Writer and columnist Tarek Fatah’s Twitter timeline is a place of immense activity. On it, Fatah is simultaneously calling the Kolkata Police napunsak (impotent), accusing a Muslim cleric of wanting to murder him and alleging that “Islamists working within Google” had conspired to suspend his email account.
The activity – and content – is reflective of Fatah’s current role in India, where he has become a sought-after columnist and intellectual. Fatah, who often functions as a strident critic of a great many facets of modern Islam, seems to be almost everywhere, writing columns, hosting television shows and speaking at conclaves. In particular, he has carved out a niche within India’s Right Wing, which nods along with his angry attacks against the supposed ills that affect Muslims in India, making Fatah a rare Muslim face in Hindutva circles.
Karachi to Canada
Born in Karachi, Fatah worked as a television producer in Pakistan till the 1970s, when he emigrated to Saudi Arabia. He would move again, this time heading to Canada, where he began with his current role: a strident commentator concentrating largely on Muslim affairs.
Amongst his other positions, Fatah has supported Donald Trump’s plan to ban Muslims from entering the United States and has pushed the far-Right conspiracy theory that accuses the director of the US’s Central Intelligence Agency, John Brennan, of having secretly converted to Islam.
His involvement with India started rather late and it is only in the last four years that Fatah has emerged as a prominent commentator in the Indian media. This is driven by the increased importance of social media – where Fatah is a star – in public affairs as well as the country’s general move towards the Right after the Bharatiya Janata Party general election win in 2014. Both events created a ready market for Fatah’s views.
Fatah sees himself as a reformer, drawing a sharp distinction between what he calls “mullah Islam” and “Allah’s Islam”. “The basis of Tauheed [monotheism in Islam] is that you will not bend yourself to any human except the creator, “ explained Fatah, speaking to Scroll.in. “Everything in shariah is man made. It’s written by men!”
“The mullah,” argued Fatah, “is embarrassing Mohammad and embarrassing Islam in front of non-Muslims by uttering garbage”.
Fatah’s stridency means he has come to the notice of India’s Right Wing which is looking to expand its intellectual footprint in India in the wake of Narendra Modi’s win in the 2014 general elections.
Fatah has a large Right-Wing support base on Twitter, which has now been extended into brick and mortar as well. In 2016, he was invited to participate in Right-Wing intellectual summits such as the India Ideas Conclave, hosted by the India Foundation, a body with strong ties to the Modi government, as well as the Jaipur Dialogues, hosted by a senior bureaucrat working for the BJP government of Rajasthan. He also spoke at the 2016 Lok Manthan summit in Bhopal organised by a group with close ties to the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh. A potential January 7 talk by Fatah on Baluchistan and Kashmir in Kolkata – which was eventually cancelled due to alleged pressure from the West Bengal government – was hosted by the Swadhikar Bangla Foundation, a body headed by a local BJP leader.
This Right-Wing interest in Fatah has peaked with Zee News – which has earlier faced allegations of pushing the BJP’s views – hosting a weekly debate show called “Fatah ka Fatwa”, focussed on discussing issues within Indian Islam.
Fatah’s views, which earlier focussed on the West and global Islam, now also echo many Hindutva positions on Indian Islam. On his website, Fatah describes himself as a “Muslim whose ancestors were Hindu”, echoing a long-held Hindutva position that Hinduism is the true, autochthonous faith of India, as most recently seen in the Sangh Parivar’s “ghar wapsi” campaigns.
He has, at multiple times, accused Indian Muslims of not criticising the medieval Turkic invasions into India. Fatah has supported the renaming of Aurangzeb Road in New Delhi and charged Muslims with idolising Mughal Emperor Babur, thus echoing the movement to destroy the Babri Masjid.
Fatah even subscribes to a social media conspiracy theory, first proposed by PN Oak, a popular pseudo-historian in Hindutva circles, that the Kaaba in Mecca was once a Hindu place of worship.
“The impact of Hinduism is global – it even extended to northern Europe,” Fatah explained to Scroll.in .“The tawaf [circumambulation of the Kaaba during the Hajj] and the Hindu phera are the same thing. And they still kiss the same stone, just like one kisses the lingam.”
Fatah now also espouses a shrill Indian identity, often bitterly attacking people who disagree with him as “Pakistanis”.
“I am a Punjabi Indian. Most Indian Muslims are very proud of the fact that they are not Indian and then they claim to be Indians. It’s a contradiction because you can’t be an Indian if your name is Syed or Rizvi or Siddiqqi or Naqvi or Hashmi or Qureshi. You’re openly saying you are not an Indian”.
In December, 2016, Fatah even got into a public row at Chandigarh’s Punjab University, sparked allegedly by his aggressive taunting of Muslim and Sikh students as “Pakistani” and “Khalistani”.
Fatah also recently attacked Bollywood actors Saif Ali Khan and Kareena Kapoor for naming their newborn son “Taimur”, also the name of the Turkic king who attacked the Delhi Sultanate in the 14th century.
