Red, White and Black


Hum dekhen ge
8 January, 2011, 12:44 am
Filed under: Islam, Pakistan, Politics | Tags: , , , , ,

The past three days for a liberal/progressive Pakistani have made for a very numbing experience. The public reaction to the horrific assassination of Salman Taseer has shocked many a people in the country. For me and many of my friends, the most shocking aspect of the past few days was the outpouring of public support for this wanton killing.

4 hours into the death of the governor, congratulatory smses started circulating and facebook groups supporting the assassin crept up. Then one read about the flowery reception given by some lawyers to Mumtaz Qadri. The next morning Dawn carried a photo of a garlanded Qadri raising a victorious fist while standing at the door of the police van – all the while surrounded by adoring lawyers. This morning one of my students with whom I had previously discussed Salman Taseer’s stand on blasphemy and challenged to identify verses of the Quran that support this injustice came up to me during the class break. He told me that the point was moot now. He was happy that Salman Taseer had been killed. He did not feel the need to hunt for those verses anymore. Did I not hear that 70% people in online polls supported the murder? Did I not hear about the 500 ulema who had declared the murder just? What more proof could I ask for? He felt vindicated in his opinion and that was the end of the matter. Before class resumed again, I just had the time to tell him that they were all wrong. (I plan to sit him down sometime next week and discuss this matter in a bit more detail. But for the time being, his obvious satisfaction over the act stumped me.)

He is not alone in these views.

I have had sufficient interaction with 200 odd undergrads this semester to know that he will have a good number of friends standing by him on these views. A while back a Newsline study by Ayesha Siddiqa argued that Pakistani students at elite universities had strong religious identities and were politically conservative. My experience teaching the history and politics of Pakistan at a premier engineering university this semester has reaffirmed these findings. (For that matter, why should these views be surprising at all? Recall SDPI’s “The Subtle Subversion“, which catalogued how the state in Pakistan has sought to cultivate a highly conservative and reactive mindset through primary and secondary education textbooks?) So why should we be so shocked when seemingly decent/rational/educated people around us think it of no big concern that an innocent man was killed in broad daylight for expressing his opinion? Why should we be perturbed at the unleashing of public joy at this murder?

72 hours later, I think the fog is finally lifting. As horrific as the events of the past three days have been, they have given us a reality check. They have exposed our opposition. No longer can we comfort ourselves that the silent majority would not support those who had holed up at Lal Masjid, that the silent majority would be appalled by attacks at Marriot and at crowded marketplaces in Peshawar, that the silent majority would have condemned the terrorist attack on the Sri Lankan team. The line has been drawn and we at least have a better appreciation of the opposition that we are up against. And we also know that we have to fight back. That we have to confront those with regressive and intolerant worldviews. We surely have to confront them. For not confronting and giving up the fight for the future of this country is simply, simply, not an option.

So where do we go from here? I have a few thoughts. For one we need to start defining the public discourse on these matters. There is this one particular bit of Aaron Sorkin dialogue that kept coming back to me today. It went something like this:

Lewis: “People want leadership, Mr. President, and in the absence of genuine leadership, they’ll listen to anyone who steps up to the microphone. They want leadership. They’re so thirsty for it they’ll crawl through the desert toward a mirage, and when they discover there’s no water, they’ll drink the sand.”

President: “… People don’t drink the sand because they’re thirsty. They drink the sand because they don’t know the difference.”

The leadership that we have is inept and has failed to set any sort of public discourse on strategic matters for the country, let alone something as contentious as blasphemy. So when the public discourse is being set by the religious right and no feasible alternative is being presented to the thirsty masses, they are going to drink the sand and think they have just been blessed with God’s man-o-salwa. So let’s start setting the debate.

In the media discourse there are already some signs of hope. When the conservative Nazir Naji  argues on Capital Talk that Pakistan’s problems will only be solved once we return to a secular political system. When someone like Ch Shujaat Hussain musters the courage to call for a review of the blasphemy law. When even Kamran Khan begins to acknowledge that rising intolerance and religious extremism and diminishing space for rational dialogue are critical problems for the country. But this is not enough. We are standing at the precipice. A structured push for changing the discourse on critical national matter is the need of the hour. We need to provide the leadership – the alternative vision. We want to re-imagine Pakistan. At the same time, we need to recover the space that has been ceded to the religious right and start challenging the conservative mindset. I don’t know yet how or who will do all this? But I know that I am going to do what I can in my immediate circle, with friends and acquaintances and in my classrooms.

