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Lunar Legitimacy

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Having grown up in Peshawar, and in an extended family that comprises of both Barelvis and Deobandis, I can hardly remember a time when the whole family celebrated Eid ul Fitar on the same day. Considering the festival deficient nature of our national calendar, the annual spoiling of Choti Eid is not a small loss, especially when a Government body exists for the sole purpose of ensuring a united Eid. This problem has persisted for quite some time now, and its solution is stalled by completely wrong perceptions about its true nature.

A common mistake is to term this separate Eid as an expression of Pashtun nationalism that is limited to a few towns and cities. The fact of the matter is that Chief Minister Ameer Haider Hoti (ANP)’s decision to celebrate a separate Eid in 2009 was no different than that of Aftab Sherpao of PPP during his tenure back in the 90s, Akram Durrani of the MMA also took a similar decision during his time. It is very evident that the support for a separate Eid has come from all sorts of political quarters in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KPK), and not just nationalist ones.

Another mistake is to explain this separate Eid in light of the racist stereotyping of Pashtuns. It is almost a cliché to come across racist text messages as well as politically incorrect newspaper cartoons that cite “Pashtun stupidity” as the main reason. While the stupidity of the Pashtun gene remains to be proven scientifically, it is definitely moronic to actually believe that a race can be “stupid”.

It is true that the Eid disagreement manifests itself in ethnic terms, but its real source lies in the sectarian rivalries between Deobandis and Barelvis. These rivalries are annually reignited after the apparent discrimination faced by Deobandi witnesses in the Ruet I Hilal committee. At times the Committee adjourns very early for these witnesses to present themselves and sometimes the witnesses are rejected supposedly unfairly. The Deobandi complaints are mostly centered on the negative role played by the Chairman of the Committee; Mufti Muneeb ur Rehman, who happens to be a Barelvi.

The resulting Deobandi defiance is then announced through loudspeakers across KPK and it is here that the issue takes on an ethnic tone. These Eid/Ramzan announcements that are usually made pretty late during the night give details on how Pashtu speaking witnesses were rejected by a committee that is dominated by non Pashtuns. Thus, the announcement becomes a rallying cry, and the separation from the rest of the country becomes a show of defiance against the discrimination doled out by a Federal Committee. That being said, it is important to highlight the fact that many devout Barelvis and Shias in Peshawar follow the Ruet I Hillal Committee, and similarly some mosques in Lahore are reported to follow Masjid Qasim Ali Khan.

An ideal Eid/Ramzan announcement should have two attributes: First, its astronomical legitimacy and second, its legitimacy among its intended audience. The Pakistan Meteorological Department (MET) has enough capacity to ensure the astronomical legitimacy of an announcement, but as this is a matter of faith the verdict of scientists is bound to have a lower weightage than that of the clergy. It is this particular fact that legitimizes the existence of the Ruet I Hilal committee, as it should ensure a consensus among the masses on this issue.

But year after year, the Committee’s decision has been rejected by a sizeable number of Pakistanis. It is very amusing to hear Mufti Muneeb explain the legitimacy of the Committee’s decision by citing the MET department, goes without saying that if astronomical validity is the only thing that matters, then what exactly is the need for a Ruet I Hillal committee? Equally bewildering is the Chairman’s proposal to “enforce” an Eid, here again, the need for a Ruet I Hillal Committee stands annulled, as the enforcement can also be done for announcements emanating from the MET department. The good Mufti needs to realize that instead of blaming dissenters, the need is to contemplate on why the Ruet I Hillal committee has failed in building a consensus?

The structure of the Ruet I Hillal Committee allows for the needed consensus building as it has representation of all the sects. But, the main reason put forward by its dissenters is the apparent arrogance of Mufti Muneeb. These allegations were corroborated by the Mufti’s behavior on talk shows this year, as he flared up and stormed out of most of them when he was confronted on this issue.

