Two Nations and a Common Problem Called Islam

France is in flames, and the fireworks this Bastille Day are more likely to be on the streets than in the sky. Fireworks have been the weapon of choice in the riots that followed the fatal police shooting of a Muslim teenager on June 27. But the show must go on, and although President Emmanuel Macron has banned the sale of fireworks, he will go ahead with the country’s traditional national day celebrations.

That includes a July 14 military parade in Paris in front of a visiting foreign dignitary. This year the Guest of Honour will be India’s prime minister Narendra Modi. He is in Paris to boost economic ties—and pick up a few French submarines at a steep discount. The word on the street is that Macron has unexpectedly found himself with extra stock.

But Messrs. Modi and Macron will have much more to talk about than business and boats. Much like his beleaguered French counterpart, Mr. Modi governs a staunchly secular democracy with a large and restive Muslim minority. There are 6 million Muslims in France. There are 206 million in India.

As the fires, the barricades and the broken glass draw the world’s attention to the status of Muslims in France, there is an even bigger battle brewing in India. Two weeks ago, Mr. Modi announced he would be reforming India’s colonial-era Muslim civil code. Protests have been muted so far, but with an election due next year, the pot is simmering.

India may be a secular country, but—incredibly—India’s Muslims still live under Sharia law for personal matters like marriage, divorce, and inheritance. That anomaly is a legacy of the British Raj reinforced by Nehruvian socialism. When India’s first prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru reformed the civil code for other Indians in the late 1950s, he left Muslim laws intact.

As a result, Indian Muslims have lacked the basic human rights guaranteed to all other Indians for more than six decades. Or at least: Muslim women have lacked those rights. In most areas of India, Muslim girls can legally be married off at age 15. Muslim men can have up to four wives. A Muslim widow with children is entitled to only one-eighth of the family estate. If she has fellow wives, that one-eighth is split multiple ways.

Now reform is finally on the agenda, and the battle-lines are … confusing.

The reformers are a Hindu-dominated political party, Narendra Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), led by a prime minister who is routinely criticised for wearing Hinduism on his saffron shirtsleeves. The reactionaries are the Nehru family’s Indian National Congress (INC), the avowedly secular party that purports to defend the interests of Indian Muslims.

In the BJP view of the world, India is a modern, secular nation that should have a single, uniform civil code to cover all of its 1.4 billion citizens. The BJP may not have wanted a secular state, but they inherited one when they took office in 2014, and they have always insisted that if Hindus have to be secular, Muslims should be secular, too.

The BJP seems to figure that there are many Hindu votes in denying Sharia law to Muslims, and many female Muslim votes to boot. Critics have called out the BJP’s newfound feminism as pure electoral posturing. They may be right, but that doesn’t make the policy wrong.

In the INC view of the world, India is a multicultural nation that should respect the religious sensibilities of its minority populations. The state may be secular, but its citizens should be free to be religious. Well, certain citizens. Secular laws for Hindus, Sikhs, Buddhists, Jains, Christians, and atheists are fine, but in the INC worldview, the imposition of civil law on Muslims smacks of ‘majoritarianism’.

For decades, INC-aligned intellectuals have insisted that it should be left up to Indian Muslims to reform their own communal laws. In practice, that means leaving it up to conservative male imams. There are some two dozen female imams in all of India—and none of them are accredited by India’s 70 Islamic courts.

The violence in France shows what happens when a secular country closes its eyes to the challenge posed by a radicalised Islamist minority. India has long been alert to the challenge, and in the past has met it by appeasing the Muslim religious establishment. That kept the peace, but at a heavy human price.

Whatever critics might think of the party leading the change, change is long overdue. Indian Muslims should not be forced to live according to the dictates of an unelected religious establishment. In India as in France (or indeed Australia), respecting Muslims means according them the dignity that comes with the equal protection of the law.

Salvatore Babones is an associate professor at the University of Sydney and the executive director of the Indian Century Roundtable

15 thoughts on “Two Nations and a Common Problem Called Islam

  • brandee says:

    So good Salvatore to see your continued support for modernising India. Since the turn of this century some reform work was done with the abolition of the Triple Talik divorce concession to Mohammadans that was in the post British-India constitution.
    I seem to recall that before Partition the spiritual leader Gandhi offered to give the countries top leadership position to the Muslim nationalist Jenna if he agreed to keep the country together. This is why Gandhi was assassinated by a Hindu nationalist.
    India enhanced its national security when it encouraged the separation of East and West Pakistan with the latter now being called Bangladesh.

    • rosross says:

      India was created by the British who cobbled together the warring kingdoms. Assam should never have been included and the Partition, like most partitions was and is a disaster.

