Saturday, January 17, 2015

On So-Called "Muslim Silence"

Yesterday, Friday, some protestors tried to march on the French consulate in Karachi and the police used tear gas and water cannons to push them back.

Later in the evening, there were nation-wide protests against terrorism and extremism, and in remembrance of the 141 people, mostly children, killed in Peshawar last month. Karachi, Lahore, Islamabad all saw members of civil society and political parties standing in amazing scenes of of solidarity, determination, grief and dignity at Karachi's Do Talwar, Charing Cross in Lahore, and in protests at Aabpara Chowk in Islamabad. And simultaneous protests in the US, UK, and elsewhere by Pakistani communities - London, New York, DC, Boston.

Guess which incident grabbed the international headlines?

So when they say, "Why aren't moderate Muslims
speaking out?" you know who's responsible for the impression that we're silent onlookers, or worse, in silent agreement with extremists.

At Do Talwar (Two Swords Roundabout) in Karachi yesterday. Pic is not mine. 

141 coffins at Aabpara Chowk (pic courtesy Muhammed Jibran Nasir,
the man behind the "Reclaim Our Mosques" campaign

Monday, January 12, 2015

Honor and other Muslim Hang-Ups

In the wake of Charlie Hebdo, people have been asking why Muslims have such a problem with depictions of the Prophet.

On the weekend I read an article from art historian Christiane Gruber who posits that the Quran never explicitly forbade images of the Prophet. It is idol-worship that the Quran forbids, something that you will also see in Christianity - "Thou shalt not worship graven images" from the Ten Commandments. The fear being, of course, that if you draw an image of the Prophet or God, people might start worshipping that. It also ties in to the Wahaabi (my computer wants to auto-correct that to Wasabi) ideology of erasing anything physical to do with the Prophet so that people worship nothing but God.

This also relates to two schools of thought within Islam about the permissibility of things, which most Muslims are understandably obsessed by. The first: that if something is not expressly forbidden in the Quran, it is allowed. The second: if something if not expressly allowed in the Quran, it is forbidden. Relaxed interpretations of Islam follow the first, strict ones the second. The smarter thing is to let people decide for themselves which one they want to follow, but as Islam grows more orthodox and rigid in the wake of political instability, social confusion and economic uncertainty, more people turn to the more explicit way of deciding what's right and wrong.

Although Islam was never meant to have a clergy, self-seeking men realized quickly that they could very easily gain positions of power by interpreting the Quran for people who can't read or understand Arabic, or even those who can but who have been convinced that they aren't intelligent enough to understand the message of the Quran. Hence the power of the mullah in Muslim society. And the mullah loves to tell people what to do and not do, while the Sufi shaykh, for example, is more interested in the esoteric connection between humanity and divinity.

Back to the question of honour.  Many Muslims come from tribal societies which make a big deal out of "honour" and "revenge". They are raised to believe that what's dearest to you needs protecting: your family, especially the women; your children; your property; and last, your good name and reputation. If anyone does anything to besmirch any of these things, you must take action. Otherwise, you are not a man (patriarchy strikes again).

And in most of these Muslim countries, the rule of law and the justice system are still weak and ineffective. The police is often corrupt, as are courts and judges; many cases don't even come to trial for years and years; witnesses can be intimidated; judges bribed. In other words, there is little reason to put your faith in the state.  So taking the law into your own hands to "protect your honour" still makes sense, even in our modern times.

The Quran as I understand it, tells Muslims to not seek revenge, but justice, through proper channels. It also states that forgiveness is better than revenge. But many Muslims in Muslim countries still operate on their values of honour and revenge, not seeing the sense or wisdom in waiting for legal channels to take their course.

The problem arises because so many Muslims tend to think that because Islam and its Prophets are so dear to them, they need to be defended from slurs on their honour, the same way you'd defend a slur on your own honour or that of your family's. They feel this attitude justifies them to take "vengeance" on people who they feel have violated that "honour". That can include a mentally ill man who claims he is God, a cartoonist who caricatures the Prophet, or a novelist who writes a book that satirises religion in general. And mullahs whip up these people's emotions, exhorting them to "avenge the honour of Islam" or "The Prophet", resorting to the worst sort of tribalism because it is so intoxicating to command followers to kill -- it plays into our most primal bloodlust, to which nobody in the world is truly immune.

