– Shahzaman Haque
A quick search for the famous Islamic idiom, “Allah Akbar”, on Google Scholar shows that many studies link it more with the terrorist organisations than with Islam. “Allah Akbar” was the trademark of Al-Qaeda. Later, the same credo was chanted by the doubly-dreaded terrorists from ISIS. It was the departing line of Muslim suicide bombers. “Allah Akbar” left a deep scar on the victims of terrorism, and particularly those who didn’t know about Islam.
When an unusual attack like stabbing happens in Paris, people ask whether the assailant uttered “Allah Akbar” or not. Wajahat Ali wrote in his op-ed in New York Times, dated November 1, 2017, that it is now understood as code for “It was terrorism”. This is the heritage which Al-Qaeda and ISIS have left in Europe and elsewhere.
Khalid Beydoun also wrote in The Washington Post, dated August 25, 2018, that “Arabic was inextricably tied with terrorism”. Muslims have been ejected from flights for saying routine phrases like “Assalam Aleikum” (Peace be upon you) and “Inshallah” (If Allah wills it), he reminds us.
However, for Muslims in general, Allah Akbar remains non-controversial. It is a reminder of pious feelings. It simply means ‘Allah is Great’. It does not denigrate another God in this world of Gods. It does not mean Allah is greatest or Allah is the only great.
This expression has come into the limelight in the current, ongoing country-wide protest against the controversial Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) passed by the Indian Parliament on 11 December 2019. Muslims fear that they are directly targeted under this Act, as all refugees with Indian roots who are persecuted in Pakistan, Bangladesh or Sri Lanka will be given Indian Citizenship – except them. Moreover, if the new requirements for the National Register of Citizens (NRC), are put into force throughout India, the chances are high that many Indian-resident Muslims will fail to prove their citizenship. These allegations have, however, been repeatedly denied by the Indian Prime Minister, Narendra Modi, and his ministers following protests all over the country.
Indian Muslims came out in large numbers on the streets to protest against this dastardly Act violating Article 14 of the Indian Constitution, which does not distinguish a person on the basis of religion and treats him or her equally before the law. Though a large number of Hindus, Sikhs and people from all walks of lives joined the protest, the onus was on the Muslims as their existence was directly threatened.
“Allah Akbar” occurred as the central chant in many places among Muslim youths. Images of the inscription of “Allah Akbar” were seen on the walls of university campuses. The protest was taking on a religious colour. It looked like Muslims were being denied the right to exercise their faith in India, and they were reaffirming their religious identity. In fact, it was a genuine expression of fear. Muslims know that they are very vulnerable. They invoke their God for help and they try to muster courage for a long fight.
“Allah Akbar” soon became the bête noire of neo-liberals and sympathizers of the Bharatiya Janata Party, the ruling party of India. Furthermore, it has emboldened the fascist groups who made the recitation of “Allah Akbar”, the attire of Muslims, and the Urdu poems selected by Muslim groups the target of radicalism and bigotry. The focus even briefly shifted from CAA to Muslims’ attire, thanks to the condescending comment of the Indian Prime Minister that he could recognise the protestors by their clothes.
The burden on Muslims of being secular or un-Islamic has been going on for a long time. This obligation has been given only to Muslims in India. They must not look Muslim; they must not speak Arabic or Urdu in public or in government places. Muslim youths have already alienated themselves from Urdu and are finding their identity in secular hybridisation.
Apoorvanand wrote in The Wire, dated 22 December 2019, that the “Hinduisation of India is seen as natural”. When there is constant nourishment of anti-Muslim narratives all the time, there is a feeling that Islamic civilisation stands opposed to or in conflict with Hindu civilisation.
It is highly unfortunate that Indian Muslims have to pay the price for being “Indian Muslims”. Indian Islam is unique in the world. It has the attributes of a much higher degree of tolerance and empathy for its fellow, non-Muslim citizens than one can find elsewhere. If there is a home for Indian Muslims in the world, it is only in India.
“Allah Akbar” is a unifying force, but only for those who share the umbrella. It alienates others, just as any other religious slogan will do. There is no connection between this Islamic slogan and the demand for which Muslims have come out on the street. What, then, is its purpose here?
How does “Allah Akbar” argue the case against discriminatory exclusion of Muslims from acceptance for Indian citizenship as a persecuted community ?
Rarely, one might have seen chants of “Allah Akbar” in Muslim countries, either during the Arab Spring uprising or during a protest against a dictatorial regime, for the simple reason that “Allah Akbar” asserts only that Allah is great, but it does not advance any argument to counter social injustice.
As long as there is a type of counter-current against Islam in India, the demands of Muslims should transcend any religious connotations and more broadly embolden the spirit of resistance. Protests should stick to the basics of the problems – the unjust exclusion of Muslims from the Citizenship Amendment Act and the difficulty of getting documentation to register as an Indian citizen.