The OryaAbbasi Inquisition: Ganging Up on the Defenseless

OryaAbbasi - File Sources: currentaffairspk.com and foxcey.com

OryaAbbasi – File Sources: currentaffairspk.com and foxcey.com

A recent talkshow by Kamran Shahid on Dunya TV about Malala’s now-controversial biography “I am Malala” has become a talking point for Pakistanis. The participants of the show included columnist Orya Maqbool Jan, journalist Ansaar Abbasi, physicist and analyst Pervez Hoodbhoy and Ambassador Zafar Hilaly. After watching the show, there are quite a few observations that I would like to make. The show can be found here.

And now, the commentary.

The show is the perfect exhibit to demonstrate that Pakistan is not a free speech society, even though such talk shows may appear to give the impression of the contrary. In a society, where expressing certain opinions pertaining to a certain religion is like sealing your death warrant. And the state only makes matters worse, which makes you thank your stars it is not half as effective.

A lot of people are attacking the host of the show Kamran Shahid for inviting people with conflicting views for better ratings, just so that he can have a heated argument. But I fully support him for this. First of all, there is nothing wrong with that. That’s great TV. He is only doing his job and I actually appreciate him for bringing together the likes of Veena Malik and Mufti Sb before.

However, there is a different reason altogether for which Kamran Shahid deserves criticism and ridicule. Shahid did an awful job at moderating the show, and it can be argued that it was deliberate. However, I would refrain from saying so. In any case, it was criminal negligence as he allowed religiosity to be a moral high ground in the debate through his word and moderating action.

Orya Maqbool Jan started the show by referring to certain passages from Malala’s book. His main focus was outraging at Malala mentioning that “her father was opposed to Salman Rushdie‘s The Satanic Verses but was a firm believer in freedom of speech”. He also rejected Malala’s criticism on curbs on women’s participation in public life and on media during the Zia regime, citing many female playwrights that rose to prominence at the time on the state television.

Pervez Hoodbhoy - Source: Newsweek Pakistan

Pervez Hoodbhoy – Source: Newsweek Pakistan

Pervez Hoodbhoy, in return, had zero arguments in Malala’s defense. As a matter of fact, he did more damage to Malala’s cause than a conservative could have imagined, though the aging scholar performed far better emotionally than I expected.

Hoodbhoy started out by saying that Orya and Abbasi were lying and that they were misrepresenting facts and maligning Malala, including an ad hominem attack on their English language skills. Apart from this opinion, hardly any argument was offered by the former QAU Professor.

The only solid argument from his side was about writing PBUH (Peace Be Upon Him) with the mention of Prophet Muhammad, as Ansaar Abbasi had raised this rather obnoxious and easily beatable objection on Malala’s book.

This is where Kamran Shahid proved his lack of impartiality as the moderator, as he stupidly mentioned the anecdote of his thesis submission abroad in which he wrote PBUH with the name of Prophet Muhammad, despite the warning from his supervisor that writing it implied bias in a research report. This way Shahid tried influencing the debate as if not writing PBUH with the Prophet’s name was something immoral in terms of faith.

Ansaar Abbasi maintained a consistent mantra of calling Pervez Hoodbhoy “jahil” or ignorant throughout the course of half an hour of the debate, until Hoodbhoy was forced to leave amid such onslaught just before the show ended. However, for someone as religious as Abbasi, calling someone else ignorant sounded pretty hilarious and stupid.

Ambassador Zafar Hilaly, who was wondering what he was doing there, was asked to present his opinion about drone strikes and on talks with the Taliban. He was only seen shaking his head in disapproval as the war of relatively civil curse words went on between Abbasi and Hoodbhoy, as Orya continued shouting out of his lungs to stop their exchange in order to read the passage from Malala’s book.

The only reason there should be sympathy for Dr. Pervez Hoodbhoy is that Orya Maqbool Jan and Ansar Abbasi, who for convenience and for promoting my branding of their inquisiiton, would be referred to as #OryaAbbasi as the duo’s pseudonym from this point on, ganged up on him. I repeat, OryaAbbasi literally ganged up on Hoodbhoy, interrogating in a frighteningly self-righteous manner.

OryaAbbasi started an inquisition of Hoodbhoy to publicly frame him for opinions offensive to Muslims, paired with a hilarious but threatening diabolical laughter, as if warning him of consequences. Hoodbhoy was obviously dumbfounded for being trapped in this cul-de-sac. He narrowly dodged the inquisition by answers considered somewhat acceptable by the standards of the Pakistani Islamic society.

OryaAbbasi asking Hoodbhoy about his position on The Satanic Verses and whether Ahmedis are Muslims or not is fine, and perhaps encouraging in theory, but doing so on public TV in a society such as Pakistan is dangerous, to say the least. Because someone believing in free speech or not agreeing with excommunicating the Ahmedis would most probably be threatened by the extremist Muslims who consider it righteous to kill someone with such views.

