Is Secularism Sacred?

In his recent piece in The Times, Matt Ridley speaks of how Muslims are “turning away from Islam.” In a scathing and passionate article, he chastises jihadism and militant Islam and suggests humanism and secularism as antidotes to the same. I stand with Mr. Ridley in rebuking all forms of extremism and violent jihad and share his views that these must be seriously tackled. However, I take issue with the manner in which Mr. Ridley seems to paint 1.6 billion Muslims worldwide with the same brush. His powerful narrative places militant Islamism concomitant with Islam, effectively disenfranchising the more than a billion moderate Muslim voices worldwide – that not only condemn terrorism but are in fact victims of it.

Let’s put Mr. Ridley’s claims in perspective. He argues that, “The fastest growing belief system in the world is non-belief,” adding that the, “humanists are winning, even against Islam.” The gest of his arguments runs something like this: that atheism is on the rise globally, with an increasing number of people turning away from religion, in particular Islam; that this phenomenon is panning out in spite of the fact that atheists do not proselytise; that estimates forecast a decline in fertility rates amongst Muslim populations that have until now determined their increased market share; that atheists are persecuted in Muslim-majority lands; that jihadists are inspired by a desire, “to prevent the Muslim diaspora [from] sliding into western secularism” and that secularism can ultimately win against jihadism.

Mr. Ridley either intentionally or unintentionally indulges in classic “othering” discourse – the “them” against “us” approach – “Islam” against the “West.” His account is a quintessential example of partisan scholarship – one that entrenches misplaced stereotypes within society and paves the way towards a civilisational divide. There is no informed or reasoned analysis on the causes of terrorism, the geopolitical factors that have shaped its trajectory and importantly how Muslims, too, are victims of extremism. Is terrorism really a religious cult? Why do people like Mr. Ridley forget that the Taliban were really a creation of the Americans, known as freedom fighters at the time, and engaged to fight the Soviets during the Soviet War in Afghanistan – something Hilary Clinton has admitted on national television. Clinton sums it up quite well – you harvest what you sow. Moreover, it is also an open secret that the so-called Islamic State, who took responsibility for the recent attacks in Paris, was a creation of the Iraq War. As such, the motivations of terrorists are not quite religious as Mr. Ridley contends; they are more political than anything else. The Paris assassins shouted how France should not have gone into Syria, as they carried out their cold-blooded acts of murder. Karen Armstrong, in her recent talk at Saint Anthony’s College Oxford, outlined how each of the two British men who went to fight in Syria recently, ordered ‘Islam for Dummies’ on Amazon. This alone, makes a travesty of the claim that extremists hold intensely religious passions.

Furthermore, Mr. Ridley’s predictions that atheism will ultimately overtake Islam must be taken with a pinch of salt. His assertions sit in contradiction with a report published earlier this year by the Pew Research Center that reveals how by 2050 Islam is forecasted to be the fastest growing religion – the Muslim population estimated to increase by 73% in the next 35 years. It states how Muslims will grow from 1.6 billion in 2010 to 2.76 billion in 2050, with Islam being the only religion to surpass the global rate of population expansion. It would also place Islam for the first time at par with Christianity in numbers. By contrast, the study suggests that while the number of non-believers including atheists and agnostics will rise in countries such as the United States and France, the total rise in non-believers is estimated at a 100 million – rising merely from 1.1 billion in 2010 to 1.2 billion in 2050 – and by those numbers, this would actually mean a drop in the total population of atheists – from 16% of the total population in 2010 to 13% of the total population globally in 2050.

While I celebrate the secular values of democracy and the rule of law, these ideals do not suffice on their own if their overriding premise is not justice. Secular jurisprudence testifies to this, John Rawls arguing for example that, “legitimacy is only the minimal standard of political acceptability; a political order can be legitimate without being just,” adding that it is justice that provides, “the maximum moral standard: the full description of how a society’s main institutions should be ordered.” If secular ideals were sufficient on their own, we would not have lost 60 million people in the mass destruction of the Second World War – a war that was clearly not fought for any religious reasons. Hence, I am not convinced that secularism is as sacred as Mr. Ridley makes it out to be. Such overly simplistic, lop sided rhetoric reduce his scholarship to the ranting of an angry man, which does not behoove a person of Mr. Ridley’s intellect and educational background. When extremists kill, humanity suffers – not a particular cultural or religious demographic. Since 2003, in Pakistan alone, more than 20,000 civilians have perished in terrorism related violence. Similarly, thousands have lost their lives in Nigeria in terrorist attacks carried out by Boko Haram, a group claimed to be deadlier than ISIS. Even still, people like Mr. Ridley continue to assert that extremists are somehow more of a threat to the West than they are to the rest of the world. If anything, Muslims themselves are the biggest victims of extremism, and unless we unite against terrorism by considering it a global problem, it will only fuel more extremists on both sides of the religious and political spectra. And if secularism – the long championed beacon of liberty cannot unite us in this cause, then it is as dogmatic as radical ideology.

