Religious Bigotry: In Pakistan & America

The last few months have been quite intense for Muslims in the US. The Syrian refugee crisis gave us gems like ‘hey, these people have smart phones! They cant possibly be fleeing a deadly war’ from twitter analysts. Then Donald Trump, the rising Republican star, informed us that some serious TV watching had led him to conclude that the presence of more men than women in the televised images of the refugees was ground for suspicion.

It took a heart-breaking picture of a dead Syrian toddler on a beach to compel conservatives to tone down their rabid xenophobia. And then there was the Ahmad Muhammad episode. The reaction to the arrest of the 14 year old for bringing a home made clock to school showed the best and worst of America. While many public figures including the president supported the teen, Atheist and Christian crusaders like Bill Maher and Bobby Jindal thanked the police for keeping them safe from a high school student.

This was soon eclipsed by Trump who, refusing to be pushed out of the limelight, decided to unleash some more right wing insanity. He not only implicitly agreed with a fan boy’s claim that Obama is a closet Muslim but also refused to shut him down when he demanded that America get rid of all Muslims. But it is Ben Carson, the brain surgeon from Detroit, and aspirant for the Republican Presidential nomination, who has constantly been in the news from his unceasing descent into unhinged Islamophobia. First the good doctor told the press that he didn’t think a Muslim could be the President of the US. He later made ‘amends’ by stating that he would accept a Muslim president if such a candidate rejected Islam. A few days ago he decided to put to rest once and for all the myth that brain surgeons are supposed to be intelligent – in response to a question, the Republican candidate asserted that America cannot have a Muslim president because the constitution bars naturalized citizens from running for the office. The aspiring leader of the free world is apparently ignorant of the fact that there are thousands of American born Muslims and converts in the country.

None of the rhetoric is particularly new. But the refugee crisis and the upcoming elections have given every Islamophobe a reason to crawl out of the woodwork. As someone who moves back and forth between the US and Pakistan I find myself thinking about the remarkable but unsurprising similarities between bigotry in the two countries. It would no doubt startle Richard Dawkins, who is famous for repeatedly discovering that God doesn’t exist, to find himself being compared to Islamist bigots in Lahore who aren’t happy unless they have spotted at least three Jewish conspiracies a day. Note for instance, Dawkins ‘passion for truth’ which led the 74 year old to accuse a 14 year old of orchestrating his own arrest so that he could get crowd funded and an invitation to the White House. Compare this with a conversation I had with the leader of a prominent madrassah (religious school) in Lahore. This cleric frequently supports lawyers prosecuting those accused of committing blasphemy against Prophet Muhammad, a crime punishable by death in Pakistan.

‘It is said that the blasphemy laws are often misused to settle personal scores especially against religious minorities…’

‘No. This law has never been misused. Christians blaspheme on purpose so that they can go abroad. They know that there are all these NGOs waiting to send them abroad.’

‘But it has been proven in some cases that false accusations were made…’

‘Name one person who was falsely accused!’

‘Rimsha Masih, the 14 year old girl who was falsely accused by the local cleric who wanted to push Christians out of the community.’

‘And where is Rimsha now?’

‘She was given asylum abroad after being acquitted.’

‘SEE!! That’s why she did it! Don’t you know how poor her family was? They could have never gone abroad. They won a lottery with this case. If they really are innocent then why do they go abroad.’

When I pointed out the obvious – that many accused are murdered by vigilantes – he completely denied that such murders take place. I brought up the cases of Manzoor Masih, Salamat Masih and Rahmat Masih. I mentioned the fact that one of the accused, Manzoor Masih, was murdered outside the Lahore High Court even as the trial was underway in 1995. That the other two were later acquitted and fled abroad. The cleric’s response made it hard to decide if he was lying or actually delusional.

‘There were only two people in that case: Salamat Masih and Manzoor Masih. The person who was killed outside the court was unrelated to the case and later associated with it so that the two  accused could garner public sympathy. And you can see that it worked – they were taken abroad.’

I am of course not suggesting that Richard Dawkins’ twitter tirade against Ahmad is as alarming as the systematic and often murderous discrimination against Pakistani Christians and all those who support them. I only want to draw attention to the overlapping ordeal-by-water ‘logic’ of their ‘arguments’.  During the 16th and 17th century witch-hunts, ordeal by water was one of the popular ways of determining the innocence of accused who were thrown into water. Those who sank were considered innocent while floating was taken as proof of witchcraft and the accused subsequently executed or burnt at stake. The absurdity of the practice of course lay in the dim possibility of live acquittal – the only way to prove your innocence was to die. Contemporary prejudice runs along much the same lines. Perhaps the likes of Dawkins would have found it easier to believe in Ahmad’s innocence if the latter had been shot dead by a cop. Given the epidemic of police violence against people of color in the US, this is actually not very hard to imagine. Ahmad’s Christian counterparts in Pakistan don’t even have that luxury – their murders are either denied altogether or the murderers hailed as heroes. The slightest compensation or relief is seen as evidence of guilt.

