Feisal Naqvi

Archive for September, 2011|Monthly archive page

If all you have is a hammer, every problem looks like a nail

In Uncategorized on September 20, 2011 at 4:02 am

About a week ago, a bus carrying children back from school wasattacked near Mattani, a town on the outskirts of Peshawar. Five children died and another 18 were injured. One of the children killed was a seven-year-old boy. The other four casualties seem to have been somewhat older, but I have not managed to find any reports of their ages.

Later that day, the Tehreek-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) released a statement in which they defended the attack. The children deserved to die, said the militants, because they belonged to a clan (of the same tribe!) supportive of the Pakistan government. And then they cited reams of Islamic jurisprudence in their favour.

This atrocity is not fresh news. Indeed, it has already been much condemned.

But despite all that, I think it is worth taking a few minutes to ponder this particular crime.

I am the father of two children and, like most parents, I would rather suffer any amount of agony than cause pain to my children. In fact, just the possibility of any hurt befalling my children is such a frightening and fearful thought that it was, and remains, something that scares the hell out of me.

I claim no special privileges for myself in this regard; quite the opposite. The birth of my children introduced me to the club of worried parents which is, self-evidently, a pretty large club. Instead, the point is that I cannot imagine a parent who would not feel the same just like I cannot imagine a parent incapable of empathising with the suffering of another parent. It is for this simple reason that the suffering of a child is a tragedy recognised by all cultures and all peoples just as all cultures and all peoples recoil in shock from the thought of deliberately causing pain to an innocent child.

Historians may wish to differ at this point. After all, isn’t the murder of innocents a regular feature of history, starting with Herod and which continues to our times? In the 20th century alone, one can point to the Holocaust, the Rape of Nanking and the horrors of Partition as instances when children have been deliberately killed.

I concede these historical facts but I think they only reaffirm the horror of what happened in Mattani. To begin with, the mere fact that the slaughter of innocent children is a regular event in history only shows that people have always considered the death of innocents to be an event worth remembering. We remember Herod’s Massacre of the Innocents not just because Moses escaped Pharaoh’s wrath but also because we recognise the event itself as one that rightly deserves to live in infamy.

I also have a different point to make. It is a tragedy of colossal proportions that five children died (and then one in the suicide attack in Karachi on Monday morning). But it is a tragedy of even greater proportions that there are citizens of Pakistan, fellow Muslims, who think it is possible to justify such an act. Because, while this act is a travesty of our religion, the attempt to justify it is a sign that something has gone very terribly wrong even in our understanding of Islam.

Noah Millman, an American blogger, made the point recently that the intellectual winners of 9/11 were “The people who could imbue it with meaning”. As he explains, “To do that required a plausible explanation and the confidence to advance it. Nobody would have that confidence without the explanation being pre-packaged, ready to be deployed in any available circumstances.”

In other words, when tragedy struck the US, people wanted answers and the ones who had pre-packaged solutions at hand, became instant heroes, even though those solutions were not very good. Exactly the same phenomenon explains the intellectual bankruptcy of Islamic legalism.

The roots of Muslim rage have been much discussed and analysed. For our purposes, what is important is not why the rage exists but the fact that it does. What is also important is that the modern state has failed many of those burning with anger which leaves them questioning the whole project of modernity. This epistemic vacuum then gets filled with preachers of hate because they have a pre-packaged solution that they can confidently advance irrespective of any and all facts that may inconveniently exist. As the saying goes, if all you have is a hammer, every problem looks like a nail.

So far, so good. But the real question is this: how did we get to a situation where scholars of Islam can argue, with apparent sincerity, that the killing of children is justifiable? The short answer is that Islamic law and reality parted ways a long time ago so that as good Muslims, we are now expected to make our reality conform to our laws rather than the other way around. In my view, this is our fundamental flaw.

There is a saying in the New Testament that law was made to serve man, not man to serve the law. I refuse to believe that my religion says anything different. On the other hand, what the TTP wants to do with Islam is not just make a fetish out of its rules but to treat them as a directive to recreate 7th century Arabia as visualised by 18th century Wahhabis. This is because the jihadis have stopped asking themselves the point of the laws they purport to serve and moved on to blindly worshipping those laws, instead of the God who gave those laws to them.

If we are to fight back successfully, one of the first things we must do is reclaim the right not just to re-examine all laws but also to interpret them. One does not need to be an expert to maintain that a just God would never command the killing of innocents. In fact, it probably helps not to be one.

I believe that each one of us is an interpreter of God’s words and that it is time we exercised that right. If we don’t, we will be stuck with the interpretations of people who have abandoned their humanity. And so will our children.

Published in The Express Tribune, September 20th,  2011.

Dancing for joy? Haw hai!