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Does Terrorism have a Religion?


I had just come out of an enriching and thought provoking discussion on whether religion is really violent in Saint Anthony’s College Oxford, delivered by the witty yet incredibly persuasive Karen Armstrong, when news of the deadly attacks in Paris swept across the media. Terrorism has no religion Armstrong had said, espousing that it was perhaps just as difficult to define the term terrorism, as it was to define religion. And notwithstanding these difficulties of what these terms actually mean, it is becoming increasingly clear that the motives of terrorism are predominantly political. Unsurprisingly, we heard the Paris attackers shouting how France should not have gone into Syria, as they besieged hundreds of innocent Parisians through indiscriminate firing.

What these latest terrorist attacks confirm is that terrorism has in fact bred a new form of perverse neo-religious dogmatism, one that inverts Divinity on its head in so far as it challenges the core human values common to all faiths and denominations. If we are to even conceive of winning this so-called war against terrorism, we need to widely promote and practice non-partisan scholarship and journalism that rejects the preaching of a hateful and intolerant worldview that makes a travesty of the celebration of diversity and plurality shared not just by religious scriptures but also the values of human dignity and civic virtue common to humanity. As I mourn and makes sense of Paris, for me it begs the question whether it is the Jeffrey Taylors, Pamela Gellers and Geert Wilders of the world on the one hand – and radical Islamist groups such as Isis and Boko Haram and extremist Muslim fatwa-givers on the other – that are left to effectively shape the contours of the ideological landscape of our world today? To embrace such a polarised worldview would be to submit to the grotesque caricatures of ideology constructed by such fundamentalists on both sides of the spectrum. To be sure, an increasingly insular journalism is paving the way towards a civilisational divide. It is time for responsible journalism to take the mantle of promoting peoples’ freedom of expression.

Virtues and goals common to humanity are not dead – they are alive at the grassroots where diverse communities and cultures come together in peace and harmony and yearn to grow and thrive. They are alive when I as a Muslim woman can live peacefully in an English village and befriend Christians, Jews and Buddhists alike from my neighbouring community. They are alive when we knock at each other’s doors over Christmas, Hanukah and Eid (the Muslim spiritual festival) to exchange gifts. They are alive when we come together from all denominations in philanthropic pursuits and stand together in condemning extremism. They are alive when we queue up to donate blood regardless of creed, colour, cast or religion. They are alive when we join hands to partake in interfaith dialogues and community building initiatives. Yet, the unfailing resolve of ideological extremists on both sides of the spectrum continues to construct their ugly caricatures of ideology, undermining these shared notions of human dignity and civic virtue, effectively disenfranchising the unheard majority and paving the way to the creation of an increasingly polarised world.

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Malaysia’s Dangerous Path Towards “Allah”

The Malaysian Court of Appeal has ruled that the usage of the word Allah is not an integral part of the faith in Christianity

The Malaysian Court of Appeal has ruled recently that the word “Allah” falls unreservedly within the Muslim faith, precluding the Catholic Church in the country from using the term in its newsletter, The Herald. The appeal, which was led by the Attorney General of Malaysia on behalf of the Malaysian Government, emanated from a 2009 decision of the High Court wherein The Herald had called for a judicial review of the power of the Home Minister to place conditions on the use of the word “Allah” before renewing its publication license. The High Court had held in favour of The Herald, and while the decision was generally lauded for its liberal appeal, it sparked off numerous attacks on churches and mosques.

The Chief Justice of the Court of Appeal, reversing the 2009 decision opined that, “The usage of the word Allah is not an integral part of the faith in Christianity. The usage of the word will cause confusion in the community.” This demarcation of so-called Muslim jurisdiction over the word “Allah” is not only deeply flawed but also antithetical to the term’s etymological origins. Notwithstanding the divergence of opinion among scholars with respect to the word’s Syriac, Hebrew or Aramaic roots, the word “Allah” has been used to denote a supreme being since pre-Islamic times. Archaeologists have discovered inscriptions on tombs and in the ruins of churches in the Middle East where Aramaic and Arabic speaking Jews and Christians lived, with proper names often being compounded with “Allah.”

