The Intolerance of the Cult of “True Islam”

Source: Hindustan Times

Source: Hindustan Times

The unfortunate and devastating bombing at the Sehwan Sharif shrine sheds a new light at the. The devotees of the shrine and those with a Sufi leaning in their faith reinforced their love for the spiritual rituals practiced over there.

The Islamic State accepted the responsibility for the Sehwan Sharif suicide bombing and sent a clear message to all who have deviated from the true practice of the faith.

Perhaps only a day or two after the bombing, classical dancer Sheema Kermani went up to the shrine and performed the iconic dhamaal to send her message that life must go on at the Lal Shahbaz Qalandar Shrine. Now, this was supposed to be a beautiful, powerful moment of spirituality and love that should have brought the entire humanity together.

By good numbers, the dhamaal, or the ecstatic spiritual dance, was seen as a moral abomination. Something they would never imagine their mothers or sisters to be doing as opposed to the obscene dancer who defied the terrorist, other than the notion that it was pure heresy. Something which would have made the true founders of Islam turn in their graves.

Obviously, many of the urban upper class Deobandi/Wahabi kids had seen dhamaal for the first time in their lives, so their shock is understandable. But it is the rest of the crowd, who actively campaigns to condemn dissenting religious groups is where the intolerance begins a little too much to tolerate.

While their assertions of what was and was not done by the Prophet and his companions may well be true, their effect in the contemporary society goes far beyond that. What the Cult of True Islam cannot stomach is the fact that somehow Pakistan happens to be very pluralistic in its religious makeup at the grassroots, even with its seemingly very homogeneous official faith. What the Cult of True Islam cannot come to terms with is the possibility that Islam may have evolved a little over the last fourteen centuries and hundreds of regions.

The Islam of Pakistanis happens to be far from one at least, unlike the monolithic form of monotheism you see practiced by the Saudi Arabian regime. We do kiss and touch stones over here, prostrate at grave sites in reverence, and wear charms and amulets. Not surprisingly, we have sects within sects within sects in Pakistan and it is not necessarily a bad thing, the shock at it certainly is. Not only that, we have a rich Sufi tradition that has oftentimes been a result of marriage with the wisdom from Hindu ascetics. Nobody should be afraid to say that.

So just like the region of the Indus that today falls under the modern Pakistan republic is ethnically and lingually diverse, it is no surprise that it is as diverse in its religious affiliations. The Cult of True Islam has been at it to dismantle every aspect of its culture and turn it into Arabia. Too bad we still don’t see as many date trees around our neighborhoods than we ought to.

While we can manufacture several conspiracy theories about how the Islamic State emerged, what we hesitate to face is the foundation of our fatwa culture. It is basically the Islam purists among us who we dismiss playfully that are responsible for the culture of declaring “kafir.” While I have never had personally anything against the label (I used to think it was a compliment), I gradually realized what it meant for others.

The acceptance of this intolerance has been as commonplace as the occurrence of the word kafir and Shia in one sentence. It was only a matter of time that the larger practice of paying homage to the great Sufi saints that this region is known for started falling under that category.

The expression of “True Islam” remains to be an enigmatic paradox which apparently is grappled only by those who claim to be its proponents in whatever context it is thrown at you. If it is in the context of secularism, you know all its good qualities were already embodied in it. If it is in the context of who is a truer Muslim, then you know you certainly cannot win. I only wish the proponents of the True Islam were as flexible as the concept itself is.

It is not a problem to hold, observe and practice a certain belief system. Actually, that is precisely what I am arguing for. But how about you stop imposing their superior faith of you on others who are observing their own tradition. Perhaps, it is not going to happen in an atmosphere where intolerance is encouraged and where art and culture are seen as obscenities.

The funny thing is that the same people would make tall claims of how their faith would perfectly allow existence for anyone with a different belief system.

We may feel appalled by the Islamic State and dismiss and condemn them as “Kharijites,” but what about the apologies for the very philosophy that they are acting on? Are they not found all over Pakistan? Or sitting in the next cubicle at your workplace?

