In memory Dr Ashgar Ali Engineer, a tireless and irreplaceable champion of minority rights
Farah Mihlar, MRG’s Conflict Prevention Coordinator, writes a personal appreciation of an acclaimed Indian minority rights activist, who sadly passed away earlier this month
Asghar Ali Engineer was a renowned Indian Islamic scholar and minority rights activist. He valiantly fought against religious extremism and intolerance, which manifested both from within and against his community, and championed minority rights under some of the most difficult circumstances. He was also a reformist at heart, and one of the South Asia’s leading scholars, who worked tirelessly on reinterpreting Islamic texts within a human rights framework.
I first met Dr. Engineer as a young journalist at an Asian inter-faith reconciliation meeting in Bangkok in the late 90s. I had just begun my career, still in university, and I recollect being immediately struck by his alternative views on Islam that I had, until then, never come across. Islam as I had known it had changed rapidly in my home country Sri Lanka, and while space was opening up for women to enter education and employment, stricter rules on dress code and appearance in public space were threatening women’s rights. Dr. Engineer opened my eyes for the first time to liberal interpretations of Islam, which contested the dominant mainstream gendered version that I had been taught to believe was the only one.
A few weeks later I interviewed him for a leading Sri Lankan English language newspaper. At the time I learned that Dr. Engineer had been detained and harassed at the Sri Lankan airport on a few occasions and even prevented from entering the country because of his progressive reformist work. He seemed hardly perturbed by these incidents, being familiar with threats and harassment, which he had faced in his own country as a human rights defender.
I lost touch with Dr. Engineer, but read many of his writings, which went on to profoundly influence my academic work on gender and Islam, and also my human rights activism.
Interestingly I came across him again seven years ago, not on the subcontinent, but when I joined Minority Rights Group international (MRG) and learned that we were partnering with an organization he founded called the Centre for the Study of Society and Secularism in Mumbai.
CSS worked with MRG on projects to analyse how anti-minority ideology was propagated in school text books in India, and supported work on minority rights in education. Through our work I had a second opportunity to meet Dr. Engineer at a workshop, in Mumbai, in 2009. There I interviewed women supported by CSS who were victims of the ethnic violence in Gujarat in 2002, still awaiting justice for the hideous crimes they suffered.
I later managed to get some time with Dr. Engineer to discuss the situation of minorities in India and possible projects MRG and CSS could work together on. The conversation naturally drifted later onto the other subject we held a mutual passion for – human rights and Islam. We talked for what felt like hours, on two rickety chairs in the dusty corridor of a school building. Despite his age, he showed no sign of fatigue, we were interrupted only occasionally by one of his concerned colleagues bringing him a glass of water.
Our point of contention, simply put, was why human rights ‘in’ Islam? I argued the case that human rights should be universal and secular, not open to religious interpretation, liberal or not. He agreed in principle but held firm that the only way forward to work on human rights in Muslim societies was to frame it in a religious context, but with a liberal interpretation. I don’t recollect how the conversation ended, but I do remember leaving with enormous respect and admiration for his patience, humility and passion. Not often does one find scholars of international repute with a combination of such traits.
Dr. Engineer can never be replaced, but he leaves behind many young people, women in particular, who have studied and trained under him. Many, like me, who were influenced and enriched by his thinking, who in his absence have to try to honour his commitment and dedication to uphold liberal, progressive values on human and minority rights in an ever-changing and challenging global context.