Blasphemy – Pakistan’s insurmountable problem: stories from its perilous slopes


Shumaila Jaffery’s poignant piece on Aasia Bibi and Pakistan’s blasphemy laws for the BBC last week stirred within me an unexpected nostalgia. Its thoughtful narrative served as a reminder of many personal experiences living and growing up in Pakistan as an Ahmadi Muslim – not just my own but those of my ancestors. It spoke to a crisis of identity that has taken on many hues through my journey of living in my homeland for 28 years, finally leaving in 2012. This journey was often peculiar in its challenges but always profound in its lessons.

During the tumultuous division of the Sub-Continent in 1947, my grandparents’ families were among scores others that had to leave all their personal belongings and their home in a small town near Amritsar and board a train to start a new life in what was now a new country – Pakistan. They hailed from the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community, a minority sect in Islam, and a separate homeland for Muslims to thrive in came with a promise of freedom.

The essence and spirit of such promise was palpable as Jinnah’s message infused with hope delivered to Pakistan’s Constituent Assembly on 11th August 1947 reverberated through the nascent land: “You are free; you are free to go to your temples, you are free to go to your mosques or to any other place or worship in this State of Pakistan. You may belong to any religion or caste or creed – that has nothing to do with the business of the State.”

His preceding words however hinted at caution, opening his speech with the reminder that “the first duty of a government is to maintain law and order, so that the life, property and religious beliefs of its subjects are fully protected by the State.” It was clear that Jinnah feared inter-religious strife would prove fatal to any true democratic cause, not least of building a new nation state. His fears were not ill founded. A mere six years after gaining independence, widespread violent riots broke out in February 1953 in Lahore against the Ahmadis led by Majlis-e-Ahrar-ul-Islam (Ahrar), a pre-partition religious Muslim political party. The civilian government could not contain the riots, which involved looting, arson and the murder of at least 200 Ahmadis, and the Pakistan army in its first foray into politics eventually quelled the violence by imposing three months of martial law.

The riots saw my grandmother’s uncle and brother being imprisoned for nearly two months, being released finally after the lifting of martial law in May 1953. The Ahrar had demanded, inter alia, the removal of Ahmadis from all government posts and declaring them non-Muslims. It was to set the stage for decades of persecution against the community, climaxing with a fresh wave of anti-Ahmadi violence in 1974 that saw the Pakistan Constitution being amended to cast Ahmadis out of the fold of Islam. Moreover, under the parochial regime of General Zia-ul-Haq, Ordinance XX was passed, that made any attempt to “pose as a Muslim” by an Ahmadi a criminal offense.

Yet, what sealed the fate for Pakistan’s Ahmadis was the introduction of Article 295-C in the Pakistan Penal Code in 1986 that made the death penalty mandatory for blasphemy. This new blasphemy law as it came to be known, made the Ahmadi belief in the prophethood of Mirza Ghulam Ahmad to be considered blasphemous, inadvertently making a mere profession of their faith punishable by death. Importantly, the blasphemy law does not require that specific intent be proved with respect to the defamatory words, making it a strict liability crime and creating a fertile space for misuse.

Thus, by the time we took up our place in the world as children in Pakistan in the 90s, the persecution of Ahmadi Muslims had long become an integral part of the socio-political fabric. The blasphemy law became increasingly entrenched with rising numbers of complaints coming thereunder. It was a surreal experience to be connected to the stories that got caught within its menacing arms; these were at times friends or friends of friends, people simply going about their daily lives. Imprisoned for virtually a profession of their faith – having uttered an Islamic greeting of peace, expressed a desire to build a mosque or mistakenly left behind Ahmadi pamphlets whilst moving house to find the new occupants enraged at the notion of an Ahmadi proselytising. Dozens have been languishing in prison for more than a decade, an allegation of blasphemy under 295-C being a non-bailable offense. And these are the stories of those who have escaped death – those of Ahmadis being shot, dragged in the streets or killed by other mob violence are too harrowing to recount.

At some point in their life, a crisis of identity unfolds on every young Ahmadi in Pakistan, the not so inconsiderable challenge of rationalising being persecuted by your own people. Each incident kindles new fears and the painful dilemma of living the life of a fugitive in your homeland. From the anti-Ahmadi riots in1974 that forced my grandparents to abandon their home in Lahore and seek refuge in a small town near by having seen the homes of family and friends burnt to the ground; to the kidnapping and murder of my 37-year old uncle in 1999 by the now banned extremist outfit Lashkar-e-Jhangvi; to the horrifying Jhelum incident in 2015 that saw the burning down of my uncle’s factory by an angry mob, which reached their home with them still inside, escaping miraculously before that was burnt and destroyed as well; to the agonisingly surreal experience of confronting dozens of condolences following the May 2010 attack on two Ahmadi mosques in Lahore, sharing a connection with almost every victim and survivor – not least with my 7-year old nephew whose father shielded his eyes so that he couldn’t see the carnage unfolding around him. The enduring lesson in all of these has been one of patience and perseverance in times of adversity and that the best response to violence is that of peace – these are the lessons constantly reiterated by the Community and it is through these that survival becomes meaningful and even possible at times.

My uncle’s home in Jhelum following its destruction by the mob. A Pakistan flag was placed their by the family as a token of remembrance. [Image courtesy: Humda Ahmad]

For Ahmadis in Pakistan the dreams of a new homeland that came with a promise of freedom and safety have dwindled, in as much have Jinnah’s prodigious words as murky waters of sectarianism have washed away their vibrant energy. While Aasia Bibi walks free, the blasphemy law that besieged her reigns free as well – eating away at the pillars of justice and the moral infrastructure of society. For the hundreds of other victims of this draconian law that continue to languish in prison, hope is not easy to come by – one of the major factors contributing to the international attention Aasia Bibi’s case received was public support the late governor Salman Taseer threw behind her, for which he paid for with his life. It was just another example of how any discourse around amending or repealing the blasphemy law in itself remains sacrilegious in a country long dogged by the mob politics of its religious hardliners.









