Imagine you read a couple of books with such titles as Defanging for Dummies or Five Easy Ways to Defang, donned surgical garb, added “specialist defanger” to your Twitter bio, and Arnab Goswami, Sudhir Chaudhary, and their poundshop clones invited you to wrench their teeth out on primetime TV. Then, they pinned your face to the screen, selling you as the most accomplished defanger ever, and the authoritative voice of all defangers everywhere. Next, they made you speak not only about defanging but hold forth on why the earth is flat, how a dust storm in the Thar is the handiwork of ISI, and how the poor are deliberately starving to defame somebody somewhere.
That would be beyond bizarre even for these circus clowns, huh? Not quite.
This is essentially how they usually pick the “Muslim representatives” on their shows. You know, those sock puppets Arnab and Amish can’t sleep without insulting, berating, and shouting at every night. So, if they are anywhere near consistent in how they pick their panellists, you, the master defanger, should expect a call sometime.
Are you scurrying around looking for those rusty pliers yet?
Hang on to your fantasies. Arnab, Sudhir, and the rest of the TV mob don’t do consistency. Contrast, for example, how they are to most of their “guests” with how they appear before anybody with a smidgen more power than them.
It’s when they must peddle – everyday, that is – that they are most consistent. By this point, it’s a cliche how they go about getting their daily fix: grab the first beard-wearing, skullcap-donning, trash-talking charlatan that walks their way, and scream at him. Not him really, but the community that he’s brought on to “represent”.
No, that is not harsh. That is actually who a lot many of those “Muslim voices” you see paraded nightly on TV are: charlatans propped up by bigots to retch their bigotry on.
So, don’t be fooled by their appearances or self-aggrandising titles such as “maulvi”, “maulana”, or “Islamic scholar”.
Islam, unlike Christianty or Hinduism, doesn’t ordain a priestly class. Then, what does “maulvi” or “maulana” mean? In common parlance, they are merely honorifics to address people you might think are deserving of respect for their religious standing or knowledge, not unlike “panditji” or “guruji”.
Though derived from Arabic roots, “maulvi” and “maulana” are used almost exclusively in the subcontinent and parts of Central Asia. Traditionally, maulvi is just a synonym for the imam of a mosque.
And who can be an imam? Ideally, the imam should be the most learned and pious person in the community. In reality, anybody who has memorised some part of the Quran, has basic understanding of the fundamentals of Islamic teaching, and is available five times a day to lead prayers in the mosque qualifies. Obviously, then, you don’t need to go to a seminary to be an imam. It’s not an academic qualification.
Neither is “maulana”, a weightier title traditionally used for those who have devoted themselves to the study of religion, or learned teachers. The word means “our protector” or “our master” in Arabic. In the Quran, it’s a reference to God. For this reason, its use for men, mainly among Urdu speakers, has long been .
As for “Islamic scholar”, the only one of the titles used by talking heads that is actually meaningful, they are no different from any other scholar. They are men and women who study and research scripture and theology, and usually produce a body of work. Again, you don’t have to study in a seminary to be a scholar. After all, not everyone who goes to Darul Uloom Deoband, for example, becomes an Islamic scholar. Same as not everyone who attends university leaves with more than a degree. Indeed, some of the most profound thinkers on Islam today studied in non-religious schools and colleges.
And these scholars aren’t all xerox copies of the “religious Muslim” stereotype, in gab or garb, popularised by the media. They are like other members of society: they dress differently, believe differently, engage with their critics differently.
That’s Javed Ahmad Ghamidi. He’s one of the foremost scholars of Islam. Ever. Yes, ever. He’s one of only about half a dozen people in over 14 centuries to reconstruct the Islamic religious thought in its entirety. Stereotype constructed by TV he ain’t, is he?
That’s Wahiduddin Khan. His appearance may conform to that media stereotype, but the depth and breadth of his scholarship is matched by few contemporary scholars, in any discipline.
And these are examples from just the subcontinent.
It’s not that such Muslim scholars are media shy. Gamidhi, for one, has long been a fixture on Pakistani TV. It is also not that scholars like them, or those a rung or two down on the scholarship ladder, are rare. Granted, you can’t risk calling accomplished scholars lest they make too much sense for primetime shouting matches. How about who at least have some standing in the community?
Ah, well, they wouldn’t make for the scarecrows that requires to frighten their viewers.
That purpose is served by grifters such as these.
You can’t easily sell any grifter as the evil incarnate, though, can you? So, what do you do? You find one who fits the stereotype you have so painstakingly created over the years, paste on a hollow honorific to confer fake credentials, and voila! you have your scarecrow. Now, scream out dog whistles to your heart’s content.