Blurb: Nazia Erum’s book focuses on the grave issue of growing Islamophobia in India post 2014 affecting Muslim children at a very early formative years of their lives, and how young Muslim mothers are struggling to deal with it. Staring with stories of communal bullying in schools, the author proceeds to talk about ‘Conservative Islamization’ and pits it directly against ‘Rabid Islamophobia’, suggesting that the latter is a consequence of the former. While the first half of the book is a path breaking work opening up important dialogues the second part is deeply problematic as it tries to address a complex issue using simplistic binaries of good Muslim bad Muslim.

There was always an elephant in the room. We knew that the elephant existed but nobody was willing to talk about it. Nazia Erum’s book ‘Mothering A Muslim’ puts a beam of flood lights on the ‘elephant’ in the hope that we are no longer able to ignore it. Because if we don’t start talking about it, it would cause irreparable damage to India’s collective future.

It wasn’t so much of a secret that Muslims in India are viewed as the suspicious “other” who are stereotyped and discriminated against. What Nazia Erum’s book reveals is that this “othering” begins at a very early stage in the school playgrounds and classrooms and that it happens among the English speaking upper class elites, demystifying the perception that narrow minded prejudices is a thing of the ‘illiterate poor’. The book also looks at some of the supposed ‘fault lines’ within the Muslim community which, the author believes, have confused the Indian Muslim identity, and holds them partially responsible for taking our society where it is today (Chapter 7, How Did We Get Here?).

Although titled ‘Mothering a Muslim’ the book is not really a parenting guide for Muslim mothers. Based upon her interviews with over one hundred Muslim families and children the book presents a thought provoking criticism of the atmosphere of polarization, intolerance and racial prejudices among small school children and teachers but doesn’t quite provide a solution. Towards the far end (Appendix 3) the author does briefly touch upon the actions that needs to be taken by parents and schools in cases of communal bullying but that is not the central theme of the book.

Young Muslim mothers are both the protagonists and target audience of this book. While this doesn’t go well with my feminist sensibility, as it reinforces women’s role as mothers and primary caregivers, the author interestingly has taken a feminist position in doing so. “While men easily become political pawns, it is the need of the hour for women to rise. We are here, this is our, and we are part of the story that is India,” writes the author, giving an excellent clarion call to women to understand their roles as mothers beyond ensuring ‘healthy meals’ and ‘sparkling white shirts’, and pay attention to the kind of political beings their children grow up to be.

The beliefs and ideas we receive from our mothers during our formative year make the base of our lifelong learning. The Muslim mothers therefore have an ardent task of raising their children amidst a hostile atmosphere of communal bullying. As I read the book, I tried to recall the ideas I received from my mother regarding Muslims, which is almost non-existent, except for the two words ‘মুসলমান উধ্যষিত’ meaning ‘Muslim populated’ used by her in the context of discussing location and places. My mother was a left-liberal feminist and she raised me as one, with  a childhood completely free from religious or caste based prejudices. It wasn’t until a school function in the 6th standard, where I saw few of my school mates wearing Burqa, that I even realized there were cultural differences between Hindus and Muslims. While my mother didn’t give me any negative ideas about Muslims, she didn’t give me any positive ideas either, basically no idea about who Muslims were. So, when I came across a stark cultural difference which immediately made my school mates the “others” in my eyes leaving me uncomfortable, I had no reference point to process this “other”.  

Nazia Erum’s book attempts to fill this void. It makes a case that there is a need of dialogue between the parents and teachers and the children in both communities, to help them understand cultural diversity, and respect differences. For this reason alone, this book is a path breaking work.

One of the most thought provoking story is the story of five year old Azania who was petrified at the sight  of a large Muslim crowd. While a five year old doesn’t know her own religious identity, she shrieked in fear saying, “The Muslims are coming! they will kill us.” Who put this stereotype in Azania’s mind?

