TIME Religion

What India Can Teach Us About Islam and Assimilation

Shikha Dalmia is a senior policy analyst at Reason Foundation.

What Ayaan Hirsi Ali gets wrong about Muslim immigration

Ayaan Hirsi Ali, a Somali, Muslim-born émigré who is one of Islam’s fiercest critics in the West, warned in TIME that Americans should stop thinking of Charlie Hebdo-style massacres as something that “couldn’t happen here.” Sure, America doesn’t have Islamists calling for the “United States of Sharia,” as in Europe. But the Muslim population in America is on track to grow at over twice the rate of that in France over the next 15 years, she maintains. And this is a problem given that even moderate Muslims might be resistant to the American melting pot because they’ll want ultimately to live in a society governed by sharia. Therefore, they may instinctively “turn a blind eye to the use of violence and intimidation tactics…against apostates and dissidents.” And Americans need to wake up from their torpor and confront the threat.

The suggestion that Americans, who have spent trillions on multiple wars and an intrusive “homeland security” apparatus post 9/11, are insufficiently alarmed about Muslim extremism is more than a little bizarre. But setting that aside, how accurate is Hirsi Ali’s suggestion that Muslims are inherently incapable of assimilating in non-Muslim societies?

Not very, if the experience of India, the world’s most populous democracy, is any indication. Muslims make up almost 15% of India’s population, compared to 0.8% in America. And they couldn’t be any more dissimilar to the portrait drawn by Hirsi Ali.

If Hirsi Ali were right about the perennial allure of radicalism for Muslims, India, a country where I grew up and lived before moving to the United States and making Michigan my home, should be Ground Zero for Islamic militancy. Instead, Indian Muslims participate fully and enthusiastically in their nation’s civic and cultural life, including, remarkably, its majoritarian Hindu religious traditions, without experiencing too much cognitive dissonance. As of last year, four of them were known to have joined ISIS — while the total number who may have gone is unknowable, it appears to be far fewer than the numbers in Europe and America that Hirsi Ali plays up. Those known cases may be four too many. However, as I’ve pointed out elsewhere, there are always some malcontents in liberal societies who are attracted to illiberal ideologies. Some Americans left for the Soviet Union during the heyday of communism.

Muslims have lived in India for a millennium, first arriving in small pockets as traders and then in large numbers as invaders. They established the Mughal dynasty that ruled the country for 300 years till the Hindu majority took over and established a secular democracy after colonial rule ended in 1947. If Hirsi Ali were correct, the ignominy of being deposed from power and subjected to infidel rule would bring out their worst extremist tendencies.

Instead, India’s Muslims are no more prone to violence than anyone else. Muslim insurgency has broken out in some parts of India like Kashmir. But that’s at least partly a response to an abusive and obtuse central government that has ignored local needs, much like the Sikh separatist Khalistan movement in the 1980s. That’s why George W. Bush famously introduced Manmohan Singh to Laura Bush as “the prime minister of India, a democracy which does not have a single al-Qaida member in a population of 150 million Muslims.”

Rampant prejudice in housing and elsewhere — along with occasional outburst of Hindu nationalist violence — has hindered Muslim progress, relegating Muslims to the lowest socio-economic rungs. Yet, Indian Muslims have avoided the sword and eagerly seized the opportunities afforded to them by their country’s (imperfect) democracy.

Consider: Four Muslims have served as India’s president — a ceremonial but high office reserved for civilians of major accomplishment. One of them, A.P.J. Abdul Kalam, played a leading role in developing India’s ballistic missile and nuclear weapons program with no apparent qualms that he was boosting the military of a nation of infidels. The founder of Wipro, a software giant that is India’s pride and joy, is Azim Premji, a Muslim man. Muslims are among India’s most prominent cricketers, a sport that means even more to India’s national pride than a moon landing may someday.

Muslims are an integral part of every facet of Bollywood, India’s 125-year-old film industry whose open veneration of romantic love is deeply subversive of puritanical Islamic strictures. Indeed, Bollywood’s three top male stars right now are Muslims (all with the last name of Khan) — and Muslim women have always been among Bollywood’s top actresses. Also, some of these stars are among India’s most vocal progressives fighting for the rights of gays, women, and minorities — not to mention sexual liberation.

