Among the believers

Upon Junaid Akram’s recommendation, I ended up watching the documentary, “Among the Believers” on Netflix.

The film had a lot to offer and a lot to reflect upon. It offered an insightful glimpse into the Pakistani mindset and paved way to some interesting thoughts. It’s a story of multiple conflicting narratives that quintessentially define the life in Pakistan. You see the two sides of Pakistan. A fundamentalist side that has its own tragic tale to tell about a state-sponsored massacre. And the apparently progressive side, which is heavily suffering at the hands of fundamentalists. Pakistan is truly a land of contradictions.

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Screen-shot from the film: Maulana Aziz with a student. Courtesy: http://www.amongthebelieversfilm.com/

One thought that I particularly mulled over long was about the nature of the Madrassah system. Following is a statement made by a Red Mosque Madrassah employee regarding the enrolled students:

Most are from poor and rural areas in Kashmir. We take care of their food, housing, clothes, and medical bills. Free of charge.

Now the aforementioned can only be achieved, if an institution has no shortage of money. And cashflow required to provide such a level of sustenance can only come from faith based donations. That is, donate in the name of Allah. That’s the basic politico-economics of Pakistan.

It is but natural for the Madrassah system to not only survive but flourish. The Madrassah system will undoubtedly stay at Pakistan, come what may. The problem, of course, lies in what is being taught at the Madrassah and the kind of religious intolerance and violence that is being perpetuated.

Introducing a modern, secular curriculum at Madrassah system can partly help but will not be a long lasting solution. The solution, in my opinion, has to be more organic and needs to spring from the fundamentals of Islam itself. 

The fundamental way to combat the fundamentalists of Madrassah is to offer an educational system like them. Open a Khanqah: Donate in the name of Allah but educate your child along mystical lines. Show that there is a fundamental unity of humanity and all religions, in their respective ways, offer some modicum of truth. The Truth, with a capital T, is, however, far greater than what the human mind can comprehend.

The only way to combat the evil in the name of Allah is through the good in the name of Allah. Salafism is to be combated with Sufism. That’s the only panacea. It cannot be combated with scientific rationalism or militant atheism. The human urge is to gravitate towards something more meaningful than the sum of its experiences. The human urge seeks something greater than itself.

This innate urge is, in my opinion, one of the reasons why religion cannot be completely eradicated from Pakistan, much to the chagrin of people like Richard Dawkins. However, attempts can be made at reforming Islam. Such attempts cannot come without the endorsement of and support from the State. Until that happens, Pakistan will continue to be a breeding ground for fundamentalists like Maualana Aziz of Red Mosque and films like “Among the Believers” will continue to resonate with the world.

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The Murder of Mashal Khan

And so it happened! The brutal murder of a University student in Pakistan, Mashal Khan, over allegations of posting blasphemous content online.

Mashal Khan was student of journalism at Abdul Wali Khan University, Mardan, Pakistan. He was accused of running a Facebook page that posted apparently blasphemous content. On April 13, 2017, Khan was violently murdered by a student mob on the university campus. Reports suggest that there were at least 25 policemen present when he was killed.

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Mashal Khan

Last month, the Prime Minister of Pakistan, Nawaz Sharif, showed his support to crackdown on blasphemous content on social media. According to a tweet made by the official Twitter account of Nawaz Sharif’s political party, blasphemy is an “unpardonable offence“.

At this point in time, I literally don’t have anything to say. My mind is completely blank at the senseless violence that is happening in the name of Islam in Pakistan and that is supported by the Pakistani state itself.

I do, in the strongest of terms, condemn in the inhumane murder of Mashal Khan. I don’t know if he posted blasphemous content on social media but even if he did, killing someone so mercilessly is simply unjustifiable.

I have been maintaining this blog for almost two and half years now and a lot of what I write can clearly be considered blasphemous by Pakistani standards. I will continue to write and support Mashal and everyone who is putting up a valiant fight against the cancerous sore of fundamentalist Islam in Pakistan. Mashal, you live forever!