The irony of his own name not being “Indian” – for which he was criticised on social media – means that Fatah pushed out a false etymology of “Tarek”. “The word ‘Tarak’ is of Sanskrit origin and if you wish to blame someone, it’s my parents who named me,” he tweeted out.
How does Fatah explain the names of his own children, neither of which fit into his own definition of “Indian names”? “Natasha [his eldest daughter] was named ‘Lakshmi’ initially,” Fatah claimed, speaking to Scroll. “But we were young and our relatives were horrified. Our other daughter was born out of Pakistan, so we called her Nazia after the [1980s Pakistani] singer”.
A second level of irony in this whole naming ruckus is provided by the fact that Fatah’s Arab-language name is what might have contributed to his current fame in India, says Rana Safvi, a columnist based in Delhi. “I’ve wondered what makes Tarek Fatah so popular in India, especially amongst Right Wingers. Is it because a man with a Muslim name is bashing Islam?” says Safvi, who has also been attacked as a “Pakistani” by Fatah.
BJP’s Muslim outreach
Tarek Fatah’s popularity comes at a time when the Bharatiya Janata Party and its allied groups are trying to connect with India’s Muslims. This includes the discussion of matters such as Triple Talaq – which the party hopes will attract the votes of Muslim women – even as the BJP has put into cold storage truly contentious issues such as Jammu and Kashmir’s special status under Article 370 of the Indian constitution and a uniform civil code for all communities.
The Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, the BJP’s parent body, has started an outreach in Kashmir via its Muslim wing and in West Bengal – the state with the third-highest proportion of Muslims in the Union – a BJP-linked nongovernmental organisation, the Swadhikar Bangla Foundation, has organised seminars on the topic of women’s rights in Islam.
The stumbling block for the BJP, if it intends to use Tarek Fatah as a so-called Muslim face, is that he is disliked rather strongly by some Muslims. Fatah has been attacked by a number of Muslim media outlets, with Hyderabad’s Siasat calling him an “Islam-basher” and ETV Urdu introducing him as a person who is “completely disliked by Muslims”. The editor of Two Circles, a prominent Muslim-focussed online news website, Kashif ul-Huda, attributes Fatah’s rise to the “Islamophobic agenda of the media”
“The formula for [Fatah’s] popularity is simple – criticise Islam or Muslims and you will a get lot of column space or prime time minutes to speak,” is how Huda sees the Fatah phenomenon.
Fatah’s response to this criticism is to point out that he only condemns shariah – which he sees as man-made – and not Islam per se.
“I don’t criticise Islam. If you’ve ever seen me criticising Islam then please tell me,” he said, speaking to Scroll. “Is there any evidence I’ve criticised Islam? Please tell me. I don’t critique Islam at all; I critique shariah. I find shariah to be one of the biggest handicaps that’s holding back Muslims and is putting Islam in disrepute. What part of being a Muslim has to do with shariah?”
He is also careful to reaffirm his identity and faith as a Muslim, making it clear that his attempts at reform are because he sees himself as Muslim.
“It’s my cross to carry. It is my responsibility. I cannot just run away,” Fatah explains. “Many people have said, ‘Oh, Islam sucks and I’m an ex-Muslim’. Then they are called to parties and they sit with Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris. What does that achieve? Have you ever heard of an ex-Hindu? Or an ex-Jew? What the hell is an ex-Muslim?”
The title of his Zee News show “Fatah ka Fatwa” makes it clear that he intends to criticise supposedly regressive Muslim practises from the vantage point of him being a Muslim. “I am a Muslim but along with being a Muslim, I am also a progressive person,” says Fatah in the first episode of “Fatah ka Fatwa”.
It might be instructive to see BJP’s embrace of Fatah with its coolness towards Bangladeshi-origin writer and self-described atheist Taslima Nasreen, who was forced to flee her country after she was accused of blasphemy. Islamist opposition to Nasreen was so strident that she was forced to leave even Kolkata in 2007 – when the BJP came out forcefully in her support. Since then, however, the BJP’s support has waned and in 2014, the Modi government first even refused her a one-year residence visa, restoring it only after media outrage.
The blasphemy charge against Nasreen makes her politically less useful for the BJP in any outreach to Muslims. Fatah, however, fits in well as a Muslim who takes the Hindutva line on most issues. It allows the BJP to reach out to Muslims without, in any way, turning away its core Hindutva supporters.
While Fatah has seen wide support within the Hindutva sphere, there has also been some opposition. New Jersey resident Rajiv Malhotra, one of the most influential intellectuals within the Hindutva fold at present, has struck a note of caution with respect to Fatah’s popularity in India.
“The promise he offers to Hindus is that he can battle radical Islam and Pakistan. This has caused confusion among Hindus who imagine that he, therefore, is a friend of Hinduism,” writes Malhotra acidly. Fatah should not be projected as “some sort of leader of Hindus as far as ideas, policies, strategies are concerned,” warns Malhotra.