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What India Can Teach Us About Islam and Assimilation

7 minute read
Shikha Dalmia is a senior policy analyst at Reason Foundation.

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.

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