Moreover, since the first centuries of Islam, Jews, Christians and Muslims alike have routinely employed “Allah” in their citations and translations of the Bible. The term “Allah” has been used not only in Arabic translations of the Bible, but also in other languages across the Middle East, Africa and most of Asia. The first Malay rendering of the Bible dates back to 1629, when a Dutch tradesman translated the Gospel of Mathew into Malay, using the word “Allah” to denote God.

Thus, Malaysia’s usurpation of the term “Allah” runs deeper than a mere linguistic spat and epitomizes an insidious political and religious ideology that pervades the Malaysian political and constitutional fabric. The Government’s eagerness to appeal the High Court’s 2009 decision demonstrates that Prime Minister Najib Razak’s ailing coalition that suffered its worst result in more than half a century in power in elections this May, has used the divisive “Allah” issue to re-solidify its political stronghold among Sunni Malays, which constitute two-thirds of the country’s population.

Malaysia’s path towards initiating a religio-lexical crusade masquerading as protecting public discord and the interests of Islam bears an uncanny semblance to Pakistan’s treatment of religious minorities, notably the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community (a minority Muslim sect (also referred to as Qadianis) deemed heretical by mainstream Muslims). The Supreme Court of Pakistan in 1993, in a controversial decision, imposed restrictions on the community’s use of the terms “Azan” (meaning the call for prayer) and “Masjid” (an Urdu term used to denote a mosque), ruling that such terms were peculiar to Islam. The apex court went so far as to hold that these terms formed part of Islam’s intellectual property and that the State could prevent their usage by other religious communities.

In choosing a path that echoes Pakistan’s deepening sectarian tension, the Malaysian court’s decision signals the increasing dilution of its multicultural society. A state-sanctioned affirmative action programme according special rights to ethnic Malays has already been in place since the 70s that has led to the marginalization of Malaysia’s minorities. Pertinently, the ruling, aside from appropriating a term that is not Islam’s birthright from the country’s Christians, raises vexed questions with respect to what it entails for Ahmadis in Malaysia, who have routinely had their mosques and buildings raided and their villages ransacked. A council-erected sign outside one of their buildings reads, “Qadianis are not Muslims.”

This rising global trend of impudence and intolerance on the part of Muslim jurists and scholars is deeply disconcerting. It is a trend that finds its home not in terrorist hotbeds but in malignant political and religious ideologies. The world’s preoccupation with militant Islam has brushed to the periphery the pervasiveness of such ideologies that are becoming increasingly rampant in countries such as Pakistan, Indonesia, Malaysia and Bangladesh. These countries are pursuing a dangerous path towards a divinity winged with paradox. They can learn from Pakistan’s example that has spiraled into national anarchy at the hands of the oxymoron of this divinity, and work towards constructing a more inclusive multicultural and multi-religious fabric before such ideologies run wild.

This article first appeared in the Oxford Human Rights Hub and can be accessed here.

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In Memoriam: Dr. Abdus Salam

 “I hardly know another scientist who invokes the same deep admiration, from the widest possible scientific community, as does Salam.”

(K. R. Sreenivasan)

The two-bedroom derelict bungalow appears rundown and abandoned. Situated in the small shantytown of Jhang in Pakistan, the home that lies in disrepair bears a tired signpost on its exterior, which reads, inter alia, “National Monument.” The existence of a symbol of national heritage in its current state of neglect is made all the more paradoxical with the revelation that it is the birthplace of the nation’s most illustrious son – Dr. Abdus Salam.

From these humble beginnings in Jhang, Salam, who earned the accolade of being Pakistan’s first – and only – Noble Laureate, winning the Noble Prize in physics in 1979 for predicting the existence of the Higgs Boson (the so-called “God particle”) as part of his work on electro-weak unification of forces, remains largely ignored and marginalized in his motherland. The 17th anniversary of his passing on November 21st passed by unnoticed, a chilling reminder that the legacy of this great physicist in his home soil, in as much as his birthplace, continues to be eroded through the sands of time. Last July, when experiments undertaken in the Large Hadron Collider in Geneva tentatively confirmed the existence of the Higgs Boson, a major scientific breakthrough hailed by the international community, Pakistan failed to pay even so much as lip service to its national prodigy, a news report by CNN lamenting, “… imagine a world where a merchant of death is rewarded while a scientific visionary is disowned and forgotten…”

Far from bowing its head in shame, Pakistan single-mindedly pursues a national policy of erasing Salam’s name from its textbooks. The so-called heresy that invites such blatant subjugation is Salam’s religious affiliation. Salam was a member of the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community, a minority Muslim sect denounced as profane by mainstream Muslims. Ahmadis were constitutionally cast out of the fold of Islam in 1973 – the act making Pakistan the only country in the world to render a constitutional definition of who constitutes a “Muslim.”

