India’s liberal Muslims: A minority within a minority


Do not go gentle into that good night.

Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

– Dylan Thomas


Sisters, do not stop your husbands. It is your duty to make them happy. Allow them to take up other wives if you are ill. They will be your sisters.

At this point, my mother – attending a women’s seminar where noted female Islamic scholars and historians were supposed to speak – had enough of this preacher who had literally hijacked the event.

She stood up – the only one in the room to do so – and said, “This is wrong. We didn’t come here to listen to this.” She later told me how she liked the shocked silence at her walking out of that room, with a few others behind her. She was so livid, she also filed a complaint with the organizers.

“He likely didn’t stop, Mamma,” I said to her, my blood boiling, “Even when you and the others walked out.”

“I didn’t speak up to stop him,” my mother said. “I said it because I couldn’t stay quiet any longer.”


Since well before the campaigning for the 2014 Lok Sabha elections even began, Muslims have become a focus of discussion for a party that proudly demonizes them and another that cynically manipulates them. This discussion inevitably involves the alleged “appeasement” of Muslims, the “special privileges” they supposedly receive, their failure to merge into the “mainstream”, their “unwillingness” to be treated as any other citizen and, the most important question, thrown like a wet fish on the face of every liberal Muslim: why are Muslims silent about the demons inside the walls their community has pulled up around itself. Why don’t they speak out against things like fatwas against books, performing the surya namaskar, and even against singing Vande Mataram?

My mother surely wasn’t silent nor was she an isolated example of someone standing up and calling a spade a spade. Many of us stand up to such forces in our own little ways every day.

Admittedly, this liberal protest is a stream rather than a raging river – voices of liberal Muslims who are a minority within a besieged minority. But it exists.


Those who accuse liberal Muslims of silence have fixed beliefs and closed minds. Nothing I say can make them see that there exist Muslims who do much of these things every single day: the Hijabi yoga instructor, my niece leading the morning choir, my mother standing up to that preacher, me standing up for Indian democracy to “concerned” Pakistanis in New York.

Muslims are standing up to the social demons in their own community. They don’t do this to somehow prove that they are liberal or modern. They do this because they have not yet given in to the shadows of a comforting silence. People are vocal but no one appears to be listening. Not every incident makes it to social media platforms or the newspapers.

Even those who choose to remain silent don’t do so necessarily because they approve of everything they see around them. They are silent because they are tired of being attacked for things they have no hand or say in (for instance Imran Masood’s speech, attacks on Hindus in Pakistan, or even that Muslim rulers reigned for 700 years in India). They are tired that nobody believes them when they speak out. They are tired of being called “Babur ki aulaadein”. They know no one will protect them if something goes wrong, not “their” people and certainly not the law. Most importantly, they think their speaking out won’t make any difference.

Liberal Indian Muslims are too grey to fit into the black and white narratives of the Right and the Left. They are the visible tip of their community, taking the brunt of accusations, attacks and insults on social media, political debates in parties, and in the main stream media. In the current polarized political climate, they have been painted as villains even when they have done nothing wrong at all, and indicted for not speaking enough to satisfy strangers who sit in judgment over them.

I have been told repeatedly that liberal Muslims aren’t taken seriously. A minority within a minority, they might as well be ghosts. When others come across them, they are looked at with the same old lens of prejudice. They are required to publicly take sides and to constantly prove who and what they are to people on two sides: to their community, liberal Muslims feel forced to prove they are “Muslim enough”, and to everyone else, that they are “modern enough”.

Being held to account for things others do is an undeserved burden, while speaking up about our beliefs sometimes feels futile. Some get tired of this constant scrutiny, at being told “prove it” and “you have failed”.

It’s not surprising then that many prefer silence because, when under siege, humans circle their wagons and huddle with those who are similarly under attack or those who might just give them the benefit of the doubt.

But, no matter how difficult or futile this is, right now, many more Muslims must speak up, not because it will make any difference to the election or even their community, but because it will make a difference inside their own conscience.

More Muslims need to speak up because, if they remain silent, others will speak for them. When intellectuals, politicians, and academics talk about “root causes” that somehow drive terrorists to murder and maim Indians, when they talk about a “Muslim veto” in Indian politics, when they stereotype Indian Muslims in the language of victimhood and dependency, they are doing the community no favors.

It is time though that Muslims stand up against everyone and everything that is pulling them down, within their own community and outside of it. The day they start thinking about themselves – instead of letting patronizing do-gooders, cynical politicians, communal demagogues, and fundamentalist Imams speak for them – is the day they will stop being a part of a “vote herd” that is bartered for a price. In this election cycle, especially, where they are being demonized as traitors and courted as a vote bank, they need to speak up and their voices should be heard before canny journalists or vote-herd shepherds hijack it.

And when they speak, others should open their mind and ears to listen without shaking their heads in disapproval, without squinting their eyes in disbelief, without cross-examining their truth, without suspecting their motives, without patronizing them or trying to twist their narrative to pit them against the walls of solid bigoted thoughts . It takes two to speak the truth: one to say it, the other to believe it.

Liberal Muslims have been speaking. Have you been listening?



First published in on April 4, 2014:

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