Wednesday, January 04, 2012

On religious tolerance and Karachi

by Salman Hameed

Almost a year ago, the governor of Punjab, Salman Taseer was assassinated for his efforts to repeal the problematic blasphemy law in Pakistan. The reaction to the killing was even worse (also see: Forget Science: Speak up for religious tolerance in Pakistan). At this anniversary, there are a number of articles in Pakistani newspapers: The Silent Majority by Sana Saleem, Taseer's Killing - a symbol of a withering state by Badar Alam, The real essence of Salman Taseer by Ayesha Tammy Haq, and Remembering Salman Taseer by Pervez Hoodbhoy.

I thought I will leave you here with an excerpt of an interview with Steve Inskeep, the author of The Instant City: Life and Death in Karachi - a new book about Karachi. In particular, I appreciated his comments about the promise of tolerance and the perils of immigrations to large metropolis. It is also fantastic to see the name of Ardeshir Cowasjee. I grew up reading his columns in Dawn and he just retired from writing at the age of 86! I cannot think of a better Karachiite than Cowasjee. Here is a piece from the interview:

Guernica: How would you say that the uncertainty—from political violence, from migration—affects conflict in Karachi?
Steve Inskeep: People don’t know where they stand and what they’re going to lose, and that makes things uncertain. The political parties try to meld people together, but then that becomes a problem. There are parallels here to American cities, which, in the ’80s, with massive rural to urban migration, saw incredible amounts of violence. This has quieted down a bit over the years, and part of that may just have been that they’ve been able to work out better governance. You do have this circumstance in Karachi that because people know things are changing, the stakes are higher. Everyone is thinking, “My home is threatened, my job is threatened, my identity is threatened, my world is threatened.” And that creates a very particular sort of climate, that is linked. I mean, some people respond like the men in the sweatshop, holding on desperately to their village. Others may become like Mohammad Nadir; they marry, set down roots, and have to face the question of, “How am I going to make it work for myself here in Karachi?” 
Guernica: Do you think this also engenders the religious revivalism in the city, in response to the uncertainty?
Steve Inskeep: The initial migrants from various parts of India that came immediately after partition were attracted to religiously based parties like the Jamaat Islami, since they were trying to figure out questions about what their new political identity as Pakistanis really meant. Then you have the ’80s and the emergence of Altaf Hussain that united the migrants under the platform of the MQM and gave them another way to identify themselves based on their refugee status. So religion becomes a factor. It may well be that people who feel dislocated turn to religion as a substitute for whatever identity they had before. But there are also larger questions for Pakistan that are seminal. What is this country about, what are the values for which it stands? 
Guernica: Karachiites often complain, as do Pakistanis, that they don’t control their country’s narrative in the world, that they’re misunderstood. What do you say to this?
Steve Inskeep: So much has been written about partition and that era, but not so much about what happened after. I really have tried, with this book, to continue the story of what happened after. I think it’s fair to say that the country is misunderstood. At the same time, it’s not like everything is going great in Pakistan and nothing is wrong. I hope that Americans reading this book will pause and consider that this is a complex place that cannot be understood in an instant, and it’s not that they’re all against America or against universal human rights. I thought it important to tell the story of a people who, in their own quiet, heroic way…I wanted to capture a picture of a country that is not necessarily at war with the United States, but is at war with itself. 
To Pakistanis, I would emphasize the urgent and absolute need for them to take back their history. People who want a different Pakistan have to find a way to go back into their own past and revive the vision of their founders, that was clearly a tolerant and diverse one, so that they can distinguish it from the one that has been imposed upon it. If they can do that, they can take back this city and their country. Tradition has to be retaken by the liberal forces, so that they can show their values of tolerance and democracy not as novel western ideas but as ones indigenous to Pakistan, as a part of its very creation. 
Guernica: Aren’t there Pakistanis already engaged in that project?
Steve Inskeep: Let me name three of the people who influenced me, although it’s definitely not a complete list. Ayesha Jalal, the formidable Pakistani-American historian, has rigorously re-evaluated Jinnah’s political strategies leading up to Partition. The result is revealing. Jinnah was not seeking an all-Muslim homeland but rather seeking a way to protect the political rights of people who were Muslim. Akbar Ahmed, a former diplomat and now a distinguished scholar, has documented Jinnah’s life as a man who welcomed, worked with, and even married people of other faiths. Ahmed has argued that Jinnah did not need to choose between a Muslim society or a pluralistic one—rather, that Muslims could welcome minorities in ways that were fully in accord with their faith and its traditions. Ahmed calls attention to Jinnah’s August 11, 1947 speech in which Jinnah called upon his people to set aside “color, caste, or creed.” And then there is Ardeshir Cowasjee, the great Parsi newspaper columnist, who in his mid-80s is a kind of living history of all of Pakistan, old enough to have known Jinnah himself. Cowasjee’s Parsi father, a shipping magnate, was asked for help in creating a national shipping line in 1947. I can imagine no clearer evidence of Jinnah’s intentions, or of his views on diversity, than sitting at Cowasjee’s table in Karachi and listening to this man from a religious minority who was a witness to what Jinnah did and to all that has happened since.
Read the full interview here.


Saif said...

The Blasphemy needs to be abolished. Even though I'm no longer Muslim, from a Muslim perspective the Blasphemy law is barbaric. If a person in Pakistan does insult Mohammed then Allah will judge that person on judgment day and take the appropriate actions. There's no need for any human being to judge and punish someone over religion.

Gary said...

Sad isn't it that so many are so ignorant of their own religion that they are willing to murder for it rather than engage in civil discussion. In my view the ultimate blasphemers are the Maulana's who preach hatred from their Friday pulpit.

Anonymous said...

It wasn't the murder of the governor that made me sad but the way that murderer was glorified by the very vocal extremist minority. Abduction of the deceased governor's son, apparently to be used as a guarantee for acquittal of that animal just added insult to the injury.

Anonymous said...

"I cannot think of a better Karachiite than Cowasjee."

LOL...ever heard of the name 'Edhi'?

Atif Khan said...

Well said Saif.

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