No Pharaohs In The Modern World: The Liberal Muslim & Indian Democracy

The stranglehold of the orthodoxy, especially in its political and religious form, has to be loosened and slackened. The answer lies in more and more Muslim communities moving towards democracy. There is no short cut to democracy. . . . There is no place for pharaohs in the modern world. (Mushirul Hasan)

Martha Nussbaum has had a deep and committed engagement with India – a land she calls ‘her second home’, for many years now.  This American philosopher with an interest in ancient Greek and Roman philosophy, political philosophy and ethics, has found a deep interest in modern India’s struggles with democracy and ethics.

Nussbaum is currently Ernst Freund Distinguished Service Professor of Law and Ethics at the University of Chicago, a chair that includes appointments in the Philosophy Department, the Law School, and the Divinity School. She also holds Associate appointments in Classics and Political Science, is a member of the Committee on Southern Asian Studies, and a Board Member of the Human Rights Program. She previously taught at Harvard and Brown where she held the rank of university professor.

Her latest missive on the situation in India comes as a bit of a surprise because it addresses a subject few have had the will to address; liberal Muslims confronting violence, discrimination and injustice, and yet choosing the path of the law, non-violence and intellectualism to confront it.

A new essay Land of My Dreams: Islamic liberalism under fire in India Martha Nussbaum offers a fascinating history of one of Delhi’s great liberal educational institutions, the Jamia Millia Islamia.  As Nussbaum describes it in her piece:

Jamia was born radical. Its curriculum emphasized the study of nationalism as well as the study of Islamic history and the Qu’ran; its admissions policy welcomed male and female, Hindu and Muslim; its pedagogy emphasized debate and contestation in the teaching of all subjects, including religion, denouncing the mere “passive awareness of dead facts.” The school had strong links with theorists of progressive education such as Bertrand Russell and Rabindranath Tagore and thus gave substantial weight to the arts and vocational education.

The piece is as much about the Vice-Chancellor of the institution, Mushirul Hasan, whose story, as Nussbaum points out, reminds us of 3 things:

First, the values we associate with classical liberalism-such as the defense of the freedom of speech, the freedom of conscience, and procedural due process-are not exclusively Western values. During the independence movement in India, they were reinvented by a colonized people who had seen just how little their Western masters honored such norms.

Second, these values are not tepid and centrist, as we sometimes hear, but rather, truly radical in a world of nations increasingly under pressure both from external violence and from internal quasi-fascist forces.

And finally, Hasan’s story shows that there is a distinctive and genuinely Islamic form of liberalism, long-lived and drawing inspiration from religious texts and their central concepts.

Unfortunately The Boston Review magazine allows people to comment on the essays they publish.  The reactions to Nussbaums’ piece stretch the realm of decency and coherency. I suspect that in the coming weeks the number of ‘comments’ consisting of slurs, abusive dismissals, sexist denigrations and outright insults against this scholar, philosopher, humanist and ethicist will only grow. These commentators do a disservice to not just Nussbaum, but to the very community that apparently think they are defending by abusing the writer and her works!

Martha Nussbaum is also the author of a book on the rise of Hindu fundamentalism and the threat to Indian democracy called The Clash Within: Democracy, Religious Violence, and India’s Future which was reviewed by Pankaj Mishra in the New York Review of Books