But nothing speaks more to the depth of Muslims’ cultural assimilation in India than the fact that Muslims have written, composed and sung some of the most popular bhajans or Hindu devotional songs. The late Mohammad Rafi, a Muslim singer who is a household name in India, sang bhajans so poignant and soul stirring that they bring tears to the eyes even of a Hindu-turned-atheist like me. Iqbal, a Muslim poet, wrote the lyrics of arguably the most patriotic song in India that celebrates “Hindustan” as the best nation in the world. More recently, A.R. Rahman, an observant Muslim composer who won an Oscar for his score in Slumdog Millionaire, has recorded the most goose-bump-inducing rendition of Vande Mataram — an ode to the Hindu Motherland. (Conversely, Hindu musicians have created many moving Islamic Qawwalis or Sufi songs dedicated to allah.)

Indian Muslims are proud of their tradition of tolerance and moderation and guard it zealously from Wahhabi influence. They’ve even refused to bury the bodies of Muslim suicide bombers, including the Mumbai attackers, the ultimate punishment because it forever deprives the bombers of a spot in heaven. Indeed, in recent years many Indian Muslims have been fighting tooth-and-nail against Saudi-funded Wahhabis who are trying to take over India’s madrassas and Muslim shrines. Some even submitted a memorandum to Indian authorities demanding that madrassas be reformed to include modern education alongside traditional religious instruction.

In other words, the moral high ground among Indian Muslims is decisively on the side of moderates, not extremists — in complete contradiction to Hirsi Ali’s predictions for America.

Furthermore, notes William Dalrymple, a celebrated British writer who has written extensively about the Islamic world, Indian Muslims are not all that unique. Even in countries where they are the majority, Muslims are often doctrinally flexible, allowing a great deal of give-and-take with other religions and sharing their festivals and sacred spaces (Saudi Arabia and other countries where Islam is the sole religion are a different story). For example, he notes, the Coptic festivals in Egypt attract thousands of Muslims as do many Christian shrines in Syria, such as the pilgrimage church of Our Lady of Seidnaya outside Damascus, which attracts many Muslim couples seeking children. He is a friend of Hirsi Ali, and admires her spirit, yet regards her fears that Islam is inherently — and ineluctably — prone to extremism as “entirely wrong-headed.” Her reading of Islam is colored by her own tragic experience growing up in Somalia (where she endured genital mutilation), he argues, not from a wide-ranging familiarity with Islamic practices. “She has now spent much more of her life in Europe and the Beltway than in the Muslim world,” he says.

All of this suggests that if 150-million-plus Muslims have managed to “melt” in the “pot” of India’s young and fragile democracy without boiling over into violence, they’ll be able to do so in America even more easily, especially given that its democracy is stronger and more established, and their numbers are much smaller. What won’t help, however, is anti-Muslim fear mongering based on a narrative knit from gaudy acts of extremism that fails to take full measure of the broader Muslim reality.

TIME Ideas hosts the world's leading voices, providing commentary and expertise on the most compelling events in news, society, and culture. We welcome outside contributions. To submit a piece, email ideas@time.com.

TIME Sexual Assault

This Documentary’s False Equivalence on Rape Won’t Help Indian Women

British filmmaker Udwin poses for a picture after addressing a news conference in New Delhi
Anindito Mukherjee—Reuters British filmmaker Leslee Udwin poses for a picture after addressing a news conference in New Delhi, India on March 3, 2015.

Shikha Dalmia is a senior policy analyst at Reason Foundation.

The filmmaker's 'enlightened' attitude might ultimately be as harmful as the ban on her film.

The Indian government last week banned India’s Daughter, a BBC documentary about the brutal gang rape and death of a medical student in New Delhi two years ago, condemning it as an “international conspiracy to defame India.” In truth, if there is something to criticize about the documentary, it is that it trucks in politically correct pieties about rape being a global problem that soft peddle the special violence that women in India and other traditional societies confront.

The most controversial aspect of the documentary by British director Leslee Udwin involves interviews with Mukesh Singh, one of the convicted rapists (who has appealed his death sentence to India’s Supreme Court) and his defense lawyers. Without a hint of remorse, a soft-spoken Singh, calmly tells Udwin that a woman is more responsible for rape than a man. Decent girls — 20% of the population, in his estimation — dress modestly and don’t stay out until 9 p.m. like Jyoti did. Furthermore, she should not have resisted the rape because then his pals (he insists he only drove the bus while they raped her and violated her with an iron rod) would not have been so brutal.

But even worse than these statements by Singh — a poor, uneducated man who lived in a slum of rural migrants steeped in backward mores (much of which Udwin does a great job of drawing out) — were the comments of his educated, city-dwelling lawyers. One of them asserted that he would have no compunctions about dousing his sister or daughter with petrol and burning her in front of his entire family if she engaged in pre-marital activities.

