Getting in at last on India's boom?

Editor hopes to help fellow Muslims join in high-tech prosperity

September 23, 2007|By Stephanie Shapiro | Stephanie Shapiro,Sun reporter

HYDERABAD, India -- In a sweltering classroom across the alley from his office, Zaheeruddin Ali Khan, editor of the Siasat Daily, an Urdu-language newspaper, chats with three teenage girls enrolled in a computer graphics class. As two of the girls peer through the slits of their niqabs, their lively eyes express enthusiasm for prospective careers at one of the call centers or software companies proliferating in Hyderabad, capital of the state of Andhra Pradesh.

Hyderabad, India's second Silicon Valley along with Bangalore, is enjoying a surge of prosperity from the information technology boom. But Muslims throughout this Hindu nation have largely been shut out. Lacking a sound education in a country where "Hinduization" and remote locations of state schools discourage attendance and private schools are prohibitively expensive, they are mainly consigned to menial work, such as driving one of the thousands of auto-rickshaws that dart through the city's cacophonous traffic. Nor have Muslim women, traditionally discouraged from leaving the home, been allowed to support their families.

It is a situation that Ali Khan, a gracious man who offers visitors spiced cashews, fresh figs and sweet tea, hopes to reverse in part by establishing training programs and scholarships through his family's trust. Also called Siasat, the trust has "been conducting classes to bring awareness about the business-processing outsourcing industry for the last three years in Hyderabad," Ali Khan says. So far, Siasat has been "successful in providing jobs to more than 5,500 Muslim boys and girls in this sector."

At the same time they are championing Muslims' role in the IT bonanza, Ali Khan and other moderates decry Western foreign policy in the Middle East and contend that it fosters Islamic extremism throughout the Muslim world.

Before escorting visitors on a tour of the computer training program, Ali Khan offers a matter-of-fact analysis of his dilemma. Opportunities presented by Western capital are not lost on Muslims like him, Ali Khan says. Yet, politics and world events remain a forceful wedge. As the war in Iraq became imminent in 2003, thousands in Hyderabad took to the streets in protest.

George W. Bush's brief visit to Hyderabad in 2006 also sparked large-scale demonstrations by Muslim activists and others. Before the president's visit, a "people's court" found the president guilty of promoting terrorism and mass murder.

Ali Khan is well aware that he is preparing impoverished Muslims for a future founded on Western investment in India. He also notes that middle-class Muslims have flocked to the United States for economic betterment. The editor estimates that "more than 10,000 Hyderabadi Muslims have taken green cards and American citizenship," including "more than 200 of my cousins." That the United States is opening a fourth Indian consulate in Hyderabad this fall attests to its citizens' expanding ambitions regarding the West.

Yet, when it comes to hatred of American policies in the Middle East, "Islam has no boundaries," says Ali Khan, who admits to running an anti-American article each day in his newspaper as a way to boost readership.

"Western government policies, especially toward Palestinians and now the intervention in Afghanistan and Iraq, are playing havoc and are responsible for the anger of Muslims toward these countries," he says. "A majority of Indian Muslims view the Western policies as the sole element in increasing extremism amongst Muslims all over the world."

Ambivalence "toward the United States and its policies does not mean ambivalence toward `the West,' " says University of Chicago professor Martha C. Nussbaum, author of The Clash Within: Democracy, Religious Violence, and India's Future. "Most people in India understand quite well that the policies of the Bush administration are extremely unpopular in the U.S. itself, and they also know well that most of Europe is not in favor of these policies," Nussbaum says in an e-mail.

Even as they voice support for followers of Islam around the globe, Indian Muslims confront their own dire circumstances. Last November, the Sachar report found high rates of illiteracy and poverty among Indian Muslims -- who make up 13 percent of the population -- compared with the national average. Although Muslims are represented among India's swelling middle class in significent numbers, the national report found that few, compared with Hindu counterparts, have access to government jobs, one of the country's main paths to relative prosperity.

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