Indian Education System’s New Minority – Boys

The recent declaration of 10th & 12 Central Board of Secondary Education (CBSE) results brought with it many things – adulation, celebration, and a phenomena I’ve been noticing since years before it was my turn to take these exams: girls outperforming boys.

There’s another observation – students have been doing exceedingly well….in pushing the cut-off rates for undergraduate universities higher. As scores across the board jump several points, it nudges forward the minimum percentage score that qualifies one for a prestigious university seat in India. Take this bizarre event in 2011, for instance, when the first cut-off list for some Delhi University (DU) colleges didn’t have a qualifying percentage,  rather it was a benchmark that Indian parents compare their children with – 100%.

This situation got many people worried, including those who trembled at the thought of not getting a college seat while warming the political one.

The Test Today

A combination of both observations stated above presents a queer situation today. Results being lopsided in favour of girls and the overall scores being on the higher side has not just pushed the cut-off rates, the rates are split at different levels for boys and girls. For a B.Com course in Christ University, the cutoffs are 87% for boys and 91% for girls for Karnataka students. Being from a state outside Karnataka comes with a premium, with cut-offs at 93% and 96% for boys and girls. In both cases, girls are winning…and losing at the same time.

It’s possible that this situation is not new, but I would certainly not have come across this cocktail observation without this post from teacher of Economics at my alma mater, and in many ways a mentor –

Pranita

Market Forces At Play

Ms. Pranita’s objection is fair, and we’ll return shortly to understand her strong views. The reason for the different cut-off points, on the other hand, can be discerned from an area this teacher excels in – Economics.  It is indeed the high scores and limited University seats that have created this acute condition. There’s a visible inflationary trend in marks – commensurate with a demand for good university education, but not enough intake capacity at the universities. The marks push the demand for the admission seats, whereby the supplier (read university) demands a higher percentage (read price) for the same. Since girls score higher than boys, the board has set a stricter limit for girls which, as we can observe above, is a good 3-4 percentage points higher.

(Sometimes the capacity limits are flouted. Over-capacity forces teachers to improvise, for instance by holding lectures in auditoriums & seminar halls, leading to stress on resources and infrastructure. )

This trend begs a question- are the rising scores a result a hard-work endured by students, or is it the CBSE boards’ testament to grant a better sense of achievement amongst the youth? Either way, what would frustrate an educationist like Ms. Pranita is not this dichotomy as much as the discriminatory limits for girls & boys. If these marks are the sole measurement for admission, why should there be a differential whereby boys are cushioned against an unfavourable result? In Ms. Pranita’s own probing words –

Why abolish merit-based admission policy (with the discriminatory cut-off levels)? Every year, the competition is getting tougher for the girls .. fault lies with the system which has not provided enough capacity.

Indeed, the fault does lie with the system, and the tougher competition for girls she talks of transcends mere numbers. A girl’s road to higher education in India is rife with potholes of prejudiced challenges – right from money, societal pressure, “belated” marriage concerns and many others that boys are seldom subject to. The last thing we need is limiting more girls from entering higher education because, well, they’re just too good. Girls don’t need this compliment (if I can dare speak for them, that is). They’re flattered, but no thanks.

Going The Minority Way

This situation has given rise to Indian education system’s latest minority in the form of boys. The issue of minorities in education brings the imagery of heated debates around “unfair advantages” associated with quotas. Indeed, we wouldn’t want the young men of our country to tread the way of a marginalised community that needs a helping hand. Their very access to a classroom, teachers and the exam room is an endowment that should be exploited to their advantage. For girls, basic access to education is far from an endowment, it’s an arduous journey in which they seem to be giving the boys a run for their dowry…err…I mean money. If anyone, it would be the girls who’d deserve a special treatment to salvage society’s timeless flagrant traditions & practices. But while girls are obviating the need for any ‘special treatment’ that comes with its own set of counter-productive results, the present normal is best shaped by championing equality.

Remarks For The Education Board

If the selection is rigorously merit-based, then let the selected be cream of the crop irrespective of their gender. If the diligence of a 96%er girl comes to fruition, the 95%er should not be denied the same fate merely to fill in more masculinity in the classroom. A level playing field would mean that boys are not just pitted against their laziness, distractions and lack of concern for academic excellence, but against the consistent lead of girls too.

Should this situation warrant a more thorough analysis, which I believe it does, the questions should delve deeper into the very essence of CBSE grading system. Where does the education system go with such arbitrary marking system? Flare points are in the exponential increase in the scores without a proportionate increase in well-resourced institutes. A glut in good scorers and a lack of accommodating institutes is an embarrassment for a country that prides on the Visva-Bharatis of yesteryears and the IITs of today.

The question that should arise after viewing the results, in the minds of boys and girls alike, should not only be “what next?” but also, “how far?”

.

 

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The Folly of Exam Scores

As the CBSE 12th grade results were announced today, something I wrote a year ago comes into relevance. #CBSEResults

Beneath The Froth

Source - http://news.distractify.com/culture/satirical-paintings/?v=1 Created by Polish artist – Pawel Kuczynski

“I started studying from the beginning of the year; I revised daily, attended extra classes and even went to coaching institutes in order to excel in my examinations. I am very happy with the outcome, all my hard work paid off,” – says the UAE topper in the CBSE board exams to a newspaper.

