Mr. Ahmed Bukhari, Shahi Imam of Jama Masjid, can be heard preaching from the pulpit every Friday. Newspaper reporters and television crews are, however, not despatched to record his exhortations to the gathered faithful every Friday. Yet, when a Muslim anywhere in the world does something considered unacceptable, the rent-a-quote Imam's fiery opinion on the event is taken as the word of all Muslims in India, splashed on the front pages of newspapers and amplified on television. After all, in the world of sound-bite journalism how much better can you get, post-September 11, than the chief Imam of the country's largest mosque who supports Osama bin Laden and calls a high profile woman MP a whore.
Having grabbed attention with the Imam's guaranteed to be incendiary views, the same newspapers and TV channels demand that Muslims who do not share his opinions speak out to distance themselves from his statements, speak out to avoid the "Hindu backlash"", speak out to prove, in the words of Mr. George W. Bush and the thinking of the Sangh Parivar, that they are either "with us or against us".
This is a crisis of Muslim identity generated by the media. It is perfect fodder for media debates. But, unfortunately, it does not end there. It feeds into a far more dangerous way of thinking, normally associated with the Sangh Parivar, which is premised on the belief that Muslims are not Indian, i.e., they are not 'one of us', unless explicitly proven otherwise. Even those who acknowledge this as a problem appear to believe that it is sufficient, as many in the media have argued over the last few weeks, that liberals who are Muslims are given space to be heard.
This, however, is only an extension of the concern expressed from time to time, in some parts of the media, with trying to understand 'the Muslim mind' and 'Muslim thinking'. Concern that carries the tone of scientific curiosity, no different from that of the officers of the Star Ship Enterprise when faced with an unfamiliar and apparently threatening blob somewhere in the wilds of outer space.
All that the category 'Liberal Muslim' does is to create two blobs instead of one, two stereotypes instead of one - moderate and conservative, anti-Osama and pro-Osama, those who are with us and those who are against us. And simply giving liberals, who are Muslim, media space to voice their opposition to the views of their conservative co-religionists changes nothing. It does not alter the mindset which presupposes the need for Muslims in India to declare which side of the imagined divide they are on. Nothing puts this more sharply in focus than the media's unselfconscious call, after September 11, to 'Liberal Muslims' to make themselves heard to prevent a 'backlash', to 'break barriers', to 'build bridges'.
The fact that a Muslim in India is deemed to be a liberal, or rather a liberal Muslim only when she publicly denounces Imam Bukhari and announces her opposition to Osama bin Laden is a comment on those who expect such public proclamations and not on the one forced to make the proclamation. That a terrorist attack somewhere in the world, involving adherents of Islam, has generated so much heat about liberal and conservative Muslims in India, about whether it is the Shahi Imam of Jama Masjid or Shabana Azmi who speaks for Muslims in India, is an indictment of the deeply-prejudiced country we are. It is a statement too on how unquestioningly the media reflects this prejudice.