      Having lived in India for more than four years I have no illusions about Hindu fanaticism and their constant attacks on Christians and Muslims. The constant cry even in the 1990’s was, Hindoostan for Hindoos and they have only become more radical since.

      We lived in Bombay, not far from a Muslim community which was constantly attacked by Hindus. If India had remained united as a true democracy where religion did not rule Government, it would have been better for everyone.

  • brandee says:

    Sorry, East Pakistan became Bangladesh.

  • Katzenjammer says:

    France Muslim population is about 10%. India about 14%, Israel 20%. Sweden 8%. Does any Muslim majority country have minorities of comparable percentages? Are there others aside from Lebanon and Albania.

  • Peter Marriott says:

    Good piece Salvatore. ‘
    As I see it the difficulty all over world, and taking my cue from the English Philosopher Roger Scruton, when Islam comes into contact with other faiths, could be its inability to relate scripturally to forgiveness.
    Scruton thought this probably came about due to there being no appeal to it in the exordium, as there is in our Lords prayer with our ‘forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us……’ .
    In the exordium everything is left up to the mercy of God.
    It’s just an observation of course.

  • STD says:

    Islamic immigration has been a disaster for the west and for western culture.
    The Japanese have been smart, they could foresee the problems and basically kept these people away from Japanese culture.
    Muslims judge non Muslims to be infidels. They hate us.Our politician’s and the religious take these people at face value, minus the smarm.
    Ion Idriess was of the opinion from his time in the Middle East that these people could not be trusted.
    Our politicians are of the lowest quality, totally stupid, either that or totally corrupt; take your pick.
    Good work Salvatore.

    • rosross says:

      The Japanese are purists and allow no-one in so they are hardly targeting Muslims. They would not even let Koreans, probably their source long ago, migrate to Japan.

      Fundamentalist Muslims judge others to be infidels, not moderate Muslims. Just as fundamentalist Christians judge others to be doomed devil-worshippers and fundamentalist Jews judge others to be inferior as humans.

      I doubt you would judge all Christians, Hindus or Jews by the actions of their fanatics and yet appear quick to do so with Muslims. Standards and principles should be applied equally.

      • STD says:

        I presume the actions of the Australian Military are not the wish’s of the Australian government or people.
        Muslims are no good- this was the opinion of an Iranian women who lived Islam.

      • STD says:

        No rosross the Koran specifically Mohammad characterised others as infidels.

        • Katzenjammer says:

          All those pesky fundamentalissts are the same. That’s why the news has so many reports about havoc cause by fundamentalist Buddhists and Parsis.

          • STD says:

            Fundamental consensus – the so called fundamentalist’s are the foot soldiers of KORANIC ISLAM.
            Islam is basically a political force with a religious vigour (the Mercy on offer is ever – only political in nature).
            You can see the the same subjection coming to bare in climate politics where dissent against the Voice of doctrinal dogma and political con-sensus will lead to the skeptical removal of your ability to think otherwise.

  • rosross says:

    The problem is not Islam but multiculturalism. Australia had plenty of Muslims, often cameleers, in colonial days and they assimilated. Everyone assimilated until the idiotic idea of multiculturalism emerged from Canada.

    India’s Muslim population is native, as is Israel’s so they can hardly be lumped in with migrant populations. The Moors, or Muslims, ruled India for 600 years and so of course there were a lot of Muslims when India was created by the British who cobbled together the many warring kingdoms.

    The majority religion of Palestine was Islam although Christians were also a significant number and when the Zionists set up their colony in Palestine for Jews, of course they were going to be a religious minority. It probably did not help that in 1947 racism from European colonists towards Arabs, and Jews toward non-Jews, exacerbated existing problems. And in India, the hatred of the Moors still lingers. Indeed if the British had not arrived the Taj Mahal and many Moorish wonders would not have survived.

    The reality is no fundamentalist religion makes good migrant stock because they do not assimilate and that applies to everyone, Christians, Jews, Hindus, Muslims, any fundamentalist religion. However, one wonders if there would be as many radical Muslim refugees if the West, led by the United States, had not worked so hard to destroy countries with majority Muslim populations, i.e. Iraq, Libya, Afghanistan to name just three of too many.

    Also worth remembering it is harder for those from less developed countries and cultures to assimilate anyway as we see with Sudanese refugees in some parts of Australia. Most Muslims are moderate and that makes a huge difference because most Muslim refugees are not moderate.

    Who to blame? Whoever created the refugees, whoever promoted multiculturalism over assimilation or whoever allowed or encouraged ghettoes to develop? Probably everyone.

  • Elizabeth Beare says:

    Islam grew on never backing down, never giving an inch.
    Nothing’s changed there, in France or in India.

Leave a Reply