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The Significance of Pew’s ‘Religions of India’ Survey

This article is part of the opinion column – Beyond Occident – where we explore a native perspective on the Indian diaspora.

When the US-based Pew Research Center published the findings of its Religions of India survey, it left many elite journalists, Marxist and “South-Asia” scholar-activists scratching their heads. Most Indians, including Indian-Americans, however, felt vindicated. 

At the heart of such polar reactions is the disconnect between perception and reality in the presentation of India, both in media and academia. There is this false perception of India deliberately and painstakingly crafted by the Indologists, Orientalists-Colonialists, and Marxists. And then, there is the real India, that is Bharat.

In a massive undertaking spanning over several months, Pew surveyed nearly 30,000 respondents in face-to-face interviews. These interviews were conducted in 17 languages across the length and breadth of India just before the Pandemic (2020). Pew, one of the most reputable polling agencies in the world, conducts “opinion polling, demographic research, content analysis, and other data-driven social science research.”

It came as no surprise to most that the survey found India to be a deeply “religious” country, even though the Indic notion of “religion” is quite different (for example, it is not dogmatic) from the Abrahamic one. Native Hindus have preserved and nurtured their indigenous notion of Dharma for over 5,000 years despite foreign invasions, colonization, and Marxist hegemony over India’s educational institutions. 

One of the key findings of the Pew survey was that Indians deeply value “religious tolerance.” The survey reported that it was essential for Indians to respect other faiths. Almost 84% (85% Hindus) of the respondents said that to be “truly Indian,” it is crucial not just to tolerate but also “respect” all religions. Remarkably, 80% of the respondents believed that respecting other religions is a “very important part of what it means to be a member of their own religious community.” 

This “Religious tolerance” is a Western and liberal representation and interpretation of a more nuanced Indic notion of sambhāva. “Respect” for ‘other’ religions is ingrained in the Indic value system. It comes from the quintessential Indic belief that there are many truths but only one Reality. The Rig Veda, one of the most ancient texts of the Hindus, proclaims:

ekaṁ sad viprā bahudhā vadanti 

(Truth is one, wise speak of it differently.)

Another critical finding of the Pew survey was that an overwhelming majority of Indians, almost 80% members of every faith community, reported that they felt free to practice their religion. In an overwhelmingly Hindu majority (80.5%) country of about 1.4 billion people, 89% of Muslims and Christians (each comprising 13.4% and 2.3% of the total Indian population, respectively) also said they were free to practice their religion. 

However, suppose one pays attention to the commentary in the Western media, including the Left-dominated American press and religious/human rights advocates. In that case, it is hard to reconcile with the findings of the Survey. The survey results were in sharp contrast to the portrayal of India in Western media; and seminars and conferences in various centers of South Asian Studies, think tanks, etc.

SN Balagandhar (Balu), a professor of Comparative Science of Cultures at the Ghent University in Belgium, alluded to this chasm in perception and reality in his address to the 2014 Maulana Azad Memorial Lecture organized by the Indian Council of Historical Research (ICHR). While recounting his 40-year academic research journey, Balu said that he discovered very early that there were many problems in his understanding of Indian history. Most of the knowledge about India that makes it to Indian textbooks is a description of India by foreign traders, travelers, and the Christian Missionaries, he noted. He further said that the perception of India these textbooks gave based on those accounts was not the India he “lived in.” Most Indians can easily relate to this statement.

In the last 200 years or so, foreigners and Marxists have dominated the study of India, its culture, traditions, texts, religions, and more. Indology, once a foremost enterprise for the study of India, for example, was based on neo-Protestant theology and their debates over scriptures and their racial prejudices. These prejudices over time, but consciously, were applied to the study of Indian texts where one can easily trace the antecedent of “anti-Brahmanism.” 

The British colonizers played an essential role in, first, creating and then institutionalizing their perception of India based on their understanding and prejudices. In British presentations, Hindus were condemned as “degenerate” and as “slaves.” The need to portray Hindus as primitive, savage, uncivilized, or vicious arose from the urgency of the colonizers to present themselves as civil and enlightened. As a result, what we ended up getting, according to Arvind Sharma, is a “situation in which a people were made more primitive than they were, or presented as more primitive than they were, or perceived as more primitive than they were, either deliberately or out of ignorance.”

On the other hand, Marxist historiography distorted and weaponized Indian history and the idea of India with its ideology of conflicts and divisions. 

The Pew Survey is one crucial step in setting the record straight and reclaiming the agency in representing and defining India and Indian culture.


Avatans Kumar is a columnist, public speaker, and activist. He frequently writes on the topics of language & linguistics, culture, religion, Indic knowledge, and current affairs in several media outlets.


 

“As a Small Brown Woman With an Arabic Name” – Ramiza Koya

The Royal Abduls depicts the cost of the anti-Muslim sentiment in the United States, through the lens of an Indian-American family in post 9/11 America. The novel tells the story of eleven-year-old Omar and his aunt Amina, an evolutionary biologist who moves near her brother’s family in Washington, D.C.after years of working on the West Coast. As Omar tries on an exaggerated Indian accent to impress his schoolmates, Amina struggles to focus on her study of hybrid zones while working in a male-dominated lab. Omar cycles through outlets for his vast curiosity and gets in trouble at school. His parents’ disintegrating relationship leaves only independent, career-minded Amina to look out for him. The Royal Abduls engages with the struggles of women in the workplace and the difficulties of maintaining relationships in a fragmented America.