Religious zeal and puritanism sound like nice ideas but they need to understand that the fabric of the society cannot remain intact without the necessary tolerance for the faith of each other.

And yes, even the Constitution of the Islamic Republic of Pakistan appears to promise that freedom that these purists want to see disappear.

So how about we keep the contract going that the locals of this region have had with each other for thousands of years?

The post was originally published in The Nation blogs.

One Good Reason to Celebrate the Valentine’s Day

Source: The Nation

Source: The Nation

Many of us are cynical when it comes to the Valentine’s Day. And for a good reason too. The Western and probably overly commercialized holiday makes you cringe. And of course, you don’t even need to focus on the harassment that ensues.

But we have forgotten in our sharp criticism that somewhere people with sincere expressions of love are celebrating this holiday too.

I know many people respond that they don’t need a specific day to express their love, because they do so every day. But perhaps we do since we are so lost in our materialistic pursuits in a gesellschaft.

How many times do you speak to a particular friend in a year? Let alone a love interest. At least I don’t nearly as many times as someone would expect, if at all. But I should speak for myself only.

But if none of these arguments make any sense to you, which is perfectly fine, there is one good reason that would help you celebrate Valentine’s Day. Or at least realize that it should not be taken for granted.

Don’t forget that Sabeen fought for the freedom to celebrate the holiday. I don’t know about most of you, but to me, Valentine’s Day is a good occasion to respect the memory of Sabeen, a true Pakistani free speech hero.

Well, now you would hardly find a trace of photographic evidence of this episode online because our overly concerned media publications worried about the sensitivities of their audience too much. However, like the photographs from the campaign, the courage of Sabeen Mahmud in the face of religious authoritarianism must not be erased from our memory.

We know for a fact that the campaign at least jeopardized her life thanks to the instant fatwa machines in the Karachi madrassahs. However, you could speculate if that was the only motive of her killer, if any at all. But that’s what they tell us.

With every forgiven attack and every neglected bit of hate speech and death threats, we are condemned to desensitize ourselves from this moral abomination. However, we are also condemned to put up with it, until we are not. Because in a land where morality is enforced by threatening the life of its citizens, the only law is that of the sword, not of some high moral divinity.

In a society, such as this, celebrating the Valentine’s Day is an act of defiance in itself. Especially when our courts issue verdicts such as banning the holiday in public spaces that defy the standards of civil rights. In some cases, it is even an act of sheer mad bravery. Not very different to what Sabeen did during her campaign challenging religious authoritarianism.

I am not a fan of mingling political statements with holiday celebrations at all. But this is one exception that I would not mind. So, when you celebrate Valentine’s Day in Pakistan, do keep in mind that in such a society, the holiday is more than just vain indulgence.

Isn’t it a good reason to celebrate?

The post was originally published in The Nation blogs.

Salmaan Taseer’s Sixth Death Anniversary Sees His Son Accused of Blasphemy

Source: Guardian

Source: Guardian

It’s probably not even a surprise that following the murder of Punjab Governor Salmaan Taseer by fanatic religious zealot Mumtaz Qadri, his son Shaan Taseer is accused of blasphemy. But for the sake of it, let’s just say who could imagine this happening.

Salmaan Taseer would have been so proud in the grave, or perhaps so pained to see this.

The Quaid-e-Azam would have been so proud in the grave, or perhaps so pained to see this.

Of all the Taseer children, it was perhaps only Shaan who has taken up activism for the rights of the minority religious communities in this fashion. He has remained in the forefront in protesting against religious extremism, including against the Laal Masjid, with Jibran Nasir and other similar activists. I recall seeing him speak first in the Aabpara protest against Laal Masjid clerics following the APS attack in Islamabad, which featured Jibran Nasir and Farzana Bari as well.

It’s one thing speaking out for the poor and the threatened, it’s a whole different thing altogether to become the victim yourself. Such is the brilliant dynamic of the politics of the blasphemy. No one is safe from the monster.

