t help. It puts the whole community on the defensive,” she said adding: “When you are called a Muslim as though it were a term of abuse it makes you edgy…and makes it difficult for you to be objective about your community.”
Yet, the fact was that for all their problems Indian Muslims were privileged because they lived in a democracy: a privilege that not many Muslims could claim, she pointed out.
“When I say things like these, journalists turn around and ask: so are you saying that Muslims don’t face discrimination? My answer is: yes, they do, but so do women, and the Dalits, and the disabled. Who doesn’t face discrimination of some sort? It is not about discrimination. It is about tolerance. It worries me that all over the world people are becoming more intolerant,” Ms Azmi said.
She also had a bone to pick with the media which, she said, ignored moderate Muslim voices because it did not find them “sexy enough.” There were “very strong” moderate Muslim voices in India but they were not represented in the media. On the other hand, there was a tendency to play up the extreme Muslim view; and to sensationalise even moderate opinion by quoting it out of context.
Illustrating this with a personal experience Ms Azmi said not long ago she was quoted as complaining that she and her husband Javed Akhtar could not find a house of their choice in Bombay because they were Muslim.
“What I had in fact said was that I was not bitter about it because discrimination happens against everyone. They edited out that sentence and I was left sounding as a bitter Muslim complaining about discrimination — and this led to a huge controversy,” she said.
But things were changing and some very strong liberal voices were emerging in the media.
She admitted that Muslims had been complacent after 9/11 and “didn’t bother much” but had now realised that they needed to stand up and be counted as their response to the Mumbai attacks showed.
“When I first heard of the Mumbai attacks I was very afraid and said to myself: this is it for Muslims. They will find it very difficult. But nothing happened because Muslims responded very sensibly,” she said pointing out how a group of imams refused to allow the terrorists’ bodies to be buried in their cemetery because, they said, what these men had done was un-Islamic and they had no right to be buried in a Muslim cemetery.
There was little new in what Ms Azmi said but it was obvious that she felt hurt; and her new-found obsession with her Muslim identity shows what the anti-Muslim hysteria has done even to the moderate Muslim mind.
One doesn’t necessarily have to swallow the Muslim protestations of innocence and victimhood (a lot of their difficulties are of their own making) to understand why they feel the way they do, but a crude display of religious identity is still hard to justify.