Bohras won't back Modi: Asghar Ali Engineer (Interview)

Last Updated: Mon, Nov 26, 2012 09:00 hrs

New Delhi, Nov 26 (IANS) He is the liberal face of Indian Islam and the Bohra community. Author and activist Asghar Ali Engineer, who has dedicated his life to studying communalism in India and South Asia, believes that his community (Bohras) will not vote for the BJP in the Gujarat assembly elections in December.

"For too long, the Bohra leadership and the Gujarat government have been in cahoots. And there is a reason for this. The Dai (supreme leader of the Bohras), Syedna Mohammed Burhanuddin, has high stakes in Gujarat from where he gets crores of rupees as income from Bohra religious and community centres. He cannot do this without political collusion. So, the Bohra leadership keeps Narendra Modi in good humour. Modi in turn uses the Bohras and showcases them before the world to show that Muslims support him, as he knows that ordinary people cannot distinguish between the Ismaili Bohras and the other sects of Islam."

Engineer, who was in the city to attend a seminar, told IANS: "The Bohra leadership usually influences its flock to support the BJP. But this time, hopefully, they should vote against the BJP like other Muslims."

Speaking of the Gujarat elections, what, in Engineer's opinion, would be the outcome of the polls?

"I think Modi will win, but his margin will diminish considerably due to anti−incumbency, opposition from within the BJP, and the revolt by leaders like Keshubhai Patel," says Engineer.

Bohras are a mercantile Muslim community of the subcontinent, mainly found in Gujarat and Mumbai. They are Shia Muslims. The Bohras trace their belief system back to Yemen where they were persecuted due to their differences from mainstream Sunni Islam and Zaidi Shia Islam. This prompted the shift of Dawoodi Bohras to India, especially to Gujarat in the 11th century.

Engineer's struggle against the Bohra leadership is well known. He leads the progressive Dawoodi Bohra movement, which aims to challenge the absolute authority and hegemony of the Dai over the affairs of the Dawoodi Bohras who form the larger subsect among Bohras (the smaller one being the Sulaimanis).

"We are not reforming religion. We want to make the Dai accountable. Also, we want no interference from his office in our secular activities," clarifies Engineer, who has been physically attacked five times by the Dai's supporters for his beliefs.

Does he ever feel hopeless?

"Not at all. My struggle will go on as long as I am alive. Not everyone supports me or opposes me. I feel that the large, silent majority supports us but cannot empathise with us since there is the fear of community ostracisation."

The Bohra community has also become infamous for the medieval practice of female circumcision. "It is very sad but true. Tradition once established becomes impossible to eradicate. This practice of female circumcision goes back to Fatimid Egypt ( 969−1171). The Fatimid Caliphate was also Shia Ismaili and is hence held as a role model for the Bohra community. But nothing in the Koran mandates this practice. Even male circumcision, for that matter, is 'Sunnah' (tradition) but not 'Farz' (duty)," says Engineer.

And what is Engineer's opinion on the tide of rising Wahhabism in many parts of the Muslim world?

"The Wahhabi and Salafi strains of Islam are sectarian, purist and revivalist. They will be a danger to the Muslim world. We want tolerance and pluralism. We want to co−exist with other communities. Wahhabism will not allow all that," he says.

(Rajat Ghai can be contacted at )

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