Land of My Dreams
Islamic liberalism under fire in India.
May 1, 2009
May 1, 2009
26 Min read time
Islamic liberalism under fire in India.
As it became clear that Pakistani Muslims perpetrated the horrendous terrorist attacks in Mumbai last November, many feared a wave of violence against India’s own Muslim community. The community, which represents 13.4 percent of Hindu-majority India, suffers from poverty and systemic discrimination, as the government’s recent Sachar Commission report documents. It has also been targeted by the Hindu right, which, in 2002, murdered as many as 2,000 people, mostly Muslims, in the state of Gujarat.
That violence, like the violence of Hindu-right mobs against Christians in the eastern state of Orissa in 2008, surely deserves the name of “terrorism.” Yet, in India as elsewhere, the word “terrorism” is now frequently confined to the actions of Muslims, and Muslims are suspects almost by virtue of their religion alone. There was reason, then, to fear that mobs would take the Mumbai blasts as the occasion for a renewed assault on an already beleaguered minority.
This assault did not materialize—largely because India’s Muslim community strongly condemned the terrorist acts and immediately took steps to demonstrate its loyalty to the nation. Muslim cemeteries refused burial to the perpetrators. Muslims wore black armbands on Eid, showing solidarity with mourners of all religions and nationalities. The world saw a deeply nationalist community, one loyal to the liberal values of a nation that has yet to treat it justly.
It was not the first time India’s Muslims have demonstrated a peaceful embrace of the country’s founding values. The personal experience of Mushirul Hasan exemplifies the same commitment. A leader of the community, Hasan has been at the center of controversy for his liberal, secular views and has weathered attempts to force him out of his job as Vice-Chancellor of Jamia Millia Islamia, a pluralistic university closely linked to Muslim contributions in India’s struggle for nationhood. His story illustrates three aspects of Indian and Muslim life that concerned Western observers regularly ignore.
First, the values we associate with classical liberalism—such as the defense of the freedom of speech, the freedom of conscience, and procedural due process—are not exclusively Western values. During the independence movement in India, they were reinvented by a colonized people who had seen just how little their Western masters honored such norms.
Second, these values are not tepid and centrist, as we sometimes hear, but rather, truly radical in a world of nations increasingly under pressure both from external violence and from internal quasi-fascist forces.
And finally, Hasan’s story shows that there is a distinctive and genuinely Islamic form of liberalism, long-lived and drawing inspiration from religious texts and their central concepts.
Hasan was born on August 15, 1949, exactly two years after the cohort of “midnight’s children” whose birth coincided with that of modern India on August 15, 1947. He spent his childhood in cosmopolitan Calcutta (now Kolkata), and later moved North with his family to the Aligarh Muslim University, where his father, a well-known historian, had accepted a post. From early childhood, Hasan encountered the variety and plurality of Muslim life in India.
Then, as now, Muslims were respected as equal citizens by the nation’s laws and by some of its citizens, those who followed the lead of Gandhi and Nehru. But Muslims still encountered ubiquitous suspicion and discrimination, and, despite his middle-class upbringing, Hasan was no exception. He once recalled to me how he and his brother were refused when they tried to rent a flat in South Delhi on the grounds that the smell of beef from Muslim kitchens would disgust the local (Hindu) inhabitants.
Hasan received a Ph.D. in history from Cambridge University in 1977 and quickly became one of India’s most accomplished and respected historians of the nationalist movement and the modern nation. At the age of thirty-one, he was the youngest historian ever named to a professorial chair in India. He took a teaching position at Jamia Millia Islamia and has published a dozen or so well-regarded books on the nationalist struggle, the Nehru family, and the ideas of Gandhi, Nehru, and the liberal Muslims who joined with them.
After the violence, Hasan told the students, ‘the answer to this is to be more secular, to be more liberal in your outlook, to be more enlightened in your perspective.’