In Uncategorized on September 6, 2011 at 2:40 am

The Lal Topi brigade has released a video showing delegates of the South Asian Free Media Association (Safma) dancing together. Not just dancing, but mixed dancing — men and women, Pakistanis and Indians, all dancing together. Haw hai! Not surprisingly, the soundtrack to the video seems to have been stolen from the more melancholy portions of Pakeezah!

From the comments appended to the video on YouTube, it seems as if many people agree that public dancing is a sign that Pakistan has gone to the dogs and that Safma is evidently part of a giant conspiracy against our beloved country. My question today is this: what is the connection between dancing and anti-state behaviour?

Some years ago, Pakistan won the T20 World Cup. That night, my family and I did the Lahori thing, which is to say we celebrated by driving around with our horns blaring. What I remember from that night though is that at different points along the impromptu parade route, young boys had simply parked their cars and were dancing with joy in the spotlighted stage created by the headlights of their vehicles. So it is an undeniable fact that we dance for joy. More specifically, it is an undeniable fact that young, Muslim, patriotic Pakistani males dance for joy. Why then are we so uptight about dancing?

Let us begin with the simple fact that we Pakistanis are not alone in our predilection for dancing when happy. Everybody dances the world over. Let me repeat that: every single culture dances for joy. Even the Saudis have their own national dance called the al ardha(or sword dance). More importantly, everybody has always danced for joy. Archeologists have found evidence of dance in the 9,000-year-old rock shelter paintings in Bhimbetka; one of the most famous artifacts of the Indus Valley culture is a 5,000 year old bronze statuette of a dancing girl; and pictures of dancers are ubiquitous from the ancient Egyptians onwards. So why are so many of us now convinced that dancing is evil?

The answer to this question is that we are continuously told by so-called religious scholars that Islam forbids dancing, especially ‘mixed’ dancing. Because mixed dancing can lead to ‘like like’, and ‘like like’ can lead to… well, you get the point.

Since I have no pretensions of being a religious scholar, I will leave the heavy theological lifting to others. Let me, however, make a few simple points. Religion is not culture. Yes, the two do get mixed up, but the argument that there is only one proper way of following a religion is self-evidently false. Muslims live the world over. While they have much in common, there is also much that they do not share. The lives of Indonesian Muslims are radically different from subcontinental Muslims, which are in turn different from the lives of Middle Eastern Muslims, which are different from the lives of West African Muslims, which are again different from the lives of the vast majority of Muslims living in North Africa. When we insist that all Muslims conform to one particular cultural model, what we are saying instead is that everybody who doesn’t order his life according to the cultural practices of Saudi Arabia is not a good Muslim. And that is an approach doomed to failure.

Secondly, there is only so much that laws can accomplish in the face of basic human desires. According to philosopher John Finnis, appreciation of beauty is one of the seven intrinsically valuable basic goods in life. In other words, just as we seek knowledge for its own sake, we seek beauty for its sake. These are things which are ‘self-evidently good’ and no amount of social conditioning is ever truly going to eradicate that primeval desire to get up and boogie.

Thirdly, it is particularly asinine, in the specific case of Pakistan, to try and insist upon a peculiarly narrow vision of Islam which forbids all mixing between the sexes and which treats dancing as forbidden. It is not in dispute that Pakistan is a society at war, facing an existential struggle in which the bad guys are people who have a particularly narrow and violent vision of Islam. Yet, at the same time, we are a society whose leaders lack the courage to tell our enemies that we are indeed different from them. Imagine an England in which Churchill kept on reassuring Hitler that Nazism was a truly wonderful philosophy but would he please just focus his anger on other countries instead. How long do you think English resistance would have lasted then?

The point is that nations under attack need to defend themselves ideologically as well as militarily. In our case, we are certainly making efforts on the military front but we are completely supine on the ideological front. More importantly, the position we’ve taken is one in which we are outflanked by the Taliban. As somebody already noted, our jawans are being sent off to fight and to shout Allahu Akbar against people who have been trained to shout Allahu Akbara lot louder. No wonder then we’re confused.

Our current situation is that we have disowned most of our heritage, choosing instead to reaffirm only those bits that we share with the people trying to kill us. The obvious solution then is to reaffirm our entire heritage, even the bits that we share with the infidels across the border. I’m not just talking about bhangra sessions: I’m talking about qawwalisraags and naats; Waris Shah recitals and khattakdances and all of the things that the millions in this country do to make themselves happy.

Let me put this more simply. One of the cardinal sins of military strategy is to get stuck in a two-front war. Currently, Pakistan is stuck in exactly such a war. One front is the war against the Taliban and their sympathisers. The other front is the war by the state against every iota of our heritage which is not Wahabi sanctioned. We need to choose which front is more important. Or else, the Taliban will make that choice for us.

Published in The Express Tribune, September 6th,  2011.