Uncomfortable questions

It goes without saying that when a guest comes to your house you don’t ask difficult questions. This is perhaps why Imam Kaaba Sheikh Al-Ghamdi was so overwhelmed by the love and support he got from Pakistanis during his visit here. This is actually supported by a Pew Research Centre survey that says 95 per cent of Pakistanis view Saudi Arabia favourably. Addressing an event held in his honour, he talked about the love and affection between Saudi Arabia and Pakistan he felt himself “drowning” under. He warned people trying to malign the ties between the two countries and said it was the need of the hour for Muslims to be united. Applause.

Suppose for a few minutes that we were to ask uncomfortable questions of our guests, what would those be? Four spring to mind a little too immediately. The first: what exactly does the word ‘Muslims’ entail? As great as unity against an evil foe sounds, there are many who consider themselves Muslims yet don’t quite fit the bill of the great protector of the Kaaba’s definition of Muslim. As a result, there is some rank pulling.

Also, the privilege of the Muslim male cannot be ignored entirely either. The only country to ban women from driving, Saudi Arabia, can be a bit of a dangerous influence for our developing economy which already struggles with acute problems with respect to gender inclusion in the workforce. The annual Gender Gap Index by the Geneva-based World Economic Forum released last year showed Pakistan ranked 141 out of 142, which made it second to last in global gender equality. While the mighty can afford it with the oil wells and empires of astute financial investments, we really cannot. Women are as important to Pakistan as perhaps oil is to the Saudis. Our founder, Mohammad Ali Jinnah, called women a greater power than even the pen. Sadly, none of the gregarious receptions held in the honour of the great Imam had any worthy women in attendance. Very telling of the times to come if the friendship grows.

Thirdly, can something be done to secure the status of about a million Pakistanis working in Saudi Arabia? Majority of low-scale workers in Saudi Arabia from Pakistan are treated no less than second class citizens, which rides on Arab superiority. The Human Rights Watch calls it “near-slavery” and says many migrant workers face “arbitrary arrests, unfair trials and harsh punishments” and may falsely be accused of committing crimes. According to The Independent, in 2010 alone at least 27 migrant workers were executed. Where such reports can be a bit unpalatable, fiction can allow more room for truth. In his short story called A Mason’s Hand, Ali Akbar Natiq illustrates how a migrant worker with stars in his eyes about escaping Pakistan and working in the Holy Lands is exploited and left disillusioned. Tragically, this story is far too common outside the pages of a fiction book.

Lastly, what has Saudi Arabia’s role been in the unregulated and unchecked fattening of radicalised madrassa graduates? Even the clamour post-9/11 could not dent the burgeoning of these seminaries across Pakistan starting from the Ziaul Haq era. These grew mostly with the support of Saudi petro-clerics. Some experts claim that blended with tribal culture, the ideology that was fostered was a Talibanisque blend of mores. Pakistan has suffered as a result and what is now a mafia goes limping back for more funds because these are now a formidable force of street power.

Imam Kaaba Sheikh Al-Ghamdi did answer the comfortable questions though. Addressing one congregation he first said that violence can have no justification and that Islam deplores it; Muslims should seek knowledge and educate themselves; parents should ensure they vaccinate their children against polio and most importantly that believers should respect one another’s religious differences.

After the sermon, there was no question and answer session that followed.

Sabeen Mahmud: the woman who seeded ideas

The frequency with which you get to know how phenomenal a person was by reading their eulogy is increasing. First it was the marketing director of a popular English daily, Masood Hamid, for whom there were only words of admiration: the people he mentored and the professionalism he brought to an industry where that is scarce. Now, it is The Second Floor’s (T2F)’s director, Sabeen Mahmud, who was also shot dead by unknown terrorists.

As outrage poured in on Twitter, a last remaining forum we can safely express anguish on with less likelihood of being shot ourselves, many talked of the need to keep her last tweet alive, as if supporting the ancient belief that your last thoughts are what you take with you to the afterlife. In it she supported the cause of exposing the oppression in Balochistan. To find out how unpopular this cause is, one needs only to pay genuflection to the woman on Twitter and then brace yourself for the vitriol. The accusations of being anti-state roll in like a parade.