Despite the national sting Salam was subjected to, he remained deeply patriotic, never renouncing his nationality and remaining devoted to advancing the cause of the destitute in Pakistan. Having returned from Cambridge in 1951 after writing his PhD in record time, Salam who had envisioned the formation of a research centre for physics in Pakistan, quickly realised that his aspirations were fanciful amid the prevailing drought of scientific advancement and a leaning propensity towards religiosity and schism. At Government College upon his return, he was given the choice of either becoming the warden of the college hostel, taking care of the college finances or looking after the college soccer team. Salam chose soccer. To add insult to injury, a wave of anti-Ahmadi riots broke out in 1953, with religious zealots demanding the ouster of Pakistan’s Foreign Minister, Sir Muhammad Zaffrullah Khan, (one of Pakistan’s most prominent Ahmadis who went on to serve as the President of the International Court of Justice in The Hague). The riots threatened to spread and rumours were heard of Salam’s murder in the College by a mob, forcing Salam to leave his homeland and take up a lectureship at Cambridge in 1954.

Salam’s vision for a research centre for physics was realised by the formation of the International Centre for Theoretical Physics (ICTP) in Trieste, Italy, which Salam founded in 1964 after a proposal by him to found such a centre in Pakistan was rejected by Ayub Khan’s Finance Minister, “as an underhand attempt to set up an international five-star hotel for the entertainment of the elite of the world scientific community!” The ICTP was equipped with a mandate to advance scientific expertise and skills in the developing world – a philosophy for which the ICTP remains a major driving force in the world today –Pakistan throwing away an invaluable opportunity to be its host to petty accusations.

The inspiration for the ICTP found root in Salam’s commitment to fostering scientific discovery in the Third World and his fervent desire to eradicate poverty and suffering. The widening wedge between the North and South deeply perplexed Salam, who remained an ardent advocate for this divide to be bridged by the South embracing a path towards scientific and technological development. He donated his entire Noble prize money worth 66,000 USD towards establishing a fund for Pakistani students of science to pursue higher studies abroad.

Notwithstanding his international reputation in physics, Salam’s passions were always guided and tempered by his profound sense of spirituality. He saw no dichotomy between religion and science, as, in an interview to the Manchester Guardian in 1989, Salam elucidated that the realms of religion occupied man’s inner world that could only be demystified by faith while those of science spread across man’s outer world that was guided by reason. In holding and expounding these views, Salam belonged to the minute class of scientists who were not atheists or agnostics. In a paper titled, “Renaissance of Sciences in Arab and Islamic Lands,” Salam quoting The Holy Qur’an wrote, “Thou seest not, in the creation of the All-Merciful an imperfection. Return thy gaze, seest thou any flaw. Then return thy gaze, again and again. Thy gaze, comes back to the dazzled aweary.”

Salam was therefore a man of God in as much as he was a man of science. His humility, his devotion to the cause of the poor and his deep interest in literature gave the scientific community a man that remains largely unsurpassed in disposition and intellect. While the world remembers this great man with deep fondness and respect, the country he loved so dearly continues to push his achievements to the periphery. His abandoned birthplace, regarded as a national monument but left deserted and untended to, echoes the legacy Salam earned in his beloved homeland even in death – the epitaph of his tombstone being defaced on the orders of a local magistrate. Rest in peace, Salam. In the words of Don Mclean, “This world was never meant for one as beautiful as you.” Your country surely was not.

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Tempering Freedom through Freedom

(The following essay is a modified version of a speech the author delivered at an interfaith seminar held on 22 June, 2013 in the UK)

In a poetic inversion of Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes’ paradigm with respect to the life of the law (which, Holmes believed had been experience rather than logic), Professor Richard Parker of Harvard Law School states that, “The life of the law has not been logic, it has been imagination.” Indeed, imagination represents that emotive force behind the cognitive experience that shapes the contours of our thoughts and words. Our imagination, thoughts and language thereby form part of an interdependent, self-sustaining circle, wherein each faculty is the driver and the engine for the other. This “Golden Triangle of Speech,” manifested through our imagination, thoughts and language – portrays language at the pinnacle – since it is language that forms a powerful communicative force breathing life into the latent expressions of imagination and thoughts.

Language or speech has thus been long regarded as a sacred freedom, and in so far as it represents the only concrete bridge to our thoughts and imagination, it is to some extent indispensable as a rhetorical tool. Yet, as with all extremities of loftiness, the utility of language has often been challenged as being both a positive and a negative ideological force. The pages of history are replete with this enigma of semantics – as, by way of one example, just as mysteriously as the use of the word “inyenzi” (which means cockroaches) to describe the Tutsis was manipulated to systemise the Rwandan genocide, equally Henry Morgenthau Sr.’s (the US Ambassador to the Ottoman Empire during WWI) cries for “race murder” in an effort to alert the US Government regarding the massacre of Armenians by the Ottomans failed to prevent the Armenian genocide.

