Sunday, 11 December 2011

The future is fundamentalist?

These past couple of days have been a jolting experience that has left me feeling somewhat disillusioned and pessimistic …

An internet newspaper in Pakistan that I read occasionally published an article in which the author called for reconciliation between the Sunni and Shia sects within Islam and a re-examination by Shia of some of their practices – not beliefs, mind you, just practices.  As the author pointed out, in all other cultures and religions, the start of a new year is celebrated with joy, but in Islam the Shia’s commemoration of the battle at Kerbala (in which the Prophet’s grandson was killed) involves not just mournful gatherings recounting the events of the episode, but elaborate and unsightly processions with a very public and bloody display of self-flagellation.  On occasion, these gatherings are also known to hurl insults at figures the Sunnis revere.  The author suggested that perhaps it was time to adopt more dignified forms of remembrance and to build bridges. 
I do not want to dwell on these rituals - which, by the way, are not stipulated by the religion, but added, by definition, since the battle took place several decades after the said Prophet’s demise.  What does concern me is the reaction that the article prompted.  (In case any one thinks I have an axe to grind, a quick browse through my blog will tell you what I think of religion and the Abrahamic religions in particular.)
Bear in mind that the article was written in English by an American university professor of Pakistani descent; and that it was published in a newspaper affiliated with the International Herald Tribune.  It was not a sermon bellowed by a mullah to a horde of supine congregants at a religious gathering.  I mention these facts so that one gets a measure of the potential audience – supposedly literate, educated, English-speaking and economically able to afford a newspaper or a computer, electricity and access to the internet!  Given the state of literacy, poverty and infrastructure in Pakistan (and the Muslim world in general), this does not amount to a large number.
The web-based edition of the newspaper allows for comment and had scarcely received sixteen over several hours when the storm clouds began rumbling on Twitter.  There were expressions of outrage, dubbing the article as a hate speech and accusing it of inciting hatred.  Remember, the man was talking about reconciliation!  Others were scornful of the author and of the newspaper for publishing the article.  There were calls for a boycott of the newspaper, an immediate apology from the author and editor and demands that the article be removed from the website post-haste (I think someone actually did use these very terms!). 
It seemed that those protesting were predominantly Shia, but I can’t be sure.  (Traditionally, names are a good indication.)  However, looking at the profiles of those protesting, I was astonished that they included university professors in America teaching science based subjects; journalists in Pakistan and elsewhere, who write for well-known national and international English newspapers; and so-called human rights activists – all people who should be used to and indeed encourage inquiry and debate.  Moreover, normally they like to portray themselves as secular, erudite and cultured, tweeting couplets by Ghalib and Sufi poets like Hafiz and Rumi (as light relief or to display their cultural credentials, who knows now).  Several are even followers of Taslima Nasreen and Salman Rushdie, both, of course, accused by Muslim fundamentalists of blasphemy and for offending Islam.  (Perhaps following them is another badge to display?)
However, the feverish twittering of these ‘offended’, supposedly educated people reminded me more of bearded mullahs and imams barking and stirring up illiterate mobs into frenzy over some alleged slight.  Admittedly, there was no flag or effigy burning, but there might just as well have been.  There was the same sloganeering, the same calls for boycotts and the same expressions of being outraged.  For me, it seemed a visceral primitive reaction had torn through the usual veneer of urbanity, to expose a less attractive underbelly which was no different from that seen in fist waving crowds, fulminating and frothing at the mouth like rabid dogs. 
But there was another side too: that of a group mindset that thought that only it had the right to decide what could and would be discussed – and by whom.  The so-called sophisticated and educated had shown their true mentality, and it was of the school playground: bullying, tribal and fascist, something one would, in fact, normally associate with the religious extremists and fundamentalists.
I went to sleep troubled with the following random thoughts racing through my mind:
mafia, bullying, mob, ayatullahs, Lord of the Flies, hypocrisy, a Sikh play in Birmingham that had come under fire a few years ago with calls for it to be banned for causing offence, the stirring up and mobilising of anger by mullahs during the Danish cartoon episode, Egypt and the Muslim Brotherhood, Salafis, Taliban, fundamentalism, Catholic church, secularism and public space, enlightenment, female genital mutilation, Sati, caste system, Mary Whitehouse and the Pink Paper, Life of Brian ….
The next day I was shocked to find that the newspaper had given in to pressure and taken the article off its website.  Later, an editor’s apology went up.  So much for its liberal credentials!  This morning I woke to find an apology that the author had, no doubt, been forced to issue and to learn that he had received death threats and been offered police protection.  On checking the time lines of those who had been so vocal in their protest, I was disgusted to find that some had calmly moved on to talk about other topics, others dismissed the author’s apology as mealy-mouthed and dishonest, and still others regarded the outcome as a job well done.
As I said, I am less concerned with the issue of Shia beliefs and more with issues of free speech, inquiry and debate and ultimately of intellectual honesty – and the old chestnuts of ‘causing offence’ and ‘inciting hate’ routinely brought up to stifle such debate. 
What do these professors teach their students?  How do they teach them if they can’t tolerate any dissent, any questioning?  Indeed, they should first be setting an example by responding in a mature, civilised manner; and second, encouraging just such debate and discussion.  If people like journalists, human rights activists and university professors can’t stomach and encourage a little debate and get offended by a mere article, how do they expect those practicing honour killings or female genital mutilation to consider their ways?  After all, many cultures believe these are required by their god and which to question would be blasphemous and deeply offensive.  Or do they think talking about and criticising such issues too should remain unmentioned because it too might cause offence and be an incitement to hatred?  And what of the notorious blasphemy laws in Pakistan that are supported by just such people who get prickly about any perceived insult to what they regard as sacred?  Do they think the mullahs and imams were right to call for the banning and withdrawing of Salman Rushdie’s Satanic Verses because it was insensitive and “caused offence”?  Do they think the Danish cartoon protests were justified, again because it “caused offence”?  Do they think the authorities should have capitulated to protests and stopped a play exposing and exploring exploitation within Sikh culture because it “caused offence”? 
How do we progress, how do we improve if we are to refuse to examine our beliefs, lay them open to see how well they stand up to scrutiny?  If they do, so much the better, but what is the harm and why get so defensive, even hysterical?   And if so-called educated people show themselves to be so thin skinned and react with emotion rather than reason, what hope is there of tackling the ingrained attitudes, beliefs and prejudices of the illiterate masses?  Given the rise of fundamentalism in the Muslim world, how are we to bring about reform if even the educated are not prepared to examine their beliefs?  (In any case, my confidence in their education is now severely dented and I will never be able to read another missive from them without adding the proverbial pinch of salt.)
And so, I fear that the future in Pakistan will be with superstition and ultimately with the extremists and fundamentalists.  The educated can only pretend, for they have lost credibility and have shown themselves to be just what the fundamentalists accuse them of being – intellectually dishonest, hypocrites and cowards.   The extremist uses death as his weapon and is prepared to die for his belief.  Thankfully, education, the Enlightenment and liberalism teach another, better way and one that does not require violence.  Instead, the educated use reason and courage to examine their own beliefs and then have the integrity to change if necessary and so progress.

