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Art & Activism, Ovais Sultan Khan

Ovais Sultan Khan is a thinker, independent human rights activist, and policy-and-research consultant. He was born in Amroha, Uttar Pradesh and brought up in North-East Delhi, India. He has worked independently and with leading policy-makers and planners, politicians, intellectuals, academics and activists in a number of national and international institutions.

Most recently, he was an IVLP Fellow of the Department of State, United States of America in the field of human rights. This is the US government's most prestigious professional exchange program for foreign opinion leaders. He is also an alumnus of UNESCO’s Asia Pacific Centre of Education for International Understanding (APCEIU) in Seoul, South Korea.

Ovais is a trustee at Future Council. He is also advisor at Jamiat Ulama-i-Hind, which is the oldest and largest organisation of Indian Muslims. He has done graduation and post-graduation in Social Work from University of Delhi, and a post-graduate Diploma in Human Rights, International Humanitarian and Refugee Laws from the Indian Academy of International Law and Diplomacy, Delhi.

Presently, Ovais is working on a book about “ethics of disagreements”. He is an editor of “Muslims of India”, and “Islamophobia Bulletin”. He occasionally writes opinions in Hindi, English and Urdu for some newspapers, and media portals; and also reluctantly sometimes appears on news channels as a panelist.

We talk to Ovais about the power of words, activism and cultural heritage.

Can the arts be used as a tool for social change?

Absolutely, the “arts” is a mighty medium for social change and transformation. It enables individuals, groups, communities and societies in their respective contexts to think, ponder and reflect while knowing, identifying, defining and shaping things around their world(s).

What does Islamic art and culture mean to you?

The Islamic art and culture(s) is a beautiful civilizational imprint(s) on humanity across the world from our ancestors and present-day fellow Muslim artists and practitioners. The beauty is that there is no single culture, but it is a big and deep ocean which has many diverse shores giving birth to so many new cultures, reviving and connecting the relationship with old cultures, as well as mingling and co-existing with others peacefully, while shaping the present world.

What are thoughts on the idea that words hold power?

Indeed, words hold power. And not only the words, which is a literary construct – but there are different expressions of articulations like words in non-literary and non-codified knowledge traditions – all of them hold power. Arts and culture enable those other expressions to claim themselves in their own ways – what they are and what the meaning and function of power they define, live and practice.

Through your writing why are you committed to raising awareness of human rights, justice and peace?

Through my actions and writings, I humbly try to live and contribute for upholding the values of human rights, justice and peace – all three values with many others help our world to be in order with lesser violence, conflicts and injustices. On the question of why I am committed – I would say that being a Muslim, I don’t have any other choice. As a follower of Islam, I have to do this.

How has your faith as a Muslim and cultural heritage influenced your work?

As a humble believer in Islam, as a Muslim born in Amroha and brought up in North-East Delhi, my faith and cultural heritage shaped me – and made me different. I want to remain what I am. I don’t want to be politically correct to get some worldly rewards and positions. The Islamic values, the doctrine of Huquq-ul-Ibaad, the concept of justice and most importantly the life of beloved Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) influenced me greatly. It inspired me to stand with oppressed against all oppressions and oppressors; to work for rights, justice and peace for all human beings.

Being a Muslim from Amroha and North-East Delhi helped me discover perspectives. Amroha and North-East Delhi are two-different worlds. Amroha is a place known for peace and communal harmony; and on the other-hand North-East Delhi is a communally sensitive area with a history of mass-violence in December 1992, October 2006, December 2019 and February 2020. Both have enabled me to do the things what I am in – for me human relationships are important, so I work for building-bridges of solidarity, dialogues and confidence – I contribute in humanising, claiming for equal rights and idea of co-existing together in harmony while accepting the differences and diversity – and refusing to bow down before hegemonic homogenisation.

You have worked with a number of national and international institutions, think-tanks, government-bodies and civil society. What are you most proud of achieving in your career so far?

Alhumdulillah. I am content what I have done and I am doing. I reached at the places and positions at very young age – I feel humble while enabling others. Nothing to be proud yet.

Allah has taken the work from me, and He is taking it. It is a blessing for me.

To what extent do you think Muslim diaspora communities are impacted by inequality?

Muslim diaspora communities are deeply impacted by inequality. There are two-sides: one is the inequality which is imposed from outside by others – and another is the inequality which Muslim diaspora communities imposed on themselves by segregating each other with regional biases, superiority complex and unwanted consumerist competition. They have to deal with both and it needs a serious introspection.

What are your thoughts on the inclusion and representation of Islamic art and culture in the mainstream creative industries and media?

The efforts and attempts to make mainstream media and creative industries more inclusive and representative with Islamic arts and culture will help them discovering new ways of creating, seeing things around them and most importantly dealing with dehumanisation within themselves and in their respective intuitions. It will be a light which will enrich them all together. It will help them to accept and live the values of dignity and diversity.

Which artists, writers, thinkers and activists have inspired your practice?

The beloved Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) and his companions inspired me in my practice.

What does the future of Islamic art and culture look like to you?

I feel the future of Islamic art(s) and culture(s) very bright. It will not only deal with the rising Islamophobia across the world, but it will create new avenues of engagement and dialogues with the others. But it should avoid deep commodification.

Mostly, whatever we celebrate and present it is a form of tangible heritage. So, I also believe that there is a great possibility and opportunity of re-discovering the great intangible Islamic art, culture and heritage.

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The views of the artists, authors and writers who contribute to Bayt Al Fann do not necessarily reflect the views and opinions of Bayt Al Fann, its owners, employees and affiliates.


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