Frank F. Islam
The Education of Minorities and Interfaith Dialogue in India
Distinguished guests; Dr. Rizvi; General Shah; Mr. Jetley; Friends; Ladies and Gentlemen:
Thank you for your warm welcome and your hospitality.
Thank you for your kind introduction.
I like to express my deep gratitude to Dr. Ammar Rizvi for bringing all of us together. We share a common bond with you through our shared history and shared heritage and we are linked by common goals and common commitment.
Thank you, Dr Rizvi, for your leadership. Your accomplishments are unmatched. You are a true leader. You are always an inspiration for all of us. You provide the example and set the standard. We admire and appreciate all you do to make positive impact and influence in people’s lives. You are a difference maker. You are the giant whose shoulders we need to stand to carry the torch to light the way and now it is the responsibility of the next generations that must do the same.
Thank you, General Shah and Mr. Jetley, for joining us this afternoon.
It is truly an honor and humbling to receive this award from the All India Minorities Forum for Democracy for my contributions in the field of Education, Social Service, particularly for welfare of Minorities, Technology and my efforts for strengthening the ties between India and the USA.
It is an honor because it recognizes me for my life’s work and doing something that I love. It is as honor to be singled out from the thousands of graduates from Aligarh Muslim University who because they received the same “purpose driven” education that I did at AMU have devoted their lives to making a difference.
It is humbling to be given this award here at the Maulana Azad Institute. As you all know, Maulana Azad was a true trail blazer and difference maker.
Maulana Azad was a scholar of the first order, a leader of India’s freedom movement, and a fierce advocate for Hindu-Muslim unity. He saw no conflict between his Islamic religious beliefs and India’s becoming an integrated nation-state. As our nation’s first education minister he put education in the forefront for all regardless of race, religion or status.
In his memory and what he stood for and in the memory of Sir Syed Ahmad Khan, the founder of AMU, a man of equal repute to Azad, I want to take this occasion to say a few words about education – especially the education of minorities – and the need for interfaith dialogue here in India.
Let me begin by quoting Sir Syed when he established AMU, he said that its graduates “. shall go forth through the length and breadth of this land to preach the gospel of free inquiry, of large-hearted toleration, and of pure morality.”
Sir Syed was right. He just underestimated how far we would go. Over the decades, tens of thousands of Aligarians have gone across the length and breadth of India and around the world to make a difference we have been able to do that because of education.
Sir Syed understood that education was liberating and a launching pad. Maulana Azad understood that too. That is why he advised that “Educationists should build the capacities of the spirit of inquiry, creativity, entrepreneurial and moral leadership among students and become their role models.”
Heeding their words on the importance and relevance of education, let me turn to the critical importance of education of minorities. I will concentrate my comments on Muslims but they apply to all of those in the weaker sectors of Indian society and from those areas that are undeveloped educationally or economically.
I am certain that you are all familiar with the Sachar Committee Report of 2006 which disclosed a “development deficit” for minorities in many areas and resulted in the creation of an across the board program for the development of minorities in India.
A U.S. India Policy Institute study released in 2013 showed that only 11% of Muslims in India pursue higher education compared to a national average of approximately 19%. Most significantly, the study revealed that “the general category of Muslims” in higher education has seen a significant decline.
These numbers tell us the seriousness of the situation. It reminds us how entrenched poverty in the Indian Muslim Community has become.
The situation for many Indian Muslim youth is desperate and heart breaking. They share a city but not a community. They share a common dwelling but not in a common effort. They are smothered by the blanket of history and circumstances. It is the lack of education which leads to lack of opportunity that breeds violence and fuels frustration and desperation.
Those research findings are disturbing and should be a call to action for all Indian citizens of good will who are concerned about the future of this country. Attention must be focused like a laser beam on ensuring appropriate educational opportunities at the level that brings Indian Muslim citizens into the social and economic mainstream.
Education provides avenues for participation in 21st century careers, the competencies to compete in a global economy, and the capacity to contribute to lifting fellow Muslims out of poverty and deprivation.
Education is the bridge that one may cross in order to build bridges for others. I know how true that was for me personally and I assume that it is true for many of you as well.
Indian Muslims across India need all of the assistance and support they can get in order to pursue education opportunities and complete that pursuit successfully. They need more bridges built.
Concerned citizens can be those bridge builders by promoting the inclusion and full participation of Indian Muslims in public and private sectors and advance their leadership skills and knowledge.
By being the bridge builders of today, we can ensure that those Indian Muslim bridge builders of tomorrow get the knowledge, skills and abilities that they will need to ensure that all Muslims throughout India become first-class citizens in the future.
Although I have focused on education as the key means, we also need to make eradicating illiteracy among Muslim children a priority because that is the starting point for learning and success. The goal should be 100% literacy by 2030.
One of the ways to build the bridge between education and becoming literate in the primary grades is by significantly expanding the number of teachers and schools serving Muslims. Other means that will contribute to achieving that end would be using educational resources to:
a. Help Indian Muslims to contribute towards social, political, and economic development of India
b. Promote exchange of technology to develop entrepreneurial and leadership skills
c. Encourage excellence in Muslim youth
The numbers that I have cited are bad for Indian Muslims in general. They are even worse for Indian women specifically.