The journey for Pakistan’s future might just gotten harder, but I refuse to believe that the future is lost to us. For really, what other option do we have?



Edward Said on Islam and West: 30 years on
10 June, 2007, 4:49 pm
Filed under: Islam

Randomly surfing the internet yesterday I stumbled across an article by Edward Said, which I felt ought to be shared. The artilce is entitled “Islam Through Western Eyes” and it was written nearly 30 years ago. But that makes no difference as the it fits the bill of contemporary times perfectly. I am going to quote some excerpts here, but do read the whole article.

Continue reading



The Reluctant Fundamentalist: a review
17 May, 2007, 1:21 am
Filed under: Islam, Pakistan, Politics, social

I wrote up the following review a while back after reading the book, today I came this interview via ChapatiMystery and thought I would (stop being lazy and) post it:

The Reluctant Fundamentalist by Mohsin Hamid is a very short read- just 111 pages. This is what the back-flap says:

At a café table in Lahore, a bearded Pakistani man converses with an uneasy American stranger. As dusk deepens to night, he begins the tale that has brought them to this fateful meeting…

Changez is living an immigrant’s dream of America. At the top of his class at Princeton, he is snapped up by the elite “valuation” firm of Underwood Samson. He thrives on the energy of New York, and his infatuation with elegant, beautiful Erica promises entry into Manhattan society at the same exalted level once occupied by his own family back in Lahore.

But in the wake of September 11, Changez finds his position in his adopted city suddenly overturned, and his budding relationship with Erica eclipsed by the reawakened ghosts of her past. And Changez’s own identity is in seismic shift as well, unearthing allegiances more fundamental than money, power, and maybe even love.

The story is narrated in first person and the setting of the narration is the food street at old Anarkali, giving it a very quaint feel. The book silently brings out the contrasts and contradictions in Changez’s life – but never passes judgment on them. They are just stated – for you to draw upon. Some really thoughtful historical parallels are drawn. [I won’t spill them here – but they did ring true.] One other thing that stood out: radicalisation of political beliefs is not necessarily the outcome of religious indoctrination. In fact, the protagonist of the book remains a non-religious person through out the book [he drinks, parties, sleeps around, never prays…]. At the end of the day it was just a matter of perspective. The change in Changez owes entirely to social and political stimuli.

If you are one of those people who enjoyed Moth Smoke, you will love this one. It was a much better book than Moth Smoke…simply because it left so much unsaid and allowed you to reach your conclusions. Highly recommended.

Just want to leave you with the following excerpt from the NYTimes interview, which says it all:

Is it fair to describe your second novel as a Muslim’s critique of American values?

That’s oversimplifying. The novel is a love song to America as much as it is a critique.

I didn’t find it so loving. It takes place on a single evening at a cafe in Lahore, as a charming, well-educated Pakistani in his 20s recounts his life story to an unnamed American stranger, who seems suspicious of him.

The American is acting as if the Pakistani man is a Muslim fundamentalist because of how he looks — he has a beard.



Muscle Flexing by the Religious Right
14 April, 2007, 2:46 am
Filed under: Islam, Pakistan, Politics

Lately, the news emerging from the capital has been been dominated by the black ninjas of Jamia Hafsa. These vigilantes have taken it onto their brave shoulders to purge society of all immoral activity, else they have promised to reply with suicide bombings. But, these ninjas are not the ones I intend to deal with here. Maybe later, as the situation clears out and settles a little.

Continue reading



Batons will do it!
9 February, 2007, 11:11 am
Filed under: Islam, Pakistan, Politics

This would probably turn out to be more of a rant than anything else. On my way back from work everday I pass Lal Masjid – the very same has been in the news a lot lately. For the last few days, I have been noticing that there are always 10-15 face-covered-baton-wielding young men standing on the boundary walls and the roof of the masjid. They are trying to ensure that the government does not demolish this masjid too – by taking to violence. Just like their female counterparts from Jamia Hafsa.

The sight did not rest easy with me. It gave me the creeps – just like this feature written upon a visit to Jamia Hafsa:

The students of the Jamia wake up every morning at 5:00 am. They are not allowed any games, out-door trips or TV. Watching TV, they said, was banned in Islam. They live in strict gender segregation and believe in the subordination of woman to man. They study Islam in its most extremist form. The students and teachers told me the madrassa is grooming wives and mothers for jihadis, female suicide bombers and female foot-soldiers who will clash with the law enforcement agencies of Pakistan, if necessary.