In spite of its name, Jamia has never been a Muslim university. Its location, in a predominantly Muslim residential area, and its historical association with secular liberal Muslims who took leading roles in the independence struggle have made it, over the years, an appealing place for Muslim students, but there has never been preferential admission for Muslims—the admissions form does not even ask the religion of the applicant—and the guiding values of the institution are firmly secular and pluralistic. Today about 60 percent of Jamia Millia Islamia’s students and 75 percent of its faculty are Muslim, but inclusiveness is the watchword (as it often is not in Hindu-majority institutions, where both Muslim and lower-caste students routinely suffer stigmatization and harassment).
Rumki Basu, a Hindu woman from West Bengal who currently chairs the university’s distinguished Political Science department, explained to me that she never encountered any discrimination or disparagement—even though, right after she got there, she proposed a radical revision of time-honored syllabi, the sort of thing that usually drives at least some colleagues crazy. At Jamia, however, department discussions were always democratic, respectful, and cordial. (“No,” she says, “I am not making this up.”) “Jamia,” she concludes, “has busted a lot of unfair stereotypes and myths others hold about Muslims in modern India.” “Debate, dialogue, and discuss,” these are the principles that define Jamia—and that should be more common at other Indian universities.
In October 1988 Salman Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses was banned in India. Hasan spoke out publicly against the ban, defending the freedom of speech. A group of radical students in the university, attempting to stop him from teaching, assaulted him physically, inflicting minor injuries. While pressing criminal charges against his assailants, Hasan, who was then Pro-Vice-Chancellor of the University, was forced to work from home. He was unable to resume administrative and teaching duties for more than four years. During this time he wrote the excellent book Legacy of a Divided Nation: India’s Muslims Since Independence.
Eventually he returned to the university, and the values for which he stood—always the institution’s dominant values—began to prevail even among its more radical students. Hasan dropped the criminal complaints against the ones who assaulted him (justice moves slowly in India, so by the time Hasan returned to Jamia, they were long since graduates with jobs and families to support), and his mercy made him a popular figure among students of all types. When the Congress Party took over in 2004, the President of the India, following the advice of a three-member selection committee, asked him to become the Vice-Chancellor of the university, equivalent to a U. S. university president.
In September 2008 police investigating a bomb blast in Delhi that had been tentatively linked to Islamic radicalism arrived at the off-campus apartment of some Jamia students. In the ensuing violence, two suspects were killed, one a Jamia student; a police officer later died of his wounds. Two Jamia students were soon arrested on suspicion of aiding terrorism.The students were too poor to pay for competent legal counsel, and, while India’s constitution guarantees cost-free legal assistance to “ensure that opportunities for securing justice are not denied to any citizen by reason of economic or other disabilities,” public defenders are low-grade, and many had recently received threats of violence should they take any case associated with alleged Islamic terrorism. With no hesitation, Hasan said that the university would pay for their legal counsel. The university had done this in other cases, just as it pays students’ medical fees. No one objected on those earlier occasions.
But the political charge in the air ensured that this time would be different. The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), the political wing of the Hindu right, decided to make an issue of the legal support. Accusing Hasan of misusing public money (Jamia, like all Central Universities in India, is government-funded), they demanded his resignation. Education Minister Arjun Singh quickly came to Hasan’s defense, noting that the money he was using did not come from the government, but from student activity fees and private donations. Like Hasan, he pointed out that the accused are innocent until proven guilty and have a right to a fair trial.
‘What do you want us to do?’ Hasan asked, ‘Stand on a terrace and announce that we are liberal Muslims and that we want to proclaim our loyalty to the nation?’
Meanwhile, Hasan addressed the student body, telling them that “the answer to this is to be more secular, to be more liberal in your outlook, to be more enlightened in your perspective.” He then led a peace march on the campus, a march so silent, so nonviolent and orderly, that even the press could find no incident of bad behavior to sensationalize. The national media have been decidedly unenthusiastic about Hasan’s defense of procedural due process and constitutional norms; they suggest, repeatedly, that he is part of some sinister Muslim cabal. (An honorable exception is The Hindu, India’s best daily, which published an editorial putting the matter in a balanced perspective; the Indian Express and Kolkata’s Telegraph published valuable op-eds.)