Let the brutality and unfairness end at her death. Let us not only confine Sabeen to any single cause she fought because it is reductive. Sabeen defined herself: post-modern flower child, unabashed Mac snob, Pink Floyd and Bruce Springsteen devotee, Tetris addict, West Wing and House MD fanatic and, finally, someone who “will die for Hugh Laurie”. They did not let her die for Hugh Laurie. Her most momentous contribution, however, was T2F. As an art advocate Sabeen brought that one thing so severely essential to our country: a conjugal bed of ideas.

Think of any great idea, concept or turnaround and a coffee place or art studio of some sort will make its way to the origin. Credits have poured in for Sabeen for T2F being the place where they first learned about the craft of writing literature, painting, singing or orating. From a business angle, it was a space where innovation thrived and entrepreneurial success stories were discussed, crushing away the vacuum of hoarding knowledge and attitudes that inspire change. It was a place young people allowed ideas to breathe, seeding non-conformity and that elixir of life: vitality.

The biggest myth of our century is that ideas are born out of some mystical eureka moment. They are not. Rather, they form like a network of nerves with varying connection points and influences. Steven Johnson, popular science author and media theorist, says the beginning of the Renaissance started with coffee houses and art centres, places where people were free of judgement and allowed their “show hunches” to proliferate into concrete and testable concepts and theories.

One of the biggest needs of intellectually throttled Karachi was such a place: a place to hear how others survive. How they survive real violence and that of the mind, how they still make things come together despite the cynicism and the envy, the traditionalism and the anachronism, how they suggest people work in the tiny basements of their minds to gnaw at an idea till it is ready to be cast into the light of the harsh world. Sabeen, said to be the softest and gentlest of souls, is not going to be there to catalyse the continuation of the space but if we have to truly honour her, we must start the construction of these places in every nook and corner of our country — bookshops, cafes, art studios, ultimately converting our homes into centres of free thinking and beauty — and allow tiny networks of possibilities to thrive.

If the aim was to spread terror, the unidentified terrorists have won. There is no winning against fanaticism, especially if it is sponsored by those in power now. Violence, by its very nature, is the extinguishing of light. However, if Sabeen has taught us one thing, it is that art lives on. That music, poetry and resistance literature all validate us; we do not validate it. When asked what superpower she would like to have, Sabeen said, “I would like to wave my magic wand and de-weaponise Karachi.” Falling to a bullet, Sabeen has left us grieving and pained but hopefully not without the anger we need to bring these senseless killings to an end.

The government’s knee-jerk reaction of inquiry, report and arrests of unrelated criminals will no longer do. Far too many people have lived outside the law in Pakistan and nobody deserves to be silenced, certainly not someone who could have brought about a mini-renaissance in this marred, truth-resistant nation. Regretful and remorseful that I did not know Sabeen Mahmud, I scrolled her Twitter timeline searching for that one thing that connected me to her somehow — a quote, a line or a thought — I followed her, knowing it is too late anyway, then there, next to her bio, it read: “follows you”.

I was reminded of Sylvia Plath when she wrote: “I am, I am, I am”.

More babies than we need

For a country that shuns sex education on the basis that it erodes moral values, the number of unwanted pregnancies in Pakistan are staggering. According to a 2012 figure by the Population Council, 4.2 million of the nine million pregnancies were unwanted. As much as 54 percent of these resulted in back alley abortions. As a conservative society that rejects abortions on a religious basis, something somewhere is terribly messy. It is no surprise that family planning is paramount in saving lives but the biggest hurdle in implementing the wisdom and the science behind it is religious conservatism. It is as if proponents argue that a good Muslim woman is one who is serially pregnant, severely anaemic and completely absolved of the rights over her own uterus.

Tragically, the government of Pakistan, which had once been lauded for running a successful campaign for family planning education in the 1960s, is now effectively sitting on its hands as we boast some of the world’s most horrendous maternal and infant mortality rates. The Auyb government did this despite the fight from the religious right. Pakistan has also had perhaps the greatest number of policy shifts when it comes to population planning. What makes the recent governments so callous in this regard? The policies Ziaul Haq’s era introduced are said to have set back the programme tremendously. One theory is that with the geopolitical crisis Pakistan now finds itself in, it does not want a campaign that works aggressively towards something religious parties oppose. If this is true, we are selling our silence for the glory of an ideology that is probably a bigger killer than terrorism, AIDS or nationwide traffic accidents. Appeasement in other aspects of social and political conditions may cause tragic results but, in this regard, is akin to silent mercury poisoning — the entire system disintegrates over a longer period of time.