Source: Express Tribune

Amazingly enough, Shaan Taseer has been accused of blasphemy for just giving a video Christmas message to everyone in which he obviously criticized the blasphemy law as “inhuman.” Of course, he brought up Aasia Bibi missing God knows how many Christmas nights for being jailed. And of course, even any judge is not willing to hear Asia Bibi’s appeal case. Thank God someone is still talking about it.

However, this video was enough for him to attract a very serious and dangerous, legally protected death threat. Yes, that is what a blasphemy fatwa really means.

The Barelvi clerics of Tehreek Labaik Ya Rasool Allah affiliated with the Sunni Tehreek, the group that wreaked havoc in Islamabad on the execution of Mumtaz Qadri, issued the fatwa or legal opinion against him. The trouble with the fatwa sort of “legal opinion” is that most Muslims end up considering it a verdict. Anyone remember Salman Rushdie?

Source: Sunni Youth Parliament/Shaan Taseer facebook

Source: Sunni Youth Parliament/Shaan Taseer facebook

If you need an evidence of the insanity of the blasphemy allegations flung at just about anyone, then consider the case that the same clerics have issued a warning against PTI leader Imran Khan too. Now Imran Khan is a very popular leader, who has now turned a conservative populist nationalist, with his party allying with the Islamist Jamaat-e-Islami. He knows very well that blasphemy is political suicide. Someone as careful as him is not even safe from the threat of blasphemy accusations, albeit he is powerful enough that they stop short of issuing a fatwa against him and settle on an open letter.

On the anniversary of the assassination of the late Governor Taseer, let us express our support and solidarity to Shaan Taseer who is fighting the fight for liberty at a cost.

We must realize that no one is safe as long as these medieval obscurantists are in power.

We must realize that no one would be free as long as these ignorant tyrants keep on shutting everyone up.

We must speak out.

That is the only way to pay our respects to the mission of the Taseers.

 

Pakistani Free Speech Hero of the Year 2016: Qandeel Baloch

Source: Qandeel Baloch Official Facebook

Source: Qandeel Baloch Official Facebook

She made a statement by expressing her sexuality in a society where it is considered an abomination. She was predictably accused of vulgarity in a society that has probably even forgotten the meaning of this vague expression.

Forsaken by the liberal media, in the words of feminist academic Nabiha Meher Sheikh, when she needed them the most and condemned by a society of self-righteous savages, model and internet sensation Qandeel Baloch tested the morality of our standards of morality.

Her selfie clip with Maulana Abdul Qavi pretty much realized my dream of watching Mathira and Mufti Muneeb-ur-Rehman do the tango on TV.

The shockwave that it caused not only resulted in his removal from the Ruet-e-Hilal Committee, an insignificant body that performs the significant function of sighting the moon but also leading to the murder of Qandeel at the hands of her own brother because she had offended his honor. Qandeel’s former husband was also said to be involved. To no effect, or without much substance, Mufti Abdul Qavi’s name was included in the investigation of her murder for provoking it on the complaint of her parents.

Yep, death comes that cheap in Pakistan. Or is it life?

Source: Human Rights Tulip Twitter

Nighat Dad – Source: Human Rights Tulip Twitter

Shout outs also go to some other free speech heroes in Pakistan, who are continuing their struggle in the face of brutal opposition. Heartiest congratulations and salute to internet privacy and digital rights activist Nighat Dad who won the 2016 Human Rights Tulip Award from the Dutch government. She has used the prize to establish the first cyber harassment helpline for the people of Pakistan.

A mention of publisher and social activist Abdul Wahid Baloch is also due, who was briefly abducted by unknown entities following his activism to find the whereabouts of the Baloch missing persons. These individuals have been the victim of the crackdown on the Baloch insurgency.  Thankfully, he is safely home.

Journalist Cyril Almeida became the victim of undue state scrutiny, following the daring release of an exclusive news story that revealed that the civilian government of the Sharif brothers had reprimanded the military leadership for inaction against religious terrorists. Almeida was briefly put on the Exit Control List by the Federal Ministry of the Interior following the government’s and the military’s repeated stern denials of his story. Too much fuss about nothing, of course.

