‘No one in their right mind should identify with ISIS,’ says social scientist Prof Salman Sayyid

  • Riyaz ul Khaliq
  • Publish Date: Apr 23 2018 1:28AM
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  • Updated Date: Apr 23 2018 1:28AM
‘No one in their right mind should identify with ISIS,’ says social scientist Prof Salman Sayyid

Prof Salman Sayyid is head of the School of Sociology and Social Policy at the University of Leeds, United Kingdom, where he also holds the chair of Social Theory and Decolonial Thought. Speaking at the International Conference on Islamophobia, hosted by the Centre for Islam and Global Affairs of the Istanbul Sabahattin Zaim University early this month, he called upon the global Muslim community to undertake intense political activity to make their identity part of state structures and institutions. 

On the side lines of the conference, Prof Sayyid spoke with Riyaz ul Khaliq about a range of issues concerning the Muslim community in India and about the popular movement of Kashmiris for the right to self-determination.


Do you think India’s image as a secular country and the “world’s largest democracy” has shielded it from scrutiny when it comes to Islamophobia?

The story of 1947 is being told as that of one “good brother” and one “bad brother”; one failed state, which is always Pakistan, and one successful state, which is always India. But this has nothing to do with what is actually happening in the two countries. This image is important for the Indian elite but also for many of the European elite because it is partly shaped by Islamophobia, which says that the only possibility of being a successful Muslim is in India, that it is all integrated, all lovely.

Here, two things need to be looked at. One is the struggle over the numbers. The size of the Muslim population in India is always invoked partly to delegitimize the Two Nation Theory and thus Partition. That is the context; that is why the struggle in Kashmir is not recognised as a national liberation movement because it is not taken into account that Kashmir is the most heavily policed place on the planet. Actually, Kashmir is suffering the longest occupation in the contemporary world.

There is a kind of evasion about it. So, when you have Muslims being lynched for eating beef or something else, it is all dismissed. And it is not just after Narendra Modi’s coming to power, it has been happening since 1947. The perpetrators have often enjoyed some kind of support from agencies of the establishment.

India has existed with this claim of being secular and democratic even though systematic pogroms have been going on against the Muslim population. In fact, the Muslim population in India is becoming more and more urbanised partly as a result of such attacks. Yet, the narrative of Muslim pogrom is missing in the discourse about India. Even courageous Indian activists don’t talk about it.

Interestingly, if we look at data on sex ratios over the years, it has improved in Pakistan and deteriorated in India. But when someone asks which country has treated women better, people say India. Such things are not widely known.

The short answer is that the idea of India being the largest secular democratic country completely disguises its institutional Islamophobia and its institutional oppression of Muslims since 1947.


How do you see the idea of ‘Hindu India’?

The idea of India as a Hindu country is a paradoxical. The name India, which is used by Indian nationalists, is not from Sanskrit. The whole idea of what India means was partly a creation of European ethnographers who understood the country to be primarily the land of Hindus. Therefore, any non-Hindu presence, which basically meant Muslim, was considered to have been a result of invasion. This narrative was taken up by the British and it was carried forward by the Indian National Congress.

India is considered to be essentially Hindu and that’s what defines it. But these are not empirical geographies; these are the kind of geographies which exist in peoples’ heads.


What are the possible consequences of growing Islamophobia in India?

In the West, Islamophobia is based on the notion that Muslims are recent immigrants. But in countries such as India, China, Thailand and Russia, you can’t say Muslims are immigrants because the state emerged around them, that is to say Muslims were already living in these countries before they became modern nation states. So, India can’t simply say Muslims are recent immigrants because Muslims were there even when India as we know it today was not there.

In this case, Islamophobia is going to be exhibited slightly differently than in the West. But that does not mean it is not going to take some of these ideas that are circulating around the West. Essentially, Islamophobia in nations such as India is centred in the discussions about the place of the Muslim minority in the national identity.

In this, the Nehruvian secularist project and Modi’s communal project are not fundamentally very different, in that both demand the minorities to “integrate” into the national majority which means giving up their socio-cultural way of life. One model is to make all minorities homogenous by saying everyone is a Hindu and, therefore, they have to stop being anything else. The other is a secular model whose template is taken from the dominant religion, Hinduism, and, therefore, is open to everyone. In contemporary India, secularism is used for disciplining Muslims alone. 


