Interview with Maulana Waris Mazhari: Muslims and Media

Interview with Maulana Waris Mazhari: Muslims and Media

By Yoginder Sikand

Based in New Delhi, Maulana Waris Mazhari is a leading Indian Muslim scholar. A graduate of the Dar ul-Uloom at Deoband, he edits the Tarjuman Dar ul-Uloom, the official organ of the Deoband Madrasa Graduates’ Association. In this interview with Yoginder Sikand, he reflects on Muslims and the media in India.

Q: How do you see the Indian Muslim press in terms of its coverage of social issues related to the community and the country as a whole?

A: I think what is called the Muslim press in India, at least the largest chunk of it—the Urdu press of northern India—leaves much to be desired. Most Urdu papers are characterized by a heavy dose of theology, narrowly understood, and their approach is religious and sectarian and insular. One reason for this is that most of those who read Urdu newspapers are madrasa-educated or associated in some way or the other with religious organizations. Most of them are from the lower middle-classes. This is an issue that concerns Urdu as a language in India today, which, for all practical purposes, has been forced into the ghettos as the language of the madrasas. That is why the vast majority of books published in Urdu these days are about religion alone.

So, as I was saying, the north Indian Urdu press reflects the narrow worldview of the madrasa-educated class, highlighting those issues that appeal to such people—issues to do with religion and community identity and so on. If such papers were instead to publish, say, serious articles on science or economics, they would hardly find any readers! That is why, for instance, while Urdu papers have no economics page they inevitably have a movies page! Even a small press release of some obscure Muslim group becomes front page news in such papers because this is precisely the sort of stuff that their readers want.

This tendency is made worse by the competition between rival Urdu newspapers for the same readership, each seeking to beat the others in reporting or even creating sensational stories, mainly about real or alleged anti-Muslim and anti-Islamic incidents and developments or the real or imaginary victories of Muslims or Islam in some place or the other. This is the stuff that many Urdu newspaper readers love to read. Take the weekly tabloid Nai Duniya, for instance, which excels in whipping up stories about anti-Muslim prejudice. In this way, by fanning Muslim emotions, it seeks to promote its circulation and, thereby, its revenues. And there are more than enough Muslims around who just want to read this sort of stuff, who are just not interested in serious issues. They suffer from a peculiar sort of complex or syndrome, exhibiting the mentality of a defeated community that is beleaguered at the hands of others, suffering tremendous and mounting insecurities and that can be appeased by such stories.

I am not saying that this is somehow inherent in the Muslim psyche. Rather, my point is that recent developments in India and globally directed against Muslims have created or reinforced such a mentality that tends to see the whole world in stark terms, and that can easily fall prey to the theory that the rest of the world is engaged in some sort of anti-Islamic conspiracy.

Because of this, the Muslim press tends to focus only on the real and imaginary problems of Muslims, but ignores the many opportunities that are available to them. The huge population of Muslims in India is itself a big force that can create numerous opportunities. And then the Indian Muslims have so many institutions, many of them that were set up even before the Partition. These could have been expanded and vastly improved, but, sadly, our leadership, including our media that thrives on playing up our problems and neglecting the opportunities that we have, do not pay much attention to this.

And so the situation of the Muslims continues to steadily worsen. It cannot change unless we realize that the solution lies not in agitation and communal controversy, which our media continues to promote, but through serious and positive efforts at social reconstruction. Sadly, the Muslim media has done little to promote this agenda, thriving, instead, on reinforcing the ghettoized and paranoid mentality. It generally ignores issues related or of interest to modern-educated, middle-class Muslims. It is thus hardly surprising that such Muslims prefer not to read Urdu or other Muslim-owned papers at all. In general, one could also say that those Muslims who want news about the community read Urdu papers, while those who want to know about national and international developments would prefer English papers, not finding much of interest in Urdu papers. In other words, I would say that the Urdu press does not represent all Muslims, in terms of readership as well as coverage of issues, despite the tendency of some Urdu editors to claim to the contrary.

Q: The media tends to project the ulema as leaders of the community. Particularly in north India, most community organizations are headed by ulema. Why is it that middle-class, modern educated Muslims tend to play only a minor role, if at all, in such efforts? How can they be made to be more involved in the social issues of the community, including through the media?

