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.

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.

What George Michael’s Music Meant to Me

Source: Rolling Stone

Source: Rolling Stone

It is hard to believe the news of the passing away of pop icon George Michael, who was anything but ashamed of this label. While 2016 has been cruel when it comes to taking away so many stars that we love, with Carrie Fisher being the latest, George Michael’s death has been truly unexpected and untimely. Perhaps, it is the opioids again. It is not as if I never expected to hear this news, but its timing came as a real shocker. And there is a reason why it came as a shock to someone of my generation.

Growing up in the 90s, George Michael’s music meant so much more than just songs on tape. It was way past the Wham! years and he was well established in his solo career. But most of all, George Michael was establishing himself as a rebel figure that became an icon for individual freedom and personal choices. A gay icon before being gay was even remotely acceptable, George Michael became the voice for millions of all gay, straight, bi and other orientations when he expressed his sexuality through his music.

Right from the very beginning, no idea ever appealed more to me than individualism. Nothing brought me greater inspiration than the ideals of individual freedom and the importance of each individual. This is where I saw his music as an inspiration, and as a constant soundtrack to my life, that lifted me up in my darkest of moments. His music was truly empowering and inspiring. I recall the time when nothing else made me feel better than his music and how I bonded with my siblings over his music.

Source: Columbia

The way George Michael defined Freedom may have been gibberish to the ears of many at the time. It defined a worldview to the rest of us. It became the anthem of the defiant. His songs boasting of sexual openness became a license to take liberties. He made having faith sound cool and spun the wheel of our curiosity. Just like Bowie and Madonna, he was truly a figure that changed the face of music.

So for these reasons alone, I could never forget George Michael, nor separate his work from my life. The words of his songs, as well as those tunes, became a part of the way I saw the world. At least at that time. And I cherished every single moment of it. And never regretted it for a second. For someone who could barely play a six string, George Michael proved to be someone with a genius for producing the most haunting music you would ever listen to, enabling him to sell millions of albums effortlessly.

Source: musicroom.it

Source: musicroom.it

Now that we learn that George Michael was a far more generous and gracious person than we thought, considering his crude, 90s figure, having arrested for lewd acts in a men’s restroom in the United States, inspiring his controversial Outside video. However, his charity figures would never have made any difference to his fans, who already saw him as an inspiration.

To a generation that was bogged down by too many rules, George Michael taught how to stand up to convention. Taught the importance of questioning convention. He most certainly was not alone in expressing himself like that among the pop and rock icons of the 1980s and 1990s, but he was most certainly one that I personally associated with more than anyone else. And who I admired more than anyone else, even those whose music I got to appreciate even more than his later in my life.

This certainly is an end of an era in music, and one that passes with a heavy sense of personal loss and a scar on the heart, just like at the start of this year with the deaths of David Bowie and Prince. And nothing is more heartbreaking than the news of his possible return in 2017.

Source: Virgin/MTV

RIP George Michael.

You  have been loved.

 

Bronchitis: Strike Three!

Source: shutterstock

Source: shutterstock

Forgive me for not writing for such a long time,  but so much happened since words last appeared on this blog. I embarked on a rollercoaster but enjoyable trip to Sukkur and Moenjodaro and survived massive fatigue in Swat.

For the last two years, I had caught the condition of bronchitis roughly around this time of the year. I had resolved that this year would be different. However, not to be. For the third straight year, I am now fighting the terrible condition of bronchitis which has made life as difficult for others around me, as for myself. It conveniently came when I was on an official tour to the northern parts of the country, which are not particularly known for moderation in cold temperatures. Perhaps leaving me in a more humiliating position than ever before.

I wrote about how bronchitis felt last winter. Similar feelings now. The same coughing fits. It’s just that I was prepared for it to hit this time around.

Just did not know I would hit the emergency twice in two days. Even though it just hit at the perfectly wrong time. When I was out in the field for work and just when I needed to keep myself fit and well. But I was anticipating its arrival. It was just a matter of time. And I would be lying if I said I took enough precautions. I guess it takes walking around wrapped in a quilt.