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Pakistan: blaspheming the divine

Image courtesy: The New York Times,…

For religious minorities living in Pakistan, life remains increasingly precarious. In the case of Ahmadi Muslims, a minority sect in Islam deemed heretical by mainstream Muslims, this means that the mere proclamation of their identity as such is not only illegal but also unconstitutional (the Pakistani Constitution declares Ahmadis to be a non-Muslim minority). Christians have become regular targets as well, and even a simple feud (as the Asia Bibi case exemplified) can be penalised under Pakistan’s stringent blasphemy laws – which a report in 2017 by the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom puts in second spot for being the most draconian, showing a 60% deviation from international and human rights law principles.

This isn’t surprising as Pakistan’s blasphemy laws provide for the death penalty for blasphemers, irrespective of whether the blasphemous words have been uttered willfully or not. The laws, which date back to 1860, were introduced by the British Government to protect the sentiments of a multi-religious fabric of Sub-Continent society. However, in post-partition Pakistan, religion played an increasingly influential role in defining the country’s political and legal landscape and religious clerics pressured political regimes to amend these laws in order to align them with so-called Islamic teachings.

And when it comes to Pakistan’s religious hardliners, blasphemy is firmly on the menu of divine insanities. These radical clerics and their protégés epitomise the ugly face of vigilante justice, chanting death to blasphemers and populating their sermons with vitriol against religious minorities. They could be seen on the streets of Pakistan causing damage to life and property upon the publication of the Danish caricatures of the Prophet Muhammad and they were on the streets again this week spouting venom against the acquittal of Asia Bibi, the Christian woman on death row on allegations of blasphemy since 2010. And while Asia Bibi’s release was welcomed across the world, the fatwa-giving mullahs vowed to avenge the verdict calling nation wide protests. The result was a deal brokered between themselves and the Government that effectively leaves the Supreme Court decision spineless by placing Asia Bibi on the Exit Control List preventing her from leaving Pakistan.

It is as if the Chief Justice of Pakistan felt this palpable sense of foreboding as he orchestrated his arguments in favour of Asia Bibi’s release. He spends the first 14 pages of his 34-page judgment underscoring the reverential status of the Prophet Muhammad and citing references from the Holy Quran endorsing the unequivocal requirement for Muslims to hold an unparalleled and unlimited affection for him. On more than one occasion he states that no person being guilty of disrespecting the Prophet can be let off scot-free. Stunningly, the Chief Justice takes a verse of the Quran revealed in the context of the Battle of Badr and uses it to suggest that the punishment for blasphemy in Islam is death. That the apex court of the country is expounding theological arguments rather than purely dealing with the legal merits of the case lends profound insights into the ideological quagmire confronting Pakistan. It also reveals the sheer force of mob justice in the country, with the Chief Justice being compelled a day later to comment on the verdict that sparked chaos in the country, stated how the judgment was started with the Kalima and that Islam was discussed in detail. The need to appease and allay the raging sentiments of the religious clergy seemed abound.

The grave irony for the radical clergy in Pakistan is that they are an antithesis of the example of the Prophet Muhammad in what was his response to blasphemy. To be sure, the Quran provides no physical punishment for the offence, the only commandment being to “turn away”. The Prophet himself was routinely labeled a “madman” and a “forger” and “a man bewitched”. Yet, he remained exemplary in his decorum and tolerance towards those who derided him, on one occasion stating that, in line with “the general thrust of his revelation and message”, he had been “charged with the obligation to forgive”. When Abdullah bin Ubayy bin Salul died, known in the history of Islam as the chief of hypocrites and who was responsible for an incident of blasphemy so serious it is recorded in the Quran, the Prophet gave his own shirt to Abdullah’s son to enshroud his father’s body for burial. He then led his funeral prayer.

Pakistan’s religious clerics therefore have appointed themselves at the helm as custodians of their faith when this authority was denied to the Prophet himself, the Quran speaking of him as a mere admonisher stating, “Thou art not at all a warder over them.” This phenomenon is described well by Khaled Abou El Fadl, Professor of Law at UCLA School of Law who, quoting Sohail Hashmi writes that, “…interpretive communities do form around texts, and at times, they may hold the moral insights of the text hostage.”  Importantly, what Fadl and Hashmi both underscore is that, “as Muslim intellectuals we must admit that the morality of the Qur’an exceeded the morality of its interpreters.” These words ring ominously true when radicals in Pakistan join hands to hail villains as heroes, as was the case with the assassin of the late Governor of Punjab Salman Taseer. Paradoxically, their words and their actions belittle and demean the man whose reverential and reputational status they claim to protect.

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The burka debacle has missed the vital point – the woman

Boris Johnson’s article in the Telegraph last week referring to burka-wearing women as “letterboxes” and “bank robbers” has sparked a fierce debate over the burka. Much has been said, again, about its symbolism and why women wear it and whether they should wear it at all. And while the focal point of the burka debacle is the woman, it seems as if men have taken ownership of this debate and also of the woman’s choice to wear the burka.

Men have been accused of using the burka as a means of exerting control over women in certain Muslim-majority lands. While many women in such countries choose to wear a burqa or a veil by their own personal choice, a significant proportion are still forced to do so by their fathers, husbands or brothers. This practice of robbing women of their freedom to choose to not wear the burqa has been chastised around the world and has become iconic of female oppression in the East. What this has ironically resulted in is a default thinking position regarding the Muslim veil in the West viz. that a woman could never choose to wear the burka out of her own free will.

The rhetoric that now pervades the mainstream media on the issue of the veil cements this manner of thinking. Any Muslim woman in a burka is automatically classed as oppressed. However, the discourse around banning the burka has revealed a deeper, more ironic reality in this myopic understanding of the Muslim veil – the people with the loudest voice in the burka debate are in fact men – and they are actively dictating what women should and should not wear. By this token, it is ironically men that have become the self-appointed custodians of Muslim women’s freedom by robbing them of their freedom to choose to dress a particular way. Thus, it is men on both sides of the spectrum shouting over women’s sartorial choices while the women are left to watch the spectacle at the periphery – bemused, angered and frustrated.

