SRK to Vishwaroopam: Politics, Islam, and Representation

Published online in The Alternative here.

The rising suspicion, censorship, and conflicts around religion must be viewed through the lens of political history.

“Whenever there is an act of violence in the name of Islam, I am called upon to air my views on it and dispel the notion that by virtue of being a Muslim, I condone such senseless brutality.” [i]

Such, in Shahrukh Khan’s words, is the Muslim predicament in the post-9/11 world. Just as s/he must constantly dissociate from any terrorist attack conducted on an Islamist pretense, it is also incumbent on every Muslim to distance oneself from the hardliners who threaten Salman Rushdie on the one hand, and Kamal Hassan’s Vishwaroopam on the other. Increased stereotyping and suspicion by other communities, to whom this clarification must be made, accompany this call.

On the face of it, there seems to be an eruption of Islamophobia amongst the general public in many countries where Muslims are in a minority. But, as Mahmood Mamdani writes, blanket suspicion is only part of the story[ii]. Muslims are typically divided into the camps of Good Muslims and Bad Muslims, such that the former are considered secular, cosmopolitan and Westernizing, and the latter, backward, insular and ultra-religious. Bollywood films are rife with this binary (eg Sarfarosh, Aamir), which is a gross simplification and fails to consider the dynamism in the politics of identity.

As may be apparent, it is to the Bad Muslims that the resurgent Islamicization and violence, an articulation termed ‘Islamo-fascism’ by Bush Jr., is tagged. Furthermore, it is believed that fundamentalist Islam is at war with Western civilization (or its attendant traits like secularism, liberalism and democracy). This is the fundamental idea behind the so-called ‘clash of civilizations’, from which, by definition, there is no escape other than the ultimate victory of one side.

This line of reasoning attracts progressives’ wrath, who, in keeping with misplaced notions of political correctness, are either too scared to accept the actual Islamicization of politics or counter it with the logic that what is being witnessed is actually a civil war between the cosmopolitans and the fundamentalists within Islam, rather than a civilizational one. The problem here is that this reasoning takes as given the Good/Bad Muslim dichotomy and the idea that religion determines politics. We need to acknowledge that there indeed is more politics going around in the name of Islam, but also that it does not naturally flow from religion. It has instead emerged from the confluence of specific processes in South and West Asia that Islamicized local and regional politics, and to which we now turn.

At the regional scale, the 1980s Afghan War between the Soviet army and a rag-tag bunch saw not only the massive flow of arms and cash into the region, but also an Islamicization of the anti-Soviet position, engineered in partnership by Zia-ul-Haq’s Pakistan and the CIA (President Reagan went as far as calling the mujahideen ‘the moral equivalents of the American founding fathers’). This fusion of weaponry, money and religion has since then turned against the US and Pakistan. Elsewhere, the failure and cooption of radical and secular politics in the face of an in increasingly aggressive Israeli state resulted in Palestinians—at least in Gaza—turning to the Islamist Hamas. In places like Somalia and Mali the collapse of non-religious regimes created a vacuum into which opposition, united by its avowal of Islamism, stepped. Closer to home, and influenced by these regional shifts, the collective grievance of Kashmiris with the Indian state also acquired a religious hue. In each of these instances, Islamicization has been a political response to specific circumstances, and not somehow derived mechanically from religion itself.

To further clarify, it isn’t politics that has happened to Islam, but Islam has happened to politics. The backlash against the failures and excesses of secular but at the same time authoritarian regimes and movements pushed thinking people to Islam, for it provides an alternate worldview that speaks of equality and justice, though of course with its own particular slant. With this perspective, one can see that this process is not altogether dissimilar from the role of Christianity in movements for democracy in Communist Eastern Europe, as a positive illustration, and in ultra-conservative politics in the US: in both instances politics is given Christian idioms to place oneself in opposition to secular (but to them, deeply flawed) incumbents.

It is unsurprising for these shifts in the so-called Islamic world to have become source material for popular media and films. The problem is that agents self-identifying as Islamists, who would otherwise be considered properly political beings, are instead believed to be motivated by a vague notion of Jihad; they are viewed, in other words, as religious automatons. In this manner popular culture reinforces the stereotypes and phobias about Muslims that we began the discussion with. Therefore, cultural texts that build on such a premise should be viewed with suspicion, for they misread politics of and about religion.

Of course none of this merits threats, violence, and calls for ban. Why indeed is there a resurgence of fringe elements hasty in their outrage?

Once again, this needs to be viewed politically and historically. Very briefly, the pre-colonial norm of conflict-ridden relations between religions in India—interspersed with periods of relative calm—was crystallized by colonialism in the form of, first, separate electorate, and later, the religion-based partition of the colony itself. Despite the postcolonial state’s attempts to secularize the public sphere—based on the Western principle of the ‘separation of church and state’—it is a work in progress. Religion remains central to Indians’ political identity, an empirical reality that is often pejoratively termed ‘vote banks politics’.

In addition, the intertwined processes of decentralization and the emergence of regional parties since the 1990s have meant that relatively small religion-based groupings may now influence larger politics. The more significant a vote becomes (in Panchayat, municipalities, and legislature), the more the person is likely to be heard, even more so when part of a collective. Fringe groups may therefore pressure an AIADMK into action on Vishwaroopam and in turn, the centre is prone to bend than to alienate its regional allies (though not in this case). Together, the historical element of religion in politics and the increased sensitivity to the fringe, explain the frequent outrage and state appeasement. This is true with outraged groups of all stripes, which is why Hindutva and Islamist groups could simultaneously threaten the Jaipur Literature Festival despite their general disagreements. And the process is accelerated by a news-media constantly on the lookout for ‘breaking news’, in addition to the peer-to-peer connections of social media.

One of several

Vishwaroopam also reinforces the good/bad Muslim divide

In sum, a critical perspective on both the emergent Islamicization and its representation in cinema challenges the lazy and misleading stereotypes. It also reveals current politics as a particular conjuncture, a phase that is certain to pass as those before have. Ideally, cinematic and other representations would present a greater appreciation of context and history. Given that this isn’t always the case, critics and viewers need to make the connections, without of course themselves succumbing to kneejerk responses.



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