Wednesday, July 20, 2005

On madrasas, religion, secularism

William Dalrymple laments the unsophistication of the debate about the British bombers in this country. 'Islamic terrorism, like its Christian predecessor, remains a largely bourgeois endeavour', he says; madrasas are not bourgeois hangouts, so the relentless focus on them is misleading.

Much to agree with in this piece, although I'm sure the class analysis does not apply to all places and all times. My grandfather studied in a madrasa in the erstwhile princely state of Hyderabad. He was a Hindu by birth, but his father worked in the court of the Nizam, so I imagine the sons were made to learn Urdu (and Persian, which he then proceeded to flunk in his matriculation exams at the Shivaji Military School in Pune - can you imagine anything named after Shivaji teaching Persian today?). In later life, he went on to work in the very Anglo worlds of the Indian Army and the Calcutta Royal Western India Turf Club. He was fiercely secular all his life, but his kind of secularism was a lived, matter-of-fact, Indian reality - not the shallow rootless Nehruvian import it is so often made out to be.

(Meanwhile, on the other side of my family, they speak a Telugu which is heavily inflected with Urdu...)

I'm not sure if my great-grandmother is secular, but she certainly displays a stunning religious and cultural eclecticism. In her puja room are pictures of Jesus and Guru Nanak and statues of Hanuman, ranged around a big sandalwood centrepiece depicting Rama, Sita and Lakshmana. A few years ago, she collected her autobiographical reflections into a 25 page volume, which ends with an incantation to her guru - Swami Chinmayananda (whom many of the rest of the family viewed as a sort of Rasputin-like influence on her!) - followed by a poem by Tennyson ('Sunset and evening star / And one clear call for me...I hope to see my pilot face to face / When I have crossed the bar) - a final chant in the direction of her favourite deity 'Sri Ram Jaya Ram Jaya Jaya Ram', and her concluding words to the family ('to keep this big family united with love and understanding, ever helpful to each other') are rounded off with an Amen. My great-grandmother will be 91 in 5 weeks. Doesn't she sound like an original South Indian Brahmo?

so really the secular legacy is (also) one of pluralism, syncretism, interpenetration (and dare i say, miscegenation?)

but dalrymple is good and right to critique this pernicious claim that the people who perpetrate Islamist terrorism are apololitical fanatics, motivated by some anti-modern, ill-infomed generalised, hatred (of freedom, as bush would have it, or even just of pluralism, as ken livingstone--and rushdie-- have argued). because of course they are explicitly political (and heirs to an explicitly political tradition of radicalism) and we should pay some attention to their politics...while, per rushdie, also defending short skirts, dancing, queerness, and bacon sandwiches.

did i ever send you dalrymple's evisceration of bernard henri-levy's book on pakistan?

(the resulting pissing-match in the letters pages of the NYRoB, sadly looks to be behind a pay barrier now...)
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