The results of the 12th Board examinations (CBSE) were announced on 29th May, 2014 and to the amusement of many, these were some of the best scores in the recent years. The student quoted above scored a staggering 98.2%. The toil of the thousands of students had finally come down to a number, that, though expresses in absolute the achievement of the individual,  will always be inevitably held relative to the performance of his or her immediate peers and the school at large. The final reports on the performance of students…

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Ramadan Campaign Watch: #SplashHeartOfGold

The holy month of Ramadan will begin on the 17th or 18th of June in the United Arab Emirates this year. Celebrated as a time of religious reflection and spiritual rejuvenation, Muslims abstain from food and drink from dawn to dusk.

While corporate activities do slow down owing to shorter work timings and the lethargy that kicks in after the initial hours, the only trend witnessed in commercial activity would be the increasing one. There’s a visible surge in shoppers who buy and stock up food and beverages that would otherwise not make it to the kart in months out of Ramadan. (Rooh Afza is my favourite example)

What would be wrong to assume, however, is that marketing and brand communications activities observe a fast too, avoiding any campaign that has the potential of staying relevant in the 4 special weeks. Brands that do not wish to merely see off Ramadan usually churn out that one big idea months in advance.

A notable example is Du’s #30DaysOfSharing campaign last Ramadan. Social Media users were encouraged to send in their precious moments which made Ramadan special.  Every post composed using the hashtag #30DaysofSharing had Du donate Dhs10 to its annual Iftar tables initiative, from which Iftar meals were distributed to the less fortunate. The results & reach of the campaign is shown in the short video below –

With enormous potential comes cultural and religious sensitivities attached to a campaign. There’s no margin for frivolity, and any attempt of merely trying to fit in with the spirit of a festival can lead to sharp criticism – both from passive observers and the religiously inclined. Finding the right space of creativity for a ritual guided by religious beliefs and practices poses an interesting challenge too. How does a brand go beyond the obvious leads of hunger and thirst, and place itself in an area respected & lauded by the people?

The ‘Heart of Gold’ Campaign by Splash

Splash – part of renowned Landmark Group based out of UAE – is one of the Middle East’s largest fashion retail outlets.  In just about a month from Ramadan, out of complete randomness, I chanced upon Splash’s sponsored tweet inviting people to participate in their Ramadan campaign.

The campaign uses the App medium for participation and aims to celebrate the human spirit of giving. Splash will be honouring 30 ‘unsung heroes’ throughout the month of Ramadan, which means a hero thanked and celebrated for a unique contribution each day of the holy month. In their own description in the App –

At Splash, the cause of humanity is one that’s always been close to our own heart. We believe there are numerous people out there, people from every walk of life, who espouse the cause of humanity in their own unique way without expecting anything in return. People whom you may have seen, known or heard of who strive to improve the lives of their fellow beings around them.

Splash ‘Heart of Gold’ has been instituted not only in the true spirit of giving during the holy month of Ramadan, but also as a tribute to these unsung heroes who devote their time, money and effort selflessly to the cause of humanity.

Points of Impression

As a retail outlet that decks up wardrobes with fashionable clothes and accessories, being relevant to Ramadan would certainly have been a challenge. The brand is not a consumable food item that can make it to the table during suhoor, nor is it a restaurant that people can flock to for iftar. They deal in products that are often displayed on lifeless mannequins,  and yet here they are hoping to acknowledge the goodness in selfless giving.

By indulging in this campaign,  in my humble opinion, Splash goes beyond the mundane obvious. It has identified a key element that is actively promoted in Ramadan – charitable behaviour towards society. By rewarding this act of righteousness, Splash will garner the respect of the public at large and those particularly involved in charity work.

The Clothes Connection

To talk purely of Splash’s main product offering, clothes come nowhere close to hunger and thirst – 2 things commonly (and sometimes narrowly) associated with the month. However, they’ve always been an important contraption in contributing to charity. Be it donating clothes to the poor or in areas afflicted with a calamity, the product association with the core of the campaign is not amiss.

In addition, people frequent clothes and accessories retail outlets to shop for Eid al-Fitr. This brings Splash another challenge of integrating their online efforts with their store customers, and to familiarize them with the campaign.

The #SplashHeartOfGold widget, Source: Splash Website

Democratizing the Nomination Choice

According the campaign, nominations will be sought from whosoever wishes to name their choice. Anyone can access the App, write the details of his/her nominee and justify the nomination in a 1000 words. The 30 winners will be chosen by a jury from the brand. The opportunity to nominate serves several benefits – the pool of nominees would be extensive and diverse (in nationality and sector of humanitarian work), and would encourage people to spot a potential nominee in someone who could be casually generous in expending social services.

[It would be nice though if Splash spelled out this jury and make this a more transparent affair. Knowing who selects the final winners would bring more credibility to the activity]

PR Potential

A campaign of this scale and philosophy can be expected to make its mark in media too. The print media in UAE has seldom held back from recognizing Good Samaritans in society, especially in highlighting stories that reflect honesty and nobility in their day-to-day dealings. The story behind each of the 30 nominees would certainly make for an interesting read.

