Ram Swarup’s Skewering of the Myth of the Liberal Muslim

In a deeply philosophical essay, Ram Swarup, the towering philosopher and intellectual elucidates why there is no such thing as a Liberal Muslim using the hounding of Mushirul Hasan as a case study
Ram Swarup’s Skewering of the Myth of the Liberal Muslim

REMEMBER MUSHIRUL HASAN? The gentleman died in 2018, five years after his long career as an academician came to an ignominious end when he was forced out of the Jama Milia Islamia on charges of “dereliction of teaching duties.” 

According to Hasan, the real story of his sacking, was scripted elsewhere: “The Jamiat Ulama-e-Hind, the Jamaat-e-Islami and Ittehadul Muslimeen went after me… [I was] accused of eroding Jamia’s minority character by appointing Hindu academics.” 

In hindsight, there was simply no other way that it could have ended for Mushirul Hasan. It all began with his admonition in 1992 — months before the disputed structure in Ayodhya fell — against the banning of Salman Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses. 

The obvious consequences followed. 

Overnight, Hasan became the target of a vicious, no-holds-barred campaign. The then Imam of the Delhi Jama Masjid put out this fatwa against him: “anyone who defends Salman Rushdie is defiling Islam." The undercurrent of the Imam’s message was clear: by defending Rushdie, Hasan has almost committed apostasy. Hasan’s students at the Jamia Milia immediately took the cue and sloganeered, “Qaum ka gaddar, Maut ka haqdar!” Days later, Mushirul Hasan was assaulted by the same bigoted student mob. The management of the Jamia Milia told him that it could not guarantee his safety. And so, when he issued an apology, it was too late. 

A parallel drama was also developing. Hindu secularists found in Mushirul Hasan, the ideal Muslim progressive liberal that they were so desperately looking for. Yet, they did not openly come out in his support when his own community was baying for his blood. About a year before he was exposed as a highly-paid stenographer moonlighting for Nira Radia while he was still employed at The Hindustan Times, Vir Sanghvi wrote a flattering piece in which he extols “Mushir” (sic) as “your classic old-style, liberal Muslim intellectual.”  

Two reasons explain the refusal of these wizened Hindu secularists and liberals to stand by Hasan. 

We’ll look at the second reason first. With due respect to his passing away, Mushirul Hasan epitomises the myth of the Liberal Muslim or Muslim Liberal.

The first reason is explained by the modern Rishi, Ram Swarup in an incisive essay he wrote just a month after Hasan was targetted. Titled Swords to Sell a God, the essay is a brilliant model that shows how even contemporary issues must be examined on the touchstone of philosophy. Ram Swarup directly gets to the heart of the matter.

“Did Mr. Hasan badly miscalculate? Did he not realise the moral pressures under which he was working? Or, did he think he could brazen it out and earn an instant reputation as a liberal and a progressive without having to pay a price for it?

Whatever his compulsions, the episode has proved again that there are not many Muslim liberals around, that they have to work under great pressure, and that though they might establish their credentials cheaply among Hindu secularists, they will have to work at a more fundamental level to deserve it.”   

And then Ram Swarup sets about clinically dismantling the gigantic fraud that is also known as Indian secularism.

The Jamia Millia controversy offered its own dilemma to India's secularists who have a close alliance with Islamism. The alliance works under a veneer of liberal-sounding slogans. But when the Muslims themselves are divided, the secularists too are paralysed and take recourse to equivocation. To retain their ideological face, they must appear to support the Muslim liberals, but in practice they go along with the Bukharis, Ali Mians, Saits and Shahabuddins. The sleight of hand satisfies no party. The Muslim liberals feel let down. The Muslim fundamentalists feel the secularists must follow the lead of mainstream Islam…

They expect the Hindu secularists to abandon hypocrisy and own up to the alliance with Islam.

The fundamentalists have repeatedly proved that the so-called Muslim liberals do not matter. It is they who represent the authentic voice of Islam. That is, the voice of the Quran and the Sunnah, and Muslim law and history. They expect Hindu secularists to realise this.”

