YOU SAY BOMBAY, I SAY MUMBAI, LET'S CALL THE WHOLE THING OFF.

Isaac Chotiner rounds up the debate about what we should call a city in India. Essentially, Chris Hitchens thinks we ought to refuse to recognize the Indian name for the city, Mumbai:

When Salman Rushdie wrote, in The Moor's Last Sigh in 1995, that "those who hated India, those who sought to ruin it, would need to ruin Bombay," he was alluding to the Hindu chauvinists who had tried to exert their own monopoly in the city and who had forcibly renamed it—after a Hindu goddess—Mumbai. We all now collude with this, in the same way that most newspapers and TV stations do the Burmese junta's work for it by using the fake name Myanmar. (Bombay's hospital and stock exchange, both targets of terrorists, are still called by their right name by most people, just as Bollywood retains its "B.")

But "Bombay" is in fact a European creation, and in the languages spoken in Mumbai, they call their city ... Mumbai. It wasn't renamed by a illegitimate regime, it was renamed by a democratically elected one, however repellent some of their ideas. One of these residents writes to Andrew Sullivan in response to Hitchens:

Hitchens is completely wrong. As someone whose roots go back many generations in Mumbai, let me assure you that we've always called the city Mumbai in our local language Marathi. The name Bombay was given to the city by the British. What do you think the city was called before the Europeans arrived? It was called Mumbai. ...

Seriously, if the Shiv Sena [the Hindu nationalist party that was in power when the city was renamed] had wanted to impose Hindu chauvinism on the city, they would have called the city GaneshTown. Ganesh is a major Hindu god and very popular in Mumbai. On the other hand, the goddess Mumba is so obscure that the only reason I have heard of her is because she bequeathed her name to my beloved city. The name change was a nod to the locals of the land: their pronunciation would be the official one.

And Bombay isn't the only Indian city to have changed its name to its pre-colonial version. Madras reverted back to Chennai, and Calcutta changed to Kolkata; None of these moves were to impose any religion on people. They were simply a rejection of colonial legacy. I don't like the Shiv Sena and hate the fact that I'm defending them, but changing the name of the city is one of the least religious things they have done to it.

Which is why officially we foreigners should call the city Mumbai. But the reason I rehash this debate for you is that Hitchen's uninformed argument is exactly the kind of thing that screwed the United States in Iraq. Letting a belligerent pundit who ultimately has little local knowledge divide the world into Manichean slices of good and evil is a terrible way to approach foreign affairs. In this case, Hitchens was merely working out his dislike of religion by painting faith as inextricably opposed to secular diversity, but it's the same instinct to reduce and simplify that led John McCain (currently grandstanding in Mumbai) to immediately deploy evil empire rhetoric against Russia during this summer's conflict with Georgia, even though the facts of the situation were much more complicated than one bad guy vs. one good guy. This is the sort of thinking that leads to not knowing the difference between Sunni and Shia.

It's obviously important to recognize the threat that transnational terrorist groups composed of Islamic fundamentalists pose. But actually understanding them, and understanding that, for example, someone like Muqtada al-Sadr in Iraq can be a useful ally when he restrains his militia even if he is as a religious demagogue, is a key to actually defeating the people who threaten U.S. national security.

--Tim Fernholz

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