If a Fatwa Against Nahid Afrin Didn’t Exist, It Would Be Necessary to Invent It

Before checking the facts, TV channels jumped all over the alleged ‘fatwa’ against the 16-year-old singer.

Nahid Afrin. Credit: Twitter

Nahid Afrin. Credit: Twitter

New Delhi: On March 15, two stories from the north east featured prominently in the national media, particularly television channels. The first – the swearing-in of Manipur’s new chief minister, the third state in the region to be ruled by the BJP – was a story of great significance for the north east. Yet it got covered as a routine development of little consequence and was completely overshadowed by the sensational manner in which a ‘fatwa’ reportedly issued by 46 Assam-based clerics against a reality music show star, Nahid Afrin, was reported and discussed by angry anchors and angrier studio guests.

Assamese news channels “broke” the news on March 14 and it spilled onto social media by March 15, generating a lot of traction after it was picked up by some online news sites, finally peaking as ‘prime time’ coverage on national channels.

To a media accustomed to highlighting the obscurantist ways of Muslim clerics, the ‘facts’ of the case were too good to verify.  And for BJP leaders in Assam and at the national level, the ‘fatwa’ was a tailor-made opportunity to present themselves as the champions of not just the rights of Muslim women but also of cultural freedom. After all, the alleged victim was a Muslim girl studying in class 10 – a singer who had supposedly angered conservative mullahs.

Further pushing the story under the spotlight was Assam chief minister Sarbananda Sonowal’s quick response on Twitter – twice – denouncing the reported “fatwa”, and thereafter calling up Afrin’s family in solidarity and support, with a promise of “police protection”. This happened on the night of March 14.

The state police also dived in by announcing that as per a Times of India report, it was investigating a possible ISIS link to the issue.

More leverage was provided, again on Twitter, by writer Taslima Nasreen who had to flee Bangladesh after a fatwa was issued against her some years ago. She was soon joined by the judges of Indian Idol Junior – the show which catapulted Afrin to popularity.

From appearing in local channels and speaking to various print and online reporters, Afrin was on all TV national channels by the evening of March 15.

“I don’t even know what a fatwa is. Being a practicing Muslim, I don’t think singing is anti-Muslim. I am not afraid,” the 16-year-old girl said.

The watchdog that didn’t bark

The national media’s treatment of the Nahid Afrin ‘fatwa’ story was in stark contrast to the silence which greeted a similar ‘fatwa’ by senior BJP minister in Assam, Himanta Biswa Sarma against a popular youth festival in Guwahati in January this year.

Soon after Sarma issued his f̶a̶t̶w̶a tweet against the youth festival, the police moved in shut it down. Baba M. describes what happened:

“Nehru Park, located before the historic Cotton College was packed with more than 6,000 people when a police unit and CRPF jawans marched onto the grounds and began to shepherd people outside saying that there were orders from the chief minister to stop the event immediately. Some panic ensued but the crowds were soon evacuated. The event was closed down and the gates were locked by the administration and electricity was cut off.”

Far from condemning this assault on the “freedom of artists”, sections of the local media applauded the state government for shutting down what they said was a ‘anti-national’ event. None of the national channels which went to town in defence of Nahid Afrin’s right to perform bothered to even cover the abrupt scrapping of the Guwahati festival.

Looking at the facts

So how did the ‘fatwa against Nahid’ story appear in theAssamese media?

Fatima Ansari, Afrin’s mother told The Wire, “I got a call from a reporter on March 14 evening, around 5.30 pm, and was asked whether Nahid will perform at the musical function in Lanka area of Hojai district on March 25. He said because, as per a news item, she has been barred from doing so.”

Ansari immediately switched on the television and saw the ‘news’ being reported on the popular local channel DY365. “Till then, no reporter had contacted us. I took it to be true because after Nahid got popular through the reality show, many people from our community including the mullahs have said she should not sing; it is against Islam; some even said she should not wear mekhela sador and sing Bihu songs,” Ansari told this correspondent.

By mid-morning on March 15, however, it became clear that the alleged “fatwa” was actually not a fatwa at all. Rather, it was a pamphlet – a “guhari” or “appeal” in Assamese – reportedly pasted in the Muslim-dominated Nagaon and Hojai districts of the state. Importantly, the pamphlet or the so-called “fatwa” didn’t even mention Afrin’s name.