Experts profess that readily available abortion medication shifts focus away from family planning, whereas the ultimate objective is to not conceive in the first place if children are already plentiful in a family. Unwanted pregnancies are largely a lower socio-economic class phenomenon. Something that can be managed with education is sadly played out in the most cruel and inhuman form. Children should be brought into a world that does not fail them and where their mothers are whole, not a fraction of who they used to be. The solution to the unwanted pregnancies issue is therefore educating people, particularly mothers, that birth control is healthy and safe with controllable side effects.

For most poor households, the ultimate dictate on the reproductive curve of the woman is in the man’s hands. This is not just unfair, it reflects incompetence at a societal and cultural level for placing the levers of life and death in the hands of someone who has nothing to do with its consequences. Men are likely to have been instructed by the local cleric; the failure is also on the part of our religious institutions for valuing philosophy over millions of dead foetuses. Religious leaders, preferably in conjunction with the government, must collectively dispel the myth that our religion cannot adapt to its times. The first duty is to the life of its citizenry. By being least interested in the proliferation of the misery of our weakest, the government must rise to the occasion and attack this issue with the same zealotry it organises its jalsas (rallies) or the way the army arranged the recent war parade in Islamabad.

Pakistan’s fertility rates exceed those of other neighbouring South Asian countries. The only thing that explains our lagging behind in this regard is deliberate neglect. According to the United Nations Population Fund in Pakistan the following three are specific reasons: a combination of factors like non-availability of services, baseless traditional beliefs and misconception. Half of the married women in Pakistan have never used contraception. In Cairo, in 1994, Pakistan pledged to provide universal access to family planning by 2010. This has not been met. It is not just unwanted pregnancies that are staggering but the ignorance of the empowerment women have gone through in the 21st century is also appalling.

For women to know their rights across the board, they need a support system and laws that allow this right to be exercised. Waiting for conservative elements to change and come around will require more light years than we have. The stakes are high and the cost of launching an effective national campaign relatively low. We must act now to ensure that each child brought into the world has a fair shot at a safe and protected life.

Science as the alternative to fear

Just like Edward Said in his work Orientalism talked about a distance and patronisation with which the west referred to the east as servile to power, German anthropologist Johannes Fabian penned the concept of the “denial of coevalness”. This is when anthropologists defined people they studied as if those people belonged to another time. In the denial of an authentic voice from the east, the west has consistently disregarded and unauthenticated the chronicles that emerge from countries like Pakistan. In the denial of the same temporal space journalists inhabit with terrorists like the Taliban and Islamic State (IS), readers are left with only a limited understanding of the motivations and schemas of those who are responsible for some of humanity’s most brutal attacks.

Therefore, it is no surprise that even from among the oriental cultures people like Ayaan Hirsi Ali write books that work in binaries: a good Muslim is a non-Muslim. Her book is called Heretic: Why Islam Needs a Reformation Now. In the epic interview between Ali and legendary political commentator Jon Stewart there can only be awe for the mastery over political astuteness that Stewart had. He repeatedly asked Ali why, seemingly, her book suggested that there was an innate fault with the scriptures of Islam that caused the violence terrorists unleash. “I think people single out Islam as though there is something inherently wrong with it that was not wrong with other religions. Christianity went through almost the exact same process,” said Stewart.

He essentially brought down the argument based on the possible question: if there was no scripture in Islam that existed, do you not think people who are inherently violence-prone would invent an alternative inspiration for violence? This need that we have to have an Islam-centrist approach to mindless violence is merely the propagation of a form of orientalism as well as the irate need to deny that we share the same time and space as those who murder humanity. As horrific as the claim by the Taliban after the Peshawar massacre of our 132 children that it was mirrored by practices in seventh century Arabia, we have to admit that they have chosen to make this interpretation in a time when bionic legs, comet landings and Pakistani women air force pilots exist.