Splash’s CSR in the past

This will not be the first time that Splash exhibits its relationship with societal responsibilities. Recently, the brand was recognized at the Princess Haya Awards for Special Education as an ‘Outstanding Institutional Supporter in Private Sector‘ for its work with students of Special Needs Future Development Center (SNF) in Dubai. I learnt from first hand account of a student & friend from SNF about his induction into the Splash workforce in one of the Splash stores, and being acknowledged by the management as ‘best employee of the month’. Such initiatives are a major boost for special education training centers as they search an inclusive environment for their students, especially adults of the working age,  to learn and thrive in.

Ms. Safia Bari, Director of SNF (left) with the CEO of Splash Fashions, Mr. Raza Beig ; [Source: SNF Facebook Page]

Ms. Safia Bari, Director of SNF (left) with the CEO of Splash Fashions, Mr. Raza Beig ; [Source: SNF Facebook Page]

It will be interesting to know how the #SplashHeartOfGold campaign pans out for the brand. If successful, Splash could well set an example for other brands to buck up and come out strong, or look on as the sun sets on their Ramadan activity.

Is there a Ramadan campaign that has caught your attention from this year or the past? Contribute by commenting below!

[To participate in the #SplashHeartOfGold campaign and nominate someone, click here.]

#EtisalatChallenge – A Case Study In Poor Foresight

When six heavyweights of the entertainment & sports arena from South-Asia & Middle East are used for a brand campaign, the message is certainly expected to hit home. But in times when the fundamentals of the message are built on loose bolts, even the most trusted faces on television cannot salvage a campaign that backfires.

Etisalat, UAE’s first Telecom company and also the sole operator till 2006, is holding a 360º communication campaign titled ‘#EtisalatChallenge’. The ambassadors of the campaign, most of whose fandom we maybe a part of, challenge the masses at large “to find an offer that Etisalat cannot match or beat.” Before I shed light on the gaping holes, it’s important to list down the celebrities roped in for the campaign –

  1. Gerard Butler – Scottish actor particularly known for his roles in the films P.S. I Love You and How To Train Your Dragon series
  2. Hrithik Roshan – popular Bollywood actor
  3. Atif Aslam – Pakistani singer with a massive fan-base in Dubai
  4. Ahmed Helmy – Egyptian comedian and drama actor
  5. Ali Mabkhout – Emirati footballer who plays for the Al Jazira Club
  6. Lea Salonga – singer and actress from the Philippines
The fault is not in these stars Image source: alexofarabia.com

The fault is not in these stars
Image source: alexofarabia.com

Now for the catch – Etisalat’s challenge has no more than just ONE contender in the country. The telecom industry in the UAE is a duopoly comprising of Etisalat – owned by the UAE Central Government, and Du – jointly owned by Emirates investment Authority, Mubadala Development Company and Emirates Communication & Technology Company.

Personal experience, complaints from friends & family and a cursory glance of their social media page shows that enviable services are not really Etisalat’s forte’. Inflexible and relative expensive calling rates, and a ban on most third-party VoIP services adds to its unpopularity.

Dial 1 to gauge reactions –

When a people that rank first in the world for trust in its government display a marked cynicism towards its Telcos entity, there’s much insight to be mined from humour.  The ground reality of services notwithstanding, #EtisalatChallenge turned Twitter into a breeding ground for some tongue-in-cheek reactions.

Kindly hold the line for conclusions – 

Few countries are as determined to raise service standards like the UAE. The country’s exponential growth in smart-innovation merits, in the least, the bare-minimums expected from a telecom company. With the country’s active propagation of ‘All Things D’, what matters to the tech-savvy customer is a refreshing offer in services and price, not a marketing gimmick. Spending a fortune for marketing campaigns, reigning in faces that are familiar with the consumers and accepting challenges on its offers are usually tactics of a brand with unfettering loyalty. There would not be anyone better than the brand & marketing managers to understand the pulse of the consumers. They hold the keys to identify the leaking taps. Those leaking taps will tell you that a passionate fan-base for the brand is still some rings away.

The #EtisalatChallenge, far from filling gaps, has united people under a common grievance. Instead of introducing plumbers, Etisalat has welcomed architects with a design that customers cared little about. From a purely campaign perspective, the effort comes about as flashy yet unintelligible, engaging yet awkward. The messengers are pleasing to the eye, the message – the soul of the conversation – defeats the intellect.

But here’s the silver lining. UAE is a country the progress of which is faster than our imagination. It’s fixation with improvement and superior services has positioned it alongside tech-advanced and developed countries in the world. Instead of shying away from future campaigns, brands like Etisalat have an opportunity in social media to directly interact with customers and know what clicks with them. Ultimately, the user is a reflection of the brand’s services. It’s only natural that a telecom entity relies on conversation rather than commercials to improve its ratings.

The conclusion part can also be summed up in the following 140 characters –

For another interesting take on the campaign, check out the blog Alex of Arabia, maintained by Alex Malouf – a renowned commentator and collaborator of news on media in the Middle East.

For an Emirati take on this topic, read the views of Khalid Al Ameri – one of my favourite columnists – in his open letter to Etisalat.

The Commentary Box Vocabulary

If you’ve made the right choices in life, you would have watched cricket with the commentary in English. As someone who likes to tour the space of words and literature, listening to cricket commentary offered me more than analysis of matches. I heard new words and phrases, some stuck in my mind and some slipped away like the ball that goes past Ravichandra Ashwin in the outfield.

Here are some of the phrases that come to mind, as I reflect on the times I’d been a couch potato watching…and listening cricket.