But even if one disagrees with the allegations against Mufti Muneeb, it is important to consider the fact that this is his 10th year of Chairmanship. It is obvious that if one of the sects gets 10 continuous years of leadership, then technically the committee ceases to represent all the other sects. In this scenario the legitimacy of the Ruet I Hilal committee can be bolstered substantially, if the Chairmanship is rotated between the various sects on an annual basis.

Choti or Meethi Eid is one of those very few occasions that is not exclusive to any particular sect. Considering the fact that we have lost thousands of lives to the menace of sectarianism, this day needs to be leveraged to build bridges. But as things stand, it is instead magnifying sectarian differences into ethnic ones. In this situation, raising the credibility of the Ruet I Hillal Committee is crucial in halting the deepening of these fissures, if that raised credibility comes at the price of a few hurt egos then that is a price worth paying, as the reward is in terms of much needed national cohesion.

A slightly edited version appeared in The News on the 5th of September 2011.


Written by Imran Khan

September 5, 2011 at 5:10 am

Our Muted Moderates

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The recent Tahafuz a Namoos I Risalat rally in Lahore boasted a gathering of around 40,000. The participation was all male, mostly bearded and wore a variety of sect specific head gears. Apart from anger over the Blasphemy issue, the speakers also seemed disgusted with the onslaught of western influences.

Although this outpouring was impressive in its numeric strength, by and large it was from the more conservative segment of our society. Mainstream Pakistan, let’s call it moderate Pakistan, has some traits in terms of its appearance and norms that makes it different from conservative Pakistan. Our moderates usually have no qualms about listening to music, and have favorites from Hollywood as well as Bollywood. Men don’t grow beards and women are not that keen on donning a scarf, burqas are usually unheard off among this lot. There is a higher acceptability of women education and an increasing number is opening up to the idea of women employment.

Recently, a good friend who considers herself a moderate explained that in the post Taseer scenario, our country has been split into two extremes; the liberal as well as the conservative. The moderates according to her were part of neither. After putting me into the liberal extremist category, she went on to agree with me that the murder of Salman Taseer was an unjust act.

To me that sounded a bit confusing, if we both agree that Qadri was wrong in doing what he did, then how come I am a liberal extremist and she is a moderate? What did I do differently from her that equalized my stance with the outright fascism of our conservatives? She responded that, in this situation, liberal extremists were those who were making the conservatives angry by picking up issues that are dear to the conservatives. Salman Taseer apparently could have avoided his death, had he not taken up this very “sensitive” issue. But then subsequently, she agreed that the Blasphemy law has been misused to target minorities, the case of Asia Bibi being an example. Yet again I probed, if it was an injustice, then didn’t Salman Taseer do the right thing in speaking out against it?

While we went on and on, her point was very obvious, do not anger the religious right by speaking out against them. The sad thing is that, she is not alone in this; this is the exact attitude that is exhibited by our elected Government. It would be good to remind ourselves that this present Government came into power with a secular mandate; PPP, ANP and MQM are all parties that have secular agendas, and got into power because of the moderate sensibilities of the Pakistani people. But yet, the capitulation of these secular parties is evident, our senate could not even agree on doing a fateha for Salman Taseer. With Sherry Rehman bullied into a retreat and the unavailability of a prosecutor to charge Qadri, conservative Pakistan has scored a major victory, despite their routing in the last elections.

But the triumph of our religious right, which was achieved through murder and intimidation, has major consequences for the future of Pakistan. Those who think that the sacrifice of a few Christians or Ahmadis would be enough to appease the growing blood-lust of our conservative fascists are in for a surprise. The speeches made at the recent rally in Lahore, were not limited to the blasphemy law, “displeasure” was shown at suggestions for changes in Madrassa curriculums, or trying to bring to justice those responsible for suicide bombings and be-headings, or any attempts to control the spread of violence through mosques, and the list goes on. These are all issues on which there is a broader consensus for the need for reform. This forced compromise on the Blasphemy Laws is bound to be followed by forced compromises on other issues concerning the religious right.