When our journalism lexicon places oceanic distances between its readers and those who have chosen destruction over peace, it closes the door to all kinds of resolutions: human, political, spiritual and religious. It closes the door to conveying to IS and the Taliban of the beheading and massacring fame, that there is an alternate to approaching life with fear, that instead it can be approached with science.

It closes the door to any conversations that introduce new heroes of the Muslim world to Muslims themselves. Heroes like Ibn Rushd, also known as Averroës, seeded secular thought in western Europe. This effort is not just important; it is the only way through which Muslims can reclaim a big part of the time that they have been disjoined from. It opens debate with Muslims who may or may not agree with Ibn Sina, Ibn Battuta, Ghazali or Abu Bakr Al-Razi but converge on the importance of scientific inquiry itself.

In the beginning of this year, in chilly Istanbul snow, leading Muslim scientists gathered from around the world for a taskforce led by Professor Ekmeleddin Ihsanoglu, the former secretary general of the Organisation of Islamic Countries (OIC). I watched as they oscillated between heavy debates on the nafs (soul) and a collective realisation that Islam needs a new scientific awakening and renaissance. These scientists, historians and theologians reconciled their profession with their beliefs around five central questions. Dr Athar Osama, the founder of Muslim-Science.com and the director of the Task Forces Initiative was concerned about the need to reclaim the narrative of science within the Islamic community — a narrative that in recent years has been imposed from outside rather than created from inside — and hence begin an inside-out process of scientific revival within the Islamic world.

For far too long Muslims have lived in the darkness of ignorance, susceptible to manipulation and forced into carrying out acts of violence. Unable to question the failure of our people to inherit the rich tradition of free thinking and scientific process, Muslims have developed the neat trick of denying that the violence that we see today is part of our times. It is time we trudge forward without labeling them as medieval and without being armed by perhaps the most lethal weapon our technologically advanced era could produce: little knowledge.

Why Deepika’s choice makes sense

In the four minutes that the Vogue #MyChoice video was played online, many critics missed the 3.8 or so minutes that talked about various options women exercise over their bodies: to have children, to travel, to love or to eat in quantities they like, and instead focused on those few seconds Bollywood actress Deepika Padukone speaks about a woman’s right to her own sexuality. The reaction in India to the video teaches us a lot about how any traditional society reacts and we may do well to learn from it because soon enough our women will awaken to their choices too. Just like the India’s Daughter of India video, which exposed in Jawed Akhtar’s words that “all Indian men think like rapists”, this video has been received largely as an attempt to wash over the traditions and culture of India.

Veteran Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) leader Murli Manohar Joshi flayed Deepika Padukone’s video on women empowerment as “height of lack of consciousness”. He said specifically, “We do not realise how much we have changed. It has been an Indian tradition of addressing woman as ‘mother’, but now there are objections at being called a mother.” The irony is unmistakable. This is the precise statement that the video intends to rebuke. The contention is between these two concepts where one seeks to burden an entire people’s culture and tradition over a woman’s uterus and her ability to fertilise an egg legally whereas the other really says that the choice belongs to the one with the uterus and the burden can be better placed elsewhere.

Even in the 21st century, this is a revolutionary concept. So much so that Deepika is being publicly humiliated and slut shamed online by those who are in the Murli Manohar Joshi camp. Online bullying and cyber harassment is commonplace where women speak out to provide an alternate view of their independence. But, as Monica Lewinsky said in her TED talk, “Public shaming as a blood sport has to stop.” This blood sport is not just done by men but by women as well who perhaps have internalised that any idea to hold choices about their bodies must be first routed through a male authority.

Many critics start off with the premise that if and when women exercise their own choice they will be bound to make wrong ones that will ultimately lead to colossal disaster: they will get infinitely fatter, the human race will perish and all women will do is seduce innocent men and break family structures. Others accuse Vogue of being an avenue that only objectifies women, but is that not the oldest argument against every time big money was behind women who were unabashed? The video features 99 women, one of whom was a Muslim who covered her head. Indeed that too is her choice to not be “objectified” assuming that women who step out of purdah are asking for it.