“If an anti-Sharia act like a musical night is held at a place surrounded by mosques, madrassas, graveyards, schools and colleges, our future generations will attract the wrath of Allah,” the pamphlet said.

The pamphlet mentioned the names of those who had signed it, along with the madrasas they were supposed to be attached to. Interestingly, as per a report in The Asian Age, “Some Muslim clerics who are said to have issued the fatwa” as per the pamphlet, “were neither traceable nor could be identified by local residents.”

“We are trying to find out those clerics who issued the fatwa against the singer,” a mosque committee member told the newspaper, adding, “It may be the mischievous act of some anti-social elements.” However, state police raided a few madrasas and picked up some clerics.

So then, who released the “fatwa”? On March 15, Assam state Jamiat-e-Ulama secretary denied issuing any fatwa against Afrin and asked, “Is that how a fatwa is issued? It is not a fatwa.” He said some clerics objected to having musical events near the mosque as they tend to become boisterous and continue well into the night, which disturbs many people and also affects namaz.

So why did the media call the pamphlet a “fatwa?” Some news anchors in Assamese channels suggested that the pamphlet stated that such musical evenings are against sharia law.

Well-known Guwahati-based educationist, author and political observer Dinesh Baishya said, “Yes, the mention of sharia law as the reason for not having a musical evening should be objected to. However, whether that makes this pamphlet a fatwa or not is a question to be asked. Also, I want to point out that Assam has seen many Muslim women singers and Nahid has also been singing for some time but none attracted a fatwa from any of the ultra conservative mullahs. So why now? What it looks like to me is largely a media creation.”

Interestingly, even by March 16, Afrin and her parents had not seen the pamphlet.

“We have not seen it yet, nor read it. Only last night, a news anchor read out two lines from it, which I heard,” Ansari said. She also took objection to the mention of sharia in it.

The news was, therefore, run without verifying whether it was a “fatwa” and, whether the people who were named in it had actually issued it. And, without checking the facts, the chief minister reacted to it.

The tyranny of sensationalism

On March 15, Baishya, formerly principal of B. Barooah College, Guwahati, and a familiar face on local news channels, took to Facebook to criticise the local media for discarding “issues that concern the state” for non-issues, saying, “So time is now to soak ourselves in music alone!”

“Why would a Muslim girl sing songs late evening by the side of a mosque is the most important issue for a section of religious leaders. An even bigger issue for us is, how can anyone stop a girl announced by a television company to be a topmost singer? Teachers are committing suicide because of non-payment of salaries, democracy is being abused, farmers are in a terrible state, hundreds of people are living under the open sky because the government razed their huts, lakhs of youth are unemployed in the state, but these are non-issues for us, only religion is an issue, only a musical event is an issue, we have no other issues,” he wrote.

“I am not surprised by it. Typically, Assamese news channels pick up non-issues and make them sensational to attract viewers and TRPs. They move from one story to another, keeping only sensationalism in mind. … No news story is followed up after some days. But sarcasm aside, media sensationalising such sensitive issues, just to get a ‘scoop’, is a cause of concern. Equally worrying is that such news gets a lot of prominence in the national media while more pressing issues from the northeast don’t,” said Assam-based social activist and former journalist Nurul Islam Laskar.

Many among the state’s Muslim community, however, agree that a section of clerics do involve themselves in issues they should not. Lashkar added, “On second thoughts, I would say what happened, happened for good. Many mullahs will now realise that they have to give a balanced viewpoint on issues and just can’t speak irresponsibly.”

Assamese poet and translator Syed Ahmad Shah felt, “Many mullahs in Assam are caught in a time warp, have no idea about the world outside. I strongly feel that some workshop or some such thing should be done to create awareness in them about various issues.”

Shah though, pointed out a direct fallout of media sensationalising such stories. “The media in Assam, like most parts of the country, is in the habit of making rou tu ke dhou tu (treating a mole as a mountain). Then, if such a story has a Muslim angle, many times, there is an unsaid pressure on the educated Muslims, on social media or otherwise, to quickly condemn such acts. In the process, you will find some Muslims even overreacting to such news, trying to be in a hurry to show how progressive they are.”

