Aasia Bibi case comes full circle (part 3)

Shahab Ahmed began the first chapter of his book ‘What is Islam?’ with these words,
” I am seeking to say the word “Islam” in a manner that expresses the historical and human phenomenon that is Islam in its plenitude and complexity of meaning. In conceptualizing Islam as a human and historical phenomenon, I am precisely not seeking to tell the reader what Islam is as a matter of Divine Command, and thus am not seeking to prescribe how Islam should be followed as the means to existential salvation. Rather, I seek to tell the reader what Islam has actually been as a matter of human fact in history, and thus am suggesting how Islam should be conceptualized as a means to a more meaningful understanding both of Islam in the human experience, and thus of the human experience at large.”

The difference between ‘literal’ Islam (something I had been taught all my life-till that point) and ‘human experience’ of Islam (as theorized by Shahab Ahmed in the lines above) became acutely aware to me in the days and months following ST’s assassination. Where did the theory end and practice start? Does believing in something and doing things contrary to those beliefs hypocrisy or just the way things work? Are the five ‘essentials’ (Tauhid, Namaz, Roza, Hajj, Zakat) of Islam necessary to be performed if you just gain brownie points with God by killing infidels/blasphemers? I was also growing up in an environment of Islamist terror. Militants who professed to be better Muslims than us mere mortals (who performed the aforementioned ‘essentials’) were killing innocent people in Lahore, in Karachi, in Swat, in KP. How does a practicing Muslim reconcile his faith with the Islam professed by the militants? How does an ordinary Pakistani Muslim view the history of Islam? (a pol sci-major friend of mine recently said something very interesting on this topic. According to him, “actual” history doesn’t really matter to people. History in the public imagination is whatever the elites/mil-establishment want it to be )

Following my basic introductions to political theory and rudimentary economics(at IPSS and beyond), I began to think about the intersection of religion and politics. I probed some fundamental concepts regarding political Islam and how accurate they were, like the concept of Muslim Ummah and the statement that ‘Islam is a complete code of life’. While I was pondering over these questions, I was still living in the same social milieu that had existed around me.

I remember debating some 9/11 ‘truthers’ among my medical school classmates. They refused to entertain the notion that it could have been an Al-Qaeda operation, done by fellow Muslims. One day, I got into an argument with a burly, 6 ft 4 in guy in m class about the ‘complete code of life’ theory. I had probably mentioned it on my Facebook wall or in some Facebook group that I didn’t believe in the veracity of this claim because it was a newer (19th/20th century) addition to Islamic teachings. That tall, muscular guy approached me in the lecture hall the next day and said that he didn’t like my comment and that he was offended by it. I tried to reason with him but he got agitated and asked me to shut it because I was questioning religion which made him angry. I switched gears and changed the topic to save my skinny ass. A few days later, I was talking to a classmate who was among the very few friends I had and she said, Please do not get killed for your ideals.

For me, the public reaction to ST’s assassination was an eye-opening experience. There was a notion of a ‘silent majority’ in Pakistan, people who didn’t like mixing religion and politics (this theory was bogus and had no basis in fact). Fasi Zaka, a very intelligent commentator and writer on Pakistani society wrote, “After Salmaan Taseer’s death, Pakistan’s ‘silent majority’ finally spoke up. They liked it.”I heard someone in the ‘liberal’ (secular liberal or group B) circle say that ST’s death closed the door on critical discussion of blasphemy laws in the near future. It was a battle that we (secular-liberals) lost. We were grossly outnumbered and there was a very remote chance that we could incrementally chip at the edifice of blasphemy laws, for example by changing/improving the law of evidence or publicizing the historical consensus among Sunni Ulema that blasphemy is not punishable by death.

Instead, we have Khadim Rizvi and Tehreek-e-Labbaik (TLP), a ragtag group that can publicly mock the most powerful people in Pakistan and get away with it. ST’s death and Qadri’s hanging opened an avenue for these peddlers of hate to come out of their cubbyholes and wreak havoc on the “silent majority”(pun intended). Mohammad Hanif wrote about the aftermath of ST’s murder for The Guardian (full piece here), an excerpt of which is relevant to what I’m saying.