The first step in curing such retrograde views is exposing them, which is why, if anything, Udwin deserves a Bharat Ratnam, the country’s highest civilian honor. Instead, the Indian government has launched a jihad against the film on the absurd grounds that its trying to malign India’s image abroad and hurt tourism — as if the bigger threat to tourism is not rape itself, especially against female tourists, but talk of rape.

The ban prompted NDTV, India’s largest TV channel, to mount a protest black out of all programming for an hour on Sunday, International Women’s Day, when the film was supposed to be aired. BBC, which had originally planned to show the film on the same day, aired it four days early to beat a restraining order. YouTube and other large websites have also been forced to take down the film in India, but it remains easily available on numerous personal websites, making a mockery of the government’s promise to implement a global ban.

Udwin is pleading with the government to call off its foolish campaign. She insists that her motive was to understand the mind of a rapist to highlight a global problem – not to single out India, a country she says she loves dearly and wanted to “put on a pedestal.” Why? Because rape exists everywhere, she maintains, but India alone arose in spontaneous mass protest against Jyoti’s rape, deeply moving Udwin, herself a rape victim.

Such sentiments sound good, but the truth is that if other advanced countries haven’t experienced anti-rape mass protests, it might be because the character of their rape problem is rather different. That might also be why they don’t experience vigilante justice, like what just happened in Nagaland, a small Indian province where villagers, frustrated by the slow pace of prosecution, pulled out an alleged rapist from prison last week and lynched him.

Most Western countries, including the United States and Udwin’s own England, have made far more progress in beating back retrograde patriarchal notions that feed violence against women than India and other traditional societies. For starters, the views expressed by Singh and his lawyers are commonplace in India — but anomalous in America. Udwin would have to drill into the subterranean reaches of America before finding a man willing to spew such bile.

There could hardly be a more striking testimony to the vast chasm between India and, say, America in recognizing women’s rights than Scout Willis’s recent “free the nipple” campaign, in which Bruce Willis’s and Demi Moore’s daughter went strolling topless in Manhattan to draw attention to Instagram’s ban on nude pictures. American feminists celebrated her stunt. But not even the most liberated feminist in India would have thought her protest to be anything but insane.

Udwin’s original promos for the film had promised to highlight worldwide rape statistics to draw attention to the global scope of the problem. The final film omitted them (at least the version I saw), which is just as well because such statistics mislead more than they enlighten.

India’s official rape statistics registered 1.8 rapes per 100,000 people in 2010, compared with the United States’ 27.3 in 100,000. But everyone knows that rape is massively underreported in traditional societies, where there is a strong stigma attached to victims. Moreover, the definition of rape is much broader in America compared to India, where marital rape wasn’t even considered rape until recently. Perhaps most importantly, whatever problems the U.S. and UK have in prosecuting rape, India’s criminal justice system is virtually incapable of arresting and prosecuting rapists in a timely manner — when such arrests and prosecutions are made at all.

Ignoring the strides that some countries have made in safeguarding women and their rights may be politically correct. But such false equivalence doesn’t help Indian women. If even rich, advanced countries can’t protect their women, it seems to say, then it’s no big deal if a poor, developing one like India can’t either.

This “enlightened” attitude might ultimately do as much disservice to Indian women as the deplorable ban on Udwin’s gut-wrenching film.

TIME Ideas hosts the world's leading voices, providing commentary and expertise on the most compelling events in news, society, and culture. We welcome outside contributions. To submit a piece, email ideas@time.com.

TIME foreign affairs

5 Promises Narendra Modi Must Break

Narendra Modi addressing a rally in Vadodara
The India Today Group—India Today Group/Getty Images PM-designate Narendra Modi addressing a rally in Vadodara, Gujarat, after the BJP won the Lok Sabha elections on Friday, May 16, 2014.

The newly elected Prime Minister will have to reverse course on some campaign pledges if he wants to turn around India's economy.

Narendra Modi won India’s national elections by a virtually unprecedented parliamentary supermajority, routing the ruling Congress Party. He pulled off this feat by overcoming his image as a militant Hindu nationalist and positioning himself as the Indian avatar of Ronald Reagan, promising to take India’s moribund economy to new heights with his formula of “maximum governance, minimum government.”

But he also made many unwise campaign promises that directly contradict his mantra. He’ll have to break at least five of them if he’s to have a prayer of delivering the growth he promised.

