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The politics of iftar
M.J. Akbar | Arab News —


As was once noted by a garrulous, if not very innovative, politician, India has, just now, a Hindu president, a Muslim vice president, a Sikh prime minister and a Christian president of the ruling Indian National Congress. I cannot recall Pratibha Patil, or indeed any of her Hindu predecessors, inviting Hindu politicians, diplomats, and an assortment of Delhi’s Hindu A-listers to a splendid Diwali dinner financed by the government of India. Nor has Dr. Manmohan Singh gathered the capital’s elite Sikh brethren for a commemorative repast on Baisakhi, when the Khalsa was born. Sonia Gandhi does not throw Christmas parties for archbishops, bishops, Christian politicians, diplomats and educationists at state expense. Just to be clear: Thank God they don’t.

So why does the vice president of India invite the great, as well as the not-so-glorious, Muslims for an iftar party, as he did on Sept. 7? It needs to be stressed that this is not the vice president’s personal decision. His office is merely the conduit for a government ritual, which is why the state picked up the tab for the evening at Hyderabad House.

As if this was not enough, the Ministry of External Affairs has this year muscled its way into this food-heavy tribute to tokenism. It hosted an iftar party on Sept. 9. I hope the various government VIPs, led by S.M. Krishna and Shashi Tharoor, did not turn up wearing skull caps in order to look holier than thou. It would have made a quaint picture, though.

The reason for such artless public artifice is quite simple. Delhi’s political establishment takes the iftar guests, mainly bundled from the local chapter of the Indian Muslim elite, for fools. It treats them as saps who need no more than an annual dinner to keep them onside. Perhaps the establishment knows what it is doing. Experience has probably shown that this “elite” is packed with people who use Ramadan as an opportunity for taking something from government, rather than giving all they can to the poor. The Indian Muslim elite gets taken for a ride because it enjoys the prospect of being an establishment jockey in the race to nowhere.

The state-sponsored syrupy iftar drama is not unique to the present lot; every administration in memory has staged it, including that of the BJP-heavy NDA. This patronizing smear has become so institutionalized on the Delhi calendar that no one dares to query its legitimacy, need or rationale.

Perhaps the most cynical patron of iftar parties was the late P.V. Narasimha Rao, who insisted on hosting them even after presiding over the destruction of the Babri Mosque. Maybe he was not the most cynical: worse surely were the Muslim acolytes who fawned around him, desperately trying to catch his eye to seek some reward for their presence. Rao was good at throwing handouts toward anyone who had the look of a beggar.

The Ministry of External Affairs, to my knowledge, has till date kept itself aloof from the politics of iftar. But some well-lit spark seems to have finally heard what the rest of Delhi has known for many years: That ambassadors of Muslim countries in particular, and the nonaligned world in general, have been offered a very cold shoulder, tantamount to indifference, while the mandarins have been running around building strategic relations with the West. Someone got the bright idea that Muslim envoys would start smiling again the moment they received a gilt-edged invitation to an iftar.

Indian Muslims need jobs and justice, not iftar parties.

Ambassadors need diplomatic engagement throughout the year, not an early dinner on one evening.

But the behavior of Muslim elites across the world invites the cynicism of others. The exploitation of Ramadan has now become a deeply rooted practice among the well-off. If the Islamic brotherhood wants to understand why so many Muslims nations are in such a mess, they only need to examine how their elite have upended the holiest month of the faith, one in which they are meant to turn to Allah and practice the highest values of the Qur’an — piety, charity, self-denial, sacrifice — and turned it into a monthlong tamasha. Eid Al-Fitr, which is the culmination of Ramadan, means the Eid of Fitra, or charity. Self-centered Muslims will surely be astonished to learn that hundreds of verses in the Holy Qur’an urge charity and kindness toward the underprivileged. There is not a single verse that permits you to cheat your way out of Ramadan. The Qur’an understands the need to postpone fasting due to travel or ill health; it does not provide any leeway for hypocrisy.

There are Muslims who escape self-denial by reversing the clock. They turn the evening iftar into a breakfast, rather than a breaking of the fast, and while away the night till the pre-dawn suhoor, which becomes a virtual dinner. Then they sleep through most of the day, waking up in the afternoon.

This is a perversion of the spirit of Ramadan. If all it took to fast was to convert day into night, then we could have fasted through the year.

My friend Arif Mohammed Khan has brought to my notice a Hadith, or tradition, in which the Prophet (peace be upon him) said, “The son of Adam has basic rights on three things: A house to live in, a piece of cloth to cover his body, a loaf of bread and water”. Zakah is a Qur’anic principle of the faith. It is an Islamic duty to provide for the impoverished. All you have to do is count the millions who are hungry in Muslim countries and societies to understand how far contemporary Muslims have traveled from their ideal. Muslims seek great merit by reciting the Qur’an during Ramadan, for this is the month in which Allah’s message was sent to our world. They need to spend more time trying to understand what the Qur’an’s verses mean.

— M.J. Akbar is chairman and director of publications of the fortnightly news magazine Covert (

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