Hasan’s fight for basic principles has been won for now, but he still faces a fight in the court of public opinion for the reputation of his university and the honor of its students and teachers. Stereotypes of the violent Muslim are so prevalent in India—as elsewhere in the world—that it is virtually impossible for Muslim liberals to be taken at their word when they say that they believe in free speech, pluralism, nonviolent persuasion, the rule of law, and the right of each person to a fair trial. ‘Oh yes, a screen for darker motives,’ is the typical response, pervasive on Hindu blogs and common even in the mainstream press. You say you are a liberal, and that proves you are a radical Islamist.
Meanwhile, hooligans of the Bajrang Dal, a youth movement associated with the Hindu right, have been on a rampage in Orissa, murdering Christians who refuse to reconvert to Hinduism, but the media never refer to this carnage as “terrorism.” Nor did they use the term “terrorism” for the Gujarat pogrom. For the media, as for so much of our world, “terrorism” just means Muslim terrorism. To a skeptical Hindu journalist who had asked him why Muslim intellectuals do not condemn terrorism, Hasan (who had just finished condemning all terrorism, Hindu and Muslim alike) replied:
You probably don’t hear those voices because you don’t want to hear those voices. The media doesn’t represent those voices because the media is only interested in strident voices. They are not interested in the sane, liberal, rational voices. . . . What do you want us to do? Stand on a terrace and announce that we are liberal Muslims and that we want to proclaim our loyalty to the nation?
Hasan is a remarkable person, but his convictions are hardly sui generis. They are deeply rooted in Jamia Millia Islamia’s history: a home-grown, tolerant, liberal pluralism has defined the institution from its anti-colonial inception.
The university was born in internal struggles at Aligarh Muslim University, then a conservative institution very much under British control. Many wanted this situation to continue, holding that the mission of Aligarh ought to be to make Indian Muslims “worthy and useful subjects of the British Crown.” A group of younger intellectuals, however, inspired by Gandhi’s ideas and increasingly involved in resistance against the Raj, sought change. Part of their zeal was for Islamic politics: they took a passionate interest in the Khilafat movement, which worked to protect the Ottoman caliphate and sacred Muslim sites from British hijacking. But the Khilafat movement was inherently a campaign against British imperialism, and before long the young radicals of Jamia joined their Turkish concerns to Gandhi’s non-cooperation movement, becoming apostles of nonviolent resistance to the local British rulers.
The campus soon split into two camps. The old guard, backed by the British, drove out the young radicals in 1920. Sir George Campbell, the district magistrate, confronted Mohammed Ali, one of the radical leaders, saying, “You want to bring up these students as disobedient boys.” Ali responded by reciting a verse of the eighteenth-century Urdu poet Mir Taqi Mir that neatly epitomized the behavior of the Raj at this period (though tactfully omitting its heinous acts of violence):
To taunt and sneer and wound and speak unkindly,
She has all these accomplishments, my friend;
Friendship and love and graciousness and kindness
Are things she could never comprehend.
Jamia Millia Islamia was opened the following year. After a short time in Aligarh, it moved to Delhi.
Jamia was born radical. Its curriculum emphasized the study of nationalism as well as the study of Islamic history and the Qu’ran; its admissions policy welcomed male and female, Hindu and Muslim; its pedagogy emphasized debate and contestation in the teaching of all subjects, including religion, denouncing the mere “passive awareness of dead facts.” The school had strong links with theorists of progressive education such as Bertrand Russell and Rabindranath Tagore and thus gave substantial weight to the arts and vocational education. This philosophy was applied early, since the university included a residential primary school, where “learning by doing” was the progressive norm. One founder summarized: “We believe that formal instruction should serve as a support for the exercise of initiative, that the child’s mind should be active and responsive, not passive, that the body should be made efficient along with the mind.”
