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#HangAyazNizami is what comes of caving in to clerical rule

This article can also be read at Asia Times

What do you suppose is the correct response to angry religious people seeking to avenge injury visited on them by words (and sometimes cartoons)?

The Christian faith has its injunction to non-violence: “Unto him that smiteth thee on the one cheek offer also the other; and him that taketh away thy cloke forbid not to take thy coat also.” Jesus’ advice is variously interpreted as a call for meek submission or provocative defiance – which means that, like a great deal of what is found in religious texts, it can be used to support any number of courses of action, or non-action. There’s also the old “eye for an eye” passage, of course.

For its part, the secular West has tended to react to violence occasioned by members of its Muslim minority populations with a distinctly accommodating passivity. No, we will not re-publish drawings that are deemed offensive, even if by doing so we enlighten our readers. Yes, we will tread very carefully in what we say with regard to Islam and its prophet. And yes, we will continue to agree that it is “the religion of peace.” The brandishing of cheeks seems an altogether reckless business.

Last week, Canada passed a motion to criminalize Islamophobia. Critics say it reframes blasphemy as hate speech and enshrines the kind of clerical oversight of public discourse that prevails in the 57 member states of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation – a pact that has long campaigned against the “defamation of religion” in non-Muslim countries. (Several of those states, incidentally, uphold a mandatory death sentence for blasphemers and apostates.)

What, though, if an erosion of the commitment to free speech in the West actually made life worse for Muslim, or erstwhile Muslim, critics of Islam? That’s certainly the view taken by the activist and commentator Maryam Namazie, who – as an Iranian-born secularist – belongs to a minority within a minority in her adopted UK. In her newsletter for the Council of Ex-Muslims of Britain this week, she wrote that: “The normalization of de jure or de facto blasphemy laws and accusations of Islamophobia when religion is criticized have created a climate where Islamic states feel free to persecute freethinkers with impunity … It’s crucial that we defend blasphemers and apostates unequivocally and ensure that freedom of conscience and expression are upheld for all – believers and nonbelievers alike.”

She was, in fact, referring to the case of Ayaz Nizami, a Pakistani scholar of Islam and blogger who happens to have renounced religion and is now suffering for it: on March 24 he was arrested and charged with blasphemy. In a country that is a signatory to all manner of bons mots about human rights and freedom of conscience, but where some 30,000 gathered last year to mourn the murderer of a governor who had called for the pardoning of a Christian woman sentenced to death for allegedly insulting the Prophet Muhammad, he also now faces the death penalty.

Nizami’s plight has, ironically enough, been brought to global attention partly on account of a trending Twitter hashtag (#HangAyazNizami) about him. Ironic why? Because the Pakistani government earlier in March requested that Twitter and Facebook assist it in identifying and weeding out those suspected of blasphemy online. Twitter’s rules, meanwhile, state that users “may not promote violence against or directly attack or threaten other people on the basis of race, ethnicity, national origin, sexual orientation, gender, gender identity, religious affiliation, age, disability, or disease. We also do not allow accounts whose primary purpose is inciting harm toward others …” Accounts have, in the past, been suspended over remarks considered Islamophobic; as yet, however, no Pakistanis have been banned for tweeting their encouragement to Nizami’s jailers.

The Pakistani government’s entreaties to American social media companies are just one strand of its recent assault on atheism. Since the turn of the year, it has arrested or abducted, and tortured, multiple writers and activists and called for citizens to become informants on the “enemies of Islam.”

It has curtailed freedom of speech and expression offline and on, and – at a time when the country’s elites are worried about Pakistan’s image abroad and reputation as a sponsor of jihad – it has worked itself into a froth against “liberal secular extremism,” branding atheists as terrorists.

In most functioning countries, the right to religion generally comes, as Namazie puts it, with “a corresponding right to be free from religion.” When confronted by it, one is free to turn the other cheek, or worse. Perhaps it’s time we showed those trying to win that freedom in the Muslim world a little more respect. Without more of them, there’s going to be a lot more avenging of injury.