But as I approach the next year, I do have one resolution to make among a few others. I am not going to catch bronchitis for the fourth year in a row.

But I have a feeling that I will be writing a similar post next winter. And I seriously doubt that I would be walking around wrapped in a blanket.

I predicted it the last time too.

To Shimon Peres, The Peacemaker

Source: The Daily Telegraph

Source: The Daily Telegraph

As a young man, my mind was captivated by the image of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, along with Shimon Peres, and Yasser Arafat shaking hands in the White House lawn in 1993, overseen by President Bill Clinton. Sadly, the Oslo Peace Accords, for which all the three gentlemen won the Nobel Peace Prize, failed to bring lasting peace to the Middle East but laid the foundation of the Palestinian Authority.

Sadly, the Oslo Peace Accords, for which all the three gentlemen won the Nobel Peace Prize, failed to bring lasting peace to the Middle East but laid the foundation of the Palestinian Authority. It angered many Israelis and failed to satisfy many Palestinians, but sadly the fundamentalists always fail to follow the sacrifices and efforts put in to get even remotely close to such an agreement. Many believed that the peace deal led to Rabin’s assassination.

However, it inspired the entire world with the hope that a conflict as impossible as Israel and Palestine could possibly see an opening for peace, which could put millions out of suffering and misery in the region. One of the central figures behind the peace initiative was Shimon Peres, the foreign minister at the time.

Probably nothing inspired me more to value world peace than this single photograph. I thought that if a peace prize meant anything, it had to be all about the meaning of this picture. Just looking at it offers you a glimpse of hope that peace is possible in one of the harshest political conflicts in the world.

Source: Haaretz

Source: Haaretz

His death brings that sinking feeling in my heart, with a regret that I would never be able to meet Shimon Peres in person, perhaps in a diplomatic position. Just like the feeling I had after Benazir Bhutto’s assassination, a regret that I would always live with. Another regret is that the Pakistan state establishment could not find a reason to establish diplomatic relations with Israel during his lifetime.

While his role as a statesman and diplomat for peace remains to hold universal appeal, he was one of and headed Israeli naval services after independence. A Polish Jewish immigrant, he was a part of the Haganah that later transformed into the IDF and was instrumental as one of the founders of the state. He saw the state grow to become a formidable outpost of democracy in a region crippled by autocracy and perpetual conflict.

Since he has been involved in the affairs of the state almost all his adult life throughout Israel’s history, his personality cannot possibly be removed from the controversy due to Israel’s brutal defense and retaliation tactics. However, as a statesman, and later as the President of Israel, Peres continued to reach out to the world and build a friendly image of Israel in a world that finds it hard to shrug off its antisemitic tendencies.

Probably the greatest reason to mourn the death of Shimon Peres, even though his role was mostly of a formal powerless figurehead of late, was that Israel has probably lost one of the last figures who could engage sensibly with the other side. His death leaves the current Israeli leadership in the hands of some of the most hardline right-wing government that Israel has ever had in its history. The worrying part is that the fundamentalism in the nationalism is only expected to grow, which hardly leaves you with an optimistic view of the situation.

There is easily more to celebrate about Shimon Peres than there is to mourn.

People like Shimon Peres matter because they are optimistic enough to believe in peace in a world of cynics, who believe in humanity when it is much easier to hate.

Let’s hope his passing serves as a reminder of how valuable peacemakers are.

Rest in peace, indeed.

The Trauma of Life: The Pictures That Shook The World

Source: Aleppo Media Center/Time

Source: Aleppo Media Center/Time

Just when I thought my conscience was dead, when my heart had hardened enough to take the most gruesome of things, and when I had become cynical enough to appreciate the value of anything in this life, a picture shook me like very few things had ever before.

We have seen so many . We have seen the helpless death of Aylan Kurdi pictured on the beaches of Turkey. We have seen so much that we should not have seen. The genocide in Bosnia and Kosovo, the children suffering Assad’s chemical attacks, and the corpses of dead babies from Gaza Strip and the Syrian civil war.

Somehow this image is different. Somehow it is more shocking that any other thing we have ever seen.

Shocking in its lack of violence. Shocking in its calm.