No Escape from Pakistan

No news from Pakistan is surprising when it comes to suppression of freedom of expression. A few days ago, I found that a Pakistani judge at Islamabad High Court (IHC) has ‘called for a ban on social media sites in Pakistan, due to the spread of ‘blasphemous’ images online’.

Not only that, he wants the names of the people, who are responsible for making such blasphemous content, to be put on the Exit Control List (ECL). This will prevent such individuals from leaving Pakistan.

The decision of this judge in Islamabad is a clear reflection of the kind of thinking prevalent in Pakistan. The thinking that people should be tried and executed for freely expressing their opinions. The thinking that all efforts should be made get hold of such individuals.

Sometime back, I blogged about an incident in which the then-premier of Pakistan made a rather inappropriate statement that those who are unhappy in Pakistan should leave Pakistan. However, with judgements such as these, it seems that it’s not even possible to escape Pakistan. Things aren’t getting any better.

Blast at Sehwan Sharif

Last month I blogged about my strange affinity to Lal Shahbaz Qalandar. This evening my heart sank when I heard about a terrible bomb blast that took place at the shrine of Lal Shahbaz Qalandar at Sehwan Sharif, Pakistan.

ISIL has accepted responsibility for this attack and it comes as no surprise, given how un-Islamic Sufism is from the perspective of Islamic fundamentalists. I was teary eyed when I read the details of the attack on Internet. 75 people were killed and more than 200 were injured in the attack, many of whom were women and children.

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Shrine of Lal Shahbaz Qalandar.

It goes without saying that the barbarians who perpetrate these heinous acts are extremely determined in their goal. That is, to eradicate from Pakistan everything that stands for peace, love, tolerance and acceptance of the other.

Just a few days earlier, there was a bomb blast in the city of Lahore, Pakistan that killed at least 13 people and wounded several others. Jamaat-ul-Ahrar, a Pakistani Taliban-linked armed group, claimed responsibility for the attack. A spokesman for the group warned in a statement that the blast was “just the start”.

It’s becoming clear that Pakistan has become a breeding ground Islamic extremists and any voice that dissents from the fundamentalist narrative of Islam will be squelched. I am just at a loss of words and only wish things were not so bad in my home country. Long live the spirit of Sehwan! Jhulelal!

Missing Bloggers of Pakistan

Recently, it came to my attention that a number of social media activists and bloggers went missing in Pakistan. The identity and the motives of the abductors are still unknown. However, what’s common between all these activists is their vocal opposition of ‘religious extremism and the Pakistani authorities’ abuse of opposition activists.’

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Protest to recover missing blogger, Salman Haider.

Jibran Nasir, a vocal activist, held a conference to discuss about the missing people. In turn, Aamir Liaquat Hussain, televangelist numero uno, launched a smear campaign against the bloggers, Nasir and Jang Media Group in Pakistan. The smear campaign was launched as part of a TV show called ‘Aisay Nahin Chalega’, which is aired on a controversial channel called Bol TV.

What’s unique about this situation is that for the first time, to the best of my knowledge, voices critiquing the status quo of Pakistan on blogs were tried to be silenced. This is an unprecedented event that is very scary. People criticizing extremist Islam on the Internet are abducted.

Although abduction related to e-proclamations is something new, it doesn’t come as a complete surprise given the conditions in Pakistan. Time and again, grave human rights violations are perpetuated in Pakistan. To quote an article published on this incident on Al-Jazeera:

Dissent or critique of state policy is not only not tolerated but snubbed in a way that an example is set for others. It has been happening to outspoken voices against religious conservatism, state’s appeasement of clergy or the military establishment for years.

It’s really a sorry state of affairs in Pakistan. There’s no room for freedom of expression, even on the Internet. The madness of religious extremism is growing stronger day by day and there seems to end in sight…

Jinnah and Jesus

Muhammad Ali Jinnah – for those who don’t know him – was an Indian lawyer and statesman, who  is credited for creating the nation of Pakistan. He is called the Father of the Nation in Pakistan and is more commonly referred to as Quaid-e-Azam (The Great Leader).