Mullah as ‘swach’ envoy

However, all mullahs in Assam cannot be painted with the same brush. For instance, Mufti Nashiur Rahman – principal of the Mangaldai-based Al Jamiatul Islamia Banat madrassa for girls – has been issuing fatwas every now and then but against filth and unhygienic conditions, and also against illiteracy.

“I have been issuing such fatwas for the last 10 years, particularly keeping in mind the Muslim dominated areas in the sand bars (Char-Sapori areas). People there are usually poor, uneducated, so they don’t know the linkages between living in unhygienic conditions and illnesses. Some of my fatwas are against illiteracy of women too.”

Mufti Rahman called himself a swachata doot and said he “is on a mission to make a ‘Swachh Assam’ which will eventually lead to a ‘Swachh Bharat’.” Recently, he was felicitated by the Assam Conference on Sanitation in Guwahati and will soon be organising meetings, seminars and workshops all over the state to talk about the importance of cleanliness, which he said, “is one of the cardinal principles of Islam.”

Reacting to the Nahid case, he said, “The mullahs have denied issuing a fatwa against Nahid, a guhari is not a fatwa but I want to humbly urge all mullahs that instead of just issuing any fatwa they should try to first win over the people with love. In this case, if at all there was an issue of people getting disturbed due to music programmes and jalsas late into the night and affecting namaz, the mullahs should have conveyed such concerns at discussions, not through pamphlets, if at all any cleric has done it.”

Meanwhile, Nahid went to school with tears in her eyes on March 15. Seeing camera persons at the school gate, she broke down and wanted to go back home.

“Her father insisted that she face people, that she has not done anything wrong. He took her inside the school, into the classroom,” Ansari said, adding, “My daughter is very young, affected by what happened to her. Tell me, tomorrow, if something happens to her, who will take responsibility? Will these mullahs do?”

Perhaps the media needs to answer that question too.

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  • Rohini

    The hyprocrisy and complete lack f rationality in this article is appalling. I can only say that I would not like my child to be in Afrin’s place where a number of clerics have focussed on a music program that she incidentally happens to be a star of – and have started to issue sharia law injunctions against music wrt that specific program. It is NOT aa coincidence and it is not innocent. Let’s not forget that Malala was shot because she did what she loved, against the clerics.
    Nowhere does the author address the obscurantism of trying to suppress music and dance and performing arts by the mullahs or about why they are talking about the sharia wrt to such arts.
    I am also seeing stars at the derogatory manner in which this author refers to Taslima Nasreen – a strong symbol of female MUslim resistant to bigotry imposed on women by clerics of that religion. A similar apologist
    pattern was observed when Zahira was targetted (the Dangal girl), when NAsreen was targetted in JLF etc.

    Stunning..stunning blinkered visions. I fear for our Muslim girls when authors who are supposedly liberals take such cowardly stands in the face of bigotry by Muslim clerics. I am afraid words cannot express my feeling of betrayal on reading such articles. DO those clerics need a single word of defence? certainly not! and yet, here we are…in the Wire.

  • Rohini

    Living in India, I have never seen or met a Muslim? That must be an alternative India that YOU live in! The Indiaa I know has everyone liing together, and we do not forst find out the reigion of hte person before deciding whether to weigh in on issues that affect them
    “Ms. Malala’s fight was against Taliban – who are more tribal than Muslim. ”

    Er. yes, we all know that! Thank you for reitertaing it, though.

    “eriously anybody with a beard is no cleric or scholar. She fought for education – which ask any Muslim around you – is mandated as one of the primary responsibilities of Muslims (seeking knowledge is obligatory on every Muslim man and woman – a famous Prophetic saying).”

    Convince me again, then, why young girls are not allowed to school without their hijabs or their burkhas and why the Taliban shot Malala for seeking knowledge? It sounsd to me like you are an apologist for these talibani type clerics who impose curbs on women.

    “And she was targeted by the right wing folk, right? H”

    It is a reflectioning of a certain mindset – you cannot run away from that. That mindset is what I am question. Why is a young girl being targetted like that when she is successful? You think she doesn’t deserve support from us when she is targetted and she should be forgotten?