My friend is educated and employed; she shops without any mahrums accompanying her, and doesn’t cover her face or her hair. The description of her lifestyle would fit that of a rising number of young Pakistani women, and they all owe their liberties to the current norms prevailing in our society. Consider for a moment that she is transported to the Kandahar of the Taliban, with the same fashion sense and the same liberties. In that case her mere existence would be a source of displeasure and ire, she will be a liberal extremist by merely existing.

By appeasing the demands of our religious right, Pakistan’s moderate majority is helping in pushing this society towards more conservative norms. Norms, that would eradicate the liberties and choices enjoyed by these very moderates. A continuation of this process will only make the silent moderates of today be the liberal extremists of tomorrow.

Appeared in Pakistan Today on the 8th of February, 2010

Written by Imran Khan

February 8, 2011 at 9:26 am

Selective Indignation

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The novel “Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde” gave birth to the phrase “Jekyll and Hyde”. The novel features a character named Dr. Henry Jekyll, who has two distinct personalities; one good and the other evil. The phrase “Jekyll and Hyde” usually refers to having extreme swings in moral character according to changing situations. The recent behavior of Pakistan’s Barelvi clergy exemplifies similar swings in moral character that are reminiscent of the mood swings of Dr. Henry Jekyll.

The Barelvi version of Islam is often branded by its rivals as heretical; going to shrines and excessive glorification of the Prophet is criticized by others such as Deobandis to be against the tenets of Islam. The differences are so pronounced that the Taliban specifically attack Barelvi mosques, shrines as well as clergy. The assassination of Mufti Sarfaraz Ahmad Naeemi for speaking out against suicide bombing, and the bombing of Daata Darbar and the shrine of Abdullah Shah Ghazi among many other shrines, are all examples of these atrocities.  In all of these attacks two points are notable. First is the desecration of these holy places that results in the desecration of the Holy Quran and the name of the Prophet. The second is the ownership of these attacks, which are claimed unabashedly by the Taliban, thus also owning the blasphemy committed during these attacks.

The reaction of Pakistan’s Barelvi clergy to these horrendous outrages has been a most civilized one. Back in 2009, Sunni Ittehad Council launched the “Save Pakistan Movement”, which aimed to raise awareness on Talibanization through peaceful means. There were no calls for storming the nearest Deobandi madrassa or the offices of pro Taliban political parties. There was no mustering of suicide bombers or initiation of terrorist training camps. It was a civilized outrage that was expressed under the submission that only the State has a monopoly on violence. It was this response and the attitude that came with it that made us Pakistanis announce our separation from the fanatic ideology espoused by the Taliban.

But then came Mumtaz Qadri and his decision to murder Governor Salman Taseer. The shock of the death of Mr. Taseer was magnified manifold with the shock of the Barelvi response to this attack. Gone was the Dr. Henry Jekyll who faced the Taliban, and out came Edward Hyde; there were celebration for the death of the Governor, the killer was praised as a Hero, and to top everything off the bereaving daughter of Salman Taseer was told to learn a lesson from the fate of her father. One would wish with all his heart that this outrage was shown by a fringe minority, but with the attestation of Tanzeem Ahl-e-Sunnat and Sunni Tehreek, there is no denying that this response is owned by the Barelvi clergy at large.

So is this response to a mere suggestion for changes in the blasphemy law consistent with the response to the desecration of shrines and mosques? The late Salman Taseer was bending over his back in trying to reiterate that he did not mean any disrespect to the Holy Prophet. On the contrary, the Taliban had no qualms in taking responsibility for the desecration of mosques as well as shrines.  So why is it that in the case of the Taliban, our Barelvi clergy was very eager to press the Government and the Military to do their job, and rightly so. But in the case of the Liberals, as represented by Salman Taseer, the same Barelvi clergy had no qualms about appreciating a complete violation of the law and are threatening to do more of the same in the future.

The difference could easily be explained by the consequences of side stepping the Government in each of these cases; in the case of the Taliban, physical reaction to their attacks could result in targeted suicide attacks, where as in the case of Salman Taseer, the reaction would come in terms of op-eds in English dailies. It seems that our Barelvi clergy decided to play tough on the softer option; if uncontrolled outrage was an essential consequence of blasphemies then the Taliban would also have been at the receiving end of such Barelvi outrages, which is clearly not the case.