Source: pakistantv.tv

Shaan Taseer – Source: pakistantv.tv

Another great Pakistani free speech hero remains to be Shaan Taseer, the son of the slain Governor of Punjab Salmaan Taseer, who was a free speech hero in his own right. Shaan Taseer is continuing the fight against the draconian blasphemy law and for the rights of the minority religious communities in Pakistan.

Source: Sunni Youth Parliament/Shaan Taseer facebook

Source: Sunni Youth Parliament/Shaan Taseer facebook

Qandeel’s antics may not sound serious to some of you, but the fatwa issued by Sunni clerics against Shaan Taseer, which he publicized on his facebook page, is no joke. If only this evidence was enough to convince people how much dangerous people we are dealing with here.

In the guise of peace and love, these religious zealots ensure that no one is safe from their venom. I can only commend people like Shaan Taseer for really taking them on in his bold and fearless manner. Now, I can’t do that for one, and the image of the “legal opinion” I posted above can be considered a death threat to Taseer.

All of these free speech heroes are important. Freedom of Press is important. Fighting for religious minority rights is important. But perhaps nothing is more important than a woman challenging the norms of a society that collectively hates women and is abusive to them. Pakistan remains to be one of the countries collectively abusive to women in the name of culture and religion, and apart from my own hometown of Rawalpindi, I have seen glimpses of that in various parts of the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province, such as Swat and Lower Dir. So, I am pretty sure of what I am talking about here.

For that reason alone, Qandeel Baloch is my Pakistani free speech hero for the year 2016.

As Nighat Dad herself said, every time a woman stands for herself somewhere, she is standing for all the women.

Read about the last year’s Pakistani free speech hero, Sabeen Mahmud, here.

The Blaspheming Hilarity

Source: Pakistan Today

Source: ARY Digital/Pakistan Today

Never before in the history of Pakistan has the political tool of Blasphemy ever been used in a more hilarious and ridiculous manner.

Because never before an obviously reverent religious piece has been turned into a perceived blasphemy. And never before the adherents of the sect that would otherwise hold the work of art in honor out of religious fervor would be resorting to lodge complaints of blasphemy against it.

It is just like crying blasphemy for a hymn honoring Allah and the Prophet and calling for its ban. It makes no sense to a casual observer.

But it would make perfect sense when seen in the context of the campaign against GEO TV, after it launched an attack on the DG ISI in the aftermath of the assassination attempt on Hamid Mir.

More than Shaista Lodhi’s “blasphemous” show, the following show by Mubasher Lucman, created all the stir. Ironically, the same song had run on his own channel.

 

Never before have two media groups been at odds with each other for committing a blasphemy. Never before have prominent anchors and artists been the targets of the blasphemy police in this manner.

Is it a coincidence that a talk show anchor forges a blasphemy out of thin air of a hymn that is frequently used by the adherents of a certain sect? Not only was this an effort to wrongly accuse of blasphemy, but one that could have deepened the sectarian rift in the country.

What is actually even worse is that the Shia scholars have joined the ranks of pro-establishment commentators in accusing the network and participants of the show for committing the blasphemy. They have joined forces with the Sunni Ittehad Council, which has issued a fatwa against GEO that watching the cable network is haraam or forbidden.

All of a sudden, there are rallies and protest marches all over the country. None of it seems to be a coincidence or a spontaneous reaction. But it could actually be, as nothing else unites this nation of religious harassers more than blasphemy.

A couple of days later, the Islamabad High Court issues notices to not only the GEO Network, Mir Shakeel ur Rehman, Shaista Lodhi, Veena Malik and her husband, but also to Mubasher Lucman, ARY Digital, Nida Pasha, singer Amjad Sabri and the poem of the hymn Aqeel Mohsin Naqvi. All in a bid to ban the Shia mankabat or religious ode or hymn or whatever it is.