Thus, the overwhelming focus on a woman’s external garments also trivialises a woman’s individuality and her person. It is as if Muslim women are solely defined by what they choose to wear and not by virtue of the contribution they can make to society as individuals. The obsession and fascination with the Muslim veil also overlooks the history of the veil. The earliest reference to veiling is in fact found in Middle Assyrian law dating from between 1400 and 1100 BC and women in ancient Mesopotamia and in the Greek and Persian empires wore the veil as a sign of respectability and high status. Classical Greek and Hellenistic statues have often depicted Greek women with both their heads and face covered with a veil.

Aphrodite’s Tortoise is a book on the veiled women of ancient Greece by Lloyd Llewellyn-Jones, who is a Professor of Ancient History at Cardiff University and an expert on the representation and dress of Greek women

We need to give women back their voice to speak for themselves on this matter. We also need to return women their dignity and identity. In their overzealous campaigning to “liberate” women from their burkas, senior political figures like Boris Johnson have in fact not just belittled a personal choice but also the women who wear it. It is somehow acceptable for men to be derogatory towards women in order to safeguard women’s freedom that men have in fact defined. Perhaps nothing could be a greater travesty of both freedom and a woman’s dignity.

Ayesha Malik is the Editor of the Law and Human Rights Section of the Review of Religions magazine, a journal focusing on comparative religion since 1902. Her writings have appeared in the Oxford Human Rights Hub Blog, the Harvard Human Rights Journal Online and the Huffington Post. She is a graduate of Harvard Law School.

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In Memoriam: Mirza Qadir Ahmad

It was a summer afternoon in school on 14 April 1999 in Pakistan’s capital. I was a 16-year old GCE student, preparing to sit my exams that May. The school I attended was a small one, founded two years earlier by my mother along with her two long-standing colleagues and named after the 14th century historian Ibn Khaldun. Our current premises sat directly opposite the Pakistan National Council of Arts in the heart of Islamabad, which to my delight meant that frequent trips to scale the work of Sadequain, a world-renowned painter and calligrapher could be undertaken between lectures.

During a lecture that afternoon, I got called away with a message that my mother is asking to take leave. In a place where my mother’s workday would end long after the last child had gone home, this was certainly an odd prospect. As I sat in the car I knew I ought to brace myself to hearing the worst. My mother was weeping incessantly, barely managing to utter phrases and then managed to say, “They have killed qikkay” – our family nickname for my mother’s first cousin Qadir.

Her words set off a storm of both confusion and emotion. Who had killed him? Did she really mean kill ? How could it be possible that such a close family member had been murdered? Who could have done it and why? As my adolescent mind struggled to make sense of the tragedy, the details trickled in steadily and it became clear that my late uncle had been targeted because of his faith – he had been kidnapped by the now banned extremist outfit Lashkar-e-Taiba near his farm in the Province of Punjab and eventually shot to death. He was 37.

He was survived by his 32 year old widow and 4 children – a daughter 9, a son 7 and two and a half year-old twin boys – and while the elder two were incomprehensibly devastated, I can still recall my heartache at seeing his young twins clasping a picture of him in their hands and saying, “We’re taking baba for a walk.”

While the experience shook me to my core it raised a renewed sense of my place in a country I called home. I felt betrayed, angry and frustrated. This was a country I had loved and lived in since the day I opened my eyes – till my 19th birthday I did not breathe any foreign air. For the first time my fondness for the quiet hill station I had called home for all these years was challenged and it opened a Pandora’s box of vulnerabilities and anxieties.

My family and I are members of the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community (AMC) – a minority sect in Islam deemed heretical by mainstream Muslims for believing the founder of their faith is a Messiah. The AMC was founded towards the end of the 19th century with humble beginnings in a small town in the Indian Punjab. The AMC rejects extremism in all its forms, advocates loyalty to one’s homeland, calls for a separation of mosque and state and has firmly devoted itself to furthering peace and justice in the world.

While Ahmadi Muslims strongly identify with their homeland, the Pakistan constitution under Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto cast them out of the fold of Islam. Ahmadis have sustained consistent and intense persecution since the formation of Pakistan – including target killings, attacks on their mosques, imprisonment without bail for alleged proselytising and having even their graves vandalised. Promotions are blocked, entries to colleges denied and state television participants at times openly call for their murder – all with relative impunity.

On 9th March this year, the Islamabad High Court (IHC) issued a ruling declaring that a faith affidavit was compulsory for anyone applying for a government or semi-government position, including the judiciary, armed forces and civil services. Furthermore, the IHC’s Justice Shaukat Aziz Siddiqui directed that parliament pass all necessary legislation to ensure that terms specifically used for ‘Islam’ and ‘Muslims’ are not appropriated by minorities for concealing their identity or for any other purpose. This appeared to cement the views of the Pakistan Supreme Court which in a landmark but highly controversial judgment in 1993 held that terms particular to Islam were subject to trademark and “belonged” to the Islamic faith alone and hence could not be appropriated by minorities.

Thus, 19 years following the murder of Mirza Qadir Ahmad, the abysmal state of affairs for Ahmadis in Pakistan continues. Many have succeeded in fleeing persecution abroad but ten of thousands remain in Pakistan – caught in the predicament of being hunted down by their own people. Just weeks after the IHC ruling on 25th March this year, several graves belonging to the AMC were vandalised in the dead of the night in a town in Punjab, a chilling reminder that Ahmadi Muslims remain marginalised even in death.

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Hijacking the Hijab – the Religious and Liberal Paradigms



As a consequence of this dogmatic approach to the hijab in certain Muslim-majority lands, we have heads turn at a woman in a burqa and not so much as a blink of an eye at a nun who adorns herself in a robe – the argument being (and at times rightly so) that while the former is enforced, the latter is voluntary.