Richie Benaud

Known as the ‘Voice of Cricket’. Richie Benaud passed away this year.                                               [Image source – PA Photos via espncricinfo.com]

1 – Well begun is half done

2 –  Chink in the armour (usually a batsmen’s weak zone)

3 – ‘Flash in the pan’ performance

4 – Well-knit unit (speaking of team bonding)

5 – ‘Penultimate’ over

6 – Playing for pride (when a team was out of contest but still had an inconsequential match to play)

7 – Dead rubber game (an inconsequential match)

8 – Handing down defeat

9 – Touch-and-go (usually used when analysing run-outs)

10 – Moral victory

11 – A heavy downpour (something between a drizzle and a full-fledged rain)

12 – Batsman’s ‘blind-spot’

13 – Little niggle in the arm (when someone is visibly uncomfortable with muscle movement)

14 – Making a come-back

15 – The match is anybody’s for the taking

16 – Textbook cricket shot

17 – Sent him packing

18 – In the nick of time

19 – Dampening the spirits

20 – Making the right call

21 – Not in favour of the decision

22 – Lofting in the air

23 – Using the ‘weaker’ arm

24 – Long walk to the pavilion (to accentuate how the batsman must feel after being dismissed)

25 – Whizzing past

26 – Smack in the middle

27 – Butter fingers

28 – Reading the surface well (adapting to the pitch)

29 – Nuances of the game

30 – Shot in the arm

31 – Calm and collected

32 – Scripting a success

33 – Fortune favours the brave

34 – Right on the money

Are there more additions that can be made to the list? Feel free to comment below and contribute!

A Humans Of Bombay Moment

buoyantexplorer

Bombay is truly a city of the finest display of human resilience. Not to imply that people in other cities aren’t resilient, but there’s a palpable sense of the determination of this city to absorb anything destiny throws at it. These, of course, are just statements unless you actually hear them first hand.

On my way for a lunch date to Colaba, I hailed a cab driven by a pleasant looking elderly uncle. Still mildly hungover from the previous night, I rested my head on the seat for a quick shut-eye, until the scent of the sea filled my nostrils and reminded me that I was in the most beautiful part Bombay. Here was a chance to take in the beautiful sights the city has to offer. I opened my eyes and saw the famous Haji Ali (which I am yet to visit). I then remembered to tell my cab uncle…

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The Curious Case of Zakir Naik

Like many, I too was drawn to Peace TV and the myriad of Islamic clerics and speakers it lent a platform to. It was, at least to my knowledge, the first time a Muslim had easy access to understanding his faith from scholars belonging not just to a handful of Gulf states, but from speakers who practiced their faith in UK, Canada, USA, Pakistan and India. To a majority of Indian Muslim, the barrier of Arabic language was broken and knowing their religion made easy and comprehensible with verses of the Qur’an and the sayings of the Prophet explained in Hindi & English. Amongst the many speakers & preachers that the viewers saw for the first time, there was one that few were not familiar with – Dr. Zakir Naik.

Hailing from the state of Maharashtra in India, his prolific talks demonstrate uber-memory strength and an impressive ability to rattle references down to the detail of book names, sections, page numbers, and verse numbers of holy scriptures of the Islamic, Christian, Jewish and Hindu faith. For someone who virtually binge-talks on the many aspects of a religion that forms the centre of much discussion and news, Zakir Naik may have well memorized the various controversies he’s been into too.  While I don’t intend to list down every sticky situation he has been in, a recent development may help me touch on a few of them. What should be a proud moment for the preacher and the people who follow his views was responded with an adversarial stance from the media. Or I must say, a stance that manifests into critical denunciation of his life and achievement.

Zakir Naik was awarded Saudi Arabia’s King Faisal International Prize for his service to Islam as one of the renowned non-Arabic speaking promoters of the religion. What would sound like an innocuous story calling for a celebration is actually reported as a controversy in itself. An analysis of the keywords used at the beginning of this paragraph, namely Saudi Arabia and Islam, may help one understand why. However, to understand the mood employed in reporting this story, there’s another keyword that very few can miss – Zakir Naik.

Zakir Naik was awarded the Saudi Arabia's King Faisal International Prize on 3rd February, 2015

Zakir Naik was handed the King Faisal International Award by the recently appointed King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud on 3rd February, 2015

 

A Case in Skewed Reporting

With a humble recognition of the chinks in his verbal and intellectual armour, which I will address in this blog, the reportage of his award by most outlets betrayed a hatred for his success and the following he enjoys. Right from the headline and hanger, drifting down to the body, most articles conveniently mix the man with controversies and the man with the award. The content is beefed up with his views on 9/11 and Osama Bin Laden, and is made to sound mutually non-exclusive with the award and the rationale behind rewarding his services. Very few, like the one I read in Economic Times, introduced the reader to Naik’s run in with the West as a reflection reserved for those who cared to read the article in full. Instead, the articles cast their judgement on the one awarded and questioned the authority of the one awarding, thereby reducing the award itself to an incidental mention – all this in the headline and introductory sentences. The articles do nothing to educate the reader except cast suspicion over Naik and the bygone years of work that resulted in this recognition from the Kingdom.

