With extensive field research and survey of more than a hundred families, Nazia Erum has produced a very good book that reflects on the relation between religion and education in contemporary India. Specifically, the context detailed in the work is of young Muslim children in some well-known schools in and around Delhi. Working with examples drawn from interviews and interactions with several Muslim mothers, Erum argues that schools and playgrounds are increasingly becoming polarized spaces where the religious identity of their wards is repeatedly evoked in a mostly insulting manner. Such bullying, social marking, and prejudice complicates the manner in which children usually mature to have a certain subjectivity for themselves and makes them conscious of their identity as belonging to a specific religious group at a very, very young age.
There are three specific things that I find particularly noteworthy in Erum's book. One, that she is able to link the many instances of bullying and regressive stereotyping of young Muslim children in different educational institutions to the rise of conservative politics in and around the world where the burden of demonstrating patriotism mostly falls on those from the minority and vulnerable sections of the society. Two, that Erum realises that religious discrimination produces a certain kind of complex in the minds of most of the children exposed to it and it forces them to re-orient themselves in their understanding of the world that they live in. They have to (re)evaluate all the people and situations they encounter in terms of their recently acquired awareness that they are Muslims. Third, distinct from a certain strand of scholarship on the relationship between education and religion and the situation of the minority subject therein, Erum's book also turns the critical gaze inward into the Muslim community itself and bravely points out that accompanying the Islamophobia in the world outside the Muslim family is a streak of conservatism that forces individuals within to ask if, on their own, they are Muslim enough. Such a streak of conservatism that itself sticks to and forces others to adhere to a particular definition of being Muslim in contemporary India is, as Erum recognises, perhaps as dangerous as Islamophobia that seems to be widespread anyway.