Dr Mohammad Ahmadullah Siddiqi, founding president of the now outlawed Students Islamic Movement of India, SIMI, has been a professor of journalism and public relations at Western Illinois University, Macomb, USA for the last 16 years.
By his own admission when he was studying for a PhD in physics at the Aligarh Muslim University, he strongly felt there was a bias against the Muslim community in the Indian media. So deep was his conviction that after his PhD, he looked for opportunities to train and educate himself in journalism.
Siddiqi, who says he founded SIMI in 1977 as part of his mission to educate and enlighten the community, came to the US in 1980 for a masters in mass communication from the University of Illinois in Chicago followed by a PhD from the Temple University, Philadelphia, in 1987.
A founding member and secretary general of the North American Association of Muslim Professionals and Scholars, Siddiqi takes a lot of interest in the study of Muslim media as well as in the portrayal of Islam and Muslims in American newspapers and television networks.
In an exclusive interview with Senior Editor Suman Guha Mozumder, the 53-year-old academic discussed a number of issues.
One of the reasons why you pursued journalism rather than physics is what you call the bias against the Muslim community in the Indian media. Have have things changed in the past 23 years in the Indian media coverage of Muslims and their issues since you left the country?
I think there has been significant improvement (in the media coverage of Muslims) from the time I decided to join media studies, mainly because more Muslims are now working in newspapers, television and radio stations.
Last time when I visited India, I saw over two dozen (Muslim) journalists in New Delhi itself. Once I met with the deputy editor of The Hindu and he said there are a number of people in that establishment. There is still some bias but definitely there has been significant improvement in media coverage of Muslim issues.
You said the bias is still there. Could you elaborate, I mean, in which newspaper or television channels do you find such bias?
I cannot make a general comment on this because the media is very vast. But I would say that from time to time due to change in the government -- and the electronic media is owned by the government -- sometime it appears that there is bias or there is either bias or ignorance. Or, it may be both.
Time and again, the Muslim community in India comes under media focus rightly or wrongly whenever there is some negative incident or violence. How do you think it affects the community?
It has affected them considerably, but Muslims must also take some blame for it because of the recent trend where some Muslims take upon themselves (the task) to engage in violent activities. No matter how small that number or that percentage is, Muslims generally will be linked to such things and there will be a general tendency among people as well as in the media too, to point fingers to the Muslim population. I think in some cases the media jumps too quickly to conclusions.
Does any example come to your mind about such conclusions?
A few days ago I was reading the op-ed page of The Times of India where there was this opinion that now is the time for all to just let the temple be built at Ayodhya. The content of the article was that the Archaeological Survey of India has found something that might indicate the existence of a temple in Ayodhya and that the Muslims can consider agreeing to a temple, but the way the headline read, it gave a completely different impression...
TOIis a major newspaper and most Muslims who may consider it as a balanced newspaper will not agree with this view... I think there must be somebody (in the newsroom) who is very eager for the temple to be built and he or she quickly sees this as an opportunity to express that view.
So there have been instances of misrepresentation, but I think they (the major media) have been fair in many cases as well. But then there are regional media, local media in places like Rajasthan or the interior parts of Bihar where the media operates to serve certain vested interests. When the vested interests are against the Muslims, then the media there obviously goes against Muslims... But if there is unfairness, I will relate it to the Muslim's lack of interacting with the media.
I personally feel that in every instance where there is a misrepresentation (of facts), the Muslims should also take some responsibility. I wish the Muslims could interact more frequently with the media. I always say that if you (Muslims) want to deal with the media, you will have to know how the media functions, gain knowledge about it and then deal with it. You can reasonably adjust yourself with the media.
Talking about facts and objectivity, how good has the media been as far as the coverage of the temple-mosque issue in Ayodhya is concerned?
This is a very sensitive issue, which has engulfed the entire nation. I think everybody wishes that somehow the issue could be settled. This may be an exceptional case or a situation where people from both communities may not be objective.
If you take an Urdu newspaper, for instance, it may be ignoring many facts as compared to a Hindi newspaper that may also be ignoring many facts from the other side. Whatever happened in Gujarat, the way the media covered it, I think that is something people should keep in mind -- that despite all the odds against them, many television and newspaper reporters went ahead and covered the plight of the Muslims there.
Talking about violence, how do you think the media coverage of the twin bomb blasts in Mumbai has been? Bias-free?
The coverage has been extensive. I do not get to read the hard copy of newspapers, but I read reports on the Internet. I hope people can find those who are responsible for this horrible crime. There should not be any place for anything like this in a society like India, no matter how much the grievance one or the other community has.