The controversies cited are no feat of investigative journalism too, with allegations echoing Naik’s remarks on the infamous 9/11 attacks and the issue of terrorism looming large over Muslim societies. He is harshly critical of the US foreign diplomacy and equates their advances on foreign soil as terrorism clad in the garb of democracy and liberation. If this statement provides no breakthrough to your intellectual fodder, it is because many academics and intellectuals around the world, ones with faith or without, have cast similar aspersions.

ZN3

If the headline and the image are important entry points for a story, then this article in The Guardian takes the readers on a scary flight. The image chosen builds a paranoia and adjudges the subject as a culprit

The author of this Scroll.in article goes onto to link Naik to Salafism, a term loosely thrown in so as to suggest an inherent threat associated with it. Had the author taken the mild pain of searching, he would know that Naik publicly disassociates himself with any revivalist movement, specifically Salafism, which has ironically resulted in several ‘pukka Salafis’ rejecting his teachings and ideals. Following the trail of other pieces, albeit with deeper analysis in the Indian context, the writer zeroes in on Naik’s controversial remark to debunk his pedigree, thereby making him look like a laughing stock for the wider Hindu audience whose literature on Zakir Naik may be limited to this online article. 

Saif Mahmood, a student of the University of Waterloo and a keen observer of developments in current affairs & Islam, understands the pitfalls that Zakir Naik’s stage time entails. Acknowledging a smear campaign directed towards Naik, Saif commented:

“I can’t say I would expect it differently from the western media. They probably haven’t read or seen a lot of his work. The reality is that all academics who preach comparative religion and challenge the worldview of the existing paradigm will get a backlash.”

India could barely boast of any English-speaking, globally acclaimed Muslim speaker as an authority in his own faith, leave alone comparative religions. Zakir Naik was that breakthrough, but along with his message of peace and harmony lurked the shadow of his analysis and deconstruction of events and scenarios that was best left unaddressed.

The Folly of Frankness

I cannot help but agree with those who regard his penchant for conspiracy theories on 9/11 as problematic. His critical lambasting of the US aggression in the Gulf sounds more of an emotional outburst than a thorough analysis for the audience to reflect on. It’s one thing to be unsure of the nuances involved in a disaster that changed the dynamics of the world, and another to avowedly side with alternative explanations to a people who take him by his word.

In today’s day and age, the average Indian citizen should rather be inspired to lead a change in his own backyard than explore sinister motives behind the policies of another country. What matters more than ever is the role of Islam in the post-9/11 era, and not a reflection on the nature of the attacks that the world has struggled to grapple with. The sensitivities associated with this event are deep and addressing them deserves a special faculty. Zakir Naik’s open confrontation of this topic and expression of controversial views in front of an audience which –  on many occasions – numbered in thousands, elicited the kind of response that would leave few surprised. Statesmen of UK, USA and Canada took note of his views – perhaps even at times out of context – and denied him a visa. Others who took note were journalists whose stories travel without one.

Another inescapable chink is his ultra-simplistic approach to a much-sophisticated issue. A lot of queries from the listeners that deserved a tailor-made response was instead picked up from one of his previous regurgitation. For an intellect that sharp and a reach so massive, I’d believe that the changing trends in societies could be met with a more dynamic approach. While the average Muslim was equipped with answers to pressing questions that Islamic societies are faced with, a discerning listener could detect waning relevance as questions became more pertinent to modern challenges.

The information accessible to critics and Islamophobes in the age of the internet could not be dealt with the suave yet rudimentary replies of the past. Some of his statements were so plain that they were ready made material over the net to be picked and shred of its context. For instance, several questions on the emergence of sects in Islam were not greeted with an intellectual discourse on its history, rather as a completely rejection of it as an outlier in the body of Islamic orthodoxy. While his narrative on this matter cannot be rejected, a topic so relevant to Indian societies deserved a comprehensive response.

His attempt to relax the ‘terrorist’ stereotype on Muslims with a play on paradox has contributed heavily in landing him in a pit of trouble. “A terrorist is a person who terrorizes the society, and miscreants – be it a thief, rapist or murderer, should be terrorised by the presence of Muslims,” Naik explains to the audience. He concludes the point with his maxim – “hence, every Muslim should be a terrorist.” Though this is usually met with a thunderous applause from the audience, you don’t need a Sherlock moment to understand how other forms of miscreants have (mis)used this statement.

His efforts at harmonious exchange between different faiths sometimes result in tense showdowns. Having watched his videos in full and having had the privilege to watch one of his talks in a live audience, I can sense that his intention has never been to hurt sentiments. Despite his well-intentioned attempt at bridging the gap between Islam and other faiths, his lectures could not escape the odd instances of petty argumentative exhange between the participants of the discussion – which also included members of the mixed-faith audience.Things were changing, but sadly, Zakir Naik’s style and content trailed behind.

To reflect further it bears mention that  Zakir Naik’s views are never meant to be the be all and end all for Muslims in India. In a country caught in a clash of polemic views on modernity and Islam, Naik is the flame that can ignite the quest for Islamic knowledge amongst the educated and rational Muslim.