When Margaret Atwood wrote the feminist dystopia The Handmaiden’s Tale, her central theme was fertility because that is the first thing a government of patriarchs want to control. The reaction to this video proves that that fiction is not too far from reality. To fit in to such a dystopia this is what the handmaid thought to herself: “All you have to do, I tell myself, is keep your mouth shut and look stupid. It shouldn’t be that hard.”

Well Deepika, who has previously never been afraid to come out and talk about her depression, has chosen to not shut up and not dumb herself down, and that is imaginably hard in a society where by and large you are not expected to. Her choice to do this video is a testament to the fact that women really do not enjoy being disempowered and thus unhappy. Those who think the issues Deepika has illustrated in her video are a fragment of her elitism should go take a closer look at women in our villages who birth several anaemic children in a row without their consent, or visit some of the girl children who are wedded to much older men, or talk to those feudal girls who are prohibited to marry because the lands they inherit need to be kept within the families. Frankly, it is elitist to label the video as exclusivist just because it visually does not represent too many traditional women.

The first casualty of patriarchy is disharmony between women themselves. When women see Deepika they need to see a reflection of the same choices they hold dear, not a woman far removed into the stardom of one of the world’s biggest film industries, who does not have anything in common with women here. To Murli Manohar Joshi campers: a woman is more than a just a mother. She is first a person. Some inspiring words for all women, borrowed from the Handmaiden’s Tale: “Nolite te bastardes carborundorum.”

Not our war in Yemen

Pakistanis turn vicious when forced to conform to the diktat of the US. They call any such attempt to alter Pakistan’s foreign or domestic policy imperialist and hegemonic. Yet strangely, replace the US with Saudi Arabia and it almost reads like it is supremely ordained by a power that is both respectable and honourable. Historically, Pakistan has been heavily influenced by both countries, yet the resentment for the violation of what Pakistanis refer to as national sovereignty has only been towards one and not the other. Whereas the negative effects of US military cooperation have been exaggerated, those of the Saudis are in stealth mode, presented only in academic studies hardly anyone dares to fund.

On March 26, 2015, Prime Minister (PM) Nawaz Sharif said that any attack on Saudi Arabia is akin to an attack on Pakistan. Pakistan, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia announced, will be part of a coalition against Yemen. This comes at the same time the Pakistan foreign office reports that it is only now considering the request by the Saudis to join the effort. One would have thought that for a decision of such national importance, parliament’s opinion would have been sought and, by extension, would have been representative of the country’s desire to participate in a war against another Muslim country. Sending troops to attack Yemen has great repercussions against our good ties with Iran. Can it afford another precarious border? Whoever is thinking geopolitics needs to reconsider taking Pakistan down the path of meddling in another country’s local wars. We all know how these end. In fact, no one should know this better than us.

Sending our troops, engaged as they are in staving off the attacks on Pakistani soil by the Taliban, to fight a war that will need a new sales pitch is utterly disastrous no matter how well you spin it. It calls into question our loyalty to the victims of the Peshawar attack, the Youhanabad church bombings and the most recent attack targeting a police bus in Karachi claimed by the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP). Why are we being asked to spread ourselves so thin to fight an ego war miles away? Do the $ 1.5 billion the Saudis contributed to the Pakistan Development Fund last year have anything to do with it?

The war in Yemen already unnerves the Shias worldwide and it especially demoralises the Shias in Pakistan who are being preyed upon with growing intensity by both sectarian and militant organisations. Pakistan, by entering in this war, possibly even directly is signalling a united Sunni front, whereas these times call for a more modern all-encompassing Muslim identity.

Since the 1970s the one thing that has changed the rabid religious landscape that Pakistan now finds itself in has been the pouring of Saudi funds into the bellies of clerics. The fattening up of the most bigoted and the most callous towards human rights has been ongoing since then. The sufferers: non-Sunni Muslims, the women and the children who are brainwashed in these seminaries, where crooked versions of thinking are drilled into their young minds. For a nation that is so deathly afraid of its women that it grants them no mobility in a car or to travel without a guardian, Saudi Arabia chest thumps and sabre-rattles with so much machismo. With a transition economy that needs all the women it can get in the workforce, can Pakistan really dive in so emotionally to support a country whose ethos on women can only bring it economic disaster? Only 17 to 20 percent of women participate in the workforce in Pakistan. If we look over at India and Bangladesh, this number is at 40 percent. They are Muslim too, for the record. Political relationships, if not ideologically aligned, are fickle.

