Can there be a Critical Muslim in India? The Case of Sharjeel Imam

Written by Muhammad Kashif, Muzammil Yaqoob, Varsha Nair and Noel Mariam George, friends of Sharjeel Imam in JNU and who are part of Eqbal Ahmad Study Circle 

Sharjeel Imam is in jail. Media reports claim that he was a ‘radicalised’ Muslim youth with extremist views. Others claim that he embodied right wing, reactionary Muslim politics that only ‘fringe’ Muslims ascribed to. Whatever the accusations, what is surprising is the academic silence on his arrest which many have attributed to his Muslim identity. There is no doubt that Sharjeel has been framed and vilified because of his identity by the mainstream. However, the silence of the academia and intelligentsia – who know about the laws of exception as colonial, anti-Muslim, anti-Dalit and have written against it cannot be understood merely as a question of his identity alone. The academic silence is more so, a Brahminical confusion and anxiety about a Muslim who speaks about his ‘Muslimness’ not merely as a question of political representation, but also a question of epistemological (or theological) justice. Sharjeel spoke not merely of being Muslim, but also about Islam as a critical Muslim- which is what has unsettled many. While we combat the state witch hunt and media trials of Sharjeel- it is also important to combat narratives that reduce his politics as irresponsible and uninformed with patronising jibes that make him a caricature. Sharjeel was not misguided or ignorant- he was very clear about his politics, a clarity that has rattled this nation. It is not that Sharjeel did not know enough, but rather that Sharjeel knew too much. After all, he said this in his ‘seditious’ speech.

[su_quote]People have the misunderstanding that the masses are on the streets against CAA or to save the constitution or the country. Let alone the country, if Muslims can save themselves, that would be a big thing, because if they save themselves, they will automatically save the country, and if we can’t save ourselves, then even this country will be destroyed.[/su_quote]

The charge of sedition being that he stood by the principle of the rights of Muslims as humans, beyond the dehumanisation that the state reduced them to. Sharjeel stood by this principle even when it meant that he would have to upset those who claimed to be Muslim allies. He started out his politics in AISA –however, soon quit it on grounds of Islamophobia that he called out as emanating from ‘ignorance’, which he finally exposed with the disappearance of Najeeb through a first post article. He says the following in the article:

[su_quote]Slowly it dawned upon me, that the anti-Islamic zeal of our comrades is not much different from the zeal of ill-informed Hindu students in the IITs, at least as far as the content of the debates is concerned. Both are based on prejudices and caricaturing of Islamic faith, and mindless exaggeration of incidents and issues of local nature to make them appear as global ‘Islamic’ issues. The Qur’an is seen by some comrades as a ‘defected’ book which leads to terrorism among Muslims. The Muslims are regularly painted as uniquely misogynistic by many comrades. And there is a healthy propagation of anti-Islamic fake news, and “fatwas” which are hardly ever fatwas.[/su_quote]

Sharjeel was not talking about the absence of Muslims in politics as indicative of Islamophobia, but more so a question of hegemonic and often deliberate ‘ignorance’. What he called for was not merely Muslim representation but more so, a Critical Muslim articulation of politics that did not have to always condemn Islam but could even derive a revolutionary potential from Islam itself. Sharjeel was part of the Eqbal Ahmad reading group in which he articulated an idea of politics that was not confined by the right/left or secular/ Islam binary. The group discussed readings of authors as varied as Perry Anderson, Eqbal Ahmed, Arundhati Roy , Mridu Rai and Ali Shariati .The members in the group had various ideological influences that were derived from Ambedkarite, Islamic thought, Marxism and other left influences, Comparative theology within an overall framework of anti-imperialist ideologies. There were Muslims and non- Muslims as well. It was far from anything akin to Muslim right wing, if at all such a Eurocentric category of right and left can be applied to Muslim politics in India.

Sharjeel was also simultaneously part of a group that was dedicated to learning Urdu, which clearly shows that he was clearly invested in the Muslim question more than merely a question of constitutional representation, but also a question of epistemology. Sharjeel wrote in Urdu, Hindi and English. In a co-authored article, he mentioned Faiz as an Islamic thinker and not merely a ‘secular’ thinker. He was not making a bigoted statement, but was pointing to how Faiz could be hollowed from any meaning when he was understood within a larger Savarna liberal Hindu discourse of secularism. His critique of secularism was not a critique of the principle of secularity, but rather the dogma of secularism that was the discursive monopoly of Savarna Hindus.

It is important to stand by Sharjeel not merely because of his identity or because sedition is a colonial law or as a principle of constitutionality and freedom of expression. It is important to stand by him, for his intellect, his political conviction and his erudite critique of Indian fascism that has now redefined democracy, constitutionality and secularism. It is important to stand by him despite earlier attempts to contrast him with the women of Shaheen Bagh (as it is an age old Islamophobic tactic to mark Muslim women as the binary of Muslim men to further the regime of criminalisation). It is important to stand by his idea that India should be forced into limbo through sustained protests if this racist, apartheid law is to go. What Sharjeel put forth is pertinent- what is secularism, democracy and constitutionality if the Muslims (20 crores of them) cannot claim their humanity through an exclusive citizenship law? Is there is social contract, if the basis o which the communities came together has been violated? More so, can Muslims be seen more than as mere tokens that sustain a pseudo secularism, democracy and constitutionality of a totalitarian democracy? Indeed, can there be a Critical Muslim?




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