“So who are these people who lionize the cold-blooded murderer? Your regular kids, really. Some Pakistani bloggers have tried to get these fan pages banned for inciting hate. But as soon as one shuts down, another five crop up. Those who have trawled the profiles of these supporters have said that they have MBA degrees, they follow Premier League football, they love the Pirates of the Caribbean films. Miley Cyrus figures on lots of these pages.”

Qadri’s name became a brand (see here and here) that became synonymous with love for the prophet and the whole blasphemy debate. One could argue that in a country that was premised on the idea of a separate homeland for a particular religion, that religion would become the yardstick by which you proved your nationalism and patriotism.  As for me, I moved out. It became apparent a few years after the ST murder that things weren’t getting any better in my homeland. I could either suck it up and keep living or leave and start afresh. It was very hard to choose one of the routes but I chose the way out.

What about the few liberal spaces left in Pakistan? They are constantly shrinking. IPSS blew out of steam (and funding), NGO-funded youth groups and ‘Countering Violent Extremism’ (CVE) forums ran out of money after the US decided to decrease its footprint in Af-Pak. I was on an exchange visit (a misnomer, really, since no one ever visited Pakistan in return) to the US in 2012 and everyone at the policy level was talking about a post-2014 withdrawal scenario. There are still some valiant people working on secular ideas in Pakistan. Social media has helped but only a little bit. It has gotten the proverbial 72 seculars in Pakistan together on Facebook but it has also fueled the rise of a neo-Islamist political class that takes part in TLP protests and roadblocks. There are also certain bubbles in which you can dare criticize the state narrative such as LitFests and English newspaper op-eds. I remember talking to a pharmacy student whom I knew from a former workplace at Lahore Literary Festival and asking him what he was doing there since most of the conversation on stage there is in English (by decree or by choice). He replied that he was there just as a spectator to see how the ‘1%’ live in Pakistan and had not understood anything that was being discussed. The most important pockets of secular space consist of indigenous movements and organizations that work with people in their own language. I worked with two such organizations that communicated with people in their languages (Punjabi, Urdu, Sindhi etc).

Social media also helped tremendously in the information warfare raged by Milestablishment, turning former Musharraf-lovers into Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaaf (PTI) followers. There is a lot of talk about a ‘youth bulge’ in Pakistan but policymakers and commentators rarely talk about the dangers of having a majority of poorly-educated young people who are taught actively and passively that they are victims of some unknown ‘agenda’ and that if they were given the right set of circumstances, they would conquer the world. I used to teach at private medical schools in two different cities of Punjab and I saw the moral and mental confusion that young people had about their lives and their futures. Youth and Naivete go hand in hand, however constant ideological propaganda about Islam’s greatness and Pakistan’s underdog status is a terrible fertilizer for young minds.

ST was not the first victim of this madness. Sabeen Mehmood was killed in cold blood on the streets of Karachi, Raza Rumi was attacked and his driver was killed, Mashal Khan was lynched to death. Each of these individuals tried to talk about secular values in society. What would become of the society? I don’t know. I don’t make predictions. Omar Ali asked me in November 2015 (in Lahore) about my thoughts on Pakistan’s future and I told him that things were doing downhill every passing day. I standby my pessimism.

 

22 Replies to “Aasia Bibi case comes full circle (part 3)”

  1. Well written.

    My only observation is that so long Pakistani “liberals” support/condone violence (including by minors*) for religious/political causes of arbitrary validity, the state of affairs in that country is going to remain quite bleak…

    I do not know if the relative comfort with violence is a larger problem within the Islamicate Great Middle East (of which Pakistan and adjoining Indian areas with sizeable Muslim population is a part) or a core feature of Islam itself. Either way, it is terrible for people living in this large geographical area and the democracies abutting it.

    [*as I recently saw on Twitter]

    1. Slapstik,

      Violence is not a core feature of Bharatiya muslims or South East Asian muslims . . . both of which are Dharmic tilted or Hindu tilted.

