A piece of uplifting news caught my attention in the first week of April, a welcome change from the hateful tide of victim-blaming and community-shaming that so many sections of the media have wallowed in lately.
Nearly a hundred mosques all over Germany and the Netherlands resounded to the call for prayer (Adhan or Azaan) that Friday (and every evening since) through loudspeakers installed on minarets “in a bid to boost the morale of Muslims amid the coronavirus lockdown.”
I came across this news item on social media, in an article written by one Elizabeth Jane Becker, “The Sound of Solidarity? The Adhan and the Possibility of a New Civic Body in Europe.”
A PhD in Sociology from Yale, Becker’s book project, ‘Mosques in the Metropolis’ (under contract with University of Chicago Press), uses “years of ethnographic, interview, and archival research to compare two migrant/post-migrant mosque communities in Europe, showing different approaches to incorporation: one emphasizing harmony and the other redemption.” At the heart of this project are “questions about European boundaries, cityscapes, civility and remembrance.”
In spring 2018, Becker co-organised a conference at Yale University’s MacMillan Centre titled ‘Religion and Politics: The tensions between populism and pluralism’. If ever there was a ripe time for a soul-searching fair, free-wheeling discourse on this subject in India, it is now.
It is the first time in the history of both Germany and the Netherlands that the Adhan was permitted to regularly penetrate public space. Prior to this, it was allowed only on “special occasions.”
This move, no doubt in response to the COVID-19 crisis, is acknowledged by Becker as a “desperate grappling for social unity and godly protection.”
Her observation should give pause for thought to many of my friends, even in the medical community, self-professed atheists or agnostics or nonbelievers, or whatever label they wish to give to their nonbelief in the existence of a Higher Power, (which ironically is a belief system in itself. So they “believe” in nonbelief).
My own faith-ometer fluctuates as wildly as my diurnal blood pressure chart. But rant and rail as I might at this Higher Power, it is this very conversation, this very dialogue that I have with that Power that keeps me going and sees me through so much turmoil in my own life and especially when I despair at where my nation and my world are headed.
After the Delhi pogrom, just before the COVID lockdown, many of my atheist friends on social media took to making smug, sanctimonious posts hinting at the wisdom of their nonbelief by pinning all the blame on ‘religion’.
What such a standpoint ignores is the fact that in every instance, all the ills, all the negatives attributed to Religion in general, or any religion in particular, only occur when the message of peace, love and harmony is hijacked by false prophets, politicians and parties for their own devious diabolical agendas, of power, influence, money and greed. Religion is just the pretext for the agenda.
Conversely, religion when practiced in its true spirit and essence can instill a true inclusive all-embracing community spirit and offer much solace especially at a time like this when people everywhere are afraid and desperately need such comforting. “Religion is a great consolation to the suffering,” sings Violetta in the final Act of Verdi’s ‘La Traviata’.
As Becker puts it, the Adhan, or “Calling out [to prayer], with the knowledge that no-one can come together, over a hundred mosques seek to heal collective wounds.”
When there is no protection to be found elsewhere, what harm would a steadfast belief in ‘godly protection’ do? Even if a ‘placebo effect’, isn’t that worth holding on to?
“Today, as the world comes to a grinding halt, the mosque rises as such again, offering an opportunity for deepened solidarity through a medium that can touch us even in isolation, uniting us through sound.”
Becker talks about those “collective wounds” cutting deeper, hinting at much older “wounds” of the Muslim communities in Europe, long discriminated against, scapegoated and targeted on account of their being born into that faith: “those already marginalized are affected at far more devastating levels than the economically and socially sheltered.”
She points to the “reality that Europe has long resisted the inclusion of its Muslim populaces, who largely migrated as post-colonial migrants and guest-workers, called to rebuild fractured European countries after World War II. It has since delimited their rights, resisting the bestowal of citizenship for decades….Even with legal equality, politicians and media outlets long continued to suggest that Muslims and/or Islam cannot fully belong to European nation-states.”
I’m sure you’ll find a similarity there with the stances of some of our own politicians and media outlets, and they are just as wrong and misguided as their European counterparts.
Although the UK post-Brexit may not technically qualify for inclusion in discussions about Europe anymore, the doctors and healthcare professionals among the first to die in the line of duty during this coronavirus pandemic have almost all been immigrants, and overwhelmingly Muslim among them.
Becker makes a mention of her forthcoming book ‘Mosques in the Metropolis’ in which she makes the case that “exposing the deep and unrelenting inequality faced by diverse Muslim populaces, as well as their capacity to exert agency, the Mosque rises as both a threshold space and an interstitial opportunity for building solidarity.”
This solidarity, she continues, “may center on fomenting deep mutual support within, and yet extending beyond, Muslim communities into the cities and states in which they live. This includes focusing on shared concerns, from the natural environment’s decay to supporting vulnerable populaces, and building knowledge that can transcend taken-for-granted assumptions about Islam.”
Those taken-for-granted assumptions, as we know, abound, both there and here. They seep perniciously into society, and colour news reportage and societal and even the medical professions’ responses.
I am referring to the odious instance, emerging into the spotlight in the same first week of April 2020, where a government hospital in Rajasthan refused medical attention to a laboring woman, resulting in the death of her newborn baby, merely due to the fact that she was Muslim. The incident was roundly condemned, but the damage was done.
Becker also touches upon the debate around that troublesome word, “tolerance” which she describes as “a bitter civilising discourse disguised by a saccharine rhetorical wrapper of the enlightened, liberal sensitivity—a contronym perfectly synonymous with its own antonym: intolerance.”
She refers to late sociologist and philosopher Zygmunt Bauman’s “Postmodernity, or Living with Ambivalence” in which he argued toward talking about solidarity instead.
“A public adhan is arguably an expression of such solidarity rather than tolerance.”
True solidarity (in the words of Bauman scholar Shaun Best) emerges when “the ‘I am responsible for the Other’ and ‘I am responsible for myself’ come to mean the same thing.”
We can only hope and pray that this COVID crisis, (despite all the efforts those who wish to sow division) teaches us, as we mourn our dead all over the world, that “so much more unites us than divides us.” May the lesson be a lasting one. We owe it to our children, and to their children after them. We are in this together in solidarity, and we will also survive this, together.
(An edited version of this article was published on 29 April 2020 in my column ‘On the Upbeat’ in the Navhind Times Goa India)