A: Middle-class, modern educated Muslims simply do not enjoy anything even remotely resembling the sort of trust and popularity of the traditional ulema. I think there are problems on both sides in the relationship between the ulema and the small, modern-educated Muslim middle-class. Many traditional ulema simply do not consider it useful or necessary to work with middle class Muslims, thinking them to be somehow not religious or Islamic enough. Many of our ulema give such undue importance to relatively minor issues, which they consider as major issues of religion, that they just cannot tolerate working with other Muslims who do not come up to their standards of what they conventionally take to be true religiosity. They are simply not broad-minded enough to tolerate this. That is why they rarely invite middle-class, modern educated Muslims to their programmes or involve them in their work, although there are many such people who could make valuable contributions if allowed to.

But the problem is also on the other side. Many middle-class Muslims consider the ulema to be wholly obscurantist and medieval in their outlook and hopelessly out of touch with the realities of the times. Hence, they prefer to stay away from them. This, too, is not the right approach, for there are among the ulema many enlightened scholars who are aware of contemporary developments and demands.

There is yet another problem. Like the middle classes in other communities, the Indian Muslim middle-class, by and large, is simply too concerned with its own materialistic aspirations to take any serious interest in Muslim social issues or to use the media to highlight the concerns of the Muslim masses. That is one major reason why there are so few such Muslims who work for the relatively low-paying Urdu press. Further, many middle-class Muslims desist from identifying too closely with Muslim issues for fear of being arbitrarily branded as ‘communal’ or even ‘fundamentalist’ by their non-Muslim colleagues.

Q: Since a large proportion of Urdu journalists come from madrasa backgrounds, and, as you said, many readers of the Urdu press are also from madrasas, what do you think about the proposal that several people have made that madrasas should launch journalism courses for their students?

A: No madrasa has launched a programme of this sort as yet, although there is growing realization among many ulema of the madrasas of the importance of the media, given the role of the media in demonizing the madrasas. There has been some talk, though little practical effort, with regard to engaging with the media in order to counter this propaganda. Some madrasas and Islamic organizations claim to have established media cells, but basically these are restricted simply to cutting and filing Muslim-related news reports and occasionally sending out a press release. They are not really very effective, and the general public knows nothing at all about their work. On the whole, I would say that the ulema still do not fully realize or comprehend the immensity of the media challenge and the need and the means to respond to it creatively and positively.

I feel some of the larger madrasas can, indeed should, launch journalism courses for their graduates, especially those madrasas where English is also taught. This, of course, requires proper planning and organized effort. The sort of shoddy, haphazard and half-hearted work that we are now so inured to in the case of the madrasas simply cannot do. Madrasas that want to start such courses would need to have properly trained and qualified teachers. Obviously, they cannot insist that all these be madrasa-educated ulema or even Muslims of a particular brand, the dadhi-topi wala Muslims who conform to the ulema’s vary narrow understanding of piety. They should even be open to the idea of employing non-Muslim experts to handle the courses. They also have to invite non-Muslim journalists and interact with them to get their views across and to seek to understand the many serious questions and concerns that these journalists have about Islam and Muslims. I wonder if they will be open-minded enough to do this. Honestly, I have my doubts as to whether our traditional ulema will allow this sort of interaction. But one thing is sure. Without at least this minimum tolerance and broad-mindedness, nothing can change.

Q: How do you think Muslim community organizations could interact in a more meaningful way with the ‘mainstream’ media in order to get Muslim views across to the non-Muslim public and the state?

A: I think that for this there is no alternative to personal interaction. One way to do this is to form a sort of platform for Muslim journalists, including those who work with non-Muslim media, so that Muslim organizations can work with and through them and seek their advice on media-related matters. There are many Muslim journalists, including in the ‘mainstream’ media, who would like to do their bit for the community in this way but cannot for lack of any organized platform. So, setting up such a platform is an important step.

Then, of course, there should also be some mechanism—perhaps a platform of some sort—through which Muslim organizations can interact and dialogue with non-Muslim media persons, particularly those who are genuinely concerned about Muslim problems. The initiative for this has to come from the Muslim organizations. I have written about this several times in the magazine that I edit in the context of anti-madrasa propaganda in the ‘mainstream’ media. My point is that since the madrasas complain about Islam and madrasas being targeted in the media, they should organize programmes to which they should invite non-Muslim media persons and interact and dialogue with them.