Of course the religion and prophets don't fit into this paradigm which is why it is so problematic. Islam is a religion, yes, but it is a concept, and impossible to "defend" as such. The Prophets, noble beings as they were, are dead, and defending the honour of dead people is also difficult if not impossible to do. Is it even necessary? Does our religion and do our religious figures need this kind of "defence" or are they beyond the earthly concepts of honour and revenge?  Unfortunately in our countries, the religious orthodoxy shuts down this kind of debate before it can even get started, no matter how necessary it is for the spiritual health of our communities.

My true feeling is that anyone can satirise what they like and if you feel offended, ignore it. As I said in my blog post on Charlie Hebdo, non-Muslims only know Islam and the Prophet by how we, the Muslims alive today, practice its tenets. What they draw and caricature is not the Prophet himself, but us, claiming to practice what he taught us. The results are clear to see.

Finally, in my opinion, honour is a useless concept, at least as it relates to being tied to tangibles.  True respect begins in the heart and ends with our positive actions, a stance that Muslim societies have not yet evolved into. And true honour does not equate to killing, but rather to nurturing life, in all its shades and dimensions. The Muslim man who rides his motorbike with his daughter behind him, wearing her school uniform and schoolbag, is my personal beacon of honour. He's the warrior and knight, defending the thing that's most precious to him in the world. Would that we could all see it that way, someday.

Saturday, January 10, 2015


This is not a post I will advertise. This is not a piece I will tweet repeatedly throughout the day. This is a private lamentation, an outpouring of emotions that are twisted inside me like the branches of a blighted tree.

I want to talk about the rage and the despair that I feel in knowing what I now know. I didn't know this five years ago, or ten. I know it today.

I know now that there are so many people in the world who are firmly convinced that I am inferior to them because of my beliefs. That because I am Muslim, to them I am worthless. That because I call God by an Arabic name, it means I am irrational, prone to violence, in favour of extremism. That because I bow to Mecca, I reject science and rationalism and humanism.  That because I read the Quran, my humanity is less than theirs. That because I revere the Prophet, there is something wrong with my mental health or my intelligence.

Something happens inside you when you are subjected to this kind of bigotry. Something changes. Self-confidence wavers as doubt assails you. Your boundaries, so well-defined, begin to blur. Am I? you start to think to yourself. Am I what they say I am? Am I wrong about all the things that I hold dear?

You hold on to the rope of your faith, not just in God, but in yourself, but you hold it knowing that you might still drown, when before, you had no doubt you'd be pulled out of the water.

The sad thing is that take away the word Muslim and replace it with another adjective. Brown, for example. The colour of my skin. There are so many people in the world who are firmly convinced I am inferior to them because of the colour of my skin.

Let's do that again. There are so many people in the world who are firmly convinced I am inferior to them because I am a woman.

The wheel keeps spinning and landing on more and more things that I never knew were disabilities.  I could go to the moon, I could win the Nobel prize, I could win the lottery and there would still be so many people who think I am inferior because of being Muslim, or brown, or a woman, or a Pakistani, or ...

And now I start to understand why a human being might grow weary of life. 

Thursday, January 8, 2015

On the attack at Charlie Hebdo

I was saddened by the attack at Charlie Hebdo's offices in Paris yesterday. Both as a Muslim, and as a writer.

When you feel justified in killing people over cartoons, you have clearly lost your mind.

No matter how offensive or racist the cartoons were, or how they may have contributed to the alienation of France's Muslim population, or how strongly the attackers felt about the honour of Islam or the Prophet, answering them with guns instead of pens is the wrong thing to do.

I was fifteen when The Satanic Verses was published. Everyone in my high school English class was shouting about how Salman Rushdie deserved to die for it. My English teacher asked me, later, whether I agreed with them.

"Of course!" I said brightly.

I was all of fifteen, I was not a writer, I was barely aware of Islam except that it was the religion we all followed in Pakistan. Nearly thirty years later, I understand why my English teacher's eyes filled with tears when I answered him the way I did. How I wish I could go back in time and answer him differently. I would tell him that no matter how deeply offended I was, I would not resort to violence to make my point. A pen, a voice, an opinion and a clear heart can do that much better than a bullet ever could. And I lack for none of these things today, by the grace of God.