History is thereby reminiscent of Thomas Paine’s prodigious words, that, “The greatest tyrannies are always perpetrated in the noblest causes,” – and while language remains the key to the unexplored worlds of our thoughts and mind, the limitations of language must be appreciated as well. In fact, the degree of nobility that the freedom of speech now commands undermines the greater parallel nobilities of human dignity and civic virtue.  Yet, as history also shows, restricting or criminalising acts of freedom ultimately prove counter productive. The draconian laws on blasphemy in some Muslim-majority countries like Pakistan that have empowered extremists to an intolerable extent are just one case in point. It was the thrust of this socio-religious philosophy that compelled the Organisation of the Islamic Conference to abandon its call for an international crime on blasphemy in the United Nations earlier this year.

Freedom may only be tempered by freedom. While each faculty in the “Golden Triangle of Speech” is fundamental to the existence of the triangle, language occupies an exalted station. It has been afforded this position even though language relies on thoughts and imagination for its subsistence in as much as thoughts and imagination are rendered illusive without language. However, notwithstanding this natural parity between these faculties, the freedom of expression whereby thoughts and imagination are realised remains explicitly or implicitly a higher freedom. The freedom of thought and conscience while being as vital to the realisation of expression as language, has been relegated as the underdog of freedoms. Paradoxically, despite it’s lack of lustre in the neoliberal world celebrating civil and political liberties, the freedom of thought and conscience presents a powerful moral tool for tempering free speech. Our thoughts are an expression of our innate sense of morality, they signify our personal moral code that governs and is unique to our existence. Our heightened sense of conscience forms the cornerstone of this moral code. The phenomenon of thoughts being translated into words is now so intuitive to nature that the virtue of guiding thoughts through conscience has become obscured and is considered frivolous.

A reflection of this approach maybe found in what Professor Joseph Carens of the University of Toronto argues that, “The question is whether there is sometimes a moral duty not to say something that one has a legal right to say…” The main debate as Carens goes on to explain is, “not about legal limits on speech but about the moral constraints, if any, on how people exercise their rights.” A similar approach has been outlined by David Novak, professor of religious studies and philosophy and author of the Jewish Social Contract, who refers to it as “retroactive consequentialist reasoning” i.e. the process of questioning whether the intended speech is going to accomplish anything positive, and if not, it would be pragmatic to avoid it.

Echoes of this line of reasoning are also reflected in the legitimate restrictions placed on free speech by various international law instruments, including inter alia, the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the European Convention on Human Rights. Article 10 of the latter provides e.g. that:

“The exercise of these freedoms, since it carries with it duties and responsibilities, may be subject to such formalities, conditions, restrictions or penalties as are prescribed by law and are necessary in a democratic society, in the interests of national security, territorial integrity or public safety, for the prevention of disorder or crime, for the protection of health or morals, for the protection of the reputation or rights of others, for preventing the disclosure of information received in confidence, or for maintaining the authority and impartiality of the judiciary.”

There appears to be a disjunct within the legal fabric with the elevation of the freedom of speech to an almost sacred stature on the one hand and calling for the placement of legitimate restrictions on speech on the other. The disjunct is created not by the simultaneous existence of these two frameworks, but by the failure to juxtapose speech in the public domain against these standards where appropriate and necessary. If speech is to be considered impenetrable to scrutiny, then logically the relevant provisions circumscribing certain speech in international and municipal law should be removed. However, it appears to be the case that speech has already acquired such impenetrability without the removal of these restrictions, which continue to be referred to as either inapplicable, obscure, too rigid, irrelevant or are ignored entirely. The continued existence of these competing polarities not only undermines the international law framework, it paradoxically undermines the principles of free speech as well.

Thus, the irreconcilability of the rights versus obligations approach within the free speech paradigm strengthens the argument in favour of a moral view that transcends legal modalities. This transcendence from the legal to the moral presents itself as our internal moralism, our inner voice tempered by our conscience. This subtle temperance of our thoughts through conscience before they are translated into words provides a mechanism whereby the freedom of speech may be tempered through the exercise of another, equally important freedom. Liberty ought to herald the promise of freedom, not the exercise of sub-standard rights that make a travesty of human dignity. The virtues that liberty holds so dear are in fact married to the notion of responsible freedom epitomised by our sense of internal moralism. Liberty in the lack of virtue renders meaningless scores of age-old proscriptions (e.g. “Thou shall not kill”) held equally dear in the free world. Freedom’s journey must therefore be concomitant with virtue, as John Adams once proclaimed, “Virtue is to liberty, what soul is to the body.”