When we read the aforequoted lines of Ram Swarup more closely, we notice its practical application most glaringly in the Hindu secularist support to the Muslim clergy in the Ram Janmabhoomi episode. In the guise of safeguarding the interests of the Muslim “minorities,” Romila Thapar & gang were actually toeing the line of the fundamentalist Muslim clergy — i.e., the Bukharis and Shahbuddins that Ram Swarup mentions. 

And in the case of the blighted Mushirul Hasan, it was even worse. By speaking against the ban of The Satanic Verses, Hasan, in the view of the Islamic clergy, had indirectly blasphemed the Prophet himself. Death was the only befitting punishment, as the aforementioned slogan, Qaum ka gaddar, Maut ka haqdar, shows. And this is the tribe of “scared minorities” that Hindu secularists have consistently supported. And this is precisely the point that Ram Swarup exposes when he writes, 

“… in countries like India where the Shariat law no longer prevails, but where Muslim opinion counts, any critical discussion of the Prophet and Islam is regarded as lacking in good taste. It is unsecular, a great lapse from accepted ideological morality. Critical writings are as a rule edited out and even often banned. Indian intellectuals have complete freedom to admire Islam and its Prophet and they make full use of it.”       

And then, Ram Swarup nails the crux of the matter.

Fundamentalism is not accidental but essential to Islam. It is inherent in those religious ideologies which are built on a narrow spiritual vision, have a limited psychic base, and which emphasise dogma and personalities, other than experience and impersonal truth. Islam's fundamentalism is rooted in its theology, its founder and his practices. It means that it will also have to be fought there. But this point is ill-understood and, therefore, the struggle is at the best of times phoney war.”

It is regrettable that a bulk of the criticism of Islam that has emanated from the Hindu side lacks this sort of penetrating philosophical clarity. Such clarity will ensue from a deep and meditative study of Vedanta. It will equip the Hindu thinker and the critic with the insight needed to undertake a truthful and detached study of comparative religions. Once again, Ram Swarup shows how this should be done: 

A worthwhile liberalism among Muslims does not consist in merely having a dissenting opinion on certain matters of personal law and social usage. It involves waging a deeper struggle against Islam's fundamentals, its concept of God, the last Prophet (khatimunnabiyin) and the Revelation that ends all revelations. For example, it will have to discuss whether the Prophet speaks for Allah or Allah speaks for the Prophet. It will have to rethink the whole question of kafirs, Islam's name for its neighbours. It should raise the question whether Muslims should have the kafirs treat them as they treat kafirs. But this is a question best raised by the kafirs themselves and the Muslim liberal can follow suit.”

And then, Ram Swarup delivers the knockout: 

The need of the time is to examine the whole concept and assumptions of revelatory religions, such as of a particular community being "chosen" as the swordsmen or salesmen of god. When a divine message commands, kill the idolators wherever you find them, we must give a close look not only to the message but also to the messenger and his source of inspiration. Judged by this standard, we find that most of the Muslims who sail under a liberal banner bring no honour to it. They represent a variant of Muslim fundamentalism.

It is easy to blindly repeat one-liners like “a liberal Muslim is a myth” and variants thereof because it is the fashion of the time. But it is tougher to explain such one-liners with the requisite philosophical understanding. In our context, it is evident that Mushirul Hasan was no liberal Muslim but it takes stalwarts like Ram Swarup to elucidate why he wasn’t one. 

In fact, in the aforementioned puff piece by Vir Sanghvi, Mushirul Hasan inadvertently confesses that he was no liberal Muslim when he says and Sanghvi quotes,  “[Hasan] said that while he found the book deeply offensive, he did not believe in banning books.” See how neatly this ties in with Ram Swarup’s exposition: “…most of the Muslims who sail under a liberal banner bring no honour to it. They represent a variant of Muslim fundamentalism.” 

|| Sri Rama Jayam ||  

The Dharma Dispatch is now available on Telegram! For original and insightful narratives on Indian Culture and History, subscribe to us on Telegram.

The Dharma Dispatch