When Raphael Lemkin went in search of a word that would provide the archetype to define the most heinous of crimes against humanity, skeptics of language trivialised his efforts arguing that, “a word is a word is a word.” Yet, notwithstanding the weighty arguments put forward by his critics, the coinage of Lemkin’s term “genocide” has achieved, at least linguistically if not practically, what he had hoped such a word would achieve – a definitive impact of intense human suffering on those who hear it. And while the subtleties of semantic choices may differ significantly from men and women’s sartorial choices, with respect to the donning of the Muslim headscarf and the current debates surrounding it, would it be cogent to claim that – a headscarf is a headscarf is a headscarf?

Although part of very different journeys, these semantic and sartorial selections do share certain commonalities: my Armenian friends for example hold a deep emotional attachment to the term genocide, contending that the Armenian massacres of the early 20th century must be considered genocide. Equally, for Muslim women who wear the headscarf, it is not just another piece of clothing but an important and powerful external symbol of self-identity. Unfortunately however, it is a symbol that has become vexed with difficulties having become associated with emblems of female servitude, marginalisation and oppression. Therefore, it is imperative to delineate and demystify a religious icon that is meant to denote the virtues of modesty from the abrasive ideas it has come to be aligned to.

Paradoxically, it is Muslim-majority countries that have taken the lead in perpetuating the heresies of an otherwise everyday symbol characterising a person’s distinctive individuality and confined to the realm of that person. Pictures of women being forced to wear full-face burqas or veils bonded in the shackles of male subjugation and being relegated to the four walls of their homes have immortalised the Muslim woman as an object eternally subservient to a superior sex. Yet, as other Muslim women, like myself, who choose to wear the headscarf of their own freewill would testify, the entrenchment of such perceptions in secular societies are far removed from the original verities of its purpose. As a consequence of this dogmatic approach to the hijab in certain Muslim-majority lands, we have heads turn at a woman in a burqa and not so much as a blink of an eye at a nun who adorns herself in a robe – the argument being (and at times rightly so) that while the former is enforced, the latter is voluntary.

To be sure, the Muslim woman in a headscarf has evolved over the decades and embraced a variety of competing views. They are no neat camps in which women in headscarves may be divided, they cut across a large cross section of society and the external expression of the scarf itself differs widely. Some are convinced the Quranic injunction includes the covering of the face while others vociferously oppose this. Thus, even within Muslim women themselves, there is no clear consensus of what constitutes an accurate depiction of a headscarf that adequately fulfills religious requirements. Having grown up in Pakistan and lived in the Middle East, the US and in Paris (now residing permanently in the UK), I have been privy to a staggering variety not just of the hijab but also of the societies in which it is worn. In the backdrop of this broad-ranging experience, I feel the headscarf debate within Muslim communities has stagnated on technicalities, at times entirely overlooking the headscarf’s actual purpose while the discourse in secular societies like France has transformed a complex question of self identification to one of compatibility with an ultraliberal republic.

These contesting viewpoints are detrimental in their own respects. Two things are clear: First, that in as much as you categorically cannot force a Muslim woman to wear the hijab – the Quran testifying to this in Chapter 2, Verse 257 stating that, “There is no compulsion in religion” – you cannot compel a Muslim woman not to wear the hijab. In this sense, those Islamist fundamentalists who subject women to wearing the veil and the French republic that wishes to take the right to wear a headscarf away from Muslim women bear an uncanny and ironic semblance to each other. Second, the existing discourse within Muslim communities must transcend the overemphasis on the external expressions of the hijab and focus on its internal values of modesty and righteousness. Stereotyping on both ends of the spectrum linger – at times those who wear the headscarf become self righteous and critical of those women who choose not to – while those who choose not to wear one at times pigeon hole women who do.

As a woman who chooses to wear the headscarf (while not believing that my faith requires me to cover my face) I feel the real journey is the hijab’s inward focus on the virtues of modesty and righteousness. The external expressions of the hijab must mirror these virtues in order to be complete – as God says in Chapter 7 Verse 26, “O ye Children of Adam! We have bestowed raiment upon you to cover your shame, as well as to be an adornment to you. But the raiment of righteousness – that is the best.” Thus, with religious and secular oppressors and the development of societal stereotypes having shaped the trajectory of a timeless issue, and the far right now arguing that the hijab promotes passive extremism, the contours of the original verities of the hijab must be redrawn. Within this new sphere, both religious and liberal zealots must revaluate their positions, perhaps bearing in mind that Virgin Mary who is always depicted with her head covered is also considered exemplary for Muslim men and women in the Quran.



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Je Suis Humanity: Beyond Scriptural Heresy


As the gruesome scenes from Brussels emerged on Tuesday, they bore an uncanny resonance to feelings I brought home from my recent trip to Pakistan. Visiting the country I grew up in for the first time following the dreadful Peshawar school attack in December 2014, I felt that the school children massacre had reshaped the contours of terror that have sketched an already fragmented and pillaged landscape. As family members who were recently the targets of a terrorist assault on their home and business premises revealed, more than ever today, living with the extremist scourge had become concomitant with living in Pakistan.

And throughout my 15-day sojourn in the country, this feeling came home with a growing sense of profundity and poignancy. The tree-lined boulevards, the bustling market places, packed restaurants and chic retail outlets sit juxtaposed with small children begging barefooted on the streets, random kidnappings from otherwise affluent districts and vile sermons spilling out of mosques in major cities. It has become a country of lit festivals and hardline clerics, of corruption and philanthropy, of major fashion high streets and full-veiled women. It has become a country of confounding contrasts. The hotel that just offered you a surreally peaceful spring afternoon savouring the delights of a lush meal, may well be a hotel that has been privy to a major bombing, sitting like a fort at the heart of the city.

The pictures that came out of Paris last year and Brussels a few days ago seem to herald the beginnings of such duality: places frequented in the everyday-ings of life being targeted and brought down. A frightening prospect being widely shared across mainstream media that this may well signal the “new norm” in Europe. In addition to the outpouring of grief and messages of condolences from across the globe, the reactions to the atrocities in Brussels were also not uncommon. Pundits on both sides of the political spectrum took to social media either offering apologetic defences of Islam or lambasting the Muslim faith as being inherently and incurably violent. While such standpoints may well be either emotive or knee-jerk, they cloud the ability to wade through what has become an increasingly complicated geopolitical and to a lesser degree, ideological situation.

