American Literature Can Inspire Secularism

For one year from 2007-2008, Amar traveled around the world reporting on how people from all walks of life view the United States through text and video.  The following is one of a number of posts from India. For more, click here.

Malegaon - In 2004, American Embassy representatives visited Malegaon to scope out its Muslim population and donated US$9000 worth of books to Professor Mustufa Khan’s secular university. But they gave nothing to the many madrassas they toured. This was a grave mistake, Khan tells me after prayers at Jamia Mohammadia Mansoora Madrassa.

The sprightly English professor speaks as though he’s reading aloud from a book in his mind, describing how American literature opened a world to him fifty years ago. Mark Twain passed through Malegaon’s main road over a century ago as he toured India, broke. Khan, among the few in the town to learn English, was curious and read Huckleberry Finn. He was transfixed by Huck’s “chicanery,” liberation and sense of equality. He went on to write a PhD dissertation on Twain and become an English professor, and still dreams of visiting the U.S.

“America must donate books to the madrassas,” says Khan, so its students can see the lively side of America, “what is positive about it” rather than “just the policies they disagree with.” Literature opens readers to new worlds. And textbooks also show “America’s great strength in education,” which, he surmises, might encourage madrassa students to pursue higher studies in secular fields like engineering or computer science, and might encourage some of them to come to the U.S. to work or learn. This is a good thing, preparing them to enter the world’s job market, and giving them a new view of America.

But he believes Americans, including the ones who visited him, see “madrassas as radical places where students are indoctrinated against America and are trained to fight.” The American Embassy officials who visited Malegaon “thought some medieval education of the dark ages was being given to the Muslim youth.” When the embassy officials visited, they were “pleasantly surprised,” and the visitors log book records them praising the madrassa staff. But they weren’t pleased enough to send any books here.

IndiaAmar Bakshi