Beyond Babri Masjid

In the 21st century and particularly post 9/11, there has been a dearth of Muslim speakers from the Indian subcontinent who have guided discussions to core Islamic thinking. Islam in India, like other philosophies, is often embattled with a dash of political cynicism and skepticism. What people found in Zakir Naik was a relief from the debate on mere peripheries of Islam and instead a focus on the fundamental aspects of the faith – the theology, Prophet’s legacy, deconstruction of holy verses, and Islam’s relationship with other Abrahamic and its simalirites with pagan faiths. Far from being apologetic for one’s Muslim identity, Zakir Naik tried to champion a cause of revival in confidence amongst the Muslim youth. Instead of shedding away one’s faith and embracing a false sense of modernity, Naik proved that the skull cap and neck-tie could survive a happy marriage, especially if they were bound by the force of knowledge and conversation.

His oft-repeated invocation from Chapter 3 of the Qur’an can in fact guide the concerted efforts to nurse wounds of communalism – “come to common terms as between us and you.” While the drama of stage, lights, camera, questions and tensions may have taken this focus away from Naik’s lectures, even if momentarily, every individual holds the power to test his or her own mohalla with a renewed philosophy of peace and mutual understanding.

If there’s one thing that I admire Zakir Naik for, it’s his unbridled confidence in representing Islam. Most of us may shy away from our religion and languish in our mediocre understanding of our own faith. Growing into adolescence with a passion for public speaking, Naik’s strong oratory skills was always a treat to watch and admire. To learn further that he was once an acute stammerer speaks fluently of his dedication and will-power. But here’s a man torn between the fan following of thousands and hate-mongering of plenty. We need not choose sides, for choosing the scholar we would like to follow is not an emotional or patriotic decision. It’s a choice we make after a thorough understanding of our context and the ability of the scholar to inspire an honest religiosity.

There was a time when I was inspired by Zakir Naik, but I have now grown beyond his favourite topics he chooses to address. Perhaps, had it not been for him, I would not chance upon and find solace in the teachings of other learned scholars that broaden my horizon of understanding the religion. He was the foundation that now empowers me to respectfully look beyond his style and sermons.

Whether or not Zakir Naik’s sincere contribution to Islam deserves to be dwarfed by the controversies is a topic that would be best addressed by him. And I reckon this face-off between him and his adversaries will not be a simple one.

Come to common terms as between us and you: Surah Imran [Ch:3], verse 64

A Legacy in Life, as in Death

From Left - Deah, Yusor & Razan

From Left – Deah, Yusor & Razan

Many would argue that every life lost is worth mourning. I’d possibly lose the argument if I held a contrary position as a soul means something to someone at any given time.

The loss of 3 souls in the recent Chapel Hill Shootings, however, demonstrated to me how some losses entail more anguish and reactions than others. While the news is rife with savage killings of innocents at the hands of the beleaguered , this death compelled people to take note of a time before the brutal murder.

The three victims were young, American, and most importantly, they wished to live long, as Americans as much as Muslims. They carried their American and Muslim identity proudly on the same lively face, knew how to have a good time with their loved ones and showed that age’s no criteria when it comes to making a difference in society. They did not wear their Islamic identity up their sleeves and flaunt it when the world watched, rather their actions compelled the world to take note of this when they breathed their last.

In his early 20s, Deah Barakat tried to do for people who are mere spectacles for us on TV, and that’s only if they make it there. Deah was going to embark on a humanitarian trip to Turkey to help the refugees in Syria by using his expertise in Dental care, and was constantly involved in fundraising. He lost his new bride Yusor Abu-Salha who was on her way to join him in the same profession. Razan Abu-Salha, a competitive architect in the making, was laid to rest there where foundations of building stand – the ground.

Deah’s plea – possibly one that will resonate stronger after this death :

It was, perhaps one of the few times, that the death of 3 individuals dented not just the spirits of a community, but of the entire country. It was, perhaps for the very first time, that the funeral of 3 individuals of the Islamic faith was covered by the mainstream media. Some people reflect that the legacy of their lives is displayed through attendance at their burial service. Close to 5,500 paid their tributes at the funeral of the 3 slain Muslim student, an enviable turn out at a time when condolences can be shared on social media and text messages.

Death of 3, remembered by many

Death of 3, remembered by many

If their lives garnered little attention on their action and conduct,  their death has cast the spotlight on places where it matters the  most. It is as if their demise was an inevitable end to spark the spirit  in people to spot the flash points in society and work towards  mending them. Very few families can take pride in a death that  doesn’t go unnoticed. For the Barakat and Salha family, they enjoy  the support of 5,500 people, and the others who cried while the  family managed to hold back their tears. If in death is a reminder,  this is the greatest of them all.

Deah made some important observations before leaving :

A profound reflection on the incident and the 3 lives by an Islamic scholar and Imam in the West, Dr. Yasir Qadhi

Deah’s sister, Suzanne, musters up great courage for what is an emotional interview with CNN

 

A World Where The Prophet Is Sold On A Magazine

Today, more than 3 million people would be looking at Prophet Muhammad, and still be far away from seeing him.

Today, a publication popularised by the violence of few will be flooding the streets. The ink will be liberal as it goes over the glossy paper over and over again.

A turban, scrawny beard, fearsome eyes, funny nose and all the other typical characteristics apparently found in the desert. A man that many Muslims follow as a unique example will be inked to match the popular stereotype.

Today, our eyes will see what the the mind will not comprehend. The lips will utter words that are of a foreign language. Yet, the image would be purported to be of the one that united tribes scattered over the entire Arabian Peninsula.

Today, the world will watch with pride the resilience of heroes. Heroes with a fixation to offend a man they little understand. Heroes that will garner reactions reeking of villainous contempt.