The death of Salman Taseer was because of a mindset, a mindset that seems to be prevalent among Pakistanis. This mindset needs to be challenged through reason, for which both sides need to be provided an equal opportunity for expression of their views. For the conservatives in this country, there is no fear of a physical reprisal from the minority liberals, but on the other hand the liberals are threatened every day through the use of the pulpit as well as through political platforms.

These open threats exist because of the inability of the Government to exert its authority. If the liberal voices are stopped through forced bullying, then it would be a major loss to the discourse around this issue, a discourse that is essential in defining the future of the Pakistani identity.

Appeared in Pakistan Today on the 18th of January 2011

Written by Imran Khan

January 18, 2011 at 4:44 am

A “Righteous” Confusion

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What differentiates the smiling face of Mumtaz Qadri from that of an apprehended criminal is a lack of guilt. Mr. Qadri is beaming with pride because according to his religious beliefs he has not done anything wrong.  But this raises a question; how does the belief in a religion, whose name literally means “Peace” result in senseless and guiltless killings such as that of Governor Taseer? There are various explanations making the rounds; some blame this twisted sense of morality on the current American war against the Taliban, while others blame it on the previous American support of the Mujahideen.

But the profile of Mr. Qadri and his followers doesn’t exactly match that of the past beneficiaries and the recent affectees of US interventions in Afghanistan. To begin with, Mr. Qadri is a Barelvi, the sect of Islam that is portrayed by us Pakistanis as anti Taliban. We distance ourselves from the barbarity of suicide bombings and beheadings by quoting the fact that a majority of Pakistanis are Barelvis and thus not Taliban. Furthermore, Mr. Qadri also does not represent a fringe element among the Barelvis, as more than 500 Ulema of the Jamaate Ahle Sunnat Pakistan (JASP) celebrated his crime and warned of similar consequences for others daring to disagree with them. facebook pages dedicated to Mr. Qadri are teeming with fans that have no qualms about shaving their beards, listening to music or openly declaring their dating preferences. This killing and its subsequent celebrations can not be blamed on fringe elements, this bigotry is as Pakistani as it can get.

Pakistan’s religious right has embraced this act unabashedly and the justifications offered are quite bewildering; take for instance the statement of the Amir of Jamaat I Islami, Syed Munawar Hassan, who blames Salman Taseer for his own death. His explanation and that of many others is that, the emotions surrounding the issue of blasphemy are so intense, that it makes it very difficult for Muslims to control their anger, it is because of their “hurt feelings” that they are forced to take such actions.

But by using the same logic, Mufti Sarfaraz Ahmed Naeemi should also be held responsible for the suicide attack on him, because by speaking out against suicide bombings, Mufti Naeemi “hurt” the feelings of its proponents who consider suicide bombing as the ultimate sacrifice for their faith. The 40 dead in Daata Darbar, and the 8 dead at the shrine of Abdullah Shah Ghazi, should also be held responsible for their own deaths, because what they thought of as Islam, was actually an “insult” to the Islam professed by their “enraged” murderers. Also, if “hurt feelings” are a measure of the justification of an act, then the faceless suicide bombers of the Taliban seem to be much more hurt and thus more justified than Mr. Qadri, who despite being supposedly blinded by rage, found the time to pre-negotiate a safe exit.

As the self proclaimed guardians of Pakistan’s Islamic ethos, our religious right has always emphasized the importance of Islam as a complete code of life; a set of ideals, that ensures the abidance to Islamic laws. The murder of Salman Taseer is a gross violation of the very same ethos that our religious right claims to champion.

The irony is thick in these “righteous” celebrations, because by celebrating the death of Salman Taseer, these defenders of the Blasphemy Law are in fact celebrating the irrelevance of that very same law.

Appeared in the Express Tribune on the 12th of January 2011

Written by Imran Khan

January 12, 2011 at 6:56 pm

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