The OryaAbbasi inquisition could also be a frightening insight to the future of Pakistan is an increasingly authoritarian and theocratic state. The state already requires its citizens to declare in writing that they are not in any way affiliated with Ahmedis. Would this imply that the National ID card and Passport forms would also carry a declaration condemning The Satanic Verses, if not on more informal levels However, Pakistani Muslim individuals would still not see this as an invasion of their personal and social freedom.

In order to successfully tackle the OryaAbbasi inquisition and to effectively respond Muslim and other religious fundamentalists, Pakistanis need a secular liberal spokesperson who is not fearful of their life like Taseer or Christopher Hitchens. This is why I have tremendous respect for Christopher Hitchens, because he had very real death threats as well, but he never compromised on free speech, and he even defended Rushdie at the time when he was in hiding for his life.

A nervous, frail and emotional debater such as Pervez Hoodbhoy, despite his prestige and knowledge, is not able to take on these harassing fundamentalists. Partly because of the self-censorship that you need to exercise about Islam in the Pakistani society for the sake of security. 

Unless people are clear that it is the values of an Islamic authoritarian society that is the threat and the enemy of freedom, no one would buy the mild apologies for passages from Malala’s book that liberals have to offer. Because let’s face it, this passage from the book has opened a bit of a Pandora’s box, but I still support it. It is her freedom to write whatever she likes and I agree with it. 

If Malala has written that her father believed in freedom of speech, it is the duty of the secular-liberal debater to defend free speech as a superior value no matter what. This is what Malala’s fight is about anyway, but we are failing her. Now that Malala has been put in this position by the likes of OryaAbbasi, we need a better public defense of her.  

As crazy as it sounds, but they hardly have any argument if they don’t defend what they believe in. This is about liberty and freedom from theocracy, and the only argument is to reject religious authoritarianism.

Unless there is a debater who presents arguments that attacks the fallacy of faith and theocracy, liberal and secular debaters will always be on the losing side, shut up by religious emotional blackmail. 

Any volunteers?

What Made Hitchens So Cool

Christopher Hitchens (1949-2011) Source: The Times

Christopher Hitchens (1949-2011)
Source: The Times

In one word what made Christopher Hitchens so cool was his courage.

It’s a word easily taken for granted, often involving violent connotations. But in Hitchens’ case, the courage was far more relevant and greater than any soldier with a gun could ever muster.

I speak as one who did not admire Hitchens for his politics and warmongering, becoming an advocate of the American war machine in the latter years. But as a great admirer of him for his eloquence, oratory and his clarity of thought and action on freedom of speech, secularism and raising arguments that no one would dare go near to. The kind of single-minded commitment which looked even like fanaticism to some, and at times, probably rightly so, I don’t know.

In his journalistic career, I consider his work on Mother Teresa to be probably the most important one. Well everybody knows how peace loving Henry Kissinger is, but questioning the moral integrity of Mother Teresa was really something unheard of. If I ever would have met Hitchens, I would most certainly have sincerely congratulated him on that effort.

But not only that. Christopher Hitchens was one of the most outspoken British journalists to have supported author Salman Rushdie during the Satanic Verses fatwa affair in 1988. As a matter of fact, he was one of the leading names to offer him support when everyone was reluctant. While that may not sound unpleasant to the Western ears, his support for controversial British historian David Irving which attracted much criticism.

While Holocaust Denial, a ridiculous history view which nevertheless deserves independent inquiry from scientific minds, is associated with Antisemitism, Hitchens, who supported David Irving’s right to his opinion is said to have some part of Jewish ancestry himself.

Now these are the opinions which would earn you a lot of enemies, let alone followers and admirers, but at the same time it was what he thought was right in consistency with the principles of freedom of speech. Why shut certain people up and if there claims are so ridiculous, why not scrutinize them and let them be humiliated. And boy, was Hitchens great at the art of humiliating, aka the hitchslap.

As a matter of fact, we do need people who must stand up for freedom of speech no matter how politically incorrect or offending it may sound. The kind of freedom guaranteed by the First Amendment to the United States Constitution is the one that is the natural right of every human being. It’s pretty much physics as you cannot prevent someone from thinking and speaking in a certain way.

Probably that is why humans feel empowered by trying to repress the rights of others like them. Now that is power. That is control. That is government. Challenging existing accepted moral standards and dogma was what made Christopher Hitchens so cool. And we all know his views on religion. He called himself an antitheist.

It’s all outrageous to many, but well, that is what is different and most unique about him. The idea behind “God is not Great” is certainly not his originally, as he himself and other New Age Atheist scholars would acknowledge that it has been around for centuries, but his battle with the conventions certainly was. This is what made him stand out, for better or for worse. For not apologizing to those who called him an apologist.

The most important lesson from Christopher Hitchens is to question everything. And that nothing is sacred enough, if at all, to be immune to it.

So what is that one thing that you would have said to Christopher Hitchens on his birthday had he been alive?

Not sure about all of you, but I would have suggested him to smoke cigars instead of cigarettes.

Perhaps he would have lived longer had that been the case.

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Here’s Christopher Hitchens on Freedom of Speech

Christopher Hitchens on Freedom of Speech, again