It is this bizarre inversion of reality which turns villains into victims that is obvious in the agitation against the Pakistan Supreme Court’s decision against Mumtaz Qadri last week. The SC refused to acquit Qadri, a security guard who murdered a provincial governor Salman Taseer in 2011 due to the latter’s efforts to reform the contentious blasphemy laws in the country. The extent of the ideological inebriation within the religious right is evident in their lamentations on this ‘persecution’ of Muslims in their own country. Such eloquent self-pity also finds its way to conservative discourse in the US: Bobby Jindal, another presidential candidate, insists that the only discrimination in the US is against Christians.

One of the leading right wing conspiracy theories regarding President Obama is of course the idea that he’s a Muslim. Being a Muslim is apparently a self-evident accusation for many rabid conservatives in the US today. Add to this the insistence by the likes of Ben Carson that Islam is incompatible with the American constitution. The man is all set to publish a book on the American constitution and is apparently unaware of the fact that the presidential post is not subject to any religious criterion. Our very own Oxford educated Imran Khan did something similar last year. After the usual condemnation of the current corrupt government from a-top his container in Islamabad, Khan announced that all appointments under his rule would be made on merit. Instead of sticking to his usual vague statements about justice and meritocracy, this time Khan decided to illustrate his claim with an example. He said he would appoint Atif Mian, a well known economics professor of Pakistani descent at Princeton, his finance minister. It didn’t take long for the bigot brigade to corner him and declare that his comments regarding Atif Mian had ‘hurt Muslim sentiments’. Atif Mian, alas is an Ahmadi. I didn’t expect Imran Khan to defend Ahmadis as such but I had hoped for some semblance of decency in his response. Instead of pointing out the obvious fact that the Pakistani constitution doesn’t bar the appointment of non-Muslims to ministerial posts, Khan took the usual route of denouncing Ahmadis and lost no time in backing away from his bright idea of hiring Mian. For both Carson and Khan religious liberty is the right to practice their particular brand of faith. However, the major difference here of course in the public reaction to these comments and the degree to which discrimination is institutionalized. While his colleagues roundly took Carson to task, we barely heard a squeak out of Pakistani politicians. Moreover, while the American constitution guarantees freedom of religion, the Pakistani constitution has enshrined discrimination against non-Muslims (and those, such as Ahmadis – who have been tagged as ‘non-Muslims’ against their wishes) that pervades almost every aspect of Pakistani society.

Anti Muslim ad-2

Islamophobic Ads in the MTA Transport Network in the USA

The anti-Muslim polemics have also left their mark on some public spaces in the US. Incendiary signs, such as those used as part of an ad campaign by the career Islamophobe Pamela Geller (who won a court battle to have them displayed on buses and subway stations in New York City) are increasingly visible. I felt sick to the stomach when I saw this sign in a station in downtown Manhattan a couple of years ago.

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Anti-Ahmadi Sticker in a shop in Pakistan
(Those who aid Mirzais/Ahmadis or aid those who question the finality of prophethood are turning their graves into holes in hell)

It reminded me of the many anti-Ahmadi stickers I have seen in shops around Lahore.  For his part Major De Blasio of NYC publicly condemned these outrageous ads. Ahmadis in Pakistan have had no such support against the ubiquitous stickers bearing slogans against them.

My goal in drawing these parallels is not to justify bigotry in either country nor is it to equate the level of discrimination against minorities in the two countries. I only want to draw attention to how prejudice and bigotry across the world often work along similar lines. The crazed exhortations of Trump to make America great again and the oft repeated warnings about the Islamist threat that pepper American public rhetoric mirror the self-important paranoia in Pakistan about the ‘foreign hand’. The apocalyptic imagination of our clerics which casts the non Muslim as a perennial threat to the integrity of the nation echo warnings of ‘creeping Shariah’, ‘stealth jihad’ and ‘closet Muslims’ in the US. The next time we feel legitimately horrified by Islamophobia in the West, lets look around ourselves and see how we may be complicit in promoting similar prejudice. We may not be able to do much about anti-Muslim prejudice in the US but there is plenty that can be done at home.

This article was originally published at Kafila.org on OCTOBER 25, 2015

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