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.

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