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IOS Minaret Vol-1, No.1 (March 2007)
Vol. 5    Issue 23-24   16 April -15 May 2011

The IOS at 25: Looking Back, Looking Forward

Professor A. R. Momin
Former Head, Department of Sociology
University of Mumbai

The silver jubilee of a research institute marks a momentous event in its trajectory and career and as such deserves to be celebrated in a befitting manner. The occasion also calls for an honest and critical self-assessment and for the formulation of goals and priorities for the future.

The Context

Social, existential and political conditions at a given point of time have a significant bearing on the conception and fruition of ideas and their acceptance or rejection by society, on the establishment of academic institutions and on the career of social movements. It is instructive to reflect on the social, cultural and political context in the mid-1980s—globally, in the Arab and Islamic world and in India—when the Institute of Objective Studies was established.

The global scenario in the Eighties was marked by a frenzied arms race and by an intense rivalry and competition between the United States and the Soviet Union for the political, ideological and economic domination of the world order. The rich countries of North America and Europe--and Japan—became the nerve centres of the global economy and international trade and the main sources of globalization. Rapid and unprecedented advances in science and technology, especially in information and communications and transportation, were set to transform the global scenario. The Eighties witnessed a growing fascination around the world for the growth-centered model of development and modernity, regardless of its consequences for the environment, for growing inequalities and for human well-being. Rising prosperity in the industrialized countries of the West was accompanied by the emergence of a consumer culture, the tenet of individualism, the reckless pursuit of material possessions, secularization, the decline of religion and community and the abandonment of traditional values.

The global scenario in the Eighties mirrored a glaring paradox. The world seemed to be clearly divided into two halves: the much larger half was surrounded by unspeakable poverty and squalor, malnutrition and disease, deprivation and hunger, illiteracy and superstition, and exclusion and dispossession. The much smaller half, consisting of the industrialized countries, on the other hand, represented an island of incredible affluence and prosperity and scientific and technological development, with vast resources at their disposal.

The Arab and Islamic world in the Eighties was in a state of utter disarray, chaos and turmoil. Nearly all the states in the Arab region were ruled by autocratic kings or military dictators, who had scant regard for democracy, civil society and human rights. The Iran-Iraq War (1980-1988) cast a long and ominous shadow over the Middle East. The war took a toll of more than half a million soldiers and civilians, and many more were injured and rendered homeless. Following the withdrawal of Soviet troops, Afghanistan witnessed a long and bloody spell of civil war. The Palestinians continued to groan under the oppressive and barbaric policies and actions of the Israeli government. The Eighties also witnessed the beginnings of the Palestinian resistance movement, known as the intifada.

Political, ideological and sectarian divisions and dissensions were rife across the Islamic world during the Eighties. There was an evident gulf between the university-educated elite, on the one hand, and the traditional elite or the ulama and the masses, on the other. Western values, cultural patterns and lifestyle were making inroads into Muslim societies around the world. The prevailing climate of perception and opinion in the Islamic world was marked by despair and despondency.

There was a glimmer of hope amidst this gloomy scenario. The Islamic Revolution in Iran in 1979 had a deep and enduring impact on Muslims around the world, especially on intellectuals, teachers, educated young men and women and students. The Eighties witnessed the growth of a self-confident Islamic consciousness and a sense of collective, communitarian identity. This was manifested in the growing demand for Islamic literature, in the proliferation of religious, educational and voluntary organisations and movements, and in the growing involvement of young men and women in faith-based activities and projects.

The social and political scenario in India in the Eighties was marked by political instability, growing fragmentation and fissures in society and politics, the rise of aggressive Hindu nationalism, and increasing political mobilisation by the backward castes and other marginalized groups. The Eighties were a time of trial and tribulation for the Muslim community in India, which tested their endurance, communitarian strength and resilience, and resolve. The Supreme Court’s judgement in the Shah Bano case in 1985 engendered a great deal of anger and resentment among Muslims. A nation-wide peaceful protest movement was launched under the auspices of the All India Muslim Personal Law Board, following which the Rajiv Gandhi government conceded the demands of Muslims and paved the way for the passing of the Muslim Women (Protection of Rights on Divorce) 1986. This was perceived and projected by a section of the majority community as a blatant act of appeasement of Muslims. In 1986 the locks of the Babri Mosque were opened at the behest of the highest authorities in the land. In 1989 Rajiv Gandhi began his election campaign from Ayodhya, which gave a boost to the extremist Hindu organizations and helped revive the Ramjanmabhoomi-Babri Mosque dispute.