Now how come the idea of banning a piece of religious music is not blasphemous? Why are the Shia scholars quiet about this piece of sacrilege to something that they would otherwise revere.

As a matter of fact, the Shia folks pretty much have no choice when it comes to the GEO Network Blasphemy controversy. On one hand, there is the pressure from the state establishment, and on the other, there is the vicious Sunni blasphemy police.

But one thing is for sure.

Never before has the phenomenon of blasphemy appeared so clearly as a political tool as it has in this controversy.

Especially when there clearly was no blasphemy. And an alleged one that was noticed all of a sudden by everyone when an anchor spots it on a network against which he spews venom every night and still continues to do so.

And a network that just committed blasphemy against the most powerful intelligence agency in the country.

Only today, PEMRA has announced the suspension of the license of GEO Network channels for airing the blasphemous content. To be further confirmed on May 28.

So which blasphemy is greater?

The one against the family members of the Prophet or the one against the ISI and the military?

Pakistani Free Speech Hero of the Year 2013: Sabeen Mahmud

Source: inc.com

Source: inc.com

A right that is almost taken for granted and even denied in Pakistan is that of free speech, and any honor for its promotion is barely ever acknowledged.

Since no one else would bother to say this, at least I would have to. And I am upset with myself for not acknowledging a free speech hero last year. Anyway, partially, that hero was also prominent this year, that is, Malala Yousafzai. No surprises there.

Apart from Malala, a number of people like assassinated politicians Salmaan Taseer and Shahbaz Bhatti, journalists Saleem Shahzad and Umar Cheema, Oscar winning filmmaker Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy and alleged blasphemer Asia Bibi, who everyone has conveniently forgotten, have been prominent in years prior to 2013. It is also important to acknowledge PPP co-Chairman Bilawal Bhutto Zardari for publicly expressing his wish to see a non-Muslim as the Prime Minister of Pakistan in his lifetime, contrary to the provision in the constitution.

But more important free speech heroes are the ones who are in close proximity to threats and yet take the initiative to speak their minds, even if that means challenging the blind authority and unreasonable norms of the society.

To my mind, the Pakistani free speech hero of the year 2013 is social activist and entrepreneur Sabeen Mahmud.

Sabeen took flak after she started a counter initiative to respond to the anti Valentine’s Day campaign of Tanzeem-e-Islami. Her campaign involved rather amusing messages promoting love, such as “Pyaar Hone De” or roughly ‘Let there be love’, in front of the billboard messages from the religious movement prohibiting Valentine’s Day celebrations, citing verses and traditions. It immediately became controversial.

The content cannot be found any more on the Express Tribune website, the publication which primarily covered her campaign, because it is considered in bad taste by a number of Muslims. The publication even issued an apology for the campaign slideshow.

However, I have seen the pictures from the campaign and can testify that there was hardly anything about the campaign that was offensive. It would have been seen in a completely different light, if many of us had a little sense of humor.

Yet Sabeen was harassed by random people on social media, which included death threats, apart from coarse and abusive language. She was even threatened with a fatwa.

Her apt and enterprising response to the hate speech onslaught was the Nafrat Aggregator, an online tool that quantifies reported hate speech on social media.

Sabeen Mahmud has also been the driving force behind other initiatives such as the Pakistan for All campaign with Muhammad Jibran Nasir and Taimur Rehman, which involved the formation of human chains around Cathedrals and churches to express solidarity with the Christian community in major cities around Pakistan, the Hug YouTube campaign and Pakistan’s first hackathon in Karachi. She is also the founder of T2F in Karachi and is the Director of PeaceNiche.

It is a shame that such individuals are harassed instead of being admired by our society, as it is supposed to be in a democracy, just because they have a dissenting voice on certain issues.

But this is precisely why she is an inspirational free speech hero. I fully support and endorse her, even if I am not half as enthusiastic to legislate against hate speech.

While I admire all her work, this acknowledgment is primarily for her stance in the Valentine’s Day campaign controversy.

To quote her: “Fear is just a line in your head”.