Amid the plethora of contesting viewpoints attributing blame to state and non-state actors, a common assumption appears to linger – that Islam is at the root of the rising tide of extremism. However, to suggest that scripture alone inspires Islamist militants would be to submit to an overly simplistic conclusion of a dreadfully thorny and complex predicament. The Quranic passages ordaining the killing of infidels (9:5) (frequently referred to as the verse of the sword) and smiting the necks of disbelievers (47:5) are often cited as the foundation whereupon extremist ideology has been constructed. The merits of such claims can be refuted by examining just one verse from the Quran – Chapter 3, Verse 8 details how to interpret the Quran, enumerating that it contains two kinds of verses: context-independent verses that form the “basis of the Book” and are enduring in their application, and context-dependent verses that were revealed for specific situations. The Quran unequivocally condemns cherry-picked textual fidelity designed to further individual ends, saying that, “…those in whose hearts is perversity pursue such thereof as are susceptible of different interpretations, seeking discord and seeking wrong interpretation of it.” Moreover, permission to fight has only been granted to a party who is being wronged in self defense (22:40) (Muslims are never granted permission to attack) and in perhaps the greatest testament to preserving multifaith identities permission to fight was granted to protect not just mosques but equally churches, synagogues and temples (22:41). To this extent, the Quran lays down rules of war in as much as the Geneva Conventions regulate warfare, but to claim that international law is inherently violent on that basis would be to advance a hollow and ludicrous argument, its insincerity and fractured purpose overtly self-evident.

It begs the question then whether extremists are really relying on this hand-picked allegiance to a few particular verses of the Quran that are clearly context-dependent and were revealed and applied only at a time when war had been openly declared on Muslims? Is this truly where they find their sole inspiration? In a witty and insightful talk at Saint Anthony’s College Oxford on the evening of the Paris attacks, Karen Armstrong made the case for motivations of extremists to be largely political. She spoke of how two young Britons going to fight in Syria had ordered Quran for dummies and Islam for dummies online, and how a hostage released by ISIS last year revealed that when the call to prayer sounded, none of his captives got up to pray – and when asked for a copy of the Quran, no one had one handy.

Studying the history of the rise of various extremists seems to cement these views. The Afghan and Pakistan Taliban for example were borne directly out of the Soviet War in Afghanistan, employed by the US as freedom fighters at the time. Hilary Clinton has admitted on record that you harvest what you sow. The history of the creation of ISIS has also been traced to the invasion of Iraq in 2003. It appears that the big questions of where ISIS came from in the first place and who is funding them are being willfully ignored. There appears to be a lack of a genuine and honest commitment to getting to the root cause of the extremist paradigm and work towards plausible solutions. In an article in the Independent last year, Tom Brooks-Pollock highlighted how the major financiers of ISIS were oil-rich nations like Saudi Arabia and Kuwait. The paradox was profound then when news reports emerged of Britain’s secret vote trading deal with the Saudis, allowing both countries to be elevated to the UN Human Rights Council. For Saudi Arabia to have a UK-backed seat at one of UN’s most influential human rights bodies is not only an oxymoron from the perspective of the Kingdom being a major sponsor of ISIS but also given its alarming human rights record – just this January carrying out 47 executions.

Taking by way of analogy Kelsen’s jurisprudential theory of the grundnorm – that according to him was the basic norm wherefrom stemmed all legal and moral norms – we would argue that a universal grundnorm that is the source of all morality ought to be rooted in humanity i.e. humanity must define morality. Cherry-picked grieving to heinous crimes committed by extremists worldwide appears to suggest that the notion of a grundnorm grounded in humanity is nothing more than ambitiously utopian. While the world mourns with great fervour the atrocities at Charlie Hebdo, the November 13th Paris attacks and the Brussels bombings, there is little or no mention of the equally odious assaults carried out by ISIS and Boko Haram just days preceding each of these incidents. The attacks on the offices of Charlie Hebdo came as Boko Haram massacred more than 2000 women and children in Baga, Nigeria. Deadly explosions in Lebanon’s capital preceded the Paris attacks in November and the Brussels attacks come just days after a suicide bomber struck at the heart of Istanbul, Turkey’s bustling tourist hub. The selective fashion in which mainstream media channels its outpouring of grief has prompted resentment and even outrage in Muslim communities who feel their lives are less dear than others. Aryn Baker writing in Time last November echoes these sentiments as she asks, “Beirut wonders if some terror attacks mean more than others.”

Without a genuine and firm commitment towards tackling the causes of the extremist scourge, re-thinking our alliances with despotic regimes as trading partners and showing measured, egalitarian responses to incidents of extremism, the pandemic of the terrorist threat will only intensify making the surreal Pakistan experience ripple even more strongly in Europe. The seemingly just world orders have been traditionally unjust in their pursuit of justice, paradoxically pursuing a path of “unjust justice” with only their vested interests in mind, surpassing any measure of r heresy. We castigate Muslim-majority countries’ human rights record on the one hand yet make clandestine deals with them on the other ensuring them a place on a major international human rights body in order to secure lucrative trade flows. Today if we are to defeat the menace of terrorism, the universal grundnorm must be reformed to echo an unbiased morality rooted in humanity. With this moral compass in mind, the pursuit of justice must be revisited – in the lack whereof not only the plague of extremism will be further fuelled but also all secular ideals will be progressively turned on their heads.

Ayesha Malik is a Contributing Editor of “islawmix” – a project incubated at the Berkman Center for Internet and Society at Harvard University and aimed at bringing clarity to Islamic law in the news. She is also the Deputy Editor of the Law and Human Rights Section of the Review of Religions Magazine, a journal focusing on comparative religion since 1902. Her writings have appeared in the Oxford Human Rights Hub Blog, the Harvard Human Rights Journal Online and the Cambridge Review of International Affairs Blog. She is a graduate of Harvard Law School.