Older students, meanwhile, learned that the national ideal of independence from colonial domination could also become a personal ideal, as Ali stressed:
Jamia’s objective is that Muslims should [not] follow blindly the previous ‘fixed’ path . . . the Jamia has instilled hatred in the heart of every student—be he a Muslim or a Hindu—against subjugation by foreign powers. It has kept its air free of transgression and prejudice. For these reasons, the Jamia is both Jamia Millia Islamia and a national university.
The Jamians insisted that identity politics, with its preference for insiders, was foreign to Islam’s ideal universal brotherhood.
Jamia was coeducational from the start, but initially the number of female students was small. By 1930, however, the arrival of distinguished female faculty prepared the way for full integration. A later Vice-Chancellor wrote of the way in which the university has helped women “not only break into the spaces which are male preserves, but also . . . fight back against male tyranny and violence.” Today, women compose about 25 percent of undergraduates, but more than 50 percent of those at the master’s degree stage.
Meanwhile, the institution’s progressive educational vision led to a stream of visitors from abroad. A distinguished British observer spoke of Jamia as having “an international breadth of vision” that most Britain-oriented Indian universities lacked. Jamia’s degrees were not recognized by the British, but they were recognized in Germany, France, and the United States.
Politicians, the media, and the police try to paint a picture of the university as a hotbed of Islamic terrorism.
Jamia’s early years were marked by recurrent financial crises. To keep the young institution afloat, a group of distinguished scholars pledged to serve Jamia for twenty years, taking only a token salary. Chief among them was Zakir Hussain, an economist trained in Germany who became Vice Chancellor in 1928, serving for twenty-one years (and who much later served as the third President of India). A man of tireless energy, enthusiasm, and self-sacrifice, Hussain furthered both the university’s educational vision and the nationalist ideal, and did so in close conversation with Gandhi, who viewed Jamia as an important part of a tolerant India. In one letter to the university in 1930, Gandhi wrote:
Islam enjoins upon us tolerance towards others’ religions. It doesn’t say that other religions are false. He alone who does good to others is a true man. This is the principle of the [Qu’ran] as also the teaching of other religions. The students of the Jamia, I hope, will spread the message of unity and freedom throughout the country.
The teachers and students of Jamia were passionate about these ideas, as Gandhi acknowledged, saying, “When I come to the Jamia, I feel I have come home.” Again and again, the faculty wrote about the sort of nationalism they intended to foster: not “the jingo nationalism of the German or Italian type,” but “nationalism as a step to internationalism,” “nationalism of a liberal type.”
After Independence Jamia remained a favorite of the national leadership, Nehru in particular. In a letter of 1952 to Zakir Hussain, Nehru characterized Jamia as a pet project of Gandhi’s that he was committed to nurturing. He added a gloomy coda:
Whatever I can do for Jamia, I shall endeavour to do. The world seems a very dark, dismal and dreary place, full of people with wrong urges or no urge at all, living their lives trivially and without any significance. All the more, therefore, we seek the few sanctuaries and causes and try to derive sustenance from them.
And yet Jamia’s financial woes continued. Although some of its degree programs were recognized in 1945, and it achieved nationally recognized university status in 1962, it was only in 1988 that the university was recognized as a Central University, giving it access to more government funds. Having begun as a group of rebels departing from a government-controlled institution (Aligarh), Jamia had finally achieved full recognition by the government of the independent nation.
When Hasan arrived at Jamia, it had a glorious past, but faced many contemporary challenges. Even after it began to receive funds from the central government, it had a hard time becoming the sort of first-rank, cutting-edge university that could compete successfully for students and faculty against Delhi’s other prestigious Central Universities, Delhi University and Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU).