      The great Kashmiri Shaivite Trika master Lalleshwari had many great Sufi disciples (Sufis and Kashmiri Shaivites merged and flowed into and out of each other . . . they were and are as one), including her greatest disciple–Pir/Auliya/Faqir Nunda Rishi. The great Sufi masters of the Chisties, Qadiri and many other SAARC Sufi orders have also been intertwined with the six great Shaivite orders and Mahayana Buddhists (Tibetan Vajrapani Mahayana + Chinese Mahayana + Japanese Zen Mahayana). To this day many Hindus (including Buddhists, Jains, Atheists) go to Sufi spiritual centers. A great master of the Qadiri laid the foundation stone for the Golden Temple of the Sikhs.

      Too bad so many Sufis and Shiites have been slaughtered in Afghanistan, Pakistani, India and Bangladesh. 🙁

      But at long last an openly pro Sufi and pro Shiite government reigns in Delhi which greatly prioritizes protecting Sufis and Shiites from Jihadi Islamists 🙂 Things are changing for the better. There is far better security for prominent Sufi leaders and Sufi spiritual sites in India now. Yay!

      May Allah bless India and PM Modi! Inshallah Hindustan shall move from strenght to strenght . . . from perfection to perfection.

      1. Anan, not everything about human cultures is explainable in Dharmic-Abrahamic terms or flavours thereof.

        Your method seems to be that of the guy wielding the hammer in search of nails to hit. Before you think your (emotionally, spiritually, traditionally, habitually etc) favoured explanation is the *correct* one, try finding faults in it. And if you can’t find any, run a mile from it 🙂

        1. Slapstik, flows of love, consciousness and energy is all there is. It is only our understanding of these things that is incomplete. Of course you are welcome to switch these terms with any others that you prefer.

          Clearly I am not understanding you.

          Your concern about Indian muslims is overstated. We have a type of group consciousness (a connection between the brains and nervous systems of all intelligent animals) that keeps things from going too sideways.

          The Islamic world suffered a major shock in 1919; but is now adapting. Things will work out.

          The problem in the Islamic world is led by a modest number of Islamist Jihadi thought leaders and feelings leaders. Most human beings copy thought and feelings leaders. The reason the world has not been able to to address Islamist Jihadi thought and feelings leaders for 14 centuries is because muslims lack freedom of art and thought. Once that lifts, dialogue will happen and the sweetness of love will melt hearts. How can it be otherwise? We are seeing increasingly freedom of art and thought in the islamic world.

          1. Let me put it this way: I am less interested in why you think your explanation is correct or valid.

            I am much more interested in your thoughts on the conditions under which your explanation – in terms of love, consciousness etc – does *not* work.

  2. Indian Muslims have been responsible for violent agitations too – The Moplah “rebellion”, The Hazratbal incident and the violent protests against “The Satanic Verses” come to mind.

    In fairness, much religious violence in India has come from Hindu quarters as well. The unique differentiating characteristic of Islamic violence seems to be that unlike other religions it is discontinuous in relation to geography. In India, for example, you dont usually see Hindus rioting over events in distant lands. And the intensity of protests, when they occur, are more or less proportional to the distance from the causes. In contrast, the Moplah violence as well as the protests over SV were odd in that the causes were far away and had little or no local relevance. Ditto for worldwide acts of violence related to happenings in Palestine, Myanmar, Kashmir, Syria/Iraq etc.

  3. Angst drips from your words. Unfortunately, it is simply the chickens coming home to roost. As you have yourself noted, for a state founded in the name of Islam, inexorable slide to 7th century desert dry Islam is as inevitable as the slide towards singularity for a body fallen into a dark hole.

    Having said that, I am kind of surprised by your post. Why are you not part of the silent majority? Why are you not pleased with the assassination of Salman Taseer? In fact Pakistani liberals who come to Indians or West to seek sympathy usually waste their time. I have no love lost for the so called “moderate Islam” (a myth), or liberal Muslims. Land of pure is what you asked for. Land of pure is what you got.

