What’s in a name?

Shobha De writes

…Ten days ago, i received a call from a Muslim friend. She sounded a little concerned. Her anxiety had to do with her nephew’s admission into one of Mumbai’s better colleges. His marks were good, his conduct exemplary. He had been a prefect at school and participated in several extracurricular activities. I asked what the hitch was. She sounded almost embarrassed as she said, “Well, we are Muslims and that seems to be the problem in a lot of colleges.”

There is no getting away from the current polarization. … At the time (post- 26/11), we believed it was a passing phase that would disappear once everything ‘settled down’. Except that nobody quite knew what was meant to settle down or whether it would ever happen. … Two years down the line, there are no alibis, no screens to hide behind. Positions have obviously hardened to such a degree that now city colleges have begun to follow their own quota system and turn down eligible students because they are Muslims. … That awful attack was the work of hardcore terrorists. What we are doing may be much worse — we are killing the spirit of innocents. The latter crime may have far more lethal repercussions!

Ten years ago, I might have fully agreed with De. Today I know better. Religion is not like race or caste. It is not something you are born with or into. It is a label for a system of beliefs. Those beliefs can be chosen or rejected. When an overwhelming majority of terrorist activities are carried out by Muslims, it is clear that there is something about belief in Islam that incites people to violence. Religious profiling is hardly comparable to discrimination on the basis of race or caste.

On the other hand, it is also a fact that there are many, many Muslims who are just as rational (or irrational) as people of other religions. These people do not deserve to be profiled out just because they have a Muslim name. What are they to do? There is a simple solution. They can change their names. What’s in a name anyway?

One of my father’s PhD students suspected that her research papers were being discounted because of her gender. She simply resorted to using her initials and surname instead of her full name. Problem solved.

However, this solution only works for those who really do not care about their religion. And that is as it should be. Those Muslims who are irrational enough to believe that they are really losing something by adopting a non-Muslim sounding name get to live in a world filled with people just like them. In other words, they deserve what they get.

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12 Responses

  1. I have been following your blog for a while now and have been really impressed with what you write in here.

    But to say “…it is clear that there is something about belief in Islam that incites people to violence…” is absolutely ridiculous (at least in my view), and when someone has to change his name just to get something done..it tells me that the world needs to grow up!

    Regardless I really enjoy your posts..keep’em coming!

    Good Luck!!

  2. Sachin,
    What do you make of the fact that the Islamist terrorists claim to be devout followers of Islam? Just that all of them have misinterpreted their religion?
    From quotes from the Quran it is clear that the religion demands violence if taken literally and special effort would be required to put a peaceful spin on it.
    Given the fact that Mohammed was not just a preacher but also a ruler, it is almost impossible to separate the religious and political aspects of Islam.
    It does seem obvious to me that Islam is significantly different from other dominant religions. I would be interested in hearing arguements that show otherwise.

    Given the number of people who subscribe to religious beliefs mindlessly, the world certainly needs to grow up. But it is equally true that it is not going to do so anytime soon. Meanwhile, it makes sense to do do whatever is necessary to move on with one’s life.

  3. Agreed that the majority of terrorist attacks have been in the name of Islam and also that most terrorists claim to be devout followers of Islam, does it justify asking someone who has nothing to do with the terrorists or the attacks they carry out, apart from the fact that they happen to keep the same faith (although their Interpretation of the religion is completely different) to change their names to get admission into a college?

    I am almost certain that the discrimination based on Caste/Sex/Religion or anything for that matter pushes the normal and sane people to resort to extreme activities. (Not all of them might turn into terrorists, but even if 1% of them do, its a mess that we have created for ourselves).

  4. Well, it is just that I think those who believe in religion cannot really complain about the problems caused by discrimination on the basis of religion. And I can’t feel much sympathy for them.

  5. What you are suggesting is truly offensive. Would you suggest the same to a Black person, if the science/technology were powerful enough to easily change one’s skin colour?

    Like Sachin said above, it’s the world that needs to “grow up”.

