An unprecedented level of mudslinging between the two significant minority communities in Kerala, Christians and Muslims, happened on social media after the controversial communal statement was made by the Syro-Malabar Bishop Joseph Kallarangatt of the Pala Diocese on September 10. For days, Kerala seemed to be on the brink of collapsing head-on into the foul and irretrievably wicked crater of mutual communal suspicion.
However, Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan, who at first seemed to be doing a balancing act between the two communities guided by vote-bank considerations, has now spoken clearly to "not attribute the colour of a particular community to social evils." He congratulated the communal amity initiative extended to the Muslim community in Thiruvananthapuram by Cardinal Mar Baselios Cleemis Bava of the Syro-Malankara Catholic Church.
All shades of believing, secular and atheistic people in the state were nervously latched on to social media, watching where the densely populated state of robust religious intermingling in all public spaces was headed. It all started when the Christian Bishop made the 'love jihad' and 'narcotics jihad' slurs against Kerala's Muslim community on the 'Ettunombu' occasion, observed by parents of girl children for their purity and chastity. He had read out from a statement saying, "Wherever Muslim Jihadis were unable to take up arms, such as in our democratic nation, they use 'love jihad' and 'narcotic jihad' to lure girls."
The reading out of the written speech by the Bishop showed that some careful strategic thinking and collective deliberation had gone into it. The Bishop's speech, in its entirety, was nothing short of a call for the economic boycott of Muslims.
A series of unprecedented, unhealthy tendencies were kicked off in Kerala in the wake of this statement. Malayalis turned into statisticians overnight doing their research on the numbers of Christians, Muslims and Hindus who had converted among these three prominent religions in the last decade. For the first time, Keralites started doing religious profiling of all sorts of criminals booked for heinous crimes such as rape, drug peddling etc. They started counting the number of bars and restaurants owned by each community. For a bit, the Malayalis seemed to have lost their bearing and immense lightheartedness that always said: "Po Mone Dinesha" (Malayalam troll phrase that means 'go mind your own business') to whoever attempts blatant social engineering aimed at social divisiveness and votes.
For the first time, a Qutba, or religious talk given by the Imam of Kozhikode's Palayam Mosque, Dr Hussain Madavoor, at the Friday Juma prayers on the contended Islamic concept of Jihad was put on YouTube. Jihad, Madavoor said, was the Arabic word meaning extreme perseverance in dispensing good to others.
The angst was so high in these past ten days that Kerala society, for the first time, saw an old, venerable Muslim religious leader, with the traditional head-cover and prayer beads wound around his hand, come to a press conference to address journalists. Even in his frail voice, his articulation was clear and emotions calm. Using the local phrases of the regional dialect, he sparkled with common sense, and the broadcast captured many hearts.
Till now, TV viewers had only seen and heard inarticulate, indignant, sorry figures of 'Muslims' always put on the defensive on Arnab Goswami's channel or other godi media. These Muslims on national TV each time further entrenched the stereotypical view of 'the Other' who lived amongst them. Even though such is not the case in Kerala, till now Malayalis too have seen only the younger Muslim men from the Left, the Congress and the Muslim League parties talking politics on TV.
There was a rare appeal in how Jifri Thangal (Sayyid Muhammad Jifri Muthukkoya Thangal, President of the Samastha Kerala Jem'iyyathul Ulema, the largest Muslim organisation in Kerala) argued for the greater common good of secular co-existence to prevail among the people. It is a fact that many conflicts were stirred in the minds of followers of other religions in Kerala due to the televised streaming of religious programs into the drawing rooms of households. This often showed on-the-floor Islamic conversions take place. But, here was a sage old man and spiritual leader, who clearly said that the Quran didn't call for forced conversions of anybody.
A comparatively much-introverted religion with many Arabic words and short prayerful Islamic exclamations punctuates every sentence its followers speak. With an abundance of a special variety of Arabi-Malayalam phraseology popping up in every conversation, Islam indeed struggles to be understood in a democratic space.
The priests and heads of Christian sects, on the other hand, are highly educated, westernised and "sophisticated", due to which the general public relate to them with much more ease.
Also, the main contention faced by Islam is that its holy book, the Quran, is similar to the rule-based Old Testament. Quran doesn't have a central liberating figure of love like Jesus Christ. In the Quran, Jesus is considered a prophet of God, just like Mohammad, and revered too. And regarding the acceptance of Mohammad from the point of view of modernity, the questions never seem to end.
After 9/11, the sale of the works of Sufi poet Jalaluddin Rumi spiked in the US as readers tried to find in Islam a source of love, equivalent to that symbolised by Jesus Christ in Christianity.
Pookkottoor, another head of Samastha, wearing the Muslim men's religious cap in a TV studio, said that love in Islam was not hard to find. He spoke about the genuine mutual goodwill and love between both minority communities in the much-maligned Muslim-majority district of Malappuram. He narrated an incident of Muslims keeping the dead body of a Christian woman, who died alone in a Malappuram village called Ponnadu. Also, how the Muslim believers opened up a madrassa to keep her dead body till the Christian priest arrived to do the last Christian religious rites for her.
"Should such a culture of fellow feeling be negated because a minuscule minority is persuaded into extremist violence? Was it right for the Bishop to provoke his followers to view the Muslim community, as a whole, as indulging in 'Jihad'?" Pookkottoor's statements were not in any way made in a defensive style. He spoke without anger or resentment, but he pointed out that the Bishop's slurs were not at all in good taste.
Bishop Kallarangatt's strategy has backfired. The secular DNA of ordinary Malayalis of every faith, coupled with the Muslim side's controlled response, have saved Kerala for the time being. But the wolf of communalism is lurking in the shadows looking for the next best opportunity to divide the people according to their most basic identities. At the Kerala Assembly polls, the Sabarimala issue, and now Bishop Kallarangatt's speech, did not go down well with the general public. For once, the Malayalam media took a very unequivocal and ethical position and played a significant role in the present de-escalation.
(Leena Mariam Koshy is an independent writer from Kozhikode, Kerala.)