22/11/2015 4:41 PM IST | Updated 15/07/2016 8:25 AM IST

What Will We Gain From This Rabid Islamophobia?

This picture neatly captures the appropriation of public space and walls by permanently painted images one can find everywhere in Chennai. Centre is a wonderfully inclusive trio of religious themes: Jesus, a Muslim message and Hindu Ganesh. What makes the images remarkable, if not uncommon, is that although beautiful and obviously made with a lot of effort, this is just a random, unremarkable, non-prominent section of road near my home. No reason to put it up, someone just felt compelled. Also caught are two examples of the ubiquitous messages painted, usually in blue or indigo; to the left is a typical, ineffective public service scrawl, "Keep Anna Nager Clean & Tidy" and to the right is the amazingly prolific advertising message for "A to Z Magic Show". These and their competitor "P James Magic Show" are simply everywhere, on gates, walls, buildings, street corners, and pillars. There is also the mass of less permanent advertising signs and posters, especially the poster bills of the latest movies that run like comic strips along many streets.

When was the last time you went to a party and someone asked you if you were a Hindu? I'd say never. Why then does the question, 'are you a Muslim?', get posed to so many of my friends with non-Hindu names? Which civilised and educated human being can justify asking someone, upon introduction, if he is a Muslim or not? And does it even matter? Well, apparently, now it does.

New York, London, Mumbai, Paris. Extremists with warped ideologies are succeeding in creating the worse possible perceptions of people of Islam. And we are letting them. The 'us versus them' conversation is pursuing a silent but deadly social habit. We have allowed divisive thoughts into our minds and divisive words upon our tongues. We have become callous enough to have conversations over single malt about how we mistrust people of Islam in the very presence of those who were born into the faith. I'm going to say it because it needs to be said. We the 'non-Muslim' people are behaving atrociously with our Muslim friends.

At a recent intimate social evening, the conversation moved from television to terror. Without missing a beat, some self proclaimed God-fearing Hindus denounced all Muslims in the presence of a very dear common friend, born a Muslim but devoted to his chorizo.

Some of us shifted in discomfort at this rabid dialogue, hoping the conversation would stop. I remember the sinking feeling in my stomach as I realised the effect the conversation was going to have on their 'friendship' with this person. Even the most liberal have feelings and no one likes to feel personally marginalised or worse, generalised. Insensitive behaviour from those who stand united in 'majority' is having a terrrifying impact on some of us who cannot do without the love and friendship, irrespective of religious calling, of our buddies.

His name maybe Khan, but that doesn't always make him a terrorist. Or have you not seen the movie?

A few years ago, I worked in fourteen Muslim majority countries on a media project. Naturally, my business took me to some of the top content creators - American and European bigwigs. People who create the shows that influence us and alter our aspirations and create behaviours we like to imitate. Television and cinema are the most influential mediums we still have that can alter the perception of a person or a situation forever. Its called an 'agenda' in the world of media and politics.

Through my research I was shocked to discover that the last time a mainstream movie that reflected anything positive about the Muslim world, made for the English speaking audience, was Lawrence of Arabia, yes many many moons ago. We have delivered the world a zillion times over with movies steeped in Jewish, Christian and even Hindu 'culture', stories and history.

Everything from Ben Hur to The 10 Commandments to Ramayana have made it to global screens and been seen by billions of people of varied origins. Family TV channels have documented and spread stories and information about most societies except the Muslim world and the achievements of people of the faith, practicing or not. Television and cinema today reek of anti-Muslim bias by simply blanking the culture and its stories out.

So I asked a big boss of TV shows a pertinent question. Do you have any content that reflects the Muslim culture which we can take to the English speaking world in a new global TV channel? His answer came out pat, with a certain sting in his voice. "We don't create content for niche audiences". Niche? There are only over a billion people the world over of the Muslim faith alone who would welcome and watch a drama series that projected the Muslim majority world in its true light. Not everyone thinks like an Osama and not everyone acts like the ISIS. It was the dumbest answer I had ever heard.

The only thing more insensitive is to ask someone with a name of Persian or Arabic origin if he is a Muslim. He may well be anything but its non of your business. His faith is certainly not a very gracious topic for small talk. It reflects your small, communal mind. Your heartless question, "Are you a Muslim?" is as good as a loaded gun. Its enough to destroy someone's humour forever because it is laced with direct extremist thought and is so singularly biased. I am more afraid of what such people can do to civilised society than a bomber with a trussed up vest. Its debatable who the real terrorist is here.

A recent Facebook post is so powerful, it can teach us all religious tolerance and some manners if not godliness. This post, after the Paris attacks, is from someone far more significant today than people and politicians who feel compelled to react to terror attacks by insiduously spreading hatred through TV blab and social bluster. Whatever your faith may be and however important you think you are, do read this tribute by Antoine Leris from Paris. He stands tall through his personal devastation. I hope it makes us reconsider before we fuel terror with venom instead of squashing it with inner strength.

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