Ramiza Shamoun Koya tackles subjects such as racism, misogyny and being other in America, having faced some of that herself. I had the pleasure of reading an advanced copy of this wonderful novel, and it really resonated with me. My debut novel, The Atlas of Reds and Blues, addressed similar topics and I felt equipped for our dialogue. Her book is set to publish on May 12, 2020 and can be pre-ordered online. Here I am in conversation with the talented Ramiza Shamoun Koya. 

Devi: What led you to start this book? Did it start out as a short story?

Ramiza: It started out as a short story called “The Hybrid Zone”; I intended for it to be the lead story in a story collection. But then I was blessed with a two-week residency at MacDowell Colony.  The first day I sat in Wood Studio, looking out a huge window into the forest, I typed the words “Omar was happy” almost without thinking. And then I knew I had a novel on my hands.

Devi: As I read your book, I was struck by its realism. I felt there was an autobiography in this book. And yet it is a novel and not a memoir. 

Ramiza: I never intended for this to be autobiographical per se.  There is autobiographical feeling in the search for identity, in some of the experiences that Amina and Omar and their family have. But my own personal autobiography is much more complicated than anyone in The Royal Abduls!  And to be honest, I had never been interested in writing memoir until very recently – I see myself as a fiction writer and always did.   

Devi: I loved that Amina had her say and that at times Omar had his say in the book. I was particularly struck by the child’s POV in the post-9/11 world and the contrast to Amina’s and Mo’s experience. Can you discuss your choices there? 

Ramiza: Omar became very important to me. I think young Muslims were real victims of this shift towards anti-Muslim sentiment. And Omar is very much second-generation; that interested me as well.  There is so much writing on the immigrant experience. I wanted to focus on someone who was born here and feels it’s natural that they should be treated as other Americans are. When he is denied that, it’s not just confusing; it’s nonsensical.  His struggle is so very common among brown people in America, and facing up to that means facing up the essentially racist structures we live under. As I wrote the initial short story, I did not foresee that Omar would become a major character in a novel; but his voice, once I started writing in it, became so absorbing, so easy to slip into, and each new reader told me that they had fallen in love with him. So he earned his place!

Devi: I felt as though your novel was in conversation with my novel, especially as it addresses the immigrant experience one generation removed, and also by having children who were mixed-race. 

Ramiza: As I’ve gotten older, I am convinced that if we write about women, we have to write about misogyny.  To leave it out is to leave out something essential to all female experience. I wanted to have Amina face that and struggle with that and live it down.  I wanted her to find her way in spite of it. When we underplay this essential difference between male and female experience, we’re enabling it to continue.  I wanted to write authentically about sexual politics in the workplace, but I also wanted to connect some of that misogyny to Amina’s brown skin. As a small brown woman with an Arabic name, I have felt how connected misogyny and racism are.

Devi:What books have influenced you, make you want to write? What books propelled you to finish The Royal Abduls? What books have you read recently that have excited you? 

Ramiza: Books that influenced me when I was younger were by Richard Wright, Malcolm X, James Baldwin: coming of age stories by African-American writers moved me deeply.  I related to them; they made me feel like I had a story too. Then I was all about Indian literature: Midnight’s Children and Sacred Games and books by Arundhati Roy, Amitav Ghosh; these helped me understand my own identity, my origins a bit more, and inspired me to travel in India.  More recently, I have loved Elena Ferrante, Min Jin Lee, Jesmyn Ward, Ruth Ozeki, Julie Otsuka, William Dalrymple, Hillary Mantel. The poets Ocean Vuong and Ilya Kaminsky have deeply influenced me this year. 

Devi: Did you find your book cathartic to write? I personally don’t believe in catharsis. I think I changed as a writer in the intervening years, and what I felt was relief it was to be able to write at all.

Ramiza: Yeah, no catharsis!  It’s hard work and then you never know if it’s good or bad or if it will ever be read.   

Devi:And tell me about your next book, a short story collection. Right? How has the experience of putting that together differed from writing a novel?

Ramiza:The short story collection includes my very first publication (“Night Duty” in Washington Square Review) to my latest attempts, many of which are unpublished. I’ve been building it over many years, and it’s nice because unlike a novel you can play with the order easily.  It does need an editor, however.

Devi:What is the one thing you want readers to take away after finishing The Royal Abduls?

Ramiza: I think the change in perspective, the ability to imagine life in someone else’s shoes, is one of the greatest gifts of fiction; I hope that any reader feels like they lived along with this family and gained insight into their experiences.

Devi S. Laskar is a native of Chapel Hill, North Carolina, and holds an MFA from Columbia University. The Atlas of Reds and Blueswinner of the Asian/Pacific American Award for Literature and the Crook’s Corner Book Prize—is her first novel. A former newspaper reporter, Laskar is now a poet, photographer, essayist, and novelist. She now lives in the San Francisco Bay Area with her family.


KOYA, RAMIZA SHAMOUN. ROYAL ABDULS. FOREST AVENUE PR, 2020.