Apart from his massive fundraising efforts, for which he has a gift, Hasan has insistently emphasized the institution’s pluralistic, secular character, making it clear to faculty and students from all regions and religions that it can be a very good place to be. One of his successes has been to put Jamia on the map as a dream university for students from some of India’s poorest states and regions. Such students might lack the preparation required to get into JNU, but talent and ambition could get them a place in Jamia. Another way Hasan highlights pluralism is by naming buildings after individuals from other nations and religions—including the aforementioned Hindu politician Arjun Singh, who, as Education Minister, has strongly supported the growth of the institution. Meanwhile, empowering faculty such as Basu sends a signal of religious pluralism and sex equality that aids both student and faculty recruitment.
In regard to curriculum, Hasan has strengethened specific areas in which Jamia can compete with the best: thus, a renowned Academy for Third-World Studies (founded in 1988, but bolstered under Hasan’s leadership); an unparalleled human rights program; and both core and optional courses in public administration, social work, education management, and journalism that are not available in any other university in Delhi. Finally, as Basu emphasizes, Hasan has pushed for an educational climate of tolerance, debate, and difference that few Indian universities, where students raised on rote learning all too often find more of the same, can match.
Hasan’s own scholarship has often focused on Jawaharlal Nehru and his accomplishments, so it is not surprising that he sought, for Jamia, the Centre for Jawaharlal Nehru Studies, the first institution of its kind in the country. The Centre opened in October 2004 (shortly after the electoral defeat of the Hindu right and the victory of Congress), with Sonia Gandhi, Congress Party chair, in attendance. In his dedicatory speech, Hasan said that Nehru’s legacy is more important in India now than ever because Nehru “argued for the moral value and legitimacy of nationalism in a form compatible with liberal democratic principles and institutions.” Hasan said that he feels it particularly important to honor Nehru at Jamia, in order to break with the tendency to partition India’s heritage by “saying to each other, Azad is ‘yours,’ Nehru is ‘ours,’ Tagore is ‘ours’ because we are Bengalis,” etc. “This must stop . . . . We should teach Mir and Ghalib in Bengal, and Tagore and Nazrul Islam in north India.” The Nehru Centre should be a reminder of India’s identity as “tolerant and inclusive,” through its invitation to contemplate Nehru’s “own eclectic and broad-minded outlook and the liberal and scientific temper he created in a society that had strong illiberal and authoritarian traits.”
But Hasan also understands, as did Gandhi, that liberal values and nonviolence need to be alluring, not just morally right. Unlike Gandhi, however, Hasan is thoroughly secular, a bon vivant who has a great interest in Urdu poetry and literature. The home he shares with his wife, Zoya, a leading political scientist at JNU and a member of the National Commission for Minorities, is full of beautiful art. And both, as hosts, exemplify Mir’s notion of “graciousness and kindness.” Closer, then, to his hero Nehru, who, despite the bleak tone of many of his letters, was famous for wit and zest at dinner parties.
Hasan, in short, exudes the kind of joyfulness and playfulness that make peple feel that moral principles are not only a duty, but a delight. That is a gift, unfortunately lacking in most of the giants of the Western Enlightenment, though Martin Luther King, Jr., surely had it. Liberal politics is based on respect for the person, but if it does not have something else as well, something more akin to love, it will not capture the hearts of people who long for meaning.
In May a national election may bring to power a coalition government in which the Hindu-nationalist BJP will play a leading role. If that happens the BJP will no doubt continue their current agenda: attacking moderate Islam, trying to convert what exists at Jamia into the bogeyman of their rhetoric. Only determined public pressure can save the day, ensuring that someone who shares Hasan’s commitments, if not he himself (since his term ends this summer), is at the helm during a crucial period of growth and transition for the university.
The story of nonreligious terrorism is underreported, and Hindu terrorism against both Muslims and Christians has yet to appear on the American radar.