The stories emerging from school playgrounds and classrooms reek of this prejudice children are picking up from the media and casual conversations at home. If a child has a Muslim name, s/he is bullied, called a ‘Pakistani’, a ‘terrorist’, asked to ‘go to Pakistan’. Sometimes there are casual jokes, ‘don’t piss her off, she will bomb you’, at other times it is serious cases of children hitting someone saying, “I hate Muslims.” Several such stories are cited in the book, of children refusing to eat together or sit together with Muslim classmates; a college registrar refusing to provide address proof to a Muslim IIT student, a teacher simply saying, “it (communal bullying) happens” and so on.

After a point though, the stories became a bit repetitive, the violence mostly being about ‘Pakistani’ or ‘terrorist’ or ‘go to Pakistan’. I am surprised the author did not come across more subtle forms of stereotyping and Islamophobia. One of my journalist friends who is raising her children as agnostic, had her seven year old daughter coming back from school one day insisting, that the next day her mother must put the customary dahi teeka for good-luck in exam. Why was this important? Because otherwise the classmates ask her if she was a Muslim. The next day when the mother did put the teeka, the child was asked by one of the teachers, “In the name of which God have you put this teeka?

A shift in focus of the book 

The book has eight chapters and chapter four onward, the focus shifts from schools and colleges to inside Muslim homes – how Muslims are self-censoring, trying to put on a good behavior because “Mahaul kharab hai (these are bad times)”; how mothers are always worried that their sons shouldn’t be exposed to radicalization; the pressure to be better Muslims coming from the conservative members whom the author calls, ‘haram police’. In a scathing criticism of the religious conservatism pervading Muslim community the author makes a case that too much focus on ritualistic details while missing the larger picture of “civic issues, education, and aspirations,” would only lead to radicalization among Muslim youth.   

Here the author seemed to have overstepped and made a significant departure from her theme when she opened up the question of what leads to radicalization? This is a very complex question with no simple answer. But that’s what the author attempts to do, which diluted the purpose of the book. A collective reading of the last four chapters that is fifty percent of the book gives the impression that the burden of integrating better with the majority community so as not to give them any reasons for Islamophobia is on the Muslims. At one point the author refers to the sudden mushrooming of too many mosques in a locality as a problem. At another (page 74) a mother is shown worrying about the kind of influence her teenage son might be having by visiting the mosques too often. One wonders, is the author conclusively saying that all mosques are centers of radicalization?

The concepts of ‘jihadists’ and ‘radicalization’ appear in chapter 5 in such a manner as if these exist in isolation without any social context. The Muslim community is worried that their children shouldn’t be radicalized, but what is ‘radicalization’, why is the Muslim community suddenly driven to embrace and assert their religious identities – these sensitive issues are not discussed. Rather, a simple cause and effect statement is presented – bullied children are pushed to radicalization therefore communal bullying should be stopped. The fact that racism and Islamophobia in itself are wrong, irrespective of whether or not they lead to radicalization, takes a back seat.

The fundamental right to practice and profess any religion of one’s choice as enshrined in Article 25 of the Indian Constitution gives every Muslim the right to keep a beard howsoever long, suddenly increase their mosque visits, build as many mosques (by legal means) as they wish, wear pyjamas and burqas instead of jeans and t-shirts, without being called a Pakistani or terrorist. This core message is lost in the binary of good Muslim vs. bad Muslim, the good ones being those who are better ‘integrated’ having Ganga-Jamuni tehzeeb and the bad ones being those getting influenced by conservative Islamization coming from Saudi Arabia, pumped with money and power.

Asking the poignant question “How did we get here” in chapter 7, the author compares the present Muslim community with those fifty years ago and squarely puts the blame of today’s increased polarization on the influence of Wahhabism and Salafism on Indian Muslims.

Personally, I think this is a highly contentious position to take, but assuming the author has her own reasons, the book ends with a call to young mothers to choose the right kind of Islam for their children. Essentially, should they be ‘less Muslim’ to be well integrated? That is a big question put upon the Muslim community.

Sadly, the book has no big message for majority community.