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In India, Muslims Mark a Somber Eid

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By Emily Wax
Washington Post Foreign Service
Wednesday, December 10, 2008

MUMBAI, Dec. 9 -- Ahsaan Qureshi, one of India's most popular comics, usually hosts a posh party to mark the Muslim festival of Eid al-Adha. His wife gets her hands decorated with red swirls of henna. His children dress in their swankiest clothes, eating sweets and setting off firecrackers late into the night. Family friends come over and dine on vats of biryani, an Indian version of jambalaya.

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But after a series of coordinated attacks late last month across Mumbai, India's financial capital and largest city, Qureshi, 45, like many of the country's 140 million Muslims, held a much more subdued Eid on Tuesday, mainly out of respect for those who died in the three-day siege.

"There is no glitz and glamour this year," said Qureshi, who was a star on the "Great Indian Laughter Challenge" stand-up show and has been featured in several Indian films. "I speak for many Muslims when I say we are all in a great deal of pain. It's not a happy Eid."

From the ancient walled city of Jaipur in the northwest to the streets of Kolkata in the east, India's Muslims have held somber vigils to show their solidarity in condemning the attacks.

This week, leaders of the All India Organization of Imams of Mosques asked Muslims to wear black bands on their shoulders as a symbol of loyalty to their homeland. Muslim groups in Mumbai, meanwhile, have brought tea and cookies to many of the victims still recuperating at the city's hospitals. "Long live Mother India" and "Our country's enemies are our enemies," one group of young Muslim students called out during an Eid candlelight gathering to protest the attacks.

The displays of solidarity come amid fresh fears of sectarian strife between India's Muslim and Hindu communities. Communal riots have plagued Mumbai before, particularly in December 1992 and January 1993, when hundreds of people died. Riots in the western state of Gujarat in 2002 left more than 1,000 Muslims and Hindus dead in the worst display of sectarian violence since the bloody partition of the Indian subcontinent in 1947. In recent months, a series of deadly bombings have been linked to either Muslim or Hindu extremists.

Indian Muslims -- who represent about 10 percent of the country's population -- are by and large eager to separate themselves from the alleged Islamist extremists who carried out last month's Mumbai attacks. They are also quick to point out that a third of the 171 victims were Muslim.

"Muslims in India are a suspect and separate minority," said Vivek Kumar, a sociology professor at Jawaharlal Nehru University in New Delhi. "Islam is a huge part of India's history, its architecture. But, of course, Muslims are deeply rattled now. They fear they will be branded Pakistani."

Muslims around the world usually celebrate Eid by slaughtering sheep, goats and cows to commemorate the prophet Abraham's willingness to sacrifice his son, Ismail, on God's command. This year, Muslim leaders asked that no cows be killed out of respect for the Hindu belief that cattle are sacred. Muslim leaders have also refused to allow the bodies of the nine fighters killed in the attacks to be buried in Islamic cemeteries. In sermons and in street demonstrations, Muslims have said they, too, want tougher laws and a stepped-up fight against terrorist attacks.

"We are calling for justice in Pakistan just as much as anyone," said Abbasali Jannati, 33, a Muslim home designer, who spent a recent afternoon walking through the Colaba neighborhood, the location of many of the attacks.

In Gujarat, six years after the sectarian violence, Muslims remain angry and aggrieved. Many who lost their homes in the riots are now living in India's largest Muslim ghetto. The violence erupted after 59 Hindus were burned to death on a train as they returned home from a pilgrimage. At the time, Muslim extremists were blamed for the fire. But the cause of the blaze remains in dispute, and one government panel has said it was an accident.

At mosques in Gujarat on Tuesday, worshipers observed a moment of silence, said Chiraag Sheik, a Muslim social activist.

Muslims in India tend to be poorer than their Hindu neighbors. Some Muslims complained this week that they were having trouble renting houses, and others said they were being watched closely when entering businesses.

Near an Islamic prayer cap store and in front of a popular mosque in Mumbai, friends gathered in a narrow alleyway after prayers to console Mohammed Rafique, 45, who had been at the landmark Taj Mahal Palace & Tower hotel, the scene of much of the carnage.

"We all have felt the horror," said Rafique, a driver, who was inside the hotel to help organize a wedding party. "I just hope my Hindu brethren don't blame us. We have suffered greatly, too."

Special correspondent Pragya Krishna in New Delhi contributed to this report.


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