1. Stop Propping Up Inefficient Public Sector Companies

More than 20% of India’s economy consists of poorly run, federally owned companies. About one-third of them operate on a loss, and the rest return profits of less than 1% annually. Hence, a reformer who believes in “small government” must make aggressive privatization his top priority.

Instead, last month, Modi made the face-palm inducing statement that beating up on these companies has “done much damage” to them. He promised to fix, not sell, them by squeezing out – wait for this! — “administrative inefficiencies.” But central planners since Lenin have been trying to do just that without success.

So unless he knows something that they didn’t, he’d be doing the country a favor by putting them out of their misery.

2. Abandon Gaudy Infrastructure Projects

There is no doubt that India needs to improve its infrastructure – pathetic even by developing countries’ standards – if it wants to boost productivity and growth. (Indians joke that while the British drive on the left of the road, Indians drive on what’s left of the road.) But India is a poor country with not a lot of spare change. So a believer in “good governance” would focus, laser-like, on core public goods like sewage, water, roads and electricity. Just upgrading these to minimum international standards, according to global consulting company McKinsey, will require an investment of $1.2 trillion over 20 years, about eight times more than currently proposed.

Instead, Modi has produced an infrastructure development plan as gaudy as Liberace’s Christmas tree, complete with “bullet trains in four directions.” The bullet train or high-speed rail concept was obviously calculated to pander to India’s chauvinistic desire to keep up with China. But these rails are white elephants on which China’s autocrats spend unsustainable amounts because they rarely pay for themselves, my Reason Foundation colleague Baruch Feigenbaum points out. So Modi would be better off abandoning them along with his other loopy plans for smart cities and elite universities.

3. Kill Wasteful Subsidies

Modi’s stump speeches repeatedly, and rightly, reminded voters that the Congress Party’s game of “vote-bank politics” – handing welfare subsidies to special constituencies to win votes – was ruining the country without improving living standards. Modi’s solution? More subsidies.

He was totally on board with Congress’ scheme to guarantee 100 days of income to rural families without an employed male –- a massive disincentive to work. True, he did criticize the Food Security Act that handled means-tested food assistance. But why? Because it wasn’t generous enough. He has pledged to guarantee farmers 50% profits, something that even Congress couldn’t bring itself to do.

Worse, his party’s platform proposed to add the Right to Health to the long list of rights that the departing party has already put on the books.

If Modi really wants live up to his billing as a Reagan-like reformer rather than becoming the second coming of Jimmy Carter, he ought to get rid of these programs, replacing them with a scaled back direct cash-transfer scheme that hands poor people a lump sum to spend as they see fit. This will have a better shot of reaching the pockets of intended beneficiaries rather than corrupt bureaucrats.

4. Let in Big Box Foreign Retailers

One of the few politically difficult reforms that Congress enacted was allowing foreign supermarkets such as Walmart to own a majority stake in local retail stores. India’s $500 billion retail industry is among the most backward in the world and could badly use an infusion of capital and expertise to modernize itself.

However, Modi, this fearless reformer who prides himself on having attracted a record amount of foreign investment in Gujarat, agreed to scrap this law. Why? Because it threatened millions of small mom-and-pop storeowners, his party’s core base.

In the last few days, he’s started reversing course, telling storeowners to treat globalization as an opportunity, not a threat. That’s a tune he should keep humming.

5. Keep Inflation Hawk Raghuram Rajan as India’s Central Banker

After experiencing heady growth for about a decade, India has been in the grip of soul-sapping stagflation, with inflation outpacing GDP growth by a factor of two. Congress had wisely invited University of Chicago’s Raghuram Rajan to head the Reserve Bank, India’s equivalent of the Fed, to tackle inflation.

But Modi has been sending mixed signals about whether he’ll keep Rajan. That’s because Rajan might insist on an inflation-targeting regime. This will mean keeping interest rates high until inflation has been slashed from the current 9% to 4% or so.

However, this will make government borrowing to finance Modi’s gaudy infrastructure plans — as well as private borrowing for capital investments — much more difficult. The latter, sadly, is at an 11-year low, severely crimping jobs and growth.

Modi is admittedly between a rock and a hard place on this. But Reagan, his role model, allowed the central bank to first squeeze out inflation, and so should Modi.

He could raise funds for needed, not feel-good, infrastructure projects by eliminating wasteful subsidies, selling off inefficient public companies and inviting foreign investment, which is all the more reason to break the other four promises.

Shikha Dalmia is a senior policy analyst at Reason Foundation. The views expressed are solely her own.

Your browser is out of date. Please update your browser at http://update.microsoft.com