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An Exercise in Moral Philosophy

David Lelyveld

By Faisal Devji
Harvard University Press, London, 2013, pp. 278, Rs. 627.00


One of the first writers, if not the first, to compare the condition of Muslims in India and Jews in Europe was a British Professor at Aligarh, Theodore Morison, who happened to be the son-in-law of the first Jewish graduate of Oxford University. Writing in 1899, shortly after the founding of the World Zionist Organization, Morison portrayed the newly launched campaign to raise the Aligarh College to a Muslim University as bearing some similarity to the ‘Zionite’ movement. Jews, like the Muslims of India, a people defined by religion rather than language or territory, were coming into ‘the consciousness of their corporate life’. As beneficiaries of British rule, according to Morison, Muslims were now in a position to adopt European knowledge and become ‘trusted servants of the Queen’. Jews, on the other hand, ‘live in the midst of vigorous territorial nationalities into which the chosen people are in continual danger of being merged.’ Muslims in India were in no such danger.1   The distinction that Morison made between living in an empire and a nation state is useful, even if it doesn’t quite fit the conditions of Jews and Muslims at this time. Quite aside from the fact that most Jews did not yet live in nation states in 1898, but rather in the Russian, Austro-Hungarian and Ottoman empires, the danger that Jews faced, losing their identity by assimilation to the societies in which they lived, was probably less significant than the longstanding social barriers and violent attacks they had to endure as perennial outsiders. Nevertheless it is true that both within nations and emerging national movements, Jews, whether they chose to retain their cultural separateness or not, most frequently counted as a ‘minority’ in the midst of the larger and supposedly more homogeneous national majority. Morison, of course, also refuses to see the emerging national project of India as relevant to Indian Muslims.   The establishment of Pakistan and Israel in tandem half a century after Morison’s article has often been noted as bearing some relationship. Even General Zia ul-Haq, the American backed military dictator who imposed a large measure of so-called Islamic laws and punishments on Pakistan, asserted that his country was like Israel, ‘an ideological state’ based on religion. Different as they are in scale of territory and population, both have attracted a huge volume of journalistic and scholarly attention, mostly because of their embattled, now nuclear armed, military ...

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