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Sands of Crime

It has been almost 66 years since the Founder of Pakistan, Mohammad Ali Jinnah, proclaimed the following words in his first address to the Assembly of Pakistan: “In due course of time, Hindus will cease to be Hindus and Muslims will cease to be Muslims – not in a religious sense for that is the personal faith of an individual – but in a political sense as citizens of one state.” It seems though that these words were destined to be written in sand, for as the years since Pakistan’s birth have worn on, stormy seas have a washed the shores threatening the sands bearing Jinnah’s message to the nascent state.

The romanticism of Jinnah’s Pakistan still lingers – but people today look longingly at a flickering flame that all had once believed would become the shining light of freedom in the newly independent country. However, Pakistan’s reality today with its stark ideological divisions that have led to a surge in sectarianism and violence is not only antithetical to what Jinnah had envisioned but also divorced from any plausible notion of a “nation state.” General Zia’s over zealous Islamisation of Pakistan in his decade long rule resulted in the entrenchment of the flawed conceptualisation of a “Muslim state.” It was the beginning of the end as it were, and it provided radicalism and intolerance an open mandate to cultivate and thrive. It is clear that General Zia’s bid for the creation of an “Islamic Republic” had been made behind the facade of a lopsided ideological slogan, which gave little thought or leeway to reconcile its own brand of Sharia with the reality of a multi-religious nation state. This single-branded ‘Sharia-ism’ that had begun with his predecessor, Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto, who had already put Pakistan in the history books by rendering a constitutional definition of who is a ‘Muslim’, was crystalised by Zia’s bespoke re-fashioning of the pre-partition blasphemy law, which now, inter alia, chants death to the blasphemer of the Holy Prophet.

Far from reinstating the glory days of Islamic civilisation and modeling the new state on fundamental Islamic principles, which by the way do not condone murder and rancor, the process of Islamisation placed Pakistan in a steady-sinking quagmire, new depths of which continue to make themselves apparent in the shape of ideological insanity that is crippling the country today. One is left to wonder – how did we get here? How did it get this bad? The rolling “Fairy Meadows” of Pakistan’s North now lie besieged by the Taliban and have been transformed into meadows of war, the country’s ancient heritage hasn’t been preserved (with sites such as Taxila dating back thousands of years to the Ghandara period lie largely untended to), aquamarine waters of the Arabian sea have been muddied and in some places are intolerably filthy, roads have broken down instead of being constructed, sugar and pulses have become inaccessible, blackouts have transported Pakistan to the dark ages, railway is dead, PIA (the national carrier) is dying, places of worship and even schools have been bombed, Christian, Shia and Ahmadi blood has flown, along with the blood of young soldiers and law enforcement personnel, petrol is akin to purchasing gold – In short, the nation inherited a beautiful country – and then destroyed it with a passion.

Thus, to say that a formidable task awaits the incoming Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) is to say the least. And while on 11 May the Pakistani people in a historic vote delivered the baton to a new charge in the hope of a new chapter, there are some deeply troubling aspects to the election outcome. Not least of these is the overwhelmingly victory of the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaaf (PTI) in Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa (K-P) province, which has become the breeding ground for the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) and their insidious insurgency into other parts of the country. Mr. Khan’s soft stance towards extremist elements is not new, and his willingness to appease the religious hardliners was manifest in his condoning Ahmadis (a minority Muslim sect deemed heretical by mainstream Muslims) being branded as non-Muslims on the campaign trail. His new Chief Minister for K-P Pervaiz Khattak who conceded that the PTI has “no fight with the Taliban” hails a chilling beginning for hopefuls of an intellectual transformation in K-P.

Mr. Sharif on the other hand has been promising “talks” with the Taliban. In a public statement affirming this stance on Monday, Mr. Sharif claimed that not all matters are to be resolved by guns. And to that extent, I am in agreement with the PML-N leader. Echoes of the Malakand Accord breaking down in 2009, stirring the Swat operation and the backlash from the TTP that followed are an unsettling reminder that guns indeed are not always the answer. Yet, his proposal to negotiate with the Taliban is equally unsettling. An adversary to the likes of the TTP can hardly be tempered through discourse and it begs the question what the trade offs will be in order to reach reconciliation? The Taliban would inevitably want their brand of Sharia imposed across the board in exchange for a peace agreement. What that would mean for women’s rights and even men’s (not far that the TTP would enforce the blanket requirement of keeping rather long and unruly beards) is axiomatic. History has shown that an adversary who speaks an inherently different language cannot be brought to the negotiating table. Deals cannot be struck over ideology, even more where ideologies are diametrically opposed and parties fiercely locked in their positions. Mr. Sharif must contend with what scholars in the field of negotiation have referred to as the “I Really Am Right” problem – a problem that visualises the malignant force of a single-minded, distorted and militant ideology that has been the mantra of the religious clergy.

