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Post-Mumbai attacks, no anti-Muslim backlash – yet

Text by Leela JACINTO

Latest update : 2008-12-22

Despite widespread fears, the Mumbai attacks have not sparked anti-Muslim violence in the city. But these are red-alert days and few are willing to give the all-clear signal yet.

Emerging from the Friday noon prayers at Mumbai's Jama masjid (mosque) with a handkerchief secured respectfully on his head, Wahir Memom says he's not unduly worried for himself and his community in the aftermath of the city's most brazen terrorist attacks.

"You can say I'm worried in the sense that all Bombayites are worried," said the 32-year-old cloth merchant, referring to this city's residents. "But it's not because I'm a Muslim - that has nothing to do with it. Because it is clear that these terrorists were not Muslims. Our imams (priests) have clearly said that."


Shortly after it emerged that the Nov. 26 attacks were most likely the handiwork of Islamist militants, many India-watchers in and outside the country held their collective breath, fearing a violent backlash. But the much feared backlash has not come – at least not yet.

That does not surprise Burhanuddin Qasmi, director of the Markazul Ma'arif Education and Research Centre and an important voice in the emerging ranks of a new generation of Muslim community leaders. "This is a foreign attack. It has nothing to do with Indian Muslims or Muslim violence against Hindus or Hindu violence against Muslims," he says. "We understood that in the first few hours after the attacks." 

India is no stranger to tit-for-tat violence between the majority Hindu community and Muslims, who comprise about 15 percent of the country's billion-strong population.

Since the 1992 destruction of the Babri masjid in northern India by Hindu extremists, there had been a grisly pattern of revenge attacks between the two communities in several parts of the country.

Mumbai witnessed the worst of the violence following the Babri masjid destruction, when Muslims rioted shortly after the mosque collapsed. In January 1993, Hindus retaliated against the riots the previous month, which in turn led to the March 1993 serial bomb blasts, believed to have been coordinated by a predominantly Muslim mafia group. By the end of that brutal cycle, more than 2,000 people had been killed.  

'A big step, a very important one'

These should be red alert days for the city's Muslim population - which makes up about 15 percent of Mumbai's estimated 13-million-strong population - as well as the security services.

For one, the city has just emerged from the worst terrorist attacks linked to Islamist militants. For another, Saturday marks the 16th anniversary of the Babri masjid destruction, for which the Mumbai police has tightened security measures. And, early next week, the city's Muslims will be joining their counterparts across the world in celebrating Bakri Eid, a Muslim feast. Tightened security during festivals is routine in many Indian cities following fears of communal incidents.

Only this time there probably won't be much of a Bakri Eid celebration in many parts of the country. On Wednesday, a group of imams based in the Indian capital of New Delhi asked the community to tone done the celebrations out of respect for the victims of the attacks and to wear black ribbons.

Acts of solidarity, expressions of condemnations

The call is just one in a series of post-Nov. 26 condemnations and expressions of solidarity from the Muslim community.

On Dec. 8, Muslims from Mumbai and several other Indian cities are expected to join rallies protesting the spread of terror in the name of Islam.

This follows an extraordinary ruling by the influential Jama Masjid Trust, which also runs a graveyard in downtown Mumbai, not to allow the burial of the nine gunmen killed during the terrorist attacks on their premises on the grounds that the men were not true believers of the Muslim faith.

Mohammad Gous, a 35-year-old businessman is keen to underline the significance of this decision. "This is a big step, a very important one," says Gous, as he shelters from the scorching afternoon sun under the white arched entrance to the Jama masjid after the midday prayers. "That's a very good decision and I fully support it."

Indian Muslim leaders in the past have sometimes been criticized for not coming out unequivocally against Islamist violence or attacks perpetrated by community members. While this has changed in the past few years, nothing compares with the sheer scale and magnitude of the denouncement of the Nov 26 attacks emerging from the community.

'Discrimination is going on'

But while the city appears to be consumed by a renewed sense of unity in the immediate aftermath of the attacks, Qasmi warns that it's still too soon to put out the all-clear signal. "What I anticipate, what may still happen, is that maybe some innocent Muslims who were not part of this terrorist conspiracy might be pulled up by the security forces," says Qasmi.

Several political experts have expressed relief – and some surprise – that a handful of incendiary national and regional Hindu rightwing politicians have not gone on record to make populist anti-Muslim comments following the attacks.

Most Mumbaikars believe this is, in large part, due to the extraordinary public rage against politicians following the security and intelligence goof-ups that failed to thwart the attacks. Certainly the incensed response to a city visit by controversial Hindu right wing politician Narendra Modi is an indicator of the growing public impatience with politicians seeking to exploit a national tragedy.

But many experts say the post-attack display of unity should not hide the consistent, underlining problems and discriminations facing Indian Muslims. In a country with scant regard for political correctness, an anti-Muslim discourse is widespread across many sections of the non-Muslim Indian population.

Shortly after the attacks, a newspaper report of a Muslim airline stewardess being subjected to a vitriolic anti-Muslim tirade by a passenger on a domestic airline exposed just one of many routine incidents of prejudice facing the community.

By far the most pernicious is the charge that Indian Muslims are not patriotic and support Pakistan. "That," says Qasmi, "is really painful. That's where youths get led astray," he added, referring to a recent series of bomb attack across the country linked to SIMI (Students Islamic Movement of India), a domestic Muslim extremist group.

Another pressure point is the nationwide socio-economic marginalization of Indian Muslims. A 2006 government report found India's Muslims lagging far behind other communities in education levels, general employment levels and access to higher paying jobs, bank loans and social security.

The roots of the problem, Qasmi admits, lie within and outside the community. Following a recent series of bombings across the country, which were allegedly perpetrated by affluent Muslim professionals, Qasmi worries that the community's economic prospects could suffer further.

"If they are found to be guilty," says Qasmi, referring to the Muslim professionals accused of masterminding the recent bombings, "it will naturally lead companies and business owners to be extra cautious about hiring qualified Muslim candidates. I can understand that. Companies have to be precautious because they have to worry about their reputations."

Surrounded by a crowd of worshippers at the Jama masjid, Gous does not deny that there are immense problems facing the community. But the blame, he maintains lies far and wide. "Discrimination is going on," he admits. "But a lot of it is our own internal problems. We have to sort it out ourselves and with Allah's help, we will."

Date created : 2008-12-05