As for those of you who are in doubt as to whether a cartoon can be blasphemous, I urge you to realise that the cartoons of "the Prophet" are not really true depictions of the Prophet. They are projections of the cartoonist's mind, reflections of his or her fears, prejudices, and societal conditioning.  If you feel offended by them, you are admitting that their interpretation is the last word. It's like the parable of the wise men in a darkened room feeling his way around an elephant and describing only what they perceive.

As Muslims, we know and respect this personage in a way that they never will, so we need to drop our expectations that they will "respect" our beliefs as if they were Muslims too.

In fact, I would completely drop our demand that the Western press, or non-Muslims, or anyone really should "respect" our religion, its prophets, or our beliefs and feelings. Instead, we are the ones who need to respect our religion, act in peace and dignity and non-violence, and follow Islam's tenets so beautifully that nobody can find any cause for ridicule. Because the cartoonists and the others can only know the Prophet through how we, the Muslims alive today, exemplify his teachings.

That would clearly be the better jihad.

Tuesday, January 6, 2015

On the marriage of Imran Khan

The New Year has begun, and by all indications, Pakistan is going to be as messed up in 2015 as it was in 2014, 2013, 2012... you get the idea. Things don't look good for this beloved banana republic of ours, with terrorists breathing down our neck, military courts and death penalties, economic woes, and foreign policy Gordian knots that just keep tying themselves up again the moment someone brings a sword this way.

Yet the one matter of greatest importance on everyone's minds (and tongues) is the marriage of Imran Khan. "Did he or didn't he?" has surpassed "To be or not to be" in the ranking of soliloquies, drawing room chatter is all about the PTI leader's relationship with the lovely Reham Khan, and news anchors are throwing all manner of coy hints that they knew about it before it happened, and that they still know more about it than we do but aren't going to tell us exactly what they know (shades of Donald Rumsfeld).

There's something very childish in all of this speculation. In many countries, people believe that a politician's private life is his own matter. Not so Pakistan, where we have no sense of boundaries, privacy, or personal space. Here, we tend to think that a politician's religious status and relationship status are one and the same, in that both are matters for public consumption. And especially in the case of Imran Khan, people think that his personal life is their public property.

I'm not saying Imran Khan is completely innocent in this state of affairs. He's lived and loved wildly, and it's common knowledge, which is part of the territory of being a celebrity. He announced from the top of his container towards the end of the dharnas that he wanted to get married, which some claim makes the matter of his marriage part of the public domain. Fair enough. Khan also capitalises on his own reputation as a sex god and ladies' man, using it in not so subtle ways to gain the loyalty of his many admirers and turn that sexual capital into political capital. Whatever it takes -- and any politician who's lucky enough to be good-looking would do the same.

But here's where it gets tricky: the double standards in Pakistan towards the sexual freedom of men versus the sexual repression of women have complicated things needlessly for the Kaptaan. And he's finding that the freedom he enjoyed as a man doesn't extend to the woman he supposedly wants to make his wife.

By all accounts Reham Khan is a woman who has also lived fully. She's been married before, just like Khan, and has three grown sons. She was a presenter and meteorologist for the BBC in the UK (I refuse to demean her with the sexist term "weather girl"), and was on her way to being a minor celebrity in that media-obsessed culture. Then she moved to Pakistan, where she got a job anchoring for ARY.

She is a good-looking, vibrant and educated woman, and is the very opposite of the village virgin that most Imran Khan supporters think is the only kind of person "good enough" for a man who's hardly lived a monk's life. And good for him, if he found this kind of woman more appealing than a young woman not much older than a child. A man who isn't threatened by a woman's desire to live life on her own terms is a man who is more secure in his masculinity than an insecure man who needs to have a blank canvas as a partner.

All well and good, until the minute her name was linked with Imran Khan. And then she was dragged through the mud. Detractors of the politician dug up old photos of Reham wearing dresses and a video showing her dancing the tango at some sort of charity event. The worst kind of slander flew about her character and what she had to do to get into the BBC (baseless, without proof, and extremely sexist).  Some of this came from his detractors, but much of the anger came from PTI supporters who felt betrayed that this might be Khan's choice of life partner. "We want what's best for him and she isn't it!" was the refrain.

It was like listening to an angry mother in law claiming that a wicked woman had "phassa-oed" her innocent son.