Interestingly, Quaid-e-Azam was born on December 25, which coincides with the supposed birth of Jesus Christ. In Pakistan, December 25 is a national holiday. Yesterday night as the world celebrated Christmas, I, as a Pakistani former Muslim, ended up reflecting on the significance of Jinnah and Jesus.

I wonder what our relationship is with Jinnah and Jesus and what significance do they hold in modern times for an average Pakistani Muslim? Are there any ideals that one can learn from these two individuals and incorporate in one’s daily, post-modern life? Perhaps. But an even more fundamental question is: do I really know Jinnah and Jesus well enough?

For all I know, Jinnah was a liberal. That is, he was not a very religious, practicing Muslim. He smoke, drank, loved dogs and was very Western in his ways.

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Jinnah with dogs. 

He was a far cry from the kind of Shariah imposing clerics that dot the Pakistani political landscape these days. Some would argue that Jinnah foresaw a liberal and tolerant Pakistan while others like to portray Pakistan as a Shariah governed state inspired by the 1400 years old ideals dictated by Prophet Muhammad. The ground truth is closer to the latter claim. Whatever might have been Jinnah’s vision of Pakistan, it is surely hijacked by puritanical mullahs who are hellbent in making Pakistan the most intolerant and backward country on the face of this earth.

While Jinnah spoke of liberty, Jesus spoke of love. Jesus, in principle, should be revered and celebrated by Muslims since the Qur’an explicitly declares him to be a prophet of Allah.

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Jesus and Mary in old Persian miniature. Source: Wikipedia

In Islam, Jesus is portrayed as carrying over the same message of Allah as prophets before him and guide people to the straight path. The Qur’an is, however, replete with verses speaking about the various miracles Jesus was able to perform such as bringing food from heaven, creating birds from clay, healing the blind and the lepers and brining dead people from life. All these miracles were performed by the permission and will of Allah and Jesus is not portrayed to be divine in Islam.

Even though Islam extols the status of Jesus, it is really unfortunate that Christians in Pakistan are a persecuted minority. Somebody made a tongue-in-cheek tweet of Jinnah:

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One of the most well known parts of Jinnah’s first Presidential Address to the Constituent Assembly of Pakistan on August 11, 1947 is as follows:

Now I think we should keep that in front of us as our ideal, and you will find that in course of time Hindus would cease to be Hindus, and Muslims would cease to be Muslims, not in the religious sense, because that is the personal faith of each individual, but in the political sense as citizens of the State.

Pakistani Muslims have gone off on a tangent from this ideal of religious freedom and tolerance. This year alone, as I had blogged about previously, more than 70 people were killed and hundreds were injured during Easter celebration in Pakistan. Pakistani Muslims are not concerned about teachings of Jesus or the vision of Jinnah. I hope people learn from the lives of Jinnah and Jesus and help in creating an inclusive and tolerant society. Until then, there seems no end to this madness.

Experiencing Life

One of the books that has had a profound influence on me and continues to inspire me to live my life is a novel by Hermann Hesse called Siddhartha. The novel primarily “deals with the spiritual journey of self-discovery of a man named Siddhartha during the time of the Gautama Buddha.”

siddhartha

Even though it’s a work of fiction, I found the ideas discussed in the novel to be directly applicable to one’s life. Before I read Siddhartha, I was living under the influence of existentialism. It may sound rather cocky but I had independently formulated some of the core ideas of existentialism even before knowing what the term meant or being aware of writers such as Sartre and Camus. In particular, my views were somewhat similar to absurdism, that our life and the world is inherently meaningless save for the meaning we chose to give. I felt giving any meaning to the world and life was pointless. I spent sometime thinking of some intellectual argument to counter this belief but was having a hard time. This belief ultimately impacted my behavior and attitude. I was drawn into a strange isolation and had little to no desire to do anything in and of my life.

