November 20, 2001
Today's News Quiz
By THOMAS L. FRIEDMAN
EW DELHI -- So, class, time for a news quiz: Name the second-largest Muslim community in the world. Iran? Wrong. Pakistan? Wrong. Saudi Arabia? Wrong. Time's up — you lose.
Answer: India. That's right: India, with nearly 150 million Muslims, is believed to have more Muslim citizens than Pakistan or Bangladesh, and is second only to Indonesia. Which brings up another question that I've been asking here in New Delhi: Why is it you don't hear about Indian Muslims — who are a minority in this vast Hindu-dominated land — blaming America for all their problems or wanting to fly suicide planes into the Indian Parliament?
Answer: Multi-ethnic, pluralistic, free-market democracy. To be sure, Indian Muslims have their frustrations, and have squared off over the years in violent clashes with Hindus, as has every other minority in India. But they live in a noisy, messy democracy, where opportunities and a political voice are open to them, and that makes a huge difference.
"I'll give you a quiz question: Which is the only large Muslim community to enjoy sustained democracy for the last 50 years? The Muslims of India," remarked M. J. Akbar, the Muslim editor of Asian Age, a national Indian English-language daily funded by non-Muslim Indians. "I am not going to exaggerate Muslim good fortune in India. There are tensions, economic discrimination and provocations, like the destruction of the mosque at Ayodhya. But the fact is, the Indian Constitution is secular and provides a real opportunity for the economic advancement of any community that can offer talent. That's why a growing Muslim middle class here is moving up and, generally, doesn't manifest the strands of deep anger you find in many non-democratic Muslim states."
In other words, for all the talk about Islam and Islamic rage, the real issue is: Islam in what context? Where Islam is imbedded in authoritarian societies it tends to become the vehicle of angry protest, because religion and the mosque are the only places people can organize against autocratic leaders. And when those leaders are seen as being propped up by America, America also becomes the target of Muslim rage.
But where Islam is imbedded in a pluralistic, democratic society, it thrives like any other religion. Two of India's presidents have been Muslims; a Muslim woman sits on India's supreme court. The architect of India's missile program, A. P. J. Abdul Kalam, is a Muslim. Indian Muslims, including women, have been governors of many Indian states, and the wealthiest man in India, the info-tech whiz Azim Premji, is a Muslim. The other day the Indian Muslim film star and parliamentarian Shabana Azmi lashed out at the imam of New Delhi's biggest mosque. She criticized him for putting Islam in a bad light and suggested he go join the Taliban in Kandahar. In a democracy, liberal Muslims, particularly women, are not afraid to take on rigid mullahs.
Followed Bangladesh lately? It has almost as many Muslims as Pakistan. Over the last 10 years, though, without the world noticing, Bangladesh has had three democratic transfers of power, in two of which — are you ready? — Muslim women were elected prime ministers. Result: All the economic and social indicators in Bangladesh have been pointing upward lately, and Bangladeshis are not preoccupied hating America. Meanwhile in Pakistan, trapped in the circle of bin Ladenism — military dictatorship, poverty and anti-modernist Islamic schools, all reinforcing each other — the social indicators are all pointing down and hostility to America is rife.
Hello? Hello? There's a message here: It's democracy, stupid! Those who argue that we needn't press for democracy in Arab-Muslim states, and can rely on repressive regimes, have it all wrong. If we cut off every other avenue for non-revolutionary social change, pressure for change will burst out anyway — as Muslim rage and anti-Americanism.
If America wants to break the bin Laden circles across the Arab-Muslim world, then, "it needs to find role models that are succeeding as pluralistic, democratic, modernizing societies, like India — which is constantly being challenged by religious extremists of all hues — and support them," argues Raja Mohan, strategic affairs editor of The Hindu newspaper.
So true. For Muslim societies to achieve their full potential today, democracy may not be sufficient, but it sure is necessary. And we, and they, fool ourselves to think otherwise.
Copyright 2001 The New York Times Company