Islam, Respect and the “Youth Spring”

27May13

TentLast weekend (17-19 May), Solidarity Youth Movement hosted a three day “Youth Spring” festival to commemorate the tenth anniversary of the movement. Solidarity is the youth wing of the Islamist organization Jamaat-e-Islami Hind based in Kerala. The state of Kerala in southern India democratically elected the first Communist government in 1957 and continues to be dominated by Marxist ideas today, albeit with neoliberalism ever creeping. The festival focused on the themes of resistance and revolution, with an exhibition hall built entirely by volunteers that educated participants about Solidarity’s history and social activities first-hand. Throughout the three days, prominent intellectuals, politicians and activists from across India participated in a series of lectures and debates. Specially commissioned artwork, films, plays, and music were all on show. And the closing ceremony, attended by around 50,000 Indians, also included international speakers with the keynote address delivered by renowned political scholar, activist and author Dr. Norman Finkelstein. I too was honored to be present at “Youth Spring” and delivered the inaugural address.

The Don

While much Western scholarship, including my own, focuses on Islamic charity in the MENA region or in the Muslim majority countries of Asia, Islamic activism in India, where Muslims are a minority, is not often the topic of our research and media. This is a travesty because Solidarity has a lot to teach us. A socially progressive religious-based organization, members describe Solidarity as an Islamic movement rather than a Muslim one, a discursive choice that is especially meaningful in the context of India. According to Solidarity activists, a Muslim movement is one that is Muslim in character and aspires towards a specifically Islamic society, whereas an Islamic movement is one that is motivated by Islamic values but aspires towards a multicultural society. So while Islam is the motivation that inspires collective action, the work being done is non-demoninational and for all humans – or in this case Indians. Furthermore, non-Muslims are encouraged to become members of Solidarity and stand for leadership roles. In this way the movement is hoping to build an Indian society where there is mutual respect for all religions, peoples and cultures, rather than following the problematic model of Western tolerance.

Although tolerance is generally regarded as a positive characteristic of Western political society, scholar Wendy Brown points out that to tolerate is not to affirm but instead to conditionally allow what is unwanted or deviant. Brown (2006, 46) believes that the liberal discourse of tolerance dominant in the West actually promotes the de-politicization of particular norms, because “the subject of tolerance is tolerated only so long as it does not make a political claim, that is, so long as it lives and practices ‘difference’ in a depoliticized or private fashion.” [1] In this way the dominant norms and practices of Western society are recognized as desirable, while anything outside of these norms and practices is merely tolerated, and even then only as long as the claims being made by the marginalized are not political. In other words, non-Westerners and especially Muslims are tolerated only so long as their political identities remain private. This model not only re-articulates the marginalization of Islam and Muslims, but also further depoliticizes our dominant norms (Western) while politicizing our marginalized norms (Islamic).

RespectBy trying to promote mutual respect, Solidarity introduces the possibility of a more progressive society that all Indians can share. While it was not possible for me to ascertain how far the movement has gone to achieve this in the wider Indian society during my visit, Solidarity’s impressive array of social and political activities in Kerala does indeed reflect this openness. Solidarity champions free speech and campaigns for the release of political prisoners, regardless of their religious affiliation. It also strongly advocates for the liberation of Palestine. It is anti-capitalist and involved with various developmental projects inside India, including building green housing for the poor, supplying water to rural families, educating progressively minded entrepreneurs, and creating environmentally sustainable products and solutions. The movement is involved in numerous political activities as well, including protests against the multinational exploitation of India, the use of pesticides and genetically modified crops, and the Indian government’s plans to build unnecessary highways and infrastructure that will benefit the rich and dispossess the poor. Solidarity is also involved in campaigns to support indigenous peoples’ claims to the land and protect the sustenance of their communities.

Green Housing     Water     Highway

Although membership in Solidarity is restricted to men, we were told that women usually comprise around half of the audience at public events and rallies, and there is an affiliated women’s chapter called Girls Islamic Organization that actively collaborates with the movement. Indeed during the “Youth Spring” numerous women shared podiums with men, giving speeches and participating in debates, and even performed onstage with Solidarity’s Revolution Band, singing resistance classics from around the world, including Bob Marley’s “Buffalo Soldier.” The “Youth Spring” festival was widely covered by the Indian media, including Solidarity’s newly launched satellite channel Media One Television and the movement’s newspaper Madhyamam, which are both based upon the same principles as the movement. If only the the Western media were also present to cover this truly inspirational event.

[1] Wendy Brown, Regulating Aversion: Tolerance in the Age of Identity and Empire (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2006).

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