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Review: Stranger to History, by Aatish Taseer

This article appeared in The Herald

Aatish Taseer, raised by his Sikh mother and grandparents in Delhi and educated at a Christian boarding school in southern India and in the US, knew when he set out on his travels through Islam’s heartlands that he had a limited grasp of what it means to be a Muslim. Not being extensively versed in Koranic tradition, his own faith was threadbare; rather, indeed, like that of his Pakistani father, Salman, who shortly after Aatish’s birth in 1980, abandoned his new Indian family to return to his wife in Lahore.

In adulthood the younger man has sought to mend that broken relationship, but the pair’s disestrangement, complicated from the first by Salman’s attitudes towards India and the West, was set back in 2005 when Aatish wrote an article about British Pakistanis and Islamic extremism to which abba took vehement umbrage.

Taseer fils, puzzled that his forebear – politician, businessman and avowed disbeliever – should put such store in calling himself a Muslim, wanted to better understand the ‘civilisation of faith’ of which he had heard spoken both in Pakistan and Britain. And so, armed with his own lightly-worn Sufism, he decided to travel once more to Pakistan, this time from Turkey via the Arab world, in search of what this supra-national Islamic identity means. If the fact of his being a Muslim at all is his passport on the road, however, it should also be recorded that it gives him licence to be honest about the religion he encounters to a degree western writers tend to shrink from. For this is a book that asks awkward questions of Islam and comes up with unsettling answers.

Part travelogue, part essay, part personal odyssey, Taseer’s narrative is probing, exhilarating and shot through with pinpoint observations of people, places and situations, from the menace of Tehran to the ecstasy of religious experience and the commercialism of Mecca. His is an attempt to understand those societies from which Islam takes nourishment.

In Leeds just after 7/7, Taseer had observed a generational divide between older British Muslims, who remembered with some pride their hard-earned economic migration from Pakistan, and their offspring, who lacked their parents’ instinctive humour and openness and hated the West. To younger Muslims, whose religion seemed the more rigid and forbidding, faith came with an amorphous sense of grievance. Bored and rootless, they found in political Islam a grand narrative not readily proffered by the secular West.

In Istanbul and Damascus he meets many others who feel the same way, who see the West as stopping Muslims from thinking “as the early Muslims thought.” The notion of the great Islamic past is everywhere sounded, historical fact skewered to support a narrative of aggression and attack from the Christian West. The message, that the Islamic world is now divided because of the West and the influence of its ideas, is one in which ‘cultural Muslims’ like Taseer’s father can believe, as it has “more to do with the loss of political power than divine injunction.”

To his dismay, the solution the author finds gaining ground is a sort of retreat from the world, the re-emergence of Wahhabism and its insistence on adherence to letter of the Book, effecting new levels of intellectual incuriosity and cultural homogeneity. All of this is anathema to Taseer, who has a special feeling for the religious plurality of India but, ironically, it is in Iran that he finds reason to believe the ‘civilisation of faith’ will, not before time, come up against its own illogicality and absurdity. In a country where women are beaten for the merest transgression and young people are criminalised “by a tyranny of trifles”, he finds a growing culture of private and public dissent and widespread hatred of the Revolution.

In Tehran he also finds people who make the distinction between the enforced religion of the Islamic Republic, and ‘the real faith’; yet shocked perhaps that people like his father can be so unperturbed by fundamentalism, he asks: “Did it really matter whether the Islam of the Islamic Republic was the ‘real Islam’ or not? Did it matter whether the socialism of Stalin or Mao was the real socialism?” Indeed, among his Pakistani family – supposedly moderate – he encounters hatred of America, Israel and Hindus, as well as a tendency to doubt the Holocaust. “It was too little moderation and in the wrong areas,” as he puts it.

In Pakistan itself, he finds feudalism unchecked, corruption king and bitter division amid relative homogeneity, “where once great diversity had been absorbed.” His warning that extremists “know the country has to be destabilised, the robust society made bleaker” is all too sage in the light of last week’s terrorist attack on the Sri Lankan cricket team in Lahore. Stranger to History is a beautifully-written book, but the ugliness of what it reveals is what lives on after reading.