NEW DELHI — So, class, time for a news quiz: Name the second-largest

Muslim community in the world. Iran? Wrong. Pakistan? Wrong. Saudi Arabia?

Wrong. Time’s up ? you lose.

 

Answer: India. That’s right: India, with nearly 150 million Muslims, is

believed to have more Muslim citizens than Pakistan or Bangladesh, and is

second only to Indonesia. Which brings up another question that I’ve been

asking here in New Delhi: Why is it you don’t hear about Indian Muslims ?

who are a minority in this vast Hindu-dominated land ? blaming America for

all their problems or wanting to fly suicide planes into the Indian

Parliament?

 

Answer: Multi-ethnic, pluralistic, free-market democracy. To be sure,

Indian Muslims have their frustrations, and have squared off over the

years in violent clashes with Hindus, as has every other minority in

India. But they live in a noisy, messy democracy, where opportunities and

a political voice are open to them, and that makes a huge difference.

“I’ll give you a quiz question: Which is the only large Muslim community

to enjoy sustained democracy for the last 50 years? The Muslims of India,”

remarked M. J. Akbar, the Muslim editor of Asian Age, a national Indian

English-language daily funded by non-Muslim Indians. “I am not going to

exaggerate Muslim good fortune in India. There are tensions, economic

discrimination and provocations, like the destruction of the mosque at

Ayodhya. But the fact is, the Indian Constitution is secular and provides a

real opportunity for the economic advancement of any community that can

offer talent. That’s why a growing Muslim middle class here is moving up

and, generally, doesn’t manifest the strands of deep anger you find in

many non-democratic Muslim states.”

 

In other words, for all the talk about Islam and Islamic rage, the real

issue is: Islam in what context? Where Islam is imbedded in authoritarian

societies it tends to become the vehicle of angry protest, because

religion and the mosque are the only places people can organize against

autocratic leaders. And when those leaders are seen as being propped up by

America, America also becomes the target of Muslim rage.

But where Islam is imbedded in a pluralistic, democratic society, it

thrives like any other religion. Two of India’s presidents have been

Muslims; a Muslim woman sits on India’s supreme court. The architect of

India’s missile program, A. P. J. Abdul Kalam, is a Muslim. Indian

Muslims, including women, have been governors of many Indian states, and

the wealthiest man in India, the info-tech whiz Azim Premji, is a Muslim.

The other day the Indian Muslim film star and parliamentarian Shabana Azmi

lashed out at the imam of New Delhi’s biggest mosque. She criticized him

for putting Islam in a bad light and suggested he go join the Taliban in

Kandahar. In a democracy, liberal Muslims, particularly women, are not

afraid to take on rigid mullahs.

 

Followed Bangladesh lately? It has almost as many Muslims as Pakistan.

Over the last 10 years, though, without the world noticing, Bangladesh has

had three democratic transfers of power, in two of which ? are you ready?

? Muslim women were elected prime ministers. Result: All the economic and

social indicators in Bangladesh have been pointing upward lately, and

Bangladeshis are not preoccupied hating America. Meanwhile in Pakistan,

trapped in the circle of bin Ladenism ? military dictatorship, poverty and

anti-modernist Islamic schools, all reinforcing each other ? the social

indicators are all pointing down and hostility to America is rife.

 

Hello? Hello? There’s a message here: It’s democracy, stupid! Those who

argue that we needn’t press for democracy in Arab-Muslim states, and can

rely on repressive regimes, have it all wrong. If we cut off every other

avenue for non-revolutionary social change, pressure for change will burst

out anyway ? as Muslim rage and anti-Americanism.

 

If America wants to break the bin Laden circles across the Arab-Muslim

world, then, “it needs to find role models that are succeeding as

pluralistic, democratic, modernizing societies, like India ? which is

constantly being challenged by religious extremists of all hues ? and

support them,” argues Raja Mohan, strategic affairs editor of The Hindu

newspaper.

 

So true. For Muslim societies to achieve their full potential today,

democracy may not be sufficient, but it sure is necessary. And we, and

they, fool ourselves to think otherwise.