Editor’s NOTE: The following op-ed, penned by Mehr Tarar, was published in Daily Times on August 23, 2012. I’m pleased to cross-post the article on my blog from Daily Times without any editing. (Ali Salman Alvi)
My 12-year-old son is a Muslim. He knows the Namaz, reads the Quran with a teacher, and recites the Kalima before going to sleep. He understands the basic concepts and has no problem lowering the sound of TV when one is saying prayers, or when asked to put the Quran in a clean, protected space. Asked why he does all these things, his answer would be simple: “My mom taught me to.” My 12-year-old is a Muslim simply because I am a Muslim. His faith is not something he was born with, and all he knows is imbibed through parental influence. The only thing noteworthy is his perception about the world: how unfair some things are, how people unleash cruelty on one another. His unfaltering empathy, his profound concern for people are things probably no one taught him. When I tell him about painful events, there is no recoiling in unease; there is merely a rapid fluttering of eyelashes, a telltale sign of an attempt to hide his tears, this time about the 11-year-old Christian girl who is the latest victim of Muslim ruthlessness.
Religion is a commodity today. It is a commodity for those who practice it in mosques, chanting what they learned as children without full comprehension of what the Quran connotes. It is a commodity for those in madrassas where hoards of pupils, hunched over their religious books, learn as much from the text as their teachers see fit. It is a commodity for those who, to monopolise a few weak souls, roar into their microphones how one faith is better than the others — be it Sunni or Shia. It is a commodity for those who pen reams of hate literature without any consideration for the historical context of the events open to them for distortion, thus providing more opportunities for those who look for an excuse to unleash cruelty on fellow beings. It is a commodity for those who have primetime slots on TV channels, with a unilateral agenda to top the ratings game, with no thought that their biased pronouncements become sacred to those in need of props to strengthen their faith through tele-scholars. Religion is a commodity for many enfeebled minds who have mastered a simple principle: you can never go wrong if you have a beard, your shalwar is above your ankles, you have a rosary wrapped around your wrist, you can quote Quranic verses as and when required and you have an epithet — mullah, maulvi, alim, maulana — attached to your name. Now you are invincible. Who in his right mind would raise a finger at you when your hands are humbly joined to pray to Allah? Whatever you do is in the name of religion; which mere mortal has the right to see you for what you truly are?
In no way this implies that all religious people are identical. There are many who practice what they preach and to them religion is to be believed in and not imposed. Unfortunately, they are the minority. Their messages of tolerance and brotherhood are constantly overwhelmed by the incoherent cacophony of the hate-mongers, the bigoted, the unforgiving. Mosques, the only entity to invade our houses through microphones and loudspeakers, armed with sermons and rants about sin and sinners, have become more than assembly places for prayer and the transmission of Azaan. Now, for some, these are the licensed areas to spew venom, incite violence and invoke vengeance for all those not walking the straight line of Islam — their interpretation of Islam. Not the Islam of our Prophet Mohammad (PBUH), but the Islam that teaches one faith to persecute another, one faith to proclaim superiority over others, one faith to decide who is a better Muslim, one faith to choose who lives or dies, one faith to even decide who gets to be a Muslim. The Islam of Prophet Mohammad (PBUH) — the only person I believe in other than what I read in the Quran — is not the distorted version full of persecution, fanaticism and outright barbarism that some vigilantes of Islam unleash on their own, leave alone on those who are of different religions.
Convert a Hindu into a Muslim; you buy yourself a seat in heaven. Kidnap a crying Hindu girl and marry her off forcibly to a grinning Muslim hick; you have marked yourself as a true follower. All your sins are cleansed. Erase the word Allah from the grave of the only Nobel Laureate of Pakistan and you deserve a standing ovation. Stop the Ahmedis from going to their places of worship and you have fulfilled your religious obligation for the day. Demolish parts of those buildings, thus making them indistinguishable as mosques, and you houour Islam. Kill a human being who does not share your faith and voila, as per your religious gurus, you have earned the title of ‘ghazi’.
The number of Shias forced off buses en route to their families, identified and killed, is something I cannot sum up in hundreds of words. Innocent Muslims killed by fellow Muslims who decided, on only God knows whose authority, that only their faith mattered. These inhuman acts cannot be encapsulated in a few words. The enormity of what happened in my country over the last few months is beyond my capacity to make sense of, hence my inability to capture it in my text coherently. Here, as a Sunni, I lower my head, offer a prayer, and apologise — with all of me.
Hindus, victimised simply because they are born as Hindus –just as my son was born a Muslim — are the ones to whom we owe another apology. For the love of God, this is as much their country as it is ours. Any country that celebrates a National Minorities Day validates the incongruity of its fundamental principles. Hindu, Christian, Parsi, Sikh, Jew, anyone of any faith, colour, creed, who has lived here for centuries, before we claimed it as only ours, is as much a Pakistani as those who pray to Makkah. Jinnah said it, our religion preaches it; when did we become the arbiters of faith of which only Allah is the arbiter?
For all who saluted the assassin of the former governor, Salmaan Taseer, the less said the better. Why waste words on those ignorant preachers of religion who killed the one man who had the moral courage to stand up for a condemned-to-death-on-a-blasphemy-charge poor Christian woman, Aasia Bibi? She does not matter. Why would the individual who spoke for her matter? Government’s inability to expedite the court-ordered punishment handed down to the assassin shows the level of fear our rulers have when it comes to blasphemy laws that need a major revision, if not a complete repeal.
The mentally disturbed man in Bahawalpur district, beaten to death and burnt by a mob that on the instigation of their local mosque speakers saw blood, is the person we owe an apology to. He was a ‘blasphemer’; the verdict was given, but by whom? True Muslims? Faith apart, how do you kill a man without a trial and get away with it? Of course, you can, if you are a self-appointed vigilante of Islam in the Islamic Republic of Pakistan. Rest assured, you would never be penalised.
The biggest slap on our tattered moral fibre comes in the shape of the arrest and jailing of the 11-year-old Rimsha Masih. A pre-teen non-Muslim girl playing near a garbage pile is a blasphemer? A girl who has no notion of the sanctity of the holy text of another faith is a blasphemer? A girl who picked up pages of a discarded Arabic language lesson book (qaida), taught to pre-Quran-reading Muslim children is a blasphemer? Forget about her Down syndrome for a bit. Which religion allows this treatment of a child based on some deeply flawed interpretation of religion? Islam? To me, the answer is simple. And there is just one example to follow: Prophet Mohammad (PBUH). Raise your hand if you have read and believe the story of the woman who used to throw garbage on the Prophet’s (PBUH) head as he passed her house every day. How did he treat her? I rest my argument. Let us all think: who is the so-called blasphemer here? The 11-year-old Christian girl who was