Other needs are even more pressing in the short term. The National Human Rights Commission has notified the Delhi police that it is investigating the bloody September 2008 incident and wants a complete report. The police write-up is, indeed, full of inconsistencies and gaps. For example, the police arrived at the student dwelling without backup and without bulletproof vests, as if they were not preparing to encounter armed terrorists—yet, in retrospect, they say this is exactly what they were doing. The dwelling where the policeman was shot had only one entrance, yet we are supposed to believe that, with police lined up at the door, two students managed to escape unharmed. The students in the house had submitted the usual residential questionnaire with correct names, dates of birth, etc., all rather odd if their student identities were a ruse and they were really members of a widespread Muslim terrorist organization (the Indian Mujahideen), as is alleged. Finally, the two students whose legal fees Jamia is paying have a clean record, and all who know them describe them as peaceful, even dreamy and impractical. So we urgently need to know the quality of the evidence linking them to the case.
Meanwhile, teachers at Jamia report a glut of detentions and arrests of students. Politicians, the media, and the police try to paint a picture of the university as a hotbed of terrorism, and large numbers of students in off-campus housing have been asked to vacate their flats by landlords who fear police reprisals. Police presence all around the campus is distressing, disrupting the climate of instruction. The unfairness of disturbing an entire university of 14,000 students over the alleged actions of two of its members is obvious, but hardly anyone is complaining about it, apart from the teachers and students themselves.
Perhaps the most alarming aspect of the Jamia case is the atmosphere surrounding those who provide legal counsel to people accused of terrorism. One after another, bar associations in different parts of the country are announcing boycotts of terror suspects. In Madhya Pradesh, two suspects were forced to hire counsel from a different state after all local lawyers refused them. A leading state BJP official supported the boycott, saying that “a distinction must be made between criminals and terrorists.” So much for the presumption of innocence. In Uttar Pradesh, lawyers have been faced with threats to their safety if they take on terror cases. Legal and social activists believe that the Hindu right has profoundly infiltrated the mechanisms of criminal justice making it very difficult for Muslims to get a fair trial. Often, moreover, Muslims remain in detention without trial for years. Muslims constitute 18 percent of convicts in Indian prisons, 21.8 percent of those whose cases are currently being tried, and 37.2 percent of those in detention awaiting either trial or specific charges.
When the legal system works this badly, essential constitutional rights become mere words on paper. Moreover, the rhetoric of the Hindu right, which constantly equates arrest with conviction, suggests at best a tenuous commitment to the rule of law. The contention that offering legal aid means being “soft on terrorism”—a ubiquitous charge against Hasan, despite his repeated condemnations of terrorism in any form—is a communitarian idea that betrays impatience with the very idea of due process. When lots of people in a democracy think this way, there is danger. In India its source has been the same for decades: a Hindu right that never accepted the liberal values of equal respect, due process, and religious non-establishment.
Hasan’s ordeal leaves us with four conclusions.
First, we should mistrust stereotypes of the violent Muslim. Current preconceptions, combined with media sensationalism, lead to selective reporting (in India as elsewhere). Stories of Muslim liberals, provoke boredom or skepticism. But the failure to report only confirms the preconceptions. Meanwhile, the story of nonreligious terrorism (for example, the Tamil Tigers) is underreported, and Hindu terrorism against both Muslims and Christians has yet to appear on the American radar screen. As Hasan points out, we need more prominent stories of Muslim nonviolence:
A whole auditorium can be filled up with books on Islam and violence but what about Islam and nonviolence? What about Gaffar Khan [a Muslim associate of Gandhi’s, who developed a philosophy of nonviolence using Islamic sources]? Does he not exist or is he of no consequence because he does not fit the stereotype that some people wish to create and perpetuate about an entire community?
For this reason, one of Hasan’s current priorities is the creation on Jamia’s campus of a museum of the nationalist struggle, devoted to the history elided at other museums: the prominent role played by Muslims in the nationalist movement. While we wait for the museum to be built, the book Partners in Freedom, which Hasan co-authored with Rakhshanda Jalil, tells the story in both text and photographs.
Second, the stereotyping of Muslims as violent, when combined with economic and political discrimination, engenders among Muslims a justified anger that can all too easily spill over into unjustified violence. Gandhi knew well that the rage of his followers against the British had legitimate roots, yet he was able to convince people that the best response to oppression was nonviolent protest.