The Vision

The Institute of Objective Studies was established by Dr Mohammad Manzoor Alam and some of his associates and colleagues with a clear set of objectives: to respond to the challenges faced by Muslims in India in particular and by the worldwide Muslim community in general with courage and determinism; to help regain a sense of self-confidence and self-assurance in the face of trying circumstances; to urge Muslims to set aside political, sectarian, regional and other differences and to work for the greater good of the Muslim ummah; to forge a consensus among Muslims on basic issues and concerns; to present Islamic ideals and principles in the contemporary idiom; to clear misconceptions about Islam and Muslims; to highlight and project the multifaceted contributions of Muslims to the enrichment of human civilization; to analyse issues and problems faced by the Muslim community in a non-partisan, dispassionate and objective manner; to foster an academic and cultural environment of understanding, tolerance and accommodation between Muslims and other communities.

A Balance Sheet

Over the past 25 years, the Institute of Objective Studies has greatly expanded its areas of operation, made highly significant strides in various directions and has carved a niche for itself through its multifarious activities and programmes.

The Institute’s approach, as reflected in its publications, seminars and conferences and projects, is characterized by a conspicuous sense of moderation and balance. It eschews partisanship, extremism, sentimentalism and polemics. At the same time, it has no taste for disinterested, ivory tower academic research. It firmly believes that knowledge should serve as the handmaiden of a higher vision and sublime moral values and as an instrument for human well-being and for societal engagement and reconstruction. The Institute has sought to strike a harmonious balance between academic research and social intervention and activism and has endeavoured to harmonise the perspective of the social sciences and that associated with voluntary action and human rights movements.

One of the commendable initiatives of the Institute is to bring together India’s Muslim elite (scholars, researchers, ulama, lawyers and judges, human rights and grass-roots activists) on a common platform to share perspectives and concerns, to learn and benefit from each other, to cooperate and collaborate, and to think and act collectively from a broader, quintessentially Islamic perspective, beyond narrow sectarian and denominational distinctions, regional differences and partisan affiliations.

The Institute has sought to understand, analyse and project the problems and challenges faced by the Muslim community in India, not through the tinted glasses of sentimentalism or victimhood or cultural myopia, but through the prism of rational deliberation and reflection, through objective analysis and critical interrogation. Moreover, it has sought to focus on the problems and challenges faced by Muslims in India not in isolation from the wider Indian society but in the constitutional framework and in the context of the larger processes and concerns in Indian society. Furthermore, it has drawn from the expertise and experiences of the elite from other communities—Hindus, Sikhs, Jains, Christians—in deliberating on the issues and challenges faced by Indian Muslims.

Though the main focus of the Institute’s activities and programmes is on the Muslim situation in India, it has evinced a keen interest in the issues and concerns in the context of the wider Indian society. Through a series of seminars, workshops and roundtable discussions, the Institute has focused on such broader national issues as the erosion of the nation’s moral fibre, the dilution of constitutional ethos, the role of the judiciary and civil society, and the threat to national unity and identity from extremist groups and organizations.

A great deal of controversy and contestation surrounds the concept and process of globalization. Regardless of what one thinks of it, three distinctive features of globalization are particularly note-worthy. First, globalization cannot be wished away. It is here to stay and is in fact gathering steam across the world. Second, globalization is being perceived and experienced differently by different groups in different parts of the world. Third, globalization is a mixed bag of the good and the bad. It has great potential and resources and is, at the same time, riddled with contradictions and blemishes.

The Institute of Objective Studies has taken a balanced, realistic view of globalization and has not shied away from drawing on its positive resources, especially in respect of modern information and communication technologies. Since 2006 it has been running a fortnightly online Islamic magazine, known as The IOS Minaret, which carries articles and features on global issues and concerns and on issues and challenges faced by the worldwide Muslim community. The Institute also runs an online feature “Current Affairs,” which offers informed opinions on current issues. The Minaret and Current Affairs will shortly be accessible on Facebook and Twitter. The Institute has sought to focus, through seminars, conferences and roundtable discussions, on the problematic dimensions of globalization, including the search for a viable alternative global economic model in the context of the global financial downturn in 2007-2008, the issue of pluralism and multiculturalism in an Islamic perspective, and the quation of a distinctive body of laws relating to Muslim minorities in the context of international migrations and transnational Muslim disporas.