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Is Britain Dangerously Diverse?


Can Britain be said to have become dangerously diverse since it opened its shores to migrants, particularly from Commonwealth countries, following the end of the Second World War? That appears to be the message implicit in the former racial equality chief’s statements published in the Times on January 27th, which reported him as saying that, “Muslims are not like us”, and that the British public should, “accept that they will not integrate in the same way.” Trevor Phillips’, the former head of the racial equalities watchdog, remarks betray a painfully simplistic characterisation of a profoundly complex situation. They also raise thorny questions, including amongst others, whether foreign settlers in Britain pose an existential threat to British identity?

Pertinently, Mr. Phillips comments lead us to ask how “integration” and “multiculturalism” are to be defined. While having become household terms within the discourse on immigration, their household meanings reveal a mere fraction of their more nuanced denotations. Multiculturalism for example, at its simplest and most superficial level, pertains to a demographic condition. However, detailed empirical studies from legal and social psychology perspectives demonstrate that as a phenomenon multiculturalism has political, philosophical, anthropological and psychological dimensions. Favourable and unfavourable views on multiculturalism abound – yet it seems that the latter have been gathering pace over the past decade. Increasingly, othering discourse is creeping into the political rhetoric – with Prime Minister David Cameron making statements such as this: “We’ve…tolerated these segregated communities behaving in ways that run completely counter to our values.”

Thus, as Sarah Song, writing in the Stanford Encyclopaedia of Philosophy suggests, that, “the greatest challenge to multiculturalism may not be philosophical but political.” Indeed, in the unfolding migrant crisis more than ever today, there has been a retreat in those championing ‘multicultural justice’. Notably, among these is the former Archbishop of Canterbury, who in April 2014 castigated multiculturalism for bringing Sharia law and honour killings to British society. Paving the way through the maze of narratives surrounding multiculturalism – the communitarian and liberal egalitarian defences along with the political critiques thereof – psychologists at the London School of Economics suggest an alternative, organic approach to understanding multiculturalism. Caroline Howarth and Eleni Andreouli argue that instead of assuming or imposing one particular form of definition of multiculturalism, “successful social policy and public debate need to rest on a more in-depth understanding of how lay people construe and relate to multiculturalism in the context of their everyday lives.” What Howarth and Andreouli underscore is that in the lack of comprehending the big questions of multiculturalism and integration as experienced “on the ground” within the “lived realities of cultural diversity”, academic and political discourses are imperilled to become, “disconnected from real life experiences and actual intergroup relations.”

So, what are the lived realities of cultural diversity? As a Muslim migrant to this country and having married into a family of Muslim immigrants who have lived in Britain for the past 30 years, there exists a community of communities even within Muslims residing in Britain. There exist hundreds of Muslim migrants who have acculturated to this country, and who like my husband’s family, and myself strive to contribute positively to the diversity of British society. Having lived in a quintessentially English village in Surrey for the past three decades, the doors of my husband’s parental home have always been open to neighbours coming to sample Asian cuisine – and we regularly join hands in philanthropic pursuits, we come together to celebrate and better understand our differences through interfaith meetings and dialogues, we distribute and exchange sweets on religious festivals and we have over the course of the past seven years been offering free horse riding lessons at our riding school to families and children from neighbouring villages. I know scores of Muslim migrants who like my husband have either come to this country when they were babies or have been born and raised here – who have graduated from some of the most prestigious institutions in Britain and who are, within their respective professional domains, as either engineers, doctors, lawyers, journalists or other vocations – making meaningful contributions to British society. The British identity is concomitant with their thinking and way of living.

To be sure, the notion of integration is fraught with complexities and critics of multiculturalism argue that the façade of multiculturalism provides an adequate means of violating rights of vulnerable minorities within culturally diverse communities. Yes, we have problems such as female genital mutilation and these need to be addressed – but not through insular political jargon that will only serve to exacerbate these conditions and have a regressive effect on the actual victims. It is unfortunate that we champion a globalised world – yet continue to perpetuate insular foreign policies, entirely inward and nationalist in their outlook. We celebrate diversity and yet stifle the roots thereof by spreading isolating and demeaning rhetoric to the likes of Mr. Phillips and Mr. Cameron’s. After all, how else is diversity to be preserved but through the preservation of different cultures? A radical form of integration – which would entail largely or wholly embracing the dominant culture – would ironically stifle diversity by putting an end to norms and practices native to different cultures, that are not antithetical to the human spirit and that enrich the fabric of society. Caught in the middle of this merry-go-round of deepening far right politics and the corresponding rise of extremists, are peaceful, well integrated, law abiding, educated Muslims wanting simply to get on with their lives much like anyone else in this country. Until we rid ourselves of these hegemonic double standards, we will continue to demonise human diversity while letting the actual demons thrive.

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The uncanny chillness of the Charsadda attack


I remember singing along to an oft-recited Hindi poem as part of a 13-member peace delegation to India in the summer of 2001. One couplet always resonated with me deeply, reminiscing the loss of humanity, its words ran something like this: “Mandir, masjid, Girja-ghar nay baant diya baghwaan ko – Dharti baanti, saghar baanta, mat baanto insaan ko” (i.e. Temples, mosques, cathedrals have all divided God – We divided nations, we divided seas, lets not divide man). Today, these words are a poignantly chilling reminder of a nation whose schools have entered the grotesque hall of shame joining churches and mosques wherein the blood of hundreds of innocent civilians has flown.

The recent attack on the Bacha Khan University in Charsadda last week that killed at least 30 people – mostly children and teachers – has renewed the still relatively fresh wounds from the deadly Peshawar school massacre in December 2014 when armed gunmen besieged the Army Public School killing almost 140 people – mostly children. The ghastliness of the attacks transcends the capabilities of linguistics – bringing to mind the words of Margaret Atwood who once proclaimed, “All writers feel struck by the limitations of language” – and the appalling and barbaric slaughter of school children attending an otherwise normal day in school is wholly impenetrable to words. How do you describe the indiscriminate carnage and savage butchery of young children?

