“We are just like everyone else, we care about all the things that other Indians care about, we care about the GST, fuel prices…,” said Zainab Sikander. It’s only been a few days since Sikander, Swara Bhasker and Gauahar Khan posted selfies with placards saying, “#TalkToAMuslim”. But in that short time they’ve hit an already irritated nerve pretty hard.
— Zainab Sikander (@zainabsikander) July 17, 2018
It all started, as these things now inevitably do, with a false headline that misquoted Rahul Gandhi as saying the Congress is a party of Muslims. Although the story has since been debunked pretty thoroughly, BJP leaders, including the PM, made a big deal out of Gandhi’s meeting with a group of Muslims. Why exactly was it so controversial for Gandhi to have spoken with a group of Muslims?
Sikander’s idea was a simple one, she wanted to show that it’s normal to talk to a Muslim, that Muslims are human, just like the rest of the Indian populace. She didn’t want to sit back and watch this normalisation of ostracisation.
The broader picture
The campaign may have started with the Gandhi situation but given the stereotypes and discrimination that plague Muslims across the country, the campaign has taken off as a general stand against ignorant prejudice. has spread rapidly across the country. Yasser Ahmad Siddiqui, a 20-something from Delhi said he supported the campaign and thought it would be beneficial in the short term. He said, “If talking to me could change the mindset of a person with regards to Muslims, I would happily do it. I would want them to know that I don’t bite.”
Sikander, as a Muslim, has had her own set of encounters with people’s ignorance. In college, a fellow student asked her if her clitoris had been cut off. “She was referring to female genital mutilation. And I had to explain to her that no, that’s an Ahmadan tradition – that’s a cultural thing, not a religious thing,” recalled Sikander.
Sikander hopes that the campaign encourages people to humanise Muslims and realise that each individual is made up of much more than just one single identifier.
Others, like Omair Ahmad, say they sympathise with the campaign’s supporters, even though don’t agree with them. Talking is not the problem, he says. “You think Akhlaq’s neighbours didn’t talk to him? They still lynched him.”
He also referred to Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s speech at former vice-president Hamid Ansari’s farewell as a “great” example of how this government talks to Muslims. For context, several people described that speech as “uncivil” and said it was characterised by “churlishness and impoliteness”.
Ahmad simply wants the state to do its job and treat him and other Muslims as the citizens they are. It’s not about being a Muslim to him, it’s about demanding the fulfilment made to Indian citizens by the secular state of India.
Ahmad doubts that talking to a Muslim will stop the lynchings and the ghettoisation that afflict Muslim communities across the country. Take for example the most recent one in Alwar. Lynchings are now an ‘epidemic’ plaguing the country.
Saamir Askari, a 24-year-old from Delhi agrees. He told TheWire, “Frankly, I think it’s sad that it’s come to this. If we all wouldn’t be swayed by certain political parties and their vitriolic vote-grabbing practices, we wouldn’t need such an online movement.”
People might not agree on the campaign’s usefulness, but they do agree that the handful of Muslims most Indians get to talk to, rather hear from, are definitely not representative of the entire Indian Muslim population – and that needs to change. TV debates regularly feature the same clerics who look a certain way and say outrageous things, said Sikander. “I wonder if they get paid to say such things,” she added. Ahmad also referred to Muslim ministers in the government who have confidently denied lynchings. The ‘token’ Muslim voice only adds to the stereotypes.
“I’m tired of being talked at,” said Ahmad. He added that other rights-based movements like MeToo and Black Lives Matter don’t put the burden on the disenfranchised group, instead they hold the perpetrators accountable. There are millions of Muslims voices that need to be listened to, not talked at. And the things they say then need to be acted on.
While Sikander assumes that those who may now approach a Muslim person to talk to them are doing so in good faith, Ahmad clearly feels that’s an optimistic read on our current Islamophobic moment. So, what does Ahmad want? “Just stop lynching people.” This government came to power saying ‘Sabka saath, sabka vikaas’, he said. That’s all Ahmad wants – what is constitutionally owed to Muslims.
In the past few days several people have accused Sikander of adding to the problem by promoting the idea that we all live in neatly contained silos. But Sikander thinks those people, especially Muslims, are in denial about the current state of affairs. Even critics like Ahmad sympathise with Sikander’s motivations because it is true that Muslims in India and around the world are facing an increasingly Islamophobic culture.
For Sikander, the only way forward – towards a world where Muslims aren’t always the ones held back for random security checks or treated with suspicion wherever they go – is to put herself out there and engage with the same ignorant questions repeatedly if it means that on the seventh or eighth try, she won’t have to explain herself.
But others are tired of shouldering the burden of other people’s actions – they don’t want to be asked the same questions about eating non-vegetarian food and women’s rights over and over again. They don’t think it’s fair to expect them to justify their place in society. After all, Muslims haven’t marginalised themselves. If a mob attacks a group of Muslim men while they pray at a Gurgaon mosque, whose responsibility is it to prevent such a thing from happening again? Why should the responsibility of fixing it fall on them and not the ones who hold cultural and political power?
As Askari pointed out, “Did we have this movement before 2014? Did it ever cross anyone’s mind that it would be a great idea, for communal harmony, that we should all talk to the nearest Muslim available? No we didn’t. Because we didn’t need one. To champion this hashtag movement is to imply that Muslims are different to begin with, that we must really try our best to understand them. The fact is, we are all the same.”
Apart from people arguing the merits of the campaign on Twitter, #TalkToAMuslim has already trickled into the real world.
Only a few days after her initial post, someone sent Sikander screenshots of a Whatsapp exchange that really boosted her belief in the campaign. In the chat, a Hindu member of an apartment complex’s resident welfare association forwarded a ‘joke’ on Muslim stereotypes to a residents’ group. A Muslim resident responded by politely inviting the sender to tea at his house so they could sit and chat about his beliefs about Muslims.
Funnily enough, Inquilab, the paper that sparked the whole controversy with its poorly chosen headline, ran a piece praising the movement as revolutionary. A fact that Sikander can’t get over.
These aren’t the only unforeseen consequences of the campaign. On Twitter, you can find several parody posts with #TalkToABrahmin which make fun of the community’s perceived sense of victimhood and the caste persecution often perpetuated in the name of ‘culture’.
“At least everyone’s talking about it (#TalkToAMuslim),” said Sikander wryly.
A single question underlies most of these disagreements – When the state goes out of its way to marginalise you and sets a cultural precedent that normalises ostracisation, how does one fight back?
As Aamena Ahmad (no relation to Omair), a 24-year-old from Gurgaon put it, “I honestly don’t want to believe that we have reached a point where we need a campaign like this. But I also want to support it and put myself out there… Just in case this has the potential of removing bias and changing minds, which again I’m highly sceptical of.”
After a pause she added, “Desperate times, desperate measures.”