Today, the Mohammads of Arabia, Asia, Europe and Africa will hear their names called out in vain, perhaps also with outright disrespect.

Today, eyes will be glued on the cover of a magazine that few cared about yesterday. Today, the readers will hear gunshots of yesterday while their eyes remain fixed on an ugly depiction.

Today, Muslims will wonder if they owe the world an apology. Alas, if that stopped the ink from flowing, I’d spend the rest of the night saying sorry.

Today, a man people try to emulate in actions is now emulating a mix of notions and perceptions on attire and expressions. A man people imagine through deeds and actions is living a life of nothingness on paper.

Today, the line of freedom will blur. Offence will overpower the offended, a thinker would be overpowered by a cartoonist. The one with empathy will be accused of not doing enough, the one with a few strokes of the brush will have done everything.

Today, a caricature would leave billions in bad taste, what is meant to leave the subject in a state of discomfit.

It won’t be a statesman laundering money, nor a banker dictatingthe government. The cover will depict a man who’s generosity could rival their appetite for offence.

Today will not be the first when the Prophet will be sold on a magazine. It may be the first when an angry crowd finds in it a response to violence. It’s the first, the work of which people will call its own. With hashtags thrown in to claim ownership, the cartoonist will be one and the endorsers many.

Today, homes will shelter a copy with this depiction. Guests will discuss the incident that got leaders to walk on the streets. From the cushions of their elitist offices to the boulevards of Paris. A rare exertion that deserved a great satire.

Today, more than 3 million will see a face  yet not see it.

Today, I fear for everyone who sees the ugly depiction of our Prophet. What would happen when there comes a day to see him and you search for a stereotypical caricature.

Imagine a day when you’re too embarrassed to admit the Prophet is in front of you.

Imagine a day when you’re too embarrassed to agree that he doesn’t look like the cover photo that did not offend you.

Imagine a day when you’re reluctant to see the Prophet, because this time it cannot be bought with a few cents and the emotions of a billion Muslims.

صلى الله عليه وآله وصحبه وسلم

(May God exalt and bring peace upon the Prophet, his family, and his companions)

Prophet(Blog)

Review 2014 : When Islam entered some awkward spaces

In the year that we’ve just bade farewell, Islam and Muslims around the world were tested with some disturbing trends. The lion’s share of this obstruction to a routine, peaceful life was contributed by the ISIL – the Islamic State of Iraq and Levant – a separatist group that continues to exercise crime and persecution as you read.

While this transnational occurrence got the debate flowing around its legitimate claims to Islam (read ‘political Islam’), some local and episodic incidences also dictated conversations throughout the year 2014.

Here are 4 incidences in 2014 that I believe took Islam in some awkward spheres of discussion, and my brief take on each of them

4 – In the name of “Allah”…if only a Muslim

In the month of June, 2014, Malaysia’s Muslim-majority country garnered attention and criticism for a contentious decision by the High Court. The ruling refused to overturn a ban on the use of the word ‘Allah’ by Christian communities for reference to ‘God’. Put in place in year 2007, the ban was instituted to avoid confusion amongst the two sister faiths, Islam and Christianity, and obviate the possibility of Muslims converting to Christianity with this common reference.

Image from - www.bbc.co.uk

What’s in a name? Image from – http://www.bbc.co.uk

There is no Islamic Law, at least one with a unanimous consensus, that limits the use of the word ‘Allah’ only by Muslims. Quite on the contrary, it’s a given historical observation that much of the pagans of Makkah used the word ‘Allah’. The Holy Qur’an too has no mention of Jews and Christians (categorised as Ahle-Kitab, People of the Book) being forbidden from using addressing God with this term. In the Book of Psalms, Jesus is recorded to have uttered the word ‘Elahi’ on the cross, the Aramaic pronunciation of the contested word.

My Take – Monopolizing the use of this word in Malaysia, against the reasons cited by the authorities, added more confusion to the social and religious ethos of the Southeast Asian country. This controversial ruling by the judiciary over linguistics and religious rights was widely seen a threat to integration of minority groups in the country. While people of all religions attempt to find common grounds, this divide dents the otherwise peaceful nation regarded as an otherwise exemplary Muslim state.

To watch a detailed discussion on this topic by The Stream on Al Jazeera, click here.

3 – Ready for Tawaf, but first, let’s take a…

Controversy is bound to make its way when the largest religious pilgrimage on a conservative soil meets the new age behaviour of producing visual content. In sharp contrast to a time when television sets and cameras were banned in Saudi Arabia, Hajj in 2014 was in news for reasons other than religion and record statistics. In focus were pilgrims taking pictures of themselves with a digital camera or mobile phone in the midst of the supreme religious environment one witnesses in Makkah.

Image from - www.naharnet.com

A perception of foreground and background. Image from – http://www.naharnet.com

Some clerics regarded this behaviour as disdainful and anathema to the spirit of rituals at Hajj that should be far removed from intentions of boasting.

Taking such selfies and videos defy the wish of our prophet. It is as though the only purpose of this trip is to take pictures and not worship.

-Assim Al-Hakeem, a Saudi based scholar who also has a large audience base on his social media pages

(Quoted from a BBC article)
Many pilgrims, on the other hand, argued that pictures make the pilgrimage special and memorable which can be preserved for posterity.