Q: But, the question is, do the ulema of the madrasas have the financial as well as cultural capital to do this sort of thing, to launch journalism courses and so on?

A: I firmly believe that it is not money or the difference in cultural capital or lifestyle that is the major barrier in this regard. Rather, the most formidable barrier is the peculiar mentality of the traditional ulema. It is not a problem of the mentality of the general Muslims. Ordinary Muslims are not going to begin boycotting ulema if they interact with non-Muslim journalists in the precincts of the madrasas. It is some very narrow ulema who will oppose this, not Muslims on the street. Some of these mullahs are so narrow minded that they believe that, by definition, all non-Muslims—and particularly all non-Muslim media persons—are ‘anti-Islam’. Naturally, such people cannot tolerate any sort of dialogue with the media. And as for financial resources, let me tell you that some madrasas have annual budgets that run into several crores of rupees. They have sponsors who could, if asked, donate more than enough money needed for the sort of work that I have spoken about. So, money is not the problem.

Q: How do you see the way in which Muslim social issues, as distinct from religious concerns, are reflected in the Muslim-owned press?

A: The coverage that these issues receive in the Urdu press very clearly reflects a siege mentality characteristic of a minority complex that has been exacerbated by ghettoistic tendencies among Muslims, anti-Muslim discrimination and the hate politics of Hindutva. So, the issues that are covered in the Urdu press generally relate to controversial ‘communal’ issues involving anti-Muslim discrimination and attacks on Muslims and their identity, while other crucial social issues of the community, as well as internal factors for Muslim marginalization get much less attention. And there is also a marked tendency, particularly in magazines brought out by different Muslim religious groups or jamaats, to adopt a sectarian position or approach not just to religious issues but also to social issues relating to the community. This makes their perspective even more narrow and restricted.

The Indian Muslim press in general is not wide enough to accommodate a variety of Muslim views, be it theological, social or political. This is particularly so in the case of papers and magazines brought out by particular Muslim religious jamaats that have their own regular sources of funding and so do not have to cater to a wide variety of tastes and opinion in order to generate funds for their survival. Because these papers are funded by the jamaats that they represent, they do not feel the pressure to compete with other papers for readership and revenues, and so there is nothing to goad them to become more broad-based in their reporting or coverage or to give more focus to social issues than at present, remaining content with a heavy dosage of religious news.

Q: How far do you think the Muslim-owned press has been able to communicate Muslim views and concerns to non-Muslims and to the state authorities?

A: I think that in this regard the Muslim-owned media has been singularly unsuccessful. Despite their massive population, the Indian Muslims still lack a single English daily newspaper that could have served as a vehicle for transmitting Muslim views to others. The vast majority of Muslim-owned magazines and newspapers in north India, where the bulk of the Indian Muslims live, are in Urdu. Most of them are also religious and ideologically driven, catering only to a Muslim readership. This being the case, how can they play any role at all in reaching out to non-Muslims or government authorities?

Obviously, for this to happen we need to have many more English publications and periodicals. If we want Hindus and others to hear our
views and voices, our papers must also be of interest to them. This means that we need to change our style and approach of our media. We must also be willing to listen to the points of view of others, rather than persistently harping only on our own. But in this regard the Muslim-owned press performs miserably. It only speaks, or claims to do so, on behalf of the Muslims, but does not listen to what non-Muslims have to say. Naturally, unless we learn how to listen to others and this is reflected in our media, others are not going to listen to us.

Q: There have been repeated attempts by Muslim organizations to set up English-language news magazines focusing on Muslim social issues. Yet, almost all such efforts have flopped. The few such magazines that do remain have hardly any non-Muslim readers, and so do not serve the purpose of communicating Muslim aspirations and concerns to others. What do you have to say about this?

A: I think one major problem has been to generate adequate funds to launch such magazines. Muslims are willing to open their purse-strings and liberally support all sorts of emotion-driven causes in the name of Islam and the ummah but not for this sort of serious work. They think that giving money to a mosque or madrasa is a means for acquiring religious merit in the hereafter, while supporting a serious community-based magazine is a ‘worldly’ affair that would bring them no such blessings! Overnight, lakhs of rupees can be collected to build a mosque on a street that already has three or four mosques, but hardly any Muslims would be willing to shell out a few rupees to support a Muslim social science research centre or a magazine that wants to work for the sake of the community. This is a reflection of a very warped, ritualistic understanding of Islam that is divorced from issues of social concern, and one which the traditional ulema have had a vested interest in promoting and reinforcing.

