Shabana Azmi plays Devil’s advocate

At 13% of the population, Muslims are a significant demographic in India. However, relations between Muslims and other populations in India, most notably the Hindu population, have not always gone smoothly. Shabana Azmi is an Indian actor, social activist and ex-MP who spoken extensively on various issues impacting Indian Muslims. Some of her views have caused controversy. For instance, after September 11th, she criticized a religious leader who advocated that Indians join Afghans in their fight by asking the leader in question to fight himself alone.

Azmi recently sat down for an interview on the show Devil’s Advocate to discuss various issues facing Muslims in India (part one below, parts two and three can be seen on YouTube). One of the first issues discussed was what it means to be a Muslim, especially after September 11, 2001. Azmi discussed how she was not raised in a religious family and how the meaning of being a Muslim is not monolithic. For her, Islam was and still remains a cultural identifier rather than a religious identifier. This brings up an interesting idea about Islam and whether or not it is a cultural marker. For some Muslims, the idea of Islam being a cultural identity as opposed to a religious identity is an idea that is challenging to the idea of Islam as a religious identity. Azmi’s idea about cultural Islam highlights the tension that exists among Muslims over what and who constitutes a Muslim.

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Throughout the interview, Azmi discussed both the discrimination that Muslims in India receive and also the ways that Muslims isolate themselves from Indian mainstream society. She takes strong exception to the religious leaders who are taken as the only voices representing Muslim thought. She takes issue with communalism.

While watching the interview, I wondered what Azmi meant by some of the terms she used. For instance, what did she mean by ‘liberal’, ‘moderate’, and ‘extremist’ Muslim? These terms may seem obvious at first glance, but there’s often overlap between them. Thus, a Muslim who is viewed as ‘liberal’ by one person may be seen as ‘extreme’ by the other.

During the interview, Azmi made a statement about embracing her Muslim identity after the 1993 riots. She discussed Muslims, especially Muslims in the West, taking on various “markers” of Muslim identity while not fully knowing what those markers meant. One of the objects she mentioned as a means of identification was the burqa. I was left wondering what Azmi meant by this. Did she mean that Muslims who embrace a more “conservative” form of Islam are not sure of themselves or their place in society? It made me wonder if there is a bit of a disconnect between Azmi and some segments of Indian Muslim society.

Azmi pointed out that Islam is not monolithic and that is an important point to make about both Islam in India and Islam across the globe. That was probably the most important point she made in the interview and one that should be a starting point for both Muslims and non-Muslims in discussing Islam.

  • Sobia

    I’m up to eat sehari and thought I’d check MMW. I know. I need a life.

    A few my own thoughts:

    What I thought the most annoying/irritating/interesting about the interview was that at times it seemed the interviewer, Karan Thapar, a Hindu himself, appreciated the situation of Muslims more than did Azmi. Not that him being so enlightened was a problem. That was great to see. But that Azmi herself did not or was not showing her appreciation for it unless prompted by Thapar to state that Muslims are discriminated against. At that too at moments when she would suggest that Muslims are not discriminated against. After all we have the four Khan’s in Bollywood and a Muslim president (up until very recently – not to mention that the president in India is a symbolic position). It was Thapar who would have to question her assertion to admit that things were not so equal in India. After all, two popular and very well known Bollywood stars, Azmi herself, and Saif Ali Khan, were denied housing in Mumbai, India’s most cosmopolitan city specifically because they are Muslims.

    When Azmi also says that the media plays no role in the image of Muslims, it is Thapar yet again who gets her to admit otherwise, though through examples. So, Thapar says, you do think the media has a role? Azmi does admit it does but for all people, not just for Muslims. Fair enough. I’ve seen Indian news and they do seem to report on incidences of violence among other groups as well. Having said all that, it is Thapar again, who mentions the point that since Muslims are a minority the possibility of violent actions of a few being generalized to the whole is much greater for them than it is for the majority group, Hindus. Additionally, along the way Azmi also admits that the media does not focus on the actions and/or words of mainstream Indian Muslims who denounced acts of violence, chosing rather the sensational stories of the extreme mullahs. So it seems through examples Azmi is saying, yes, the media have been uneven in their coverage of us Muslims, but when asked directly her response indicates no blame placed on media.

    Overall I felt Thapar understood the plight of being a minority much more than did Azmi. Perhaps there is a denial. But then again, she is an Indian Muslim, having lived in India her whole life. I don’t want to deny her that lived experience (though it is a privileged experience).

    As far as her being a cultural Muslim goes, I don’t really take any issue with that. That would be her and her family’s choice. Perhaps it does indicate a divide but it also should be no one else’s business. Nor should it cause any tension. Live and let live I say.

    Her point about Muslims world wide being very diverse and not to be seen as a monolith is an important, and accurate one though she seems to imply that Muslims of a particular country may all think one way. I’m assuming she is referring to the way in which the state of the country implements, or not, Islam for their people.

    About her comment about the burqa, she is referring only to young Western Muslims. Although definitely generalized, what I thought she was referring to were those Muslims in the west who, after 9-11, felt so threatened that they actively and very publicly chose to identify themselves as Muslims, but had not felt Muslim before that. She did make it sound like ALL those in the West who did that did not really and truly identify that way though.

    As far as the use of the word burqa goes, I’m thinking she means hijab. The word hijab is, from my understanding, rarely used in India. It was hardly used, and still is not that commonly used, in Pakistan either as the term refers to an Arab form of dress. In South Asia we’ve had burqas, chadars, dupattas etc. Hijab is an Arab import of very recent times into the region.

  • laila

    Hey thanks for the insight about culteral references of veil in South Asia.

  • Fatemeh

    I thought that her assertion of reactionary behavior in Western Muslims was interesting. Especially the burqa…

    Sobia, I kind of agree with you about the host’s sensitivity being greater than Azmi’s.

    I’d like to know more about Azmi; yeah, she’s an actress, but it says she’s an activist. What else does she do? What are her main issues?