As this is my first pilgrimage, it is important for me to document all the events taking place around me. Wherever I go, I take pictures, especially since nowadays we have these little cameras… that offer a full view of the area.

– Ali, a pilgrim from Kuwait quoted to Saudi Gazette.

My Take – While there are norms of behaviour that should guide a person’s relationship with his or her religion, an innocent desire to capture a personal journey and pilgrimage should be welcomed with more mercy than what has been demonstrated. It is important to note that while regular selfies could focus on the foreground, #HajjSelfie largely attempts to project the environment of the subject. It is the Kabah and the teeming crowds that a Hujaaj seeks to showcase, rather than his presence at a religious site. In times when the gulf between ignorance and education can be bridged by sharing images over Social Media, the Hajj Selfie can be a powerful tool to enter into a conversation, rather than controversy.

A UAE based writer and communications specialist with the blog name ‘Alex of Arabia’ has written a more detailed analysis on this issue.

2 – A Raw Slap

Indian actress Gauhar Khan was slapped on the sets of a reality show Raw Star, where she played host. As bizarre as this incident of trespassing and assault sounds, the situation took an ugly turn when the coward perpetrator and his motive surfaced.

During the show, Akhil Malik, an Imam of no mosque and a scholar of not even the foundational Arabic alphabets, considered Gauhar Khan’s outfit as offensive to Islam.

Being a Muslim woman, she should not have worn such a short dress. Actresses are the face of society and they should not wear skirts and short clothes as they make youngsters get attracted to them sexually…if actresses stop wearing short clothes, crime will decrease and lead to a better society.

Mufti Google Shaykh Wikipedia Akhil Malik

Quotes taken from independent.co.uk

While Akhil Malik gave is 1.5 cents on Islamic morality and social security, this incident sparked a debate on the notions of modest dressing and the position of Islam in deciding a Muslim’s wardrobe. Out of nowhere, Islam was forced down a host’s throat by a dispirited nobody as the entire country watched a spectacle made of the religion.

My Take – Speaking out of common sense, a religious man that conforms to the ideals of Islam would never hear or even watch an entertainment show, leave alone attending one. When the boiling blood of youth and the despair of an idle mind see no outlet, it takes extreme measures to put across a poorly thought-out point. In all honesty, I have strong doubts about the sincerity of the man who charged at the host. When 10 seconds of fame is compared with misguided religious fervor, the former seems increasingly tempting. The scholars of Islam in India have a daunting task ahead of them. Islamic education, ethics, morals, behaviour and intellectual discourse cannot remain a subject taken at madrassas – at times themselves fraught with inefficiencies and education disconnected from mainstream society.

Ways will have to be carved to educate the Muslim youth of India, who finds himself lost in the abyss of Islamic teachings which usually begin and end at locally funded seminaries. There’s a constant demand to act in accordance with acceptable moderation, and an a professional and academic approach to Islamic education can temper a mind just when it’s needed the most.

Before more young Indian Muslims find themselves humiliating fellow-beings on reality TV shows, a greater reality will have to be addressed – that of their role in the eclectic social fabric of India.

1 – A Jihadi named Romeo

Looks like in every countdown, love emerges winner. This winner has infused in it a healthy dose of hatred.

This story received much traction in the second leg of 2014, owing to its place of origin which boasts the second largest Muslim population in the world – India.

In August 2014, a young girl from Meerut filed a police case for abduction, gang-rape and forced conversion by a group of Muslims. The revised version of the victim in October, however, changed the course of the story when the victim backtracked on her statement. According to her latest confession, she had in fact eloped on her own freewill with the accused.

The period between August and October witnessed a massive counter-reaction to the emergence of this case, mostly from the BJP and it’s heavily right-winged ilk. This incident, referencing to past stray cases involving love and conversion in South India, was termed as Love Jihad – a clever coinage covering two dangerous elements people easily fall to these days.

Some publishing houses did not shy away from expressing  the politics behind this love story.

Some publishing houses did not shy away from expressing the politics behind this love story.

The debate deconstructed the religion, right from its status in India, the political ramifications of the ill-fate incident, the institutions of Islamic studies (madrassas), scholars of religion (ulemas) and many other facets that were awkwardly stuffed into the realm of love and romance. Love Jihad was one of the top trending topics in India at the time. There were hacks for the average Hindu girl to avoid being lured by Muslim men, a move that suffered backlash as most of them refused to accept any of it. Their bodies, they quipped, was not another Babri Masjid open to be swayed by religious sentiments.

My Take – It’s common for Islam in India to be completely divorced from it’s intended role, as an entity that carries with it profound scriptures, deep theology, meaningful rituals and community practices. By centering the Islamic narrative solely around vote-bank politics, the flash-points of weak Muslim performance in India have been often ignored. Weak economic performance, dismal literacy rates, self-segregation and low-levels of quality employment are some of the issues that would benefit from attention and resources. If intermixing of religious communities gives rise to problematic trends, in this case to the likes of #LoveJihad, it should be dealt with methodically, with a fair opportunity given to the common Muslims to voice their opinions.

Love, if anything, should script stories, not awkward controversies.

Latest report of the case can be read on India Today.

Here’s hoping that the only difference 2015 brings is not a coward escape from controversial and awkward situations, but a much thoughtful and respectful response from the Muslim community around the world.