Since the late 1980s and the early 1990s a good deal of attention has been focused on civil society. The disintegration of the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War era, the worldwide democratic upsurge and the proliferation of non-governmental organizations across large parts of the world have stimulated a great interest in civil society. Civil society is generally defined by three features: associational life (NGOs, political parties, religious organizations, trade unions, clubs), citizenship and civility in social interaction. Many intellectuals and human rights activists look upon the institutions of civil society as important means of societal renewal and cultural revitalization. Civil society has the potential to foster a spirit of tolerance, accommodation, societal engagement and harmonious coexistence in multiethnic societies.

The Institute has sought to establish linkages and networks with NGOs and human rights organizations, particularly those which are engaged in activities and programmes relating to education, public awareness, human rights and minority rights and endowments (Awaqaf). It organized a roundtable discussion on the implications and consequences of the Allahabad High Court’s verdict in respect of the Babri Mosque, in which eminent jurists, judges, lawyers, human rights activists and academics participated.

It is not very difficult these days to establish an academic institution or research organization. However, it is far more difficult and challenging to sustain its activities and programmes over a long period of time. The problem is further compounded by financial constraints. An academic institution or research organization can be sustained over a period of time if the core group responsible for its management is internally cohesive, has a deep and abiding commitment to its goals and objectives, has the far-sightedness to forge a consensus on basic issues and concerns, has the openness of mind and breadth of vision to take cognizance of changing situations and circumstances, and is willing to solicit the involvement and participation of a wider circle of people in its activities and programmes. An equally important factor is the personality and temperament of the founder. The Institute has been fortunate in having such a cohesive and committed core group and an extremely dedicated founder-chairman. Dr Mohammad Manzoor Alam’s affable temperament, his fortitude and perseverance, his ability to bring together people from different backgrounds, outlooks and temperaments and his resourcefulness and wide contacts have played a key role in sustaining the Institute, in reinforcing the cohesiveness of the core group and in earning for it an enviable reputation.

Since the scope and range of the Institute’s goals are very capacious and ambitious, it has tended to spread its wings in different areas and directions, with the result that sometimes the focus of its primary goals and objectives and priorities gets diffused. An institution runs the risk of losing focus and diluting the quality of its projects and programmes if it spreads itself too thin. Some of the Institute’s shortcomings are closely linked to the paucity of financial, human and intellectual resources at its disposal.

Goals and Priorities for the Future

As mentioned in the foregoing, the silver jubilee of a research organization provides an opportune occasion for setting future goals and priorities. Some suggestions in this regard are offered in the following.

(i) The Institute has earned a substantial measure of goodwill and a fair amount of reputation in the country, in the Middle East and in South and Southeast Asia. This has also raised expectations about the Institute’s potential role and contributions in the future. Now the gains need to be consolidated and carefully harnessed, so that they do not fritter away. There is a pressing need to clearly identify specific goals and priorities for the future and to concentrated on them. The Institute needs to strike a balance between activities and programmes with short-term objectives and consequences and projects which have an enduring, long-term significance and which require continuous, sustained engagement. The Institute needs to act as its own conscience-keeper and watchdog. This requires a regular, continuous process of self-monitoring and self-evaluation in a spirit of self-introspection and self-correction.

(ii) The Institute’s Archives and Documentation Centre needs to be revamped, strengthened and expanded. It has the potential of enhancing the Institute’s reputation and for garnering revenue. With careful and systematic planning, investment and appropriate infrastructure, the Centre can emerge as the world’s largest, reliable and easily accessible database on Indian Muslims in particular and on Muslim minorities around the world in general.

(iii) The quality of the Institute’s publications, in terms of contents, language and printing, needs a serious rethinking. If the quality of the Institute’s publications can be raised to meet global standards, it will not only enhance the Institute’s international reputation but will also bring in much-needed finances as well as publication offers from within the country and from overseas institutions and agencies. The publication cell of the Institute can also enter into profitable collaborative arrangements with reputed publishers in India and abroad. There is a growing global market for books that deal with Islam and the multifaceted legacy of Islamic civilization. The Institute has the potential and the requisite academic resources to enter into this area.

(iv) The Institute has the potential and the intellectual resources to carry out projects and empirical studies sponsored and funded by government agencies, universities and NGOs. The Tata Institute of Social Sciences in Mumbai can serve as an excellent model for the purpose. (v) Since the closure of the Arabia magazine some years ago, there has been a pressing need for an international Islamic cultural magazine with a global coverage and standards. The Institute may consider filling this vacuum.

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