Khalifa Umar Mansoor’s faction of the Pakistani Taliban took responsibility for the attack – the Peshawar school assault also having been claimed by him. Two days after the Bacha Khan massacre, Mansoor released a video vowing to target schools across the country, calling them “nurseries” that produce apostates that challenge God’s sovereignty. The Taliban Commander said that schools, colleges and universities all would not be spared, asserting that his faction will “demolish their foundations.” The defiant message from Mansoor demonstrates how the Pakistani Government’s strategy in tackling the Taliban is not only failing but is in fact emboldening extremists. Army offensives have only fanned militants to retaliate and negotiated peace deals have broken down.

Four days following the attack in Charsadda, threatening graffiti appeared on the walls of a girls school in the outskirts of Faisalabad warning that if the school was to commence classes from Monday, January 26th, it would be blown up. Pro-ISIS graffiti has also been spotted in places in Gilgit and Peshawar welcoming the self-proclaimed caliphate of Abu Bakr al Baghdadi. Meanwhile, a study by the Pew Research Center revealed last year that Pakistan was the only country out of the 11 surveyed where the majority offered no definite opinion on ISIS – unlike the majority e.g. in Jordan where 94% of people held unfavourable views about ISIS.

As I try and make sense of Charsadda, I can’t help reflecting over the time I went to school in Pakistan. My memories of my school days are some of my fondest: they epitomise an inherently carefree existence, which symbolised equally learning in the classroom and the innocent mischievousness of young adolescents getting enthralled by the idea of skipping class to sneak to the school canteen or racing down corridors only to run straight into a senior administrator. I was fortunate to have been schooled in a less conventional environment when my mother, a schoolteacher, partnered with two of her long-standing colleagues and intellectuals to start her own school with a liberal mandate in Islamabad. By contrast, I have also witnessed village school children in some of the most rural areas in Pakistan enthusiastically doing homework with chalk and slates under lantern lights.

And as I reminisce over these multitude of school experiences in Pakistan and slip back into my shoes as a young school girl in Islamabad, it is gut wrenching and unfathomable to imagine a day where school children like myself and my classmates could be privy to the macabre scenes that unfolded in Peshawar and Charsadda. It is equally inconceivable to think of the young Malala Yousafzai being shot in the head by the Taliban as she returned home from school one afternoon. When the Pakistan Army launched its offensive against the Taliban in 2009, the militant group responded through a wave of deadly suicide blasts that besieged all major cities in Pakistan, causing schools to close down for several weeks. Working for a commercial litigation practice in Lahore at the time, I would drive down a major road in the heart of the city every morning to get to work – crossing a kindergarten school on the way. And every morning I would see young toddlers being escorted in through a barrage of sand bags and barbed wires by their mothers, and I would wonder what world view was being shaped in their innocent, yet vulnerable minds?

It is a worldview no mother would ever want her children to grow up with. Today, when I think of my own 21-month old, it is hard for me to imagine sending him to school under such precarious circumstances. My heart and mind are often with children growing up and going to school in Pakistan. As they confront their daily challenges in pursuing a fundamental freedom, I am compelled to think that what is happening in Pakistan is a deeper and more disturbing form of massacre – a massacre of morality – a depravity that is resulting in a wider genocide of common humanity. And unless Pakistanis stop it in its tracks, it will beleaguer and obliterate all sense of human dignity, ethics and virtue from their country.

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Mr. Cameron: Democratic or Dogmatic?


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These have been troubling times for adherents of the Islamic faith with the rising tide of extremism along with an increasing number of Muslim scholars and clerics attempting to monopolise a singular path to salvation. Most Muslim-majority countries have adopted constitutional clauses mandating that all legislation must conform to Islamic law. Pertinently, as a study by the Pew Research Center recently revealed, in most Muslim-majority countries – even those relatively more multicultural like Malaysia – religious police enforce Islamic norms. There appears to be a pandemic of moral and religious patrol across the Muslim-majority world – often with grotesque consequences such as sectarianism, executions and suicide bombings.

The irony and shock to some extent was profound then when the Prime Minister of this country, David Cameron, announced on 18 January on BBC Radio 4’s Today Programme that he would be creating new rules that would make it mandatory for immigrants to know the English Language and abolish segregation in public places. It betrayed a profound analogy to hardliners who have taken the charge of policing religious norms – the question was screaming out loud – is Mr. Cameron not, too, assuming the mantle of enforcing what are in his mind liberal norms? How different does that make him from the dogmatic religious clergy?

The Prime Minister’s statements brought to mind the words of Ibn Khaldun, the 14th century Arab historian, who once said that, Government is an institution which prevents injustice other than such as it commits itself.” Mr. Cameron’s plans to introduce the English Language as a mandatory pre-requisite to settlement in the United Kingdom will no doubt often create scenarios wherein immigrant mothers wishing to join their partners in the UK will be faced with the possibility of not being able to do so simply because their English is not good enough. To be sure, having a good working knowledge of today’s lingua franca while maybe considered essential, Mr. Cameron could institutionalise language-learning centers geared specifically towards providing immigrants English language lessons, employing staff suited to meet the needs of the diversity of immigrants. Measures such as these would not only ensure that foreign settlers in Britain acquire knowledge of the language but also interact with other well-integrated migrants from similar ethnic backgrounds. In any event, to be able to obtain a British passport, migrants must demonstrate a level of proficiency not just of the English language but of British history and customs as well. As a migrant myself who will need to pass these tests a few years from now, I would imagine the rules currently in place should have been sufficient in themselves.

Second on his list of proposals is to ban segregation in public places. Notwithstanding the enduring debate on “safe spaces” for women that provide a place of healing, support and even innovation and inspiration to many women, particularly those having suffered traumas like rape, Britain has long been a pro-choice country and has hailed the values of diversity, plurality and multiculturalism. Indeed, its increasing multicultural and multi faith fabric bears testimony to this. And hence Mr. Cameron’s desire to abolish segregation unilaterally without actually engaging with British women who identify themselves as Muslims is profoundly antithetical to Mr. Cameron’s own commitment to the principles of pluralism. Paradoxically, Mr. Cameron is it seems breaching the values of pluralism in the name of pluralism itself. To that extent, the Prime Minister ironically bears an uncanny semblance to the self-appointed enforcers of religious norms, who do so in the name of religion. In a rights-protecting, free-speech-defending, diversity-celebrating country, that should be sacrilegious to say the least.