    1. There is nothing inevitable about Pakistan’s slide into religious extremism. If General Zia had not become dictator, it would perhaps be a different country today. You can see pictures of 1970s Karachi. It is hard to believe that those images are of Pakistan. It is true that a country based on an exclusionary idea is going to need to find new groups to exclude but some developments are historically contingent.

      You seem to have a very stereotyped view of Pakistanis. There are plenty of people who are against political violence of any sort. Also, just as in any other religious group, people’s beliefs are on a spectrum. There are cultural Muslims as well as political Islamists.

      Young people today are hardly responsible for the creation of Pakistan so blaming them for asking for the “land of the pure” is a bit much.

      1. I agree with Kabir’s point that young people are not responsible for the hand that has been dealt with them.

        I can’t say what could’ve happened in absence of a Zia-like figure in our history. I personally find the nostalgia about a ‘progressive’ Pakistan to be unfounded in fact. Yes, hippies used to visit the country, yes there was cabaret and alcohol Ads, but all those things didn’t really affect the beliefs and lives of a layperson who was still quite religious.

        With the separation of East Pakistan, the rest of the country Islamised really quickly (under Bhutto and then under Zia).

        1. I don’t mean to put all the blame on General Zia but it is arguable that without his Islamization policies and US and Saudi funding for fighting the “godless communists” Pakistan would not have become what it is today.

          It is true that after 1971 the State doubled down on Islam in order to prevent further ethnic cleavages. It was Bhutto who made the Ahmadis non-Muslim (which was also not inevitable in 1947).

        2. The “chickens coming home to roost” thing that @snake charmer referred to, at least to my mind, is not as much about agency of modern Pakistanis but about institutions and culture they operate in/under.

          Maybe there are pathways to reform within Pakistan that are violence-free. I do not know enough about your country to judge.

    2. Why am I not a silent majority? I’d request you to read Parts I and II of this series and find the answer there.

      There is no such thing as a moderate Muslim as much as there is no moderate Hindu or Christian or Jewish person, it is an ahistoric concept.

      1. AbdulMajeed Abid, I have long felt that the world’s muslims (now approx 1.6 billion) can be sorted into four large categories:
        —liberal muslims (I would include mystical unity consciousness muslims in this category)
        —conservative muslims who don’t believe in imposing their beliefs on anyone else
        —soft Islamists who believe in taking over global society through mostly nonviolent means to do good
        —hard Jihadi Islamists who believe in establishing a global caliphate that rules the world to do good (albeit they would sequentially conquer different parts of the world)

        I use “moderate” as a short hand to avoid lengthy explanations. For example most of the world’s 6 billion nonmuslims de facto back extremist muslims against “moderate” muslims.

        What are your thoughts about the above?

        Abrahamic faiths have unique flavours compared to non Abrahamic faiths in that non Abrahamic faiths tend to be universalist, non exclusionary and some variation of:
        —all religions are the same
        —the only religion is love
        —the only language is the heart
        —everyone is divine
        —everyone is potentially powerful, wise and free
        —everyone has freedom of art and thought
        —we should love and respect our enemies and bad people with all our heart (bhakti), all our soul (Jnaana), all our mind (Raja Yoga) and all our might (karma)
        —unity in multiplicity

        There is no clear delineation between secular, religious, spiritual or science. They are all extensions of the same thing. In fact the very idea of “secular” only makes sense in an Abrahamic frame.

        Abrahamic faiths introduced the idea of blended church and state. And the idea that unity in multiplicity and universal consciousness is “polytheism” and should be viewed with suspicion. Christianity and Islam introduced the till then alien concept of “conversion” and “proselytization”. They also introduced the concept of historicity. As well as the then revolutionary concept that someone should only be part of one religion, versus the previous global standard that someone could be authentically part of many many religions, philosophies, cultures and civilizations at once. Abrahamics introduced the concept of “guilt” and original sin (yes I know Islam has a different perspective on that).