As Saudi bombing starts in Yemen, families upon families of civilians have been wiped out in the collateral damage. As a country that is haemorrhaging in the loss of its vital children, its poor and its dearest, Pakistan cannot be part of something that is so violent to another country. It makes no intuitive sense. It makes no resource sense. Above all, it makes no humanitarian sense.

Pakistan engages with the comity of nations with honour and the independent views of its people are not negotiable. Just like the people of even the strongest nations, the people of Pakistan want an end to war. They do not want to be standing at the beginning of a war so far removed that it demands only one question: does this serve to preserve the message of peace that Islam brought to the world?

The jury is out on the worst form of terrorism

Interior Minister Chaudhry Nisar called the lynching of two Muslims by Christians in Lahore “the worst kind of terrorism”. This is binary thinking: Muslims lynching innocent victims being a lesser form of terrorism versus Christians lynching innocent victims being an insult to our intellect and to all sense of fairness, especially when it is Chaudhary Nisar who called the killing of Hakeemullah Mehsud a “murder of peace”. It begs the question: whose side is the sitting government on exactly?

Chaudhry Nisar is not alone in this absurdity. The entire Pakistani society’s reaction to Christians lynching Muslims is very different to their reaction of Muslims lynching Muslims. Remember the boys who were lynched in Sialkot? Nobody demanded that the people who did the lynching needed to be taught a lesson once and for all for forgetting their place in the pecking order and that the issue was one of religious community. Mob justice is a common phenomenon in Pakistan and is practiced with increasing callousness and disregard for the rule of law. So why the sudden over-the-top outcry and horror over this particular incident?

It must be stated for the record that nobody should be lynched. Nobody deserves it. This means that not a single person should be subjected to such a barbaric act. Nobody. None. Ever. The lives of the glasscutter and the garment worker that the Christian mob ended up murdering are no less precious than the lives of Shama Bibi and Shahzad Masih from Kot Radha Kishan near Lahore. The Christian couple, who were the parents of three young children, were burnt alive near the brick-making factory in front of their children. This horrendous act was to avenge a crime that they had not been tried for. They were no less innocent.

We find, however, a stark difference between the way the two cases were profiled. The media, and particularly the Urdu mainstream media, humanised the victims of the Christian mob and practically ignored the personal details of the Christians attacked by a Muslim mob. They were both crimes against human dignity. Shazia Bibi was carrying a child when she was burnt. It does not get more vulnerable and more human than that. The attack on the Christian couple was later investigated and it had turned out that the mob was incited on the dictate of a local mosque cleric. As a contrast, the Protestant and Catholic community leadership asked for forgiveness. “We ask forgiveness for the reaction of the Christian community,” said Father Emmanuel Yousaf Mani, director of the National Commission for Justice and Peace (NCJP) of the Catholic Church of Pakistan.

These double standards when it comes to our society’s condemnation are not acceptable. They are telling of the maladjustment and medieval conceptions that make up our schema. We desperately need to realise that our thinking ought not to be a product of our personal prejudices but is indeed a collective equity of our nation. Pakistanis and the lives and wellbeing of Pakistanis ought to be our axis. If you do not agree, please feel free to take up a ministerial position and play out your clan supremacy and bias.

The community we are discussing here is one that is already marginalised. The three million Christians in the country have been repaid for their devotion to the country with only scorn and degradation, ostracisation and loathing.

Allow me to review what exactly happened on the day of the lynching on March 15, 2015. Two bombs were set off in Youhanabad, Lahore near two churches. More than 20 people were killed and over 80 injured. This attack was thwarted by security guards or it would have been a greater calamity similar to the one in Peshawar in 2013. What we see sadly is that with the lynching outrage, the horror of the bombings have redirected from sympathy towards the community towards their demonisation. The injustice of this is unfathomable, for this community has sacrificed rivers of blood for a war that they have no part in.

Stoking the fires of distrust against a minority community is truly the worst form of terrorism. Even worse than that is playing favourites over corpses of one kind of Pakistani over another.