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Of Serendipity and Starry Nights


Decembers are a poignant time of year, as we reflect on the receding shores of time, it is as if with each year one wave of our life disappears into the distant horizon. This December, my reflection took me down the path of adolescent nostalgia – by returning me to my childhood meditation over starry nights. Growing up in Pakistan and being raised by a single mother, I have spent many a night staring into the Islamabad night sky. Until one evening during my moments of soliloquy to the night sky, a moment of epiphany occurred: even the night sky – dark and sinister – has stars. Thus, in contrast to the blackness of the sky that I associated with the bumps along my personal journey, stars at the time symbolised hope and positivity and a certain cheerfulness.

Analogising this reminiscence of starry nights to today’s world, I look back at 2015 as depicting a particularly dark year. What appears to be emerging is an increasingly fractured and polarised world. The increasing perplexity of terrorist attacks and the corresponding rise in Islamophobia, with unrest and anarchy rife in the Middle East, the war against ISIS, the growing tide of sectarianism in Muslim-majority lands, the rise of ideological extremists – one advocating a militant form of, what is, Islam in their view (militant Islamism) and the other going down the path of Donald Trump, Geert Wilders, Pamela Geller and the like (or what I call Trumpism). Between this disdainful exchange between militant Islamism and Trumpism, the values of human dignity and civic virtue that are common to humanity are paradoxically being eroded to an unrecognisable degree.

While I don’t believe an apologetic Muslim rhetoric is required to counter episodes of Islamic extremism given the geopolitical forces that have shaped its contours in the past three decades, I believe an emphatic, academic and theological counter narrative is needed in response to the pernicious extremist narrative taking hold. The moderate Muslim voice – scholars, educators, activists, professionals and all peaceful law-abiding citizens alike must take the mantle of providing this counter narrative within their respective spheres of expertise and social and professional circles. And while this is a call to action for the moderate Muslim voice, it is equally a call to the media to ensure such a voice receives a channel that safeguards non-partisan scholarship. Unless the media takes a proactive role in providing such an impartial mechanism where the moderate Muslim voice does galvanise, all will be lost like echoes bouncing off empty walls.

And hence my quest to mobilise the moderate Muslim voice is a bit like looking for stars in the night sky. These stars may be human or literary – but it is time for them to emit their light. The most powerful beacon comes from the Quran itself, wherein God, entirely antithetical to ISIS’s actions and theological premise, provides that the Prophet is merely an admonisher and has no authority to compel people to believe, “Thou art not at all a warder over them.” The general thrust of the Quranic message may be summed by the thirty-fourth verse of Chapter 41, commanding the believers to repel evil with that which is best. Perhaps the greatest advocacy of preserving and peacefully co-existing within multifaith communities comes from the Quran itself – quite ironically in light of current world events – Chapter 22, verse 40 reads, “For had it not been for Allah’s repelling some men by means of others, cloisters and churches and oratories and mosques, wherein the name of Allah is oft mentioned, would assuredly have been pulled down.”

To be sure, we are not just fighting radicals donning arms, the radical clergy in Muslim-majority countries, particularly Pakistan and Saudi Arabia – and now spreading to others like Bangladesh and Malaysia, that has led to the development of a virulent interpretation of religion remains an equally formidable adversary. These so-called scholars of Islam are hardliners that continue to capture the imagination of many vulnerable followers – the phenomenon is described well by Khaled Abou El Fadl, Professor of Law at UCLA School of Law who, quoting Sohail Hashmi writes that, “…interpretive communities do form around texts, and at times, they may hold the moral insights of the text hostage.” The uncompromising fashion in which hardliner clerics have slapped their interpretations of Quranic discernments onto “Islam” is a quintessential example of holding its insights captive. Importantly, what Fadl and Hashmi both underscore is that, as Muslim intellectuals we must admit that the morality of the Qur’an exceeded the morality of its interpreters.”

Thus, part of the journey of the moderate Muslim voice should be to transcend ideological barriers and embrace the diversity and plurality of peoples. This spirit of celebrating multiculturalism and fostering social cooperation is endorsed in the Quran, God stating quite clearly that, “If thy Lord had so willed, He could have made mankind one people…” and in another place adding that God grouped people in various tribes and nations so that they “may know one another.” Therefore, as Fadl expounds that, “the reality of human diversity is part of the divine wisdom and an intentional purpose of creation.” Within classical Islamic jurisprudence, commentators have failed to explore this Quranic discourse on diversity and hence the onus is on contemporary scholars and jurists to take up this cause. In order to undertake this journey in any meaningful manner, Muslims must first shed their self-righteous egos and their leaning propensity towards determining who in their view is a good Muslim, or even a Muslim in the first place. Let it be God’s exclusive dominion to sanction the same – indeed, the jurisprudential notion of the rights of God (huquq Allah) testifies to this – i.e. only God may determine retribution for any violation of rights due to Him and only He may forgive any transgressions. In fact, the rights owed to people (huquq al ibad) take precedence over the rights owed to God – a notion well established in Islamic jurisprudence.

Hence, as we endeavour to embark on this journey of searching for stars in the night sky, let us remember the Islamic metaphysical journey of finding opportunity in adversity, of having the fortitude to perceive the majesty of a bougainvillea flower sprouting from a thorn, of remembering that night turns into day and of displaying the courage to think that the sun does shine through otherwise rain-filled clouds – it is this depth of perception and inner strength that possesses the resilience to transform dark night skies into meteor showers. And it is this steadfastness that transcends barriers – reminding us that while serendipity may be a good thing at times, we mustn’t wait for it to work its magic.


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