        For non Abrahamics, the more religious they are, the more spiritual, secular, scientific and atheist they are likely to be.

        Religion is defined as a theism to transcend all theisms. Or a theism whose goal is atheism. Or alternatively a theism to find the truth, whatever the truth happens to be.

        Of course today many if not most Abrahamics are adopting the global non Abrahamic standard and are increasingly indifferentiable from non Abrahamics. Many large streams of Abrahamism from the beginning have been almost indifferentiable from non Abrahamic philosophy (Zohar, Kabbalah, naustics, large Sufi and Irfan streams within Islam from the life of the prophet).

        However there have also been other streams within Christianity and Islam in the past.

        I use “eastern philosophy” as a kind of catch all for the world’s non Abrahamic religions, philosophies, cultures and civilizations.

        I find Taoism and Bon to be almost indistinguishable from Sanathana Dharma. I also don’t see anything in Zorastrianism that is not consistent with Sanathana Dharma. Nor can I for the life of me see the spiritual masters of Judaism/Christianity/Islam as different from the spiritual masters from every other tradition.

        AbdulMajeed Abid, you are excessively worried. It will work out. Pakistani Islam was far more enlightened and unity consciousness oriented as recently as 1919. Eventually Pakistani muslims will copy their Indian muslim sisters. Sub Teek Ho Jayegee [सुब ठीक होजायेगी].

        My own view that Islam only needs two things:
        —freedom of art and thought
        —dialogue (which hasn’t happened for 14 centuries because of a lack of freedom of art and thought)

        Then the sweetness of love will melt hearts.

  4. AbdulMajeed’s pessimism is well founded. The drivers of Pakistani polity and policies are strongly in the saddle and there will only be more of the same. The Military which drives Pakistan from the shadows is thriving by encouraging these fundamentalists forces , why should they quit now ? Only chance when the Pakistani military’s set course of Islamization of society would be when they are thoroughly defeated for all the world to see. Such an event happened in 1971 and there was a good chance Pakistani civil society would grow ; but the Military has proved too resilient in their stranglehold on the society. There was little bit of chance that democratic politics would strengthen after the assassination of Benazir Bhutto, when all the parties realized the biggest threat to them was from the Military, not India. Again the civil democratic forces proved to be too weak.

  5. What a waste of time. I was expecting to read about Asia Bibi’s acquittal and the bold decision Supreme Court took to declare that she was free to go wherever she wanted to because under the same blasphemy law for which she was tried the court ruled that she did not commit blasphemy.

      1. Just out of curiosity, who made you the authority on what is “Islamic” or not? You are of course free to have your opinions, but don’t pretend like they are mainstream.

  6. For the record, I would love to hear and learn from AbdulMajeed Abid on Brown Cast.

    In the nonmuslim world there is a lot of support from Islamists against moderate muslims. For a better understanding of why, I would listen to:

    https://samharris.org/podcasts/144-conquering-hate/

    AbdulMajeed Abid, when I bring up some of your points with nonmuslims, nonmuslims often respond with charges of Islamaphobia. Most Hindus bend over backwards to appear pro muslim and to prove that Islam is as good as Hinduism. Ditto with all eastern faiths. Americans and Europeans too.

    What can be done about this?

    1. Even Hinduttva people are like this. They pray at Sufi and Irfan Shiite places and ask for the blessings of muslim spiritual people. Their only muslim friends are Sufis, Shiites and liberal Sunnis (who in India vote BJP). And they naturally assume that their muslim friends are representative of muslims.

      There is a common belief that if the Gulf and Deep State GHQ stopped backing extremists, moderate muslims will take over global Islam easily. Do you think this is true?

    2. I am available to be on Brown cast, if invited. Mixing Islam with politics makes it difficult to form an opinion regarding particular societies. Being pro-Muslim in India and the United States is one thing, being pro-Muslim in Pakistan is another. I am not optimistic at all about reformation in Pakistani Islam, which has evolved in a different direction from Arab (or non-Pakistani) Islam.

Comments are closed.