Siddhartha changed all of that. Reading Siddhartha did not have an immediate impact. As time progressed, my experiences grew. Reflecting on Siddhartha eventually allowed for a serious transformation to come about. I apologize for the spoiler, so please don’t read further if you wish to read Siddhartha.

Towards the end of the book, Siddhartha encounters his childhood friend, Govinda, who too like Siddhartha was seeking enlightenment. After a long discussion, Siddhartha asks Govinda to kiss his forehead. As Govinda does it reluctantly, he is overcome by a powerful vision in which he sees a thousand different things.

The vision experienced by Govinda made me think about life itself. I had this sudden realization that the meaning of life can only be understood as a unity of experiences. I realized a fundamental problem with the version of absurdist position I had in my mind. Basically, any discussion about the meaning of life will be based on a limited set of experiences. Given our experiences are limited but constantly increasing, the definite conclusion that life has no inherent meaning does not sound completely accurate. As our experience grow and as we are able to organically integrate our experiences, our understanding of the meaning of life will, in all probability, evolve. Therefore, the apparent absurdity of the world and our life is only a function of our limited knowledge and experience. It’s still fairly possible that life may have no meaning at all. However, if life has a definite, objective meaning, it can only be uncovered by striving to increase our repertoire of life-affirming experiences and trying to holistically unite them.

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The Myth of Sisyphus

Siddhartha’s life was like that. He experienced different aspects of life. From being a student to being an ascetic; a lover, a father, a businessman who ended up being a hedonist only to become a sage at a later stage. It was only through experiencing life in all its richness was he able to reach his own sense of enlightenment.

I felt that one can potentially choose any path in life, in any order, to achieve enlightenment. The word enlightenment for me, basically, translates as finding the meaning of life. The meaning of life may change from person to person but this Siddharthic approach offered a real possibility to my mind of finding a meaning that might well be universal. That is, seeing life as one and continuous; as an integrated whole that is constantly growing and evolving.

However, more importantly, reflecting on Siddhartha helped me get out of the existentialist rut I was stuck in. It gave my live a whole new perspective and provided impetus to take action.

Now that I am 30 years old, married man with a child, I often reflect back on my University life. Hanging out with female friends on Valentine’s Day, playing cards in our spare time, having alcoholic drinks with my friend on his rooftop or just basking in the mild winter sun in my hometown are all unique experiences of life. In isolation, they may not represent anything significant about human life. But in moments of deep introspection, they coalesce together to form an organic unity of sorts and offer a glimpse of the ineffable we yearn for. It’s like a Govinda-experience.

But it’s also like being hit by a wave of nostalgia; a variation on the Proustian ‘episode of the madeleine’ that not only makes us vividly relive the memory but, in a Deleuzian sense, teaches us to use ‘signs’ to communicate and understand reality.

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Tea dunking that elicited involuntary memories in Marcel Proust

This is the philosophical aspect of trying to experience life in all its possible richness. The spiritual aspect is to achieve some level of sensibility and satisfaction in an otherwise tumultuous and transitory life. 

Of course, fundamentalist Muslims will clamp down on any experience that even slightly deviates from the puritanical interpretation of Islam. I strongly disagree with Islam on that front and have blogged about it in numerous posts such as ‘Be drunk’ and ‘Allergic to Halal’.

Reflecting on my experiences, beliefs and values along with the state of affairs in Pakistan, I think it’s not a safe place for a free-thinking, free-spirit such as myself. Time and again, I hear news of people being killed, who questioned (Sabeen) or challenged (QB) the prevalent norms. Much as I wish for the situation to improve, I don’t see it happening. According to the 2016 Annual Report of United States Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF), “more people are on a death row or serving life sentences for blasphemy in Pakistan than in any other country in the world.”

Furthermore, USCIRF finds that Pakistan meets the IRFA’s (International Religious Freedom Act of 1998) standard for “countries of particular concern” (CPC).

I pray to myself that the God within all of us sees this madness and tries to put an end to it. Amen!