How TV channels outraged over Nahid Afrin's fatwa that wasn't

On a no-news day, they can go to any mosque, or catch hold of anyone with a long beard. They will get enough masala.

 |  7-minute read |   16-03-2017
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On March 14, local TV channels across Assam went berserk over the news  that “46 Muslim clerics from the state have issued a fatwa against singer Nahid Afrin, asking her to stop performing in public”.

Within hours, the outrage industry on social media went into overdrive, condemning the "fatwa". Some even compared Assam's Hojai district with Saudi Arabia (the fatwa leaflets were reportedly distributed in the Hojai and Nagaon districts).

Afrin, runner-up in the 2015 edition of Indian Idol Junior, became a star in her home state after the reality show. When the young artist came to know about it through the media, she was, naturally, heartbroken.

“When I heard about the fatwa against me, I was shocked and just cried over it,” she told a national news channel. She has since repeated on every TV channel that she will not bow down as she believes that music is God’s gift to her.

By Wednesday (March 15), almost all national channels not only "broke" the news (now how do you break a news that's already been reported? But that's a conversation for another time) but also had heated panel discussions on the various "Taliban-style edicts" in a secular and democratic India. They also questioned whether music and singing is permissible in Islam. The more puritan among them, obviously, said that Islam forbids singing, dance and music.

India Today titled their discussion as "Indian Idol vs Indian Taliban". On the show, Afrin was asked to sing an Arabic Nasheed (songs in praise of religious figures) as well as Borgeet (devotional songs of Assam's Vaishanavite culture), as a mark of protest in the same breath.

The Times of India went a step ahead by quoting the police that she had sung a song against terrorism and ISIS, and they will probe if the fatwa was in reaction to that.

Except, no fatwa or Islamic edict was issued by any organisation or group of individuals against Afrin. Yes, her name was not mentioned anywhere in the leaflets.  What's more, the alleged fatwa was actually a leaflet issued by 46 people, requesting the public not to engage in activities prohibited by Shariah.

The debate that never was

Picture this: A group of rural, conservative clerics with half-baked knowledge about Islam and practically no knowledge of society and politics (in madrassas they mostly study religion) are worried about the "growing corruption” in the society. They are worried that their “young brothers are going astray and giving emphasis on anti-Shariah entertainment shows”. Therefore, they condemn such events in the vicinity of maktabs, shrines, mosques and graveyards.

The reference here was to a musical programme scheduled for March 25, at a local college in Hojai district of Assam. They allegedly brought out a leaflet in Assamese appealing against such practices, adding that earlier a “magic show” was also held. Their main contention was that such events spoil the serenity and sanctity of the locality.

fatwa_031617025130.jpg The leaflet that was reportedly distributed in Hojai and Nagaon districts of Assam.

While there is no doubt that it was stupid of them to distribute such leaflets, but not unusual. If you visit any mosque, temple or dargah, you will find several such handouts being circulated. 

A Guwahati-based lawyer, meanwhile, tweeted that one of the "undersigned" (people whose name appeared at the bottom of the "fatwa") has denied having any knowledge of it.

Although Afrin's name was nowhere mentioned in the leaflet, she was one of the invitees to the event. Of course, that was "sensational" enough for the local media to empathise with Afrin and condemn the "Taliban-style intolerant" Islam. The national media, without verifying the incident, went ahead and churned out a barrage of scare stories.

When Rahul Shiv Shankar of Times Now asked the national president of All India Imams Council, “do these 46 people represent Islam?”, one wonders if the response of another cleric on something done by his counterparts can be considered as accurate representation of Islam/Indian Muslims? May be Shankar has an answer to that.  

Acclaimed Bangladeshi writer Taslima Nasreen too jumped to Afrin's rescue and demanded that clerics who issue fatwa should be punished (punished for expressing their views? Freedom of speech, anyone?)

Within no time, senior journalists and activists amplified the outrage. We can't just blame the Islamophobes and Muslim bashers this time around because even the most responsible of journalists and activists (such as Rajdeep Sardesai and Kavita Krishnan) did not waste time joining the outrage brigade on Twitter.

Young Assamese Muslims, afraid to be labelled as supporters of extremism, too were quick to condemn the "Saudi-style" fatwa, reminding clerics of their rightful place.

The chief minister of Assam, where Muslims are now often harassed in the name of illegal immigrants, reacted to the news, pledging full support to the young artist.

However, no one bothered to verify the news. At the time of filing this article, NDTV was the only channel that had issued an apology for the unverified news reporting about alleged fatwa against Afrin.

Everybody loves a bad fatwa

For the record, a religious opinion given by a "competent" mufti or scholar of Islamic jurisprudence when asked by someone is called a fatwa. However, it is legally not binding as the apex court ruled in July 2014 and, thus, has “has no legal status".

The media may deride every time a cleric sitting in any corner of the country says something, terming it as “Talibani fatwa”, but an ordinary Muslim rarely seeks a fatwa. Sadly, our media and Islamophobes love it since fatwas not only mean TRP for them, but also an opportunity to show how backward, medieval and less-educated the Muslims are.

You can figure this out from the everyday panel they select to discuss on issues related to Muslims. Seeking answers to questions like why do clerics enjoy so much socio-political influence among Muslims, TV channels invariably will have one of those semi-educated clerics in their panels.

In fact, Zee News has gone a step ahead and started a weekly show Fateh Ka Fatwa hosted by known Muslim basher and Canadian citizen of Pakistani origin Tarek Fateh. 

India certainly has a long way to go and it's a fact that a large number of people are entrapped in parochial, patriarchal and regressive mindsets. But it is the duty of the media to decide if they want to portray the real picture or just earn their TRPs based on sensationalism?

On a no-news day, if they want “outrageous” stories, they can go to any roadside mosque, or catch hold of anyone with a long beard and ask questions like — if music is "Halal" and should female celebrities work in films or wear short clothes. They will get enough masala.

Post Script: Meanwhile, in the Muslim-dominated locality of Kidderpore in Kolkata, I wish someone could stop the loud music that plays almost every night on the pretext of some wedding or cultural celebration despite local imams giving sermons every Friday on how “our youths are going astray”.  

Also read: It's bad journalism that killed Army jawan Lance Naik Roy Mathew


M Reyaz M Reyaz @journalistreyaz

The writer is a journalist who also shares his knowledge with young minds as an assistant professor of media communication at Aliah University, Kolkata.

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