Unfortunately, the events of the past few days have shown that this appears to be lacking amongst some of the more vocal educated of that country; and that is why I think the extremists and fundamentalists will win: they are prepared to practice what they preach (however mad) and die if necessary.  Meanwhile, the educated suffer from cognitive dissonance.  They are happy to tell others what to do but unwilling to apply those same principles to themselves; ready to judge others beliefs, but unwilling to have the spotlight turned on their own beliefs; happy to pretend to subscribe to a liberal and rational way of thinking, while holding on to a mindset more common to fundamentalists.  And it is this moral and intellectual dishonesty that will be their undoing, for all their pretensions to culture, poetry and talk of human rights.
More worryingly, the educated, like the fundamentalists, have shown themselves to possess fascist tendencies, making themselves the sole arbiters of what can and can’t be questioned and discussed, how and by whom.  The extremist appeals to god and revelation.  The educated, for all their intellectual posturing, have shown that they too are chained to similar shibboleths - as well as pretension.  That being the case, I’m afraid my money is on the fundamentalists.  They at least have guts and integrity, whereas the educated have neither.  As the saying goes, I wouldn’t piss on them if they were on fire!

PS.  Just as I was finishing this piece, I received the following tweet:

I am truly concerned for our youth...they seem to have no tolerance for difference of opinion …


(My response was that it was not just the youth that I was concerned about.)

And as I post this, I have just received this from Richard Dawkins:

Journal axes gene research on Jews and Palestinians

Apparently, people complained.  Were they too offended by the results?  Is there any hope for the future?

Note: I have not mentioned the newspaper or the author in question because I do not want to risk endangering the poor man, but believe me, this all did actually happen!  And yes, these people are teaching and working in universities in the west.  Oh dear!


  1. so self righteous...and it's hip anyways to call everyone a fundo ...don't listen, don't respect...just keep your own views much for your tolerance madam?/sir?

    btw did Saleem get threats and police custody in US sounds like an exaggeration!!

  2. I would just like to point out that not all 'liberal, educated' people thought the article was 'hate speech' or called for it to be taken off the website. It was just a few hysterical people on twitter that drowned everyone else out, as is usually the case. Also, the fact that Shias are persecuted in Pakistan probably contributes to people getting over sensitive to this article. While that may not be a good enough reason to censor it (and I certainly don't think it is!), that context must be taken into account in any discussion of this issue.

  3. You evaded the central issue quite conveniently. Saleem Ali did not question beliefs or practices. He accused Shia of "being high" on "God knows what". Which means that he was accusing shias of substance abuse. When someone's slander plummets to such depths of illogic and bias, you can assume with 100% confidence that the motivation behind the "message" is not reconciliation, but hate.

    You did not quote this particular line from Saleem Ali's article, nor did you address it. If you were to conduct an honest appraisal of what he wrote and the reaction to it, you would find that there is no defense possible - whatsoever - for such slander.