They said Osama Bin Laden and Mullah Omer were their heroes and they were ready to become suicide bombers to kill the ‘enemies of Islam’ in Pakistan and abroad. When I said that Bin Laden is a terrorist who is fighting for an Arab cause on our soil, someone shouted ‘Osama!’, and the rest yelled ‘zindabad’. This yelling went on for a while.

I had been mulling over this whole thing since I read the news yesterday that the government had agreed to rebuilt the demolished Hamza Mosque. And I thought: whither the state? Why is that the state agrees to the demands of a few baton-wielding extremists yet publicly humiliates innocent citizens who are protesting against the state enforced disappearance of their loved ones? And then we crib about our society turning into an increasingly intolerant one. Who is really to blame?

This TFT editorial [warning, PDF file] for this week strongly mirrors my own thoughts:

This episode raises questions of law, state and religion. It suggests that any extremist mullahs do not accept the notion of the “writ of the nation-state” and the laws of the land promulgated by parliaments and constitutions if, in their view, these are in conflict with their notions of Islamic law and life. Indeed, by their very definition and logic, not just Pakistan but the whole world belongs to Allah and they (the mullahs) have a right to build mosques (houses of Allah) wherever they like, regardless of the laws relating to land and property.

It concludes:

The Pakistani nation and state is therefore faced with a new and dangerous threat that represents a violent minority which seeks to exploit the values of liberal democracy to undermine majoritarian democracy. This threat cannot be thwarted by military means alone. The nation and the state will have to demonstrate a broad democratic mainstream moderate consensus to tackle their common enemy by political, legal and economic means. This is not just General Musharraf’s war. It is every patriotic Pakistani’s war who wants to protect and defend this nation.

But it gets me to wonder why wasn’t an equally strong condemnation issued when Muhammad Bin Masood was humiliated? [or was one?]

Our society is precariously placed – suicide bombers have wrecked havoc in the last forthnight. Who are they fighting? The state by targeting high profile locations and killing on-duty policemen? Or themselves by targeting other sectarian groups? A few days ago Daily Times reported that IJT students activists have been preventing Shia students from praying at the university mosque and I sat there for an hour, thinking: what the hell?! Since when have we started playing God?

I wonder how long we would be able to hold strong if this wave of religious intolerance and extremism is to continue festering in our society? And how the hell do you stem it when the state is busy appeasing it for political gains? Where exactly are we headed?



The Hajj Sermon
31 December, 2006, 9:30 pm
Filed under: general, Islam, Politics

I ended up listening to the Hajj sermon a few days ago and a couple of points caught my attention. Speaking to the congregation of believers on Hajj day, the Saudi state-appointed Mufti claimed:

…that the slogans of enlightened moderation and socialism were completely opposed to Islam and there was no place for sectarianism in the Deen. He said the cause of downfall of Muslims was distraction from their Deen and that was why the enemies of Islam were uniting against them. He added that Muslim governments should make efforts to unite against the enemies of Islam. The Mufti said that mujahideen in Afghanistan, Iraq and other parts of Muslim world should protect the rights of their brethren like they do for the House of God.

So while the Mufti made some politically correct noises like emphasising the need for unity, speaking out against the terrorism perpetrated in the name of Islam and denouncing sectarianism. But for the rest of it – the political part of the sermon, he resorted to the same old schizophrenic rhetoric that has become the custom of the religious Right in the Muslim world. Continue reading



The Silence
6 September, 2006, 11:59 pm
Filed under: general, Islam

This week’s blog-surfing led me to this post, through Eteraz’s blog, to which a reply was posted here. A number of questions [a couple quite inane in nature] were raised at the Gates of Vienna and responded to succinctly by Eteraz. But there is still one question that stood out:

What counts is the collective action (or passivity) of millions upon millions of ordinary Muslims, folks who know nothing of Spinoza or Voltaire, or even Arabic literature.

When hundreds of thousands of Muslims take to the streets to protest violence against infidels in the name of Allah, then I will believe that Islam can be peaceful. When I see protest signs against jihad parading up the streets in Riyadh or Tehran or Jakarta, then I will believe that Islam is indeed reformable. But not before.

Such things have never occurred.

This is not the first time I have encountered this question on an online forum. When such questions are raised, the operational belief remains that the majority of Muslims are silently complicit, if not actively involved, in global violence that rages in the name of Islam. They contend that since the majority are not seen actively protesting against the militancy and extremism, so they must just be pretending their opposition. This notion needs to be rebutted in the strongest words.

Continue reading