How such a force may be reckoned through dialogue is thus somewhat incomprehensible. Logically, it translates into buying peace and security in exchange for fundamental freedoms. Even if such a result were to be possible, it should be unacceptable. The sands of time in this country have been bloodied, and murder in the name of religion aside, there has been a larger genocide of human dignity. Pakistan’s sands of crime must go up for scrutiny if our sense of human dignity is to be salvaged and restored – a journey that resonates well with the following couplet from a Hindi poem reminiscing the loss of humanity –  “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 land, we divided seas, lets not divide man). Let’s hope Jinnah’s prodigious words at the country’s inception are etched in stone before being rendered elusive by the tide.



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Mr. Khan: Pluralistic or Paradoxical?

Pakistan’s election hype is both remarkable and ironic. The rather dramatic and bloody (the elections being termed as the bloodiest in the country’s history) run-up to the polls has come as a vivid depiction of the pernicious ideology that has plagued the country’s intellectual resources across the board. Particularly confounding are statements that have been coming out of Mr. Imran Khan. During his campaign run (before suffering his unfortunate fall), he defended his stance against the Ahmadis (a minority Muslim sect deemed heretical by mainstream Muslims and persecuted intensely in Pakistan. The largest single attack on the community came in May 2010 when the Taliban targeted two Ahmadi mosques killing at least 86 worshippers during Friday prayer[1]) being branded as Muslims in an appalling fashion – responding to his political opponent Maulana Fazlur Rehman’s  claims that the cricketer turned politician was an agent of the Jews and the Ahmadis, Mr. Khan boasted having read the Quran – which he professed states that a person who does not believe in the finality of the Holy Prophet is not a Muslim[2]. Loud cheers from a jubilant crowd of supporters met this sweeping and meritless analysis of the Holy Book. The remarks certainly did not behoove a man of his educational background and they illuminated Mr. Khan’s deeply flawed and profoundly ironic position. A mere 48 hours later, he was rallying for a “pluralistic”[3] Pakistan, wherein the rights of minorities would be safeguarded and protected. The minorities he alluded to were the Christians, Hindus and the Sikhs – and bravo to him for acknowledging their plight and existence. Yet, it is clear that Mr. Khan has chosen to be willfully blind to the brazen attacks against the Ahmadis and the Shias in this country and their exclusion from the “new pluralistic state” that he envisions undermines and makes a mockery of the very notions of plurality and diversity.

The pluralism Mr. Khan was referring to was then his own party-grown version. A political convenience. The ideals of religious pluralism Mr. Khan subscribes to sum up quite well the hermeneutics conundrum that Islam as a religion confronts globally. The search for a singular Islamic “identity” as an ideological slogan, without giving much thought to what such an identity entails spells anarchy. Who gets to decide which brand of “Islamism” such an identity should promote? The levying of this lopsided “Islamic identity” on the Muslim polity as a whole is representative of an oppressive tax that no Muslim should have to pay. Who has charged us to be God’s faithful arbitrators on Earth? Sadly, lessons from history in this country are sitting on shelves and gathering dust. One such lesson was that enumerated by the Report of the Court of Inquiry (more well known as the Munir Inquiry Report), which was constituted to enquire into the Punjab disturbances of 1953, wherein the court offered the following conclusion having failed to receive a single uniform definition from the parties regarding the question who in their estimation is a “Musalman” (Muslim):

“Keeping in view the several definitions given by the ulama [Muslim scholars of Islamic law], need we make any comment except that no two learned divines are agreed on this fundamental. If we attempt our own definition as each learned divine has done and that definition differs from that given by all others, we unanimously go out of the fold of Islam. And if we adopt the definition given by any one of the ulama, we remain Muslims according to the view of that alim [a member of the ulama] but kafirs [a term used chiefly by Muslims to describe a non-believer] according to the definition of every one else.[4]” [Italics supplied]