    “She as I understand it stands for unfettered following of desires – which is offensive to us as we have a set of values that we adhere to.”
    In other words, you are a version of that Taliban masquerading as a normal person – when you say she follwos her unfettered desires, what exactly does that mean – that she wants equality, and the right to be un-hijabed, to wear what she wants, , the right to not be divorced by triple talaq and the right to be an atheist if she so wishes? If Islam is so all accepting, why are there fatwas on her life?
    In other words you support the clerics who gave a fatwa on her.

    Thank you – I suggest you look at the mindset that you have exposed with your post. THIS is the mindset that needs to be fought -you are right -it;s not just the Taliban or the clerics with a beard we need to fear – its ordinary folks like you who have a Talibani mindset about women wrt to Islam that we women need to fear.

    Goodbye and thanks for all the fish.e

  • Rohini

    I respect your point of view, which you are entitled to. But I completely and strongly disagree with your opinion that I have blinkered vision. You need to support your assertion with reasons as to WHY what I saying is blinkered.

    I strongly empathisse with Malala, Zahira and Afrin and any young girl subject to extraneous, prejudiced, obscurantist forces! I can put myself in their place and in the place of their parents and feel what I think they will feel in the face of such threats. AND I am not ok with supposed intelletuals and supposed liberals giving so much as an inch to such malevolent forces who can question what my daughters do. with I am calling out the author’s attempt to defend the indefensible. She is using technicalities to whitewash the bigotry. I am SO not ok with that.
    I don’t see why the reference to Malala is AT ALL irrelevant – it is completely relevant. A young Muslim girl doing what all kids should be doing – going to school, dancing, singing, enjoying life – without ANYONE, least of all some religious fanatics – telling them that they cannot do what is a fundamental right of EVERY child!! T

    “More leverage was provided, again on Twitter, by writer Taslima Nasreen who had to flee Bangladesh after a fatwa was issued against her some years ago”
    Reading betwen the lines, I find this reference derisive to Taslima. That’s my viewpoint. What it is implying is that this author somehow believes Taslima should NOT have spoken out against the situation..which is just …just as bigoted as the men who issued that fatwa against Afrin.

  • Rohini

    Er…speak for yourself when you say “WE feel righteous indignation when the moo-slims..eetc etc”. First off, you sound quite racist when you refer to Muslims in that fashion, so maybe you need to watch that.

    Second, Don’t be so presumptuous as to include me in your ‘we’ based on my name…I don’t align with any ‘we’. I think for myself and call it like I see it.

    I speak here as a woman and as a human being. I speak what I think is right and I don’t agree with the author’s attempt to whitewash the bigotry of the Islamists.

    And if you want my opinion about the BD or the VHP, perhaps we could engage again on an article about their misdeeds – you will get my opinion on such an article.
    Right here and now, I am addressing the present situation of a fatwa against Afrin. No need to boil the ocean for a spoonful of salt, correct?

  • Rohini

    “Stop parroting prejudiced opinions please”
    It is not prejudiced. It comes from experiencing it – the terrible effect of not having my hair covered in a country that expects women to cover their hair. So please stop lecturing me.
    “t is NOT an obstacle in education, ”
    Really? Then explain to me why girls say that they will not be allowed out without the hijab?

    “Why that hue and cry when somebody says she is wrong? Why that insistence to prove that what she is doing is right? She can lead her own life as “unfettered” as she wants to. A fatwa is anyhow not enforceable.”

    How then did Malala get shot? And why then is taslima attacked with slippers and her life threatened? You think its ok to threaten someone’s life for their views?
    hmmm…like I said, you are an apologist. And sorry, no matter HOW qualified your family is, a hijab is a symbol of repression of women. I BELIEVE that. You can choose to disagree. But when I see little girls as young as nine start on it, with no choice, when I see a little girl being made to covering every inch of her body and hair, I have a problem with that!! OK?? Nothing you or anyone says or any number of degrees one dangles in front of me will convince me otherwise.

  • Rohini

    Well, given what is happening around the world, I don’t know if ISIS is just a ‘buzz word’!
    And if you choose to believe that a fatwa on your head is just a lovely little whisper of encouragement, you may choose to do so. I am not one to shy away from calling that spade by its name, to spare the feelings of a few. Good luck to you. We agree to disagree.