But it only strengthened my view that this world is no place for a living creature. It is no place for a fragile little kid like Omran, who has now probably seen everything that a human should not in their entire lifetimes. I have probably never felt so disgusted with the idea of life in the recent years.

Throughout the time of the survival of Omran, we keep on hearing the calls of “Allah,” who was so conspicuously absent from the scene. Probably that’s why.

It’s a different feeling in a natural disaster, perhaps, where you are helpless for reasons that are beyond anyone’s control. But this is not supposed to happen. These families really had done nothing wrong to deserve this sort of hell.

But to my mind, if these pictures did not destroy your faith, probably nothing would.

Nothing has destroyed my faith in humanity like this ever before.

Not everything about this is apparently so tragic. Omran’s family survived the brutal air bombing on their apartment complex in a rebel-held neighborhood in Aleppo, allegedly by the Russian jets on August 17. The bombing was enough to scar the family for life, but there was hope that they would escape the war zone. However, Omran’s brother Ali, who had been rescued too, could not make it and died of injuries.

It’s probably not the worst thing in the world. At least the family survived. At least the child survived, and who knows who and what he would go on to become.

It’s not worse than the Holocaust. It’s not even worse than the killings of the young children that an Israeli gunship strafed apparently for fun.

But does that make the personal tragedy of his life any less important? Why do we have to consider the severity and the magnitude of a tragedy to reserve our outrage and shock and grief for it?

I don’t know what to make of such a tragedy.

Should we embrace life harder than ever before, or should we move away from it? Should we celebrate his life or should we mourn? I don’t even have to explain why we should mourn. Others are saying he is lucky. Is he?

Should we value life or should we see it as nothing but a series of painful and traumatic experiences?

There comes a time for families when their lives are irreversibly destroyed, and altered for the worse. It is moments like these that change them forever, which change the course of their lives.

In reducing it to a conflict with complicated powers, how we discount the life of an individual.

Should we use it to push the anti-war agenda or should we use it to rally support for more war against Assad, Russia, and the Islamic State? Should we use it to trash whoever is our political opponent or should we use it to advocate for the acceptance of more Syrian refugees?

Is this what our existence comes down to? Is this what life is about?

I don’t even know what’s right anymore.

I don’t know whether I am sad, angry, frustrated or disgusted. I don’t even know what to say anymore. This is the sort of shock after which you don’t want to be happy again.

I don’t even want my mind to be numb anymore. I don’t want to suspend my consciousness, as I would usually do. I want to absorb every bit of these pictures.

Even crying does not undone the grief. It does not undone the trauma of life.

I don’t know how to respond to the pictures of Omran Daqneesh.

We would move on from this, but for a change, something inside is dead.

 

The Deep Roots of Human Prejudice

Source: buzzfeed.com

Source: buzzfeed.com

The roots of human prejudice are so deep, and it is so pervasive, that it almost feels like second nature to man.

While it is widely believed that men are born free of prejudices, you would find it hard to believe just how naturally they come to us. It almost is the best, most suitable reasoning shortcut.

What if prejudice were an inseparable trait of an intelligent species? And if it isn’t. Why do people continue to indoctrinate their children with prejudiced ideas and undoubtedly have been doing so for centuries? And does prejudice go beyond nationalistic, ethnic, and religious boundaries? Apparently, it does.

What if prejudice is a problem that possibly cannot be separated from the act of thinking?

We are surely the only prejudiced species, or so we believe.

 

Is liberal education enough to get rid of prejudice?

Liberal education may or may not cure someone hellbent on antisemitism give up support for Nazism, for instance, but it certainly does improve the odds of minimizing that.

One way or the other, you would be shocked and surprised at how deep the roots of human prejudice go. It’s a huge challenge.

And is training for critical reasoning enough to get rid of our intrinsic, deeply embedded prejudice and biases? Even despite learning about all the logical fallacies, biases, and flaws?

 

Are we really free of prejudice when helping others escape it?

And do we really when we think that we have escaped it? Judging others for it?

 

So how deep are the roots of human prejudice?

Guess we’ll never know.