  4. I am a Pakistani girl. I moved to Germany for doing my PhD in 2005. I lived in that country for four years and it changed me forever. After reading this article of yours I have a feeling that you do not really understand or get the sensitivity attached to the issue in concern that’s why I must tell you in a scenario that is more familiar to you. You might know that there are plenty of people in Pakistan who are openly anti-Semitic and denial of Holocaust is so common that it is unimaginable for a Western person. When I moved to Germany I had no idea of the cultural norms regarding this issue. I lived there I visited several places like Dachau and I was shocked. Then I came to know how important it is to stop Holocaust Denial. You will be surprised to know that in Pakistan when people have to prove that West is also not as liberated in terms of freedom of speech they give the example of laws against Holocaust denial. Without even understanding the effects of this denial they keep on saying that see how hypocrite Western world is. They don’t get it that humanity cannot afford such a cruel event again. So if someone does not know the effect of this event and the reasons for the authoritative measures taken against the Holocaust denial they simply cannot get it. Same is true for saying something against Shia rituals or the battle of Karbala in our society. There is a lot cultural sensitivity associated with this issue. You have to be there to get it. And I am sure this guy you are referring to if he is by descent Pakistani or Muslim he must be aware of that issue. And as Rehan said “the fact that Shias are persecuted in Pakistan probably contributes to people getting over sensitive to this article”. My relatives and friends died in one of these Moharram processions two years ago in Karachi. Off course I am sensitive about this issue. What is wrong with somebody mourning if he is not hurting someone else? Does he deserve to die? Pushing someone to wall only makes him more rigid. And by the way normally Pakistanis are so much against valentine’s day, mother’s day, father’s day etc. They always say that these are not our festivities these events belong to West and even some claim these events to be unislamic. So why is there is an out of the blue need to celebrate New Year which is also not our cultural festivity. Trust me this friend of yours wanted this to happen. Because if he is from Pakistan he knew it. It was just an attention-seeking attempt. As some people want their books to be banned so that the sell more. I am really sorry if I said something rude but as I said I am sensitive about this issue.
    Nousheen Zaidi
    Twitter @nzzaidi

  5. Dear all who commented

    First, thank you for taking the time to leave a comment. I appreciate it. Your comments filled me with hope because regardless of whether you agreed with me or not, all of you remained polite and most of you stated your views coherently, some more forcefully than others, but you proved that it can be done and that you are willing to do it. Another important point was that those who objected explained their point of view, so that I (and others) could understand why you would object to the article. But this is rather different from going hysterical and demanding that it be taken down and that the issue should never be discussed. No one is the wiser then.

    Forgive me if I sound like a teacher, but – I AM a teacher! And it is precisely these attributes I try to cultivate in my students. We need to encourage this in Pakistan (and more generally) if we are ever to progress and not spend all our time and energy bullying and killing each other, whether in the cyber sphere, the playground or in the streets.

    I am a little busy this morning (giving certificates to my students, as it happens), but I promise I will reply individually to your comments.

    Thanks again.

  6. Anonymous 1: I didn’t quite understand your comment, but I think it is those who wanted the article banned who were the ones who were not prepared to listen to a contrary opinion. They could have voiced or sent in their objections to the paper – just like you did. I understand that the paper did give the option, but some were determined to have the original article removed.

    Anonymous 2: you have raised specific issues regarding the content of the article, but as I said in my post, it is the reaction that I am most concerned with here. However, the fact that you have stated your objections reasonably and coherently proves that it can be done and that it should have been allowed to be done, rather than the hysterical reaction of some. My complaint is against these few, more so because they were educated and in professions that require a more reasoned approach to issues.

    The examples you raise strike me as mockery not hate. Hate is a very strong word that raises strong emotions. I think it is used far too readily these days and only serves to blow things out of proportion or as an excuse to avoid talking about something.

    Blue Wit: I assume you were agreeing with me (or was it Rehan?!), but either way thank you. 

    Rehan and Anonymous 3/Nousheen

    Your comments raise several issues that, I think, would be good material for a separate post – and perhaps I may be tempted to do just that. However there is a general aspect to your comments and that is whether one should ever comment.

    Of course, people will have their own views on this, but my response would be yes. I am not in favour of bans. I would much rather people spoke openly, instead of being politically correct or stifled from discussing issues. It doesn’t stop people thinking the thoughts, but it does drive them underground where they do far more damage. Nothing mentioned in the article was new – I grew up in Pakistan and heard the same stories several decades ago. The only difference is that it was done in whispers and behind closed doors. As for the analogy with the Holocaust Denial laws in Germany (and in other European countries, too) that, I think, is a special case as the atrocity occurred there. I don’t think the situation is comparable and besides no one is denying that a battle took place at Kerbala.

    Another issue is that of causing offence. Offence is an emotion and subjective. Appealing to being offended, I think, is a convenient way of postponing debating issues. The article may have talked about practices in perhaps a less serious tone than some would have liked, but it did not at any point advocate violence, so no one was in physical danger.

    Finally, and this follows from my previous point and something I mentioned in the post. The target audience was an educated, English speaking minority and not the man or woman on the street, so to speak. What I find depressing is that it was some within this educated group who sought to stir up matters, rather than set an example and debate the issue rationally and calmly.

    Anyway, thank you all once again for commenting.