Borhras and reform

No separation please, we are Dawoodi Bohras


Anyone who has tried to argue the Bohra reformist case is sooner or later met with this response: if you have problems why don't you separate and start your own 'religion'. This response is typical of a mindset that's best captured by the cliché: "If you can't stand the heat, get out of the kitchen."

If the same argument were applied to the American occupation of Iraq (circa 2004), you would end up telling the Iraqis, "if you can't stand the Americans, get out of Iraq."

The absurdity of this argument is obvious. But such is its insidious pull that even some reformists have begun to cleave to the idea that, indeed, we should separate and go our own way. This is dangerous thinking as it demolishes the very foundation on which the reform movement is built. But it is understandable why this thinking is catching on. As time passes we tend to lose focus of the objectives of the Bohra reform movement. Therefore it is important that we keep reiterating the central issues we are fighting for:

  1. Accountability: The Bohra clergy must account for the millions of dollars it collects from the community. This money should be spent on the welfare and other needs of the community.
  2. Jamaat democracy: Members of every jamaat should have the right to elect its own council. Local jamaats should have control and ownership of local properties, including masjids, jamaatkhanas, gullas etc.
  3. End of baraat: End the use of "ex-communication." It is outdated and unconscionable instrument of control.
  4. End raza and misaaq: These and various other "requirements" are recent innovations designed to coerce and control. Their religious validity is untenable.
  5. Limit the role of clergy: The Dai is our spiritual leader and as such he and his clergy should stick to matters religious. Their interference in secular and social affairs of Bohras is unnecessary and unjustified.
  6. Respect and dignity: Bohras have a right to be treated with respect and dignity by the priesthood.We are not Dai's slaves and should not be treated as such.

Now how does one resolve these issues with an act of separation? The idea of separation is dangerous, self-defeating and ultimately meaningless:

  • because separation means failure. If we separate we will fail to accomplish the objectives we set out to achieve.
  • because, even assuming that we leave the mainstream, there will always be people who would rise against the corrupt priesthood. A decadent system will always have its challengers. And if every succeeding reformist group were to go its separate ways, you can imagine the result.
  • because, Dawoodi Bohra-ism is our religious-cultural identity.We share a wealth of inherited traditions, institutions, a common memory and narratives that give us our roots, a sense of belonging, a place in the world. Separation would mean an end to this glorious continuum.
  • because our identity is rooted in the Ismaili Mustalian Dawoodi Bohra faith. And the seat of this faith - the Dawat - is now hijacked by a corrupt "royal family." Who knows the future Dais may be more amenable to our grievances. Separation would mean a fundamental disconnect from our faith.
  • because it is our moral and religious duty to carry on the struggle. Separation would mean abandonment of Islamic principles which urge us to fight for justice and dignity.
  • because separation would make nonsense of our past struggles and a mockery of our sufferings and sacrifices.
  • because separation is what the Bohra clergy wants. And we shall deny it that satisfaction.

One can think of many more reasons, but these are just a few that readily come to mind.

True, the Bohra clergy is very powerful and has arrogated the right to determine who is a Bohra and who is a munafiq. And that is the whole point of the reform movement: to take that right away from an unaccountable clergy that exercises an illegitimate and unchallenged control over us.

As we all know, the clergy has responded fiercely, and at times violently, to reformists' demands. They see us as spoil-sports bent upon wrecking their gravy train. And given the financial steam and political clout it runs on, reformist successes have been few and far between.

If anything, our numbers have actually dwindled. This is not very heartening. But let's not forget what we are up against. The clergy has maintained a powerful grip on the community through an elaborate system of control, manipulation, indoctrination, fear and religious mumbo jumbo. And it seems to be working, from the look of things. But scratch the surface and you will find a ground-swell of discontent. Even so, the majority of Bohras continue to remain in the orthodox fold. Why? Their motives are many and complex, but the chief among them has to do with convenience. It's more convenient to conform. Bohras temperamentally are meek and docile.

They know the consequences of sticking out their neck. And they don't. It doesn't have to be this way though. Human beings have an inherent urge to seek a system that's just and fair (be it religious, political or social). If Bohras had a choice, they would opt for a just and fair system. But this choice is not going to fall from the heavens. It never has.We'll have to create this choice.

Some of us, trapped in this impossible "Bohra situation", often confess that things will always remain the same; that people and their nature will never change. Or that the clergy is just too powerful; we cannot make a dent on them.

But let's take history as our guide. There was a time when it was all right to burn people at the stakes; it was all right to draw and quarter people; it was all right to conquer continents through war and genocide; it was all right to own slaves; it was acceptable to deny votes to women; it was normal to deny civil rights to blacks. These acts - mostly of dominant elites - were standard operating procedure of their times. But today our "human nature," enlightened by the values of our age, is appalled by such cruelty and oppression. This change is what progress is all about.

True, the world is still in a mess - a clear sign that we will always have to fight for justice and a life of dignity. With changing times, attitudes too change. And the attitude that today makes the Bohra clergy "acceptable" will change too. It's only a matter of time. But we'll have to fight for it. Abandoning the reformist cause will only postpone that change.

As for the clergy being too powerful, I've just this to say. Whatever happened to the Roman Empire, the British Raj and European conquest and colonialism? They are all "history" now, thanks to peoples' enduring hope and struggle for a better tomorrow.

In the larger scheme of things the Bohra clergy is a petty if vicious outfit. Our fight against it is part of the larger struggle for a just world. To paraphrase an old saying, revolution begins at home.

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