Kudos to her for having handled this pretty gracefully; many people would crack under the strain. Imran Khan's been the one showing the pressure, as he refuses to confirm or deny the rumours that they got married somewhere back in the later part of 2014. We keep being told there will be a "big announcement" soon and in the meantime all sorts of ridiculous speculation is going on that he flew to London to get ex Jemima's "blessings", that his family is angry with him, so on and so forth.

All of this is really pretty pathetic when you see it for what it is: a nation stupidly obsessed with one man's private life. Is it because we really care so much for Kaptaan's well-being and want to choose his partner for him because we know better who's right for him? Is it because we might be jealous that he didn't choose one of us instead?

Or is it because speculating about his marriage is a lot more fun than actually having to face the hard truths about where this nation is really going?

I'll let you be the judge. Heaven forbid I should actually tell you what to think, or do. 

Monday, December 22, 2014

Religion is a means to an end

My attention was drawn this morning to K. Khuldune Shahid's essay in Left Foot Forward on the Peshawar tragedy. Shahid argues that we can't put an end to the jihadism in the region until and unless we counter the ideological origins of "jihad."  I read it with interest and found myself agreeing with some of his points, although this quote gave me trouble:

Similarly the bloodshed can no longer be attributed to the US funding militancy in the AfPak region over a quarter of a century ago, an accusation that sections of the Pakistani intelligentsia and the liberal left in the west are equally fond of.

It was actually the political ideology dreamt up by the United States at the time of fighting the Soviets - that mujahideen had to fight the menace of the godless Communists in Afghanistan as a "holy war" - that let the jihadi genie out of the lamp, and can't be placed back inside again. Unfortunately this ideology became very popular and copied in our own regional power plays, as Shahid notes here:

Pakistan has been breeding jihadist organisations as ‘strategic assets’ to wage proxy wars in Kashmir and Afghanistan. The militants are now using the same ideology they had been taught as ideological arsenal war against Russian and Indian ‘infidels’, to launch jihad against Pakistan after excommunicating the state’s constitution, government and armed forces.

I got halfway through when I realized that I was the "renowned Pakistani writer" that is mentioned in this article. Shahid disagrees with my stance in the Guardian article I wrote last week, in which I wrote that the attack has nothing to do with religion.

With the greatest of respect for Shahid's opinion, I still maintain that it doesn't. Religion is the excuse, power is the motivation. The problem is that religion means a great deal to the average Pakistani, so the jihadis -- AND their creators -- use religious texts, grossly distorted, to justify their murderous ways. I still stand by my assertion that we are making a mistake by putting this all on religion. Just as he calls American interference in the region "a factor", I would call religion "a factor" and look at it more as caused by the Saudi-US power play in the region, and the Pakistani military and state's own desire for regional control. Religion is the tool in the toolbox that seems to be the most effective way to create a narrative that is acceptable to the gullible, uneducated, and poverty-stricken people of the Northwest, and Pakistan in general.

Shahid writes:

The only way Pakistan, and the rest of the Muslim world, can counter jihadism, is by accepting its ideological origins and then moderating the mosques, madrassas and other religious institutions that nourish jihad.

This is an important part of the strategy of bringing Pakistan back down from the precipice of terror. However, I think it misses an important aspect, which Professor Akbar Ahmed brings out in his work on the tribal groups of the Muslim world, The Thistle and the Drone.

In this excellent article for Politico, which encapsulates the theory he expounded on at length in his book, Akbar teases out the tribal origins of super-militant groups like ISIS and shows how it's actually the tribal code for revenge and other anthropological principles that are the driving ideology behind "Islamic" militancy. This is essential reading for anyone who wants to understand what really motivates the militants. It isn't religion. It's something deeper and more ancient than that. Again, religion has been used to give a socially-acceptable patina to the movement, given the widespread hold that Islam has over the hearts and minds of the people in these many areas where war is being waged.

It is extremely important to moderate the mosques and madressas as Shahid writes. But the ultimate solution to the jihadi problem isn't one of reforming ideology, but of reining in the gross distortions made in the religion that allow it to blossom into ideology that is then used to justify the killing of innocents. The real solution is to understand the struggle on a political level, to understand it as the struggle of the state against non-state actors that are still vying for control of territory on the most primal level. At that level, this is almost an imperialist war that has been taken on by the Pakistani state as a subset of the global imperialist war.