Mushirul Hasan follows Gandhi’s program. In fact, I am tempted to say, somewhat hyperbolically, that virtually the only place in today’s India where Gandhi’s ideas are being duly honored is on the campus of Jamia. But Hasan knows, like Gandhi, and like Martin Luther King, Jr., that anger will not go away, will not cease to create the possibility of violence, unless the subordination that fuels it is brought to an end.
Therefore, while working to promote nonviolence, one must also work to eradicate political and economic conditions that nourish the desire for violence. Noting the economic discrimination suffered by India’s Muslims (the lack of basic social services, such as clean water, in the poor residential areas surrounding Jamia is one ugly example)—now compounded by widespread political discrimination in the form of round-ups on suspicion of terrorism (India’s analogue to the odious American tradition of racial profiling) and, more worrying, threats against lawyers who defend people accused of terrorism—Hasan says to that same skeptical reporter: “The fact that they are still liberals in this sort of situation—caught between the devil and the deep sea—you should give them a Padma award.” (The Padma Shri award is given by the Indian government each year to people who have performed some meritorious service to the nation. Hasan was awarded the Padma Shri in 2007.)
The third conclusion to be drawn from these events is the Gandhian one: the importance of the nonviolent response. Speaking about Muslim communities more generally, Hasan insists that the solution to Muslims’ problems lies in nonviolence and a grass-roots demand for democracy:
The stranglehold of the orthodoxy, especially in its political and religious form, has to be loosened and slackened. The answer lies in more and more Muslim communities moving towards democracy. There is no short cut to democracy. . . . There is no place for pharaohs in the modern world.
Hasan thus joins such anti-theocratic Muslims as Akbar Ganji of Iran in calling for a restructuring of Islamic nations through a popular demand for democratic self-government, prominently including a commitment to the equality and empowerment of women. And he immediately adds that the move to democracy has been very much impeded by attempts on the part of the United States to impose democracy by force.
The final, and perhaps most important, lesson is that, following Gandhi, we must all rethink our understandings of strength and weakness, courage and timidity. Real strength, in an individual, is not manifested by bashing people over the head. Who does that? Only someone who feels threatened and weak. Real strength is manifested by the ability to show respect to others, to treat them as equals, and not to try to impose one’s will by force. Real strength in a community or a nation, similarly, is manifested not by a willingness to dispose of liberal values whenever violence seems easier or more fun, but by a commitment to them that does not bend when the going gets tough. That is radical. And if being radical means going “to the root” of the matter, it is the liberal, who subdues the violence and greed of the self, who is the true radical, while left and right communitarians casually allow the banal and constant desire for domination to carry the day.
In a world where so many anthems call for blood and equate manliness with abuse, here is what Jamia’s founders wrote for its students to sing as the official anthem of the university:
Here conscience alone is the beacon, . . .
It’s the Mecca of many faiths,
Travelling is the credo here, pausing a sacrilege, . . .
Cleaving against currents is the creed here,
The pleasure of arrival lies in countering crosscurrents.
This is the home of my yearnings,
This is the land of my dreams.
A radical song indeed.
Help fund the next generation of Black journalists, editors, and publishers.
Boston Review’s Black Voices in the Public Sphere Fellowship is designed to address the profound lack of diversity in the media by providing aspiring Black media professionals with training, mentorship, networking opportunities, and career development workshops. The program is being funded with the generous support of Derek Schrier, chair of Boston Review’s board of advisors, the Ford Foundation, and the Carnegie Corporation of New York, but we still have $50,000 left to raise to fully fund the fellowship for the next two years. To help reach that goal, if you make a tax-deductible donation to our fellowship fund through August 31 it will be matched 1:1, up to $25,000—so please act now to double your impact. To learn more about the program and our 2021-2022 fellows, click here.
May 01, 2009
26 Min read time