As I noted earlier, the Sachar Committee Report resulted in the creation of an across the board program for the development of minorities. This program and other initiatives have had a beneficial effect. In the 2011 census, the overall literacy rate for Muslims went up substantially to 68.5%.
That was good news. But, the numbers within the numbers tell a different story. The worst literacy rate for women in India is among those in the Muslim community at not quite 52%. That is very concerning.
The literacy rate and the higher education statistics for Muslims overall represent a double whammy for Muslim women as it relates to empowerment. In education, literacy is the starting line and higher education is the finishing line for becoming fully empowered. These statistics indicate that not nearly enough Muslim women even get to the starting line and very few get to the finishing line.
This must be changed. Muslim women must be able to participate fully along the entire educational continuum. This participation is pivotal for the future of the individual Muslim woman, the Muslim family, and India.
For the individual Muslims, education itself is empowering. It removes the shackles of ignorance. It develops the knowledge, skills and attitudes to pursue and create one’s own destiny. It builds self-esteem and confidence. Education is the gift that keeps on giving. It is an opportunity creator and bridge to the future.
For the Muslim family, education prepares them to be a change agent. Too many Muslim families are trapped in poverty because of a lack of education. With their education, the Muslims can educate and equip their children to escape that trap. I firmly believe education is a powerful equalizer opening doors to Muslims to lift themselves out of poverty.
For India, education delivers on the promise of the largest representative democracy in the world. Central to that promise are equality, opportunity, and inclusive economic mobility. Education levels the playing field and makes that promise a reality. Once that reality exists for Muslims, they will be able to deliver on that promise for India by helping others up the ladder of success. They will have the capacity to change the face of India and the landscape of the world. They will become ambassadors and role models for India and the world.
India’s Muslims must be active participant in shaping the future of India’s economic growth. They must be equal partner in India’s shared prosperity.
In closing this section of my talk, let me reiterate that although I have emphasized the needs of Muslims, similar conditions exist for many in the weaker sectors and economically and educationally backward areas and the logic for assisting them is the same as well. A helping hand and a hand up must be given to all those in need by all citizens. When minorities succeed; all of us succeed. India succeeds. The world succeeds.
That said, let me talk very briefly about interfaith dialogue and why it matters. Interfaith dialogue is the basis for establishing a state of communal peace and harmony in India. Interfaith dialogue contributes significantly to shaping societies.
I have worked diligently for some time to promote interfaith dialogue. Two years ago, I received the Interfaith Leadership Award in Washington DC.
I strongly believe in Interfaith Dialogue because it brings people together and increases religious and cultural unity. It promotes building bridges, breaking down barriers, and coming together to create a shared sense of community.
India has long succeeded because it is diverse, inclusive, and tolerant. I firmly believe diverse society is a strength because it brings us together and it enriches a nation and ensures all people have an equal chance to succeed.
We need to step up, speak up, and speak out by rejecting the voices that seek to divide us or to limit our civil rights, human rights, women’s rights, and minority rights. Therefore, all of us together should continue to build a fairer, stronger, and more just India.
We need to stand together. Together, we can help shape a better future. I ask all of you to remember the fundamental acceptance of the equality of other religions by not looking to the heavens and to the Gods whom we worship but by looking at the earth and people and family that we are.
We need to strengthen the bonds that binds us as one family. There is a lot that unites us and there is a little that divides us. Our relationship should not be defined by differences but by what we can do together by being difference makers. Our bonds are stronger than the differences that too often drive us apart.
In closing, let me leave you with two thoughts from Maulana Azad. He said,
- Education imparted by heart can bring revolution in the society.
He also said,
- Let us sacrifice today so that our children can have a better tomorrow.
India has made great progress since Maulana Azad spoke those words early in its establishment as a nation. There has been no revolution since India was given birth in 1947 but there has been a steady evolution.
We need to continue and to accelerate that evolution and make the sacrifices that are necessary to ensure that all the children of India have a better tomorrow. That is our challenge and opportunity as interfaith difference makers.
It will do well to remember that no religion, no race, no culture, and no nation has monopoly on wisdom. Wisdom belongs to all. But you need to work hard; aim high; get the right education; and then you can attain and achieve your dream. Let us never forget the values that we share: the belief that with education and hard work and with sacrifice, we can give our children’s a better future so that they can enjoy the lives of equal opportunity, dignity, and inclusive economic mobility. Let us dedicate ourselves to draw upon the values and spirit that have always defined the greatness of our community.
Let me leave you with some thoughts on redoubling our efforts to reject hate and bigotry in all forms. We should embrace the richness of religious diversity. We should not allow in planting the seeds of discord and divisiveness. We should rise above angry partisanship and heal the wounds of division.
Please remember when Indian Minorities move up the ladders of success, when they get ahead, then they can change the face of India and the world. India cannot succeed, when minorities are held back.
Thank you for letting me share my thoughts on education and interfaith dialogue with you. Thank you again for this award which means much to me.
God bless you all that you have done for India in the past and what you will do in the future to make India a better place for all.