If a singular Islamic identity should expound any universal values, they should be those of human dignity and tolerance. In its current state, this so-called Islamic identity, as it is proclaimed through different shades of mullah-ism, makes a travesty of human dignity and justice. Mr. Khan has thus hopped on to the bandwagon of theological apartheid with great enthusiasm and joined many others in this toothless and profoundly paradoxical hall of fame. Other esteemed members include the lawyers who showered Salman Taseer’s murderer with petals as he appeared in court for his trial and our ever-ready fatwa giving maulvis. The real tragedy is that Mr. Khan had the opportunity to restore confidence in the virtues of human dignity and tolerance in this country through leading by example. Notwithstanding his flaws, he is a face that has won many youthful members of Pakistan’s populace. Yet, ironically, his “Tehreek-e-Insaaf” or “Movement for Justice,” by failing to include the Ahmadis and the Shias within its purview spells the same injustice for these communities that has been meted out to them in history. Pakistan is the only country to render a constitutional definition of who is a Muslim. Mr. Khan has decided to keep that laurel too very close to his heart by stating that he would not revise nor repeal provisions in Pakistan’s Constitution that declare Ahmadis as “Non-Muslims” and prohibit them from referring to their places of worship as “mosques.[5]

Thus, while Mr. Khan may bring a promise to restore institutional integrity to the fields of education, women’s rights, law enforcement and healthcare, I would like to ask Mr. Khan how he plans to grapple with the challenge of ideology? With an undeniable and inextricable link between extremism and sectarian violence, how will Mr. Khan temper such radicalism having failed to pay even lip service to the issue? Such insidious ideologies are already eating away at the country’s core, and should Mr. Khan choose to turn a blind eye, the fire that is latent in the flint will eventually ignite. The apartheid of ideology is happening now, and with a promise of merely partial justice, ideological apocalypse is inevitable.

The late 19th century American journalist and essayist Henry Louis Mencken once wrote, “Democracy is the art and science of running the circus from the monkey cage.” His words are poignantly illustrative of the current Pakistani circus – an immensely troubling one on so many levels – and as Pakistanis vote in a historical election, only time will tell how the new arrivals in the monkey cage will fair. We can all pray that it won’t have more blood on its hands five years from now.

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Meadows of War

The surrealism of Switzerland’s serenity

 It is a picture of heaven on earth. Streams snaking through lush green mountains, with smoky snow-capped tops sprinkled in the background, and a thicket of trees splashed across sun-bathed greens, and sleepy cottages nestling peacefully within the mountains and the trees. It is the sort of picture that is a common sight in Switzerland, a country rich in and well known for its stunning natural beauty.

It came as quite a shock to me then when whilst traveling with my husband through the picturesque villages of Grindelwald and Interlaken in Switzerland last summer, I was told how in this land of idyllic scenery, every Swiss man must by the age of 25 undergo compulsory military training – and even more perplexing was the fact that every one of four of those sleepy cottage owners, possesses a firearm. This picture-perfect landscape in other words is ready for emergency mobilization for foreign invasion at very thin notice.

Finding it difficult to digest these facts at first, I tried quite hard to convince myself that my better half had finally overdone himself in his astonishingly extensive repository of knowledge. But I had to gulp them down quickly when a local friend and lawyer confirmed this surreal side to the Swiss countryside. Profoundly amazing as it may have been, the realization was just another affirmation of the stark paradoxes that paint the geo-political climate of today’s world.

Switzerland’s gun ownership ranks the third highest in the world after the US and Yemen, with 3.4 million of its 8 million citizens owning firearms[1]. The country’s gun suicide rate is the second highest in Europe, with a 2011 study revealing that 43 percent of suicides within Swiss households were committed with firearms[2]. And while in spite these astonishing figures, Switzerland can still boast one of the world’s lowest homicide rates of 0.7 per 100,000 people (one-sixth the rate in the US)[3], the recent shootings in January and February of this year have reignited a debate to introduce stricter gun control laws.

While the gun culture in Switzerland, unlike the US, is rooted in patriotism, following the Menznau killings on February 26 this year, skeptics are now increasingly voicing concerns over existing laws and their implementation – the law while requiring a criminal background check and psychiatric record before a gun can be purchased, the Menznau shooter held a past conviction. The police have declined to comment on how he obtained his Sphinx AT .380 pistol[4].

The big guns, of a slightly different nature, are also sitting in Switzerland’s banks. With 30 percent of the global offshore wealth being held in the country, Switzerland has recently been awash with money laundering cases, with the Swiss Federal Prosecutor’s Office freezing an account in connection with a Spanish politician with an estimated 27 million Swiss Francs implicated in a corruption scandal in January this year[5].

With the Swiss priding themselves in their image of stability and security, it is an image that has come under relative strain in recent months. While the resilience of the Swiss natural landscape continues to withstand these manmade tremors, one can’t help thinking that even this country of rolling meadows has feet of clay.

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