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Projecting Retrograde Fatwas: Reinforcing Stereotypes
06/01/2010
By Ram Puniyani

The Islamic seminaries issue fatwas by the dozen, day in and day out. It is only on few occasions that these get media publicity, and the quantum of media publicity is also not uniform. Some fatwas are really projected very much hogging all the lime light ; some others are hidden on the back pages in small column centimeters while few others never taken note of. Which are these one’s where media interest and curiosity is maximum? This is the question which media pundits can introspect and debate but few observations are in order.
 
One such fatwa, which was in the lime light recently (May 2010) related to women working outside, there income being haram (immoral) and it being obligatory on them to wear burqa. All major commentators wrote on this, all papers carried banner headlines on this and the chat show anchors had a gala time mediating between warring guests on their interpretation of this retrograde fatwa. To begin with one must point out that this fatwa was issued in response to a question, “Can Muslim women in India do Government or private jobs? Shall their salary be Halal or Haram or Prohibited?” Answer published on April 4th, 2010 simply put it as: “It is unlawful for Muslim women to do job in government or private institutions where men and women work together and women have to talk with [to] men frankly and without veil.”
 
Interestingly this fatwa got very sensational headlines, picking on one or the other aspect of the opinion of the Mufti. The headlines ran like, “Women’s earning haram”, “It is illegal to work for women to support the family, “Fatwa against working women”, Fatwa to Working women, don’t talk to male colleagues” etc. There are two important points here. One is that this fatwa which shows the height of conservatism was flashed powerfully and second the headlines picked up the part of the whole and sensationalized it further. The outcome of media projection was uniform, it reinforced the stereotypes about Muslims. The associated points about fatwas did not get prominent projection.
 
True, these opinions should have no place whatsoever in the present times, but there is more to these projections than meets the eye. Some fatwas get heavy projection, while some other but more important ones’ do not get enough coverage. This can be said more so because of the recent observation about undermining of another fatwa. That fatwa was issued by two congregations of thousands of Maulanas. In these congregations which were historic in more ways than one, the fatwa was issued against violence, against terrorism in the name of Islam. Needless to say this fatwa was historic as it aimed to nail down the popular misconception, carefully grafted by the US administration, US media and local communal forces that Islam is the religion of violence, Muslims are violent community and all terrorists are Muslims. This misconception prevails even at a time when the terrorists of the ilk of Sadhvi Pragya Singh Thakur, Swami Assemanand and those related to Santan Sanstha etc. have been under the heavy cloud of suspicion and some of them are now behind the bar also.
 
As such fatwa is an opinion by a mufti, given in response to the question sought by laity, on the same issue there can be different fatwas, they are not biding on the seeker of fatwa. As such the community is largely divided about following the fatwa’s. While some stick to these opinions, hook line and sinker, others ignore them as ravings of some outdated old maulanas, cut off from the modern society. Javed Akhtar, the renowned multifaceted writer came out strongly against this fatwa. More interestingly he pointed out that these fatwas are not taken seriously by the community at large. Overall he is just partly right, as there still are some elements in the community, who prefer to be guided by these Muftis, irrespective of the fact that there is no formal hierarchy in Islam. Akhtar is partly undermining the fact that many retrograde elements amongst Muslim community make these fatwas as a crutch to implement their anti-women and other regressive attitudes.
 
The broader point is how come such a serious fatwa, one related to terrorism, which has a big impact on the totality of social perception was not given as much importance as it deserves? One recalls that there were many a fatwa’s which did affect the lives of people, like the one against Salman Rushdie and Taslima Nasreen. One concedes that the fatwa’s need to be looked at in the particular context and highlighted accordingly. Today the scenario is a bit different. The media is looking for sensation; it is flowing with the stream, and is not much concerned about fathoming deep to unravel the truth. Unfortunately once news is flashed in a powerful way, its counters the next day get buried in the din of hysteria, popular opinion created by the headline the previous day.
 
Currently whatever reinforces the prevalent stereotypes against Muslims are a hot favorite with large section of media. Since the global superpower had decided to pursue its goals of control of oil wealth, it did create “consent” for its lust of oil by popularizing the image of Islam which was totally conservative. It deliberately promoted those tendencies within Muslim World, which talked of insane interpretations of the words Jihad and Kafir. After 9/11 the matters became worse off when the word ‘Islamic terrorism’ was propped up by US media and was lapped up by the global media in general. One also recalls that US media also dragged Islam in the murkier world of politics when US stooge, Raza Shah Pehlvi, was overthrown in a revolution and Ayatollah Khomeini captured power. The political phenomenon was given religious veneer.
 
While media partly has also played a positive role in social transformation, standing with the deprived, occasionally, broadly its role has been supplementary to the role of the rulers, the global and national ones’. Nationally it has mostly gone with the perception devised and popularized by communal forces. These popular perceptions are the base of ruling politics and the vehicle of the political actions of dominant sections of society. While ignoring these Muftis, we do need a proper mechanism of media, communication and cultural mechanism of progressive values to propagate the voice of weaker sections of society.
 
Today while this fatwa got a particular projection in the media, the case of espionage by Madhuri Gupta was underplayed, while any real or alleged terrorist with a Muslim name is a permanent front page news, the involvement, allegations against the likes of Swami Assemanand are bypassed on the ground that this is a conspiracy of a particular government or political party. Even today when the media focuses a lot on these irrelevant retrograde fatwa’s, lot of poor Muslims suffer due to physical insecurity and lack of social opportunities, which is not given adequate attention by media. Lot of anti Dalit atrocities is going on but they hardly find prominent place in the media.
 
From within the Muslim community more voices are coming up against these fatwas and there is need that that more voices, including those of women should be projected against such retrograde fatwas. While the majority of the people of the country must realize that the fatwas do not represent a homogenous community waiting to lap them up. It is obligatory on the part of media to give equal projection of those Muslims who are opposed to the cult of such fatwas. These fatwas do come from the section of Muslim community/Muftis, most of who are fairly insulated from the vagaries of the World, and are becoming more important due to the insecurity into which Muslim community has been pushed all around. And media has to answer as to why fatwas like the one against violence and terrorism were grossly underplayed?