Once for all, communities should unite to work against such things so that it may not happen in the future regardless of against whom. This (the blasts) is something that should not be tolerated.
You said some Muslims, maybe fringe elements, sometimes indulge in violence because of which the entire community gets a bad name. Why does not the entire community condemn such things?
I think there is consensus in condemnation in whatever happened in Mumbai last week. I have read about a meeting in Bombay attended by major political parties and religious groups where without any reservation people condemned
the incident. They said that such acts have nothing to do with Islam. If anyone does it in the name of Islam, then he is misguided and is a shame for the Muslims.
The thing is that such people are really a small minority and they are being hijacked by elements who believe that there is no solution and they are desperate and hopeless which is the antithesis of Islam.
Because one of the main verses in Koran is that whatever is the condition, a Muslim should not be hopeless from the mercy of God. But such acts are nothing but sheer hopelessness which itself is contradictory to Islam.
How do you react to the activities of groups like the Students Islamic Movement of India, which has been banned in India?
I think most of their leadership is in jail. I do not think the leadership as well as membership (is) there. That is not a dynamic or active organisation any more. This is perhaps because the group has been hijacked by elements in other countries and other Muslim societies and not all of them may be, but some of them at least have become misguided and radical in their beliefs.
You had been the founding president of SIMI. Why did you found it? What was the goal?
This was purely a student's body founded in 1977. At that time I was studying in the Aligarh Muslim University and I became its president for about six months. But this was purely an educational type of organisation.
Its main purpose was to study Islam like in a study circle and to present Islam through lectures and seminars to students at colleges and schools. In the beginning and I think it still should be in the constitution -- although I have not seen its constitution for the last 20 years as I have lost touch with it (SIMI) -- there was a clause that no one can remain a member of SIMI after 30 years of age so that this does not become a permanent body and remains primarily a student's body. We wanted to put a safeguard so it remains a student body.
What about you? How long did you remain its president?
I was out of SIMI when I turned 30 in 1980 and then in 1981 I moved to the US. Since then I have not attended any of its events or anything. I think it was doing okay till the late 1980s. I once received an invitation from SIMI saying they are going to have an annual convention in Bombay. The SIMI letterhead, in which the invitation was written, had the sign of a fist. I told the organisers that I do not think this is the correct representation of the organisation because Islam does not stand for showing fists to people.
I wrote back (to SIMI) in Urdu saying I am sorry to see that the organisation is departing from its basic objectives and I
reminded them that one of the most noticeable things about the Prophet Mohammed as described by the Koran is that he spoke of mercy for humankind. How can the followers of that faith can show a fist and think of violence and things like that? But I believe that was the time when the organisation was drifting from its stated objectives.
There have been reports that SIMI might be involved in the twin blasts. What do you think?
I have no idea. The last time that I met someone from SIMI was in 2001. I was conducting a media workshop in Bangalore and a group of SIMI members attending the workshop wanted to have a separate session with me. At the meeting I told them that the course SIMI was taking was absolutely inappropriate and wrong. I told them the greatest jihad is to learn Islam and to practice it and to present it to other people.
In such a vast country like India, it is the hardest thing to do than to shout or kill or indulge in violence. To make a blast or kill people is a much easier thing. If you want to make jihad, for you that means to learn Islam, to act upon it and to present it to other people in the best possible way. And I told them if they can take it upon themselves and succeed, that will be their contribution to India which is multicultural and where people have the freedom of expression.
How did they react to your suggestion?
I do not know whether the students were disappointed, but they did not say anything.
So the banned outfit is totally different from what you established.
That is right. The SIMI I founded was completely different from what it is today, but generally people do not seem to understand that. They think I am somehow involved with SIMI. In fact, since the blasts, I have received some nonsense e-mail where they have abused me in the worst language because I am the founder of SIMI.
One last question: From time to time, there had been reports in the foreign media claiming that Muslims in India are being marginalised. As a media watcher and journalism professor, how comfortable you are with such portrayals?
I personally am not very comfortable (with this) because that is the general impression that people have about the Muslims in India. When somebody goes there to write or report, in three days of tour from one part of the country to the other, that is the kind of story they get. I do not think Muslims are at all marginalised. They cannot be marginalised.
Many people have this impression that there may be a couple of millions of Muslims in India, but they do not have the idea that there are more than 120 million Muslims in India. Such a large population cannot be marginalised.
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