Given that the Hindu fascists are increasingly asserting themselves in India, what kind of a future do the religious minorities, especially Muslims, have?

What is emerging in India now is almost like the Jim Crow system, which existed in America. After the African-Americans were freed from slavery, an elaborated system of regulation was gradually evolved to deny them socio-economic rights.

India is a very stratified society and when you hear very well-connected people saying they are afraid to eat in a restaurant in Delhi because people might think they are eating beef, it is going to affect how Muslims act, how they think of themselves, how they participate in the public sphere.

Now the only way around this is to form alliances with other marginalized groups such as Dalits and progressive forces.

The future of Muslims and other minorities really depends on what kind of India emerges and what kind of a national project they have to become participants in. Also, one gives up power on demand, it has to be fought for. The dominant groups will fight tooth and nail to keep their power. This could change only if, by some miracle, the various ongoing subaltern struggles turn into a broader struggle for shaping the future of India. But the one thing the powerful always make sure about such smaller struggles is that they are never connected to each other.


Why has Kashmir’s struggle for freedom not been able to transcend its locality?

Kashmir’s resistance movement shows us the failure of the Indian policies. There is no doubt about it.

India claims the resistance in Kashmir is because of “outside agitators”. But if there was no disquiet in Kashmir, there would be no room for so-called outside agitators and you won’t require 8,00,000 security forces personnel just to deal with “outside agitators”; it is the population itself.

The Kashmiri struggle has not been able to transcend its locality for many reasons. One, whenever Pakistan raises the Kashmir issue, it seems to become a problem between India and Pakistan. This is, I think, the failure of Pakistani policy as well. But it is also a fact that if Pakistan did nothing, the situation in Kashmir would be worse than it is today. That is one aspect of it.

Another problem is that India has been able to treat Kashmir as an internal security issue and, in that sense, achieve many convergences with the great powers that have problems with their Muslim minorities.

In the case of Kashmir, a sense is emerging that even the law is a system of oppression rather than a system of any kind of justice. This is what happened under the British rule. In a sense, the experience of occupation is not just in its violence, it’s in the day to day reality. Young men are always on the forefront of this; that is more or less a global phenomenon.

Committing violence on a minority or a vulnerable group is not considered abnormal in India, it has become normal. By extension, a violent occupation is normal as well.

If plebiscite is held, where do you see Kashmiris going?

If India was certain it would win a referendum, it would have held it long ago. They know they won’t win. If Kashmir becomes independent, it would not be harmful to either India or Pakistan. But the record of India’s relations with its neighbours should give Pakistan confidence because India has ruined it relations with all her neighbours. So, there would be no reason to assume India would be a model neighbour to an Independent Kashmir. On the other hand, it is almost impossible to imagine Kashmir being hostile to Pakistan.

Kashmir’s struggle does not have the same kind of clarity as that of, say, Palestine because it requires a redescription of India as a colonising power; that is what the problem has been.


What is the way forward for Kashmiris?

Without underestimating the challenges they face, the only way forward for the Kashmiri people is to become organised and politically more conscious; it should be part of their day to day struggle. This may not deliver results immediately, but that is the condition of the possibility of liberation. If you want to end occupation, you have to end occupation of your mind.

Significantly, what is missing is the narrative of a future Independent Kashmir. What would it look like? We know occupation and oppression is wrong but what is the kind of society we want to live in? I think these conversations need to start taking place because what this will do is that it will generate hope among people for future.


Of late, there have been a few incidents of some youth trying to link the political movement in Kashmir with ISIS or Al Qaeda. Can the Kashmiris reconcile to this idea?

No one in their right mind should identify with ISIS because the whole point of liberating Muslims should not be sectarian bloodshed; “liberation” should offer better rather than a mixture of Ba’athism and Takfirism.

Where you have Takfirism, you do not have the possibility of a better future. Anything that has anything to do with Takfirism will be a problem if you think about how Takfirism has been used to destabilise and fragment the Muslim societies.

So, this attempt to link the Kashmir movement with ISIS is counterproductive not only to the Kashmiris’ struggle political rights but also to the future of the Muslim Ummah.


Riyaz ul Khaliq is with the Centre for Islam and Global Affairs, Istanbul Sabahattin Zaim University, Turkey.