    “Well, it is just that I think those who believe in religion cannot really complain about the problems caused by discrimination on the basis of religion. ”

    If tomorrow everyone starts discriminating against Objectivists, I am sure you would complain about it (assuming (safely?) you are one). What one believes in should not be held against him or her, irrespective of the actions of the co-believers.

  6. Krishnamurthy,
    Agreed that it is offensive and the world needs to grow up. But what is the alternative? You sometimes have to hold your nose (both literally and figuratively!) and move on.
    I will always be ready to change something that has no significance to me if that helps me to get what I want. So to answer your question w.r.t a black person – Absolutely, I would. I don’t like being a martyr for no good reason.

    What one believes in should not be held against him or her, irrespective of the actions of the co-believers
    Even if those beliefs are plain wrong or vicious as religious beliefs usually are? To take an easier example – if someone believes in Marxism but does not commit any crimes, should I not hold that against him even when I know that Marxism is vicious? A person is morally responsible for his ideas. And a big part of evaluating ideas is seeing what those ideas look like when put in practice. Islam in practice means Sharia law – the kind where they stone and lash people for daring to be seen with people of the opposite sex. Hinduism in practice means the caste system of India. The people who continue to believe in these religions cannot claim my sympathy.

    If education were private – which unfortunately it isn’t – the principal of that school would have every right to discriminate on the basis of religion – or anything else for that matter.

    By the way, isn’t it a little amusing, that you – an atheist – are asking me – an atheist – to not hold religious beliefs against people?

    P.S. Regarding my being an Objectivist, the only reason that I hesitate to call myself that is that I have not yet read Rand’s epistemology fully.

  7. Soory I didn’t read the response until just now.

    What you are suggesting is that in face of discrimination, if it’s easy to change yourself, do so. Whie I agree that this may be one possible course of action available to the people affected, I believe that not wishing to change oneself is not an indication of irrationality or that they deserve it.

    Holding beliefs is a private act. As long as I am not being bothered, it should not matter if you hold “vicious” beliefs. Only when they intrude into my (or others’) life, do they become truly vicious.

  8. Not changing oneself is usually irrational. A personal example. I don’t like dressing up or wearing formal shoes. But I am expected to do so on certain occasions. Would refusing to dress up be rational?
    It would be rational if you expect to gain something by taking a stand. In most cases of irrational discrimination, that is not the case. I am not implying that one should sanction the discrimination. One can always criticize it publicly and impersonally without losing anything. Basically, what I am saying is that standing up for an idea is fine only as long as it does not entail any sacrifice.

    “Holding beliefs is a private act.”
    Agreed. But most excercises of discrimination are also private acts. It is only the government that may not discriminate on the basis of peoples’ beliefs. An employer has the legal right to discriminate on any grounds when selecting his employees. Similarly a school has the legal right to discriminate on any grounds when selecting students.

    Applying this to the issue in question, and given that Islam is a particularly virulent religion, I would not morally condemn a non-religious individual for discriminating against Muslims.
    On the other hand, I do hold any Muslim morally responsible for not rejecting Islam. The same holds for the followers of any other irrational ideology.

  9. I am convinced.

    Off-topic:

    “An employer has the legal right to discriminate on any grounds when selecting his employees. Similarly a school has the legal right to discriminate on any grounds when selecting students.”

    Suppose you have this. Also, suppose you have a “weak” government, which does not run schools, provide health care, etc.

    What’s to prevent the “majority”– “those in power” — from denying education and other resources to the “minority”?

  10. What’s to prevent the “majority”…
    Nothing. If the majority decides to be irrational, there is nothing that can force it to be rational; least of all a democratic government that does not recognize individual rights.

  11. “Nothing. If the majority decides to be irrational, there is nothing that can force it to be rational”

    Having something coded up in law could be a barrier. It’s like saying, if the majority decides to kill someone, there’s nothing one can do to stop it. But we do have laws that try to prevent this.

    Since this is unrelated to the post, we can move to email.

  12. Here is my response in detail.

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