From the From the President column of the March 2010 issue of Perspectives on History
Anniversary Anecdotes and Contesting Cliches
Barbara D. Metcalf, March 2010
Anniversaries are good, not only for gifts or speeches of remembrance, but also for reviving and revisiting historical memories. Thus, in Delhi, I recently found myself reading an engaging and wide-ranging piece by James McPherson reviewing several biographies of Abraham Lincoln. (Trips are a good chance to catch up on old periodicals!) McPherson pointed to the early international reputation enjoyed by Lincoln, quoting Tolstoy, who not only admired Lincoln himself, but also recorded the admiration of a Muslim chief from the Caucasus whom he had met. “[Lincoln] spoke with a voice of thunder; he laughed like the sunrise and his deeds were as strong as the rock and as sweet as the fragrance of rose.” McPherson, reading these words, understandably wondered “how many Muslim leaders would pay [Lincoln] a similar tribute today.”1 I think it’s fair to say that today most such leaders would not resort to the rhetorical flourishes of this long-ago chief, but some would surely value Lincoln’s leadership. So, as I write on the eve of Lincoln’s birthday, here is a little story about a perhaps unlikely pocket of Lincoln’s Muslim admirers, and then, continuing the theme of anniversaries, another anecdote about Muslims inspired by January 26th, India’s Republic Day.
When I was in Pakistan not long ago, I was invited to meet colleagues at the International Islamic University in Islamabad, an institution whose leadership has been associated with the Jama‘at-i- Islami. The Jama‘at is an “Islamist” organization committed to shaping all institutions and knowledge in accord with Islamic values. In Pakistan, Jama‘at-i-Islami has been a political party and generally speaking has been sympathetic to jihad in Afghanistan and Kashmir. As we walked across the campus, my host explained that we would meet for lunch in the prettiest room on campus, located—what place could be prettier for a historian?—in the library. Moreover, he added, I would particularly like it because the spot was known as “the Lincoln Corner,” and indeed a fine portrait of the 16th president of the United States was prominently displayed in the room.
I had just been reading even then reviews of new books on Lincoln, given the great spate of publishing on him that took place because of his birth bicentenary. As lunch wound down, I could not help remarking to the group that I thought Lincoln was an unlikely hero for the institution. If not a skeptic, he was, at least, for much of his life distant from the mainstream Protestant doctrines and religious institutions of his day. Surely, I suggested, the Islamic University, in contrast, stood for a much more unequivocal allegiance to religious belief and practice. My comment was met with incredulity, and I was soon being instructed in the greatness of a man who stood for the loftiest of moral values and who above all else had abolished slavery. A lot of grim news is emanating from Pakistan these days, and suicide bombers and their supporters confirm, rather than challenge, stereotypes of Muslims. But it’s good to remember that there are people like these Lincoln admirers I met that day for lunch.
India’s Muslims, often counted as constituting the second largest Muslim population in the world, have had to fight such stereotypes being applied to them wholesale. But that population in fact has actively engaged in democratic politics and sought a place for themselves within the larger society. In this, they act like other groups who are, like them, for the most part at the bottom of the socioeconomic pyramid. Improved relations between India and Pakistan would serve multiple populations well, and India’s Muslims are high among them.
Clustered around the celebration of Republic Day, the anniversary of the adoption of India’s constitution in 1950, there were this year a series of literary, musical, even sports events geared to fostering people-to-people cultural relations between Indians and Pakistanis in the hope of enhancing prospects for peace.2 One of these events was an evening conversation in an outdoor amphitheater in New Delhi between two well-known journalists, one Indian and one Pakistani, on issues that could foster peace. Compared to other parts of the program, like sending Bollywood films to Pakistan and staging high profile music events in India, this conversation was one of the more staid events offered, but it addressed the fundamental issues that accounted for the very fact of the program.
The Indian participant at one point asked the Pakistani if he could explain why “fundamentalism,” which seemed to be on the wane in India, had taken such strong hold in Pakistan. The Pakistani not surprisingly waffled. The Indian then provided his own answer, an eloquent and articulate celebration of India’s constitution, a subject much on every one’s mind given that very week’s pageantry in celebration of the document’s 60th anniversary. “India, he said, “is greater than Indians.” What he meant was that the nation’s structures and aspirations were enshrined in a constitution that was virtually beyond challenge. Individuals and groups might well abuse the constitution and deviate from its standards, as indeed they had. But no individual or party, he argued, had any hope of gaining credibility if their platform or ideology disputed fundamental constitutional principles. “Pakistanis, he continued, “are greater than Pakistan.” And by this he meant that the persistent struggle within Pakistan over what the very structure of the state should be—authoritarian, Islamic, liberal democratic or some combination of these—meant that the efforts of individual Pakistanis were inevitably compromised.
The conversation was a good one, but one part that needs underlining is that this celebration of constitutional principles came from a Muslim Indian whose background was not evident in a single word or argument he made; it was only apparent from his name, M. J. Akbar. There’s no reason not to add a historian’s footnote: Republic Day remembers the adoption of the constitution but it in turn recalls an earlier day, January 26, 1930, when the Indian National Congress declared its intention to achieve purna swaraj (full independence) as a republic, instead of the dominion status which to that point had been its goal. It was the Jami‘at ‘Ulama-i-Hind, the organization of Islamic scholars that stood with Congress in the nationalist struggle throughout, that had first made full independence its objective and that pushed Congress to adopt this position.
One final anecdote brings us back to a university, this time in Delhi.
A U. S. based historian I met last week, an old friend, had recently led a group of academics from an American university on their first visit to India. Among the sites they visited was the Jamia Millia Islamia, a university founded in 1920 by yet another group of Muslims, men with English language “modern” education, who also threw themselves into the Gandhian nationalist movement. As the lead-up to independence continued, Jamia members joined in non-cooperation, offered night classes for adult education—and firmly opposed the demand for a separate Muslim state that ultimately emerged as Pakistan. A national university, Jamia today is known for the high quality of many of its programs, from media studies to social work. One of those on the tour led by my colleague was a specialist in U. S. history. Jamia, this first-time visitor said, was for him the entire tour’s highlight because to that point he would never have imagined a largely Muslim university characterized by such an atmosphere of open and lively intellectual exchange.
Since few have an occasion to visit a place like Jamia, I offer my vignettes above inspired by two winter anniversaries. Most people understand that the spectrum of Muslim political attitudes is broad and diverse. But it is useful, I think, to deepen and expand that understanding by finding a concrete example or two—from remembered anecdotes and revisited histories alike—to counter the common stereotypes that imagine Muslims as always alien to liberal and democratic values.
Barbara Metcalf (Univ. of California at Davis, emerita) is president of the AHA.
1. James McPherson, “Lincoln off his Pedestal” in The New York Review of Books (September 24, 2009, p. 58) quoting Merrill D. Peterson, Lincoln in American Memory (Oxford University Press, 1994), 185.
2. “Aman ki Asha” was sponsored by two news organizations, the Times of India on the Indian side and the Jang Group on the Pakistani side. A number of entertaining videos about the programs are available on YouTube. A report of the event I describe is available at http://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/amankiasharticleshow/5518899.cms.