But I don't want to start sounding too left-wing -- as the Pakistani state has plenty of responsibility in this whole mess and to blame this all on "America" or "the West" would be the ultimate stupidity.

And this is, of course, only an opinion from someone who truly hates politics. 

Saturday, December 20, 2014

Does Pakistan need the death penalty?

The Pakistani government removed the moratorium on the death penalty that had been in place the last six years after the attack in Peshawar on Tuesday.  There's a debate taking place (on Pakistani social media, not in Pakistan, and I would argue that the two are not the same country at all) about whether or not executions of terrorists will solve anything, or will it just continue the cycle of violence and death.

Human rights activists are against the death penalty, while most of Pakistan is for it in the case of convicted terrorists. I have never been able to make up my mind about the death penalty, but I do know this much: when we do not execute convicted terrorists, this is seen as a weakness on the part of the state to be exploited by the terrorists. They enjoy many privileges in jail, are able to smuggle in cell phones to plan and execute more attacks, and are able to radicalise more people including fellow prisoners and jailers, which is very dangerous for everyone. Look at Mumtaz Qadri, the murderer of Salman Taseer, encouraging other jailers to shoot dead men accused of blasphemy in the same jail that he is being held.

The bigger question: when a man or woman commits him or herself to the taking of innocent lives, and does so with impunity, as has been the case for so long in Pakistan, does he or she still have any claim to human rights? I tend to think that a person who dedicates their life to death and destruction forfeits their right to life by default. Of course, we would need to have a nearly flawless justice system -- and we are far from that goal – but Pakistanis are tired of seeing criminals and terrorists destroying lives and families with no fear that their own lives or families can also be destroyed.

The death penalty has been proven time and again to be an ineffective deterrent. We are beyond the point of deterrence in Pakistan. Then again, if we are willing to kill them in airstrikes and anti-terrorism operations, how is this different from being willing to kill them in an execution?

It is said the Taliban and other terrorists do not fear death. There is a flaw in this argument. What we have seen time and again in Pakistan is "leaders" and "commanders" giving orders for suicide missions. They are not fond of death, these leaders. They like to send others to their deaths. It is this leadership that can still be affected by the threat of the death penalty.

Some people undertake these missions willingly. But we have seen many young boys and men kidnapped, brainwashed, drugged, intimidated, into performing them too. I heard of a case where a young boy was kidnapped and sodomized, and then told that he was so filled with sin that the only way to redeem himself was to conduct a suicide bombing after which he would be turned into a martyr and let into heaven.

We should not be gleeful about the execution of terrorists. I do not want to see their dead bodies on my television screen or in my Twitter feed. If we have to go ahead with the execution of terrorists, we should do it with a somber understanding of just how serious a business this is. We should search our own souls to understand whether we are executing terrorists because of a desire or justice or a desire for revenge. We should come to a deep understanding of how we got to this point; our inability to stop the threat of terrorism many years ago has brought us here today, and it is nothing to be proud of.

We have to view terrorism as an aggressive cancer that threatens to overwhelm our defences and kill us within the year. We would not negotiate with cancer. We would not ask it to change its ways, to recognise it is doing wrong, to leave us in peace. We would blast the cancer cells with radiation and chemotherapy, at great cost to the health of the patient, and we still don't know if the treatment will succeed. The treatment might kill the patient. The treatment might work.  We just don't know as yet. This is not tried and true, this is experimental. And the experiment can still fail.

Yet there is a flaw with this argument as well, because human beings, even if they are terrorists, are not cancer cells. And should we make a mistake and convict and execute someone wrongly, we will have killed an innocent person. This is the only reason – but the biggest one – that the death penalty is such an undesirable punishment.

Still, if we deem the death penalty a necessary evil, there can be no triumphalism about it. We must be willing to review its effects after every hanging, and we must make sure there is a palpable lesson in it for society at large: that every human life is precious, and that we have failed to enshrine that in our values; therefore, we have to commit brutality in order to make up for our previous failures.

Let us hope this is a temporary, not permanent phase in Pakistan's already chequered history; and that one day we will arrive at a peace that lasts, so that we can again see the death penalty for what it is - not a solution, but a shame we must bear as a result of prior, more shameful decisions.

In the end, I think Asma Jahangir, our famed human rights lawyer and activist, says it best: "Terrorism does not disappear with revenge tactics but through making justice and equality before the law a reality."