Despite the failures of most attempts by Indian Muslims to launch English-language magazines, I still feel that this is something very important that Muslim organizations need to seriously work towards. Particularly in the last two or three decades, and owing, in no small measure, to the acts of certain self-styled Islamists, Muslims and Islam have suffered from a bad, indeed hostile, media image, including in the enormously influential English media. A strong and vibrant English-language Muslim media can play a key role in responding and seeking to counter this image and to promote dialogue between Muslims and others. As of now, at least in north India, Muslims respond to allegations leveled against them and their faith by others through the Urdu press, which they alone read. Naturally, this does not at all help in countering deeply held anti-Muslim prejudices among many non-Muslims.

It is, however, not enough simply to start a bunch of English-language magazines or papers if they continue to reflect the same narrow-mindedness and the obsession with Muslims and a narrow vision of Islam that is so characteristic of a major section of the Urdu press. Such papers will definitely attract no non-Muslim readers and so can play no role at all in bridging the gulf between Muslims and others. They cannot be Muslim-centric if they want to count non-Muslims among their readers. They cannot be mouthpieces or apologists for the community. After all, non-Muslim don’t want to read only about Chechenya or Palestine or the academic works of some ulema or about Islamic laws. So, the media that we want to devise to reach out to people of other faiths with our message has to be broad-based. It has to also focus on issues that concern others, that relate to the whole of humankind. They cannot be one-sided, ideologically-driven, insular and communal. They cannot defend the indefensible. They have to condemn Muslims when they go wrong, just as they should with regard to other communities—unlike in the Urdu press where even the faults of Muslims are often projected as virtues. They must serve as bridges to promote genuine and mutual dialogue between Muslims and others.

Q: In recent years some Indian Muslim TV channels have emerged. How do you see their performance?

A: Before I answer that let me say that, sadly, there is really no serious thinking on the part of the Muslim leadership, especially the ulema, on the importance of the electronic media. Many of our ulema continue to insist that photography is haram or prohibited, and so rule out not just television but even publishing pictures of human beings in newspapers. Thankfully, the Arab ulema resolved this dilemma quite some time ago, legitimizing both, and at least in the Arab world there is no controversy about this. But there is in India, where, recently, some mullahs declared that using television even to broadcast Islamic programmes is allegedly ‘un-Islamic’. Another set of mullahs allowed for television, provided no images were broadcast! Can you imagine this? So, my point is, before we think of launching television channels, let there be a consensus on the legitimacy of the electronic media and a recognition of its importance.

At the same time, we also need to realize that the electronic media can survive only on the basis of advertisement revenues. Now, the traditional ulema are bound to raise questions and objections here too, but I would argue that in this regard we need to decide how to adjust to the demands of the time while keeping intact our basic Islamic identity. Surely, some middle way can be devised. Then, television channels must also have space for entertainment. Dry, preachy religious stuff alone will not suffice. This again would appear to contradict the traditional religious approach, which, sadly, frowns upon laughter and enjoyment, but we will have to tolerate and accept this. Traditional mullahs might rant and rave against women newsreaders or even to women, no matter how modestly clad, appearing on television, but we have to rise above this, as they have in the Arab world. We need to raise and discuss the issue of what is or can be an Islamically-acceptable form of entertainment.

If we fail to do all this, no number of television channels launched by Muslims will serve much purpose. They will all have a very restricted, entirely Muslim, clientele, like Zakir Naik’s Peace TV channel, which I find stultifying and boring and unnecessarily polemical. They will prove singularly unsuccessful in attracting non-Muslim viewers and conveying the Islamic or Muslim opinion to them.

Existing Muslim television channels tend to be almost wholly concerned with religion, often a very narrow, ritualistic version of it that is divorced from social concerns and problems. This reflects a fundamental crisis in and stagnation of Muslim thought that makes an unwarranted distinction between ‘religious’ and ‘worldly’ affairs. I think Muslim TV channels—and the Muslim media in general—need to broaden their focus to also deal with social issues, such as economic and educational problems and opportunities for Muslims, political questions, inter-community relations, women’s issues, the problems of madrasas and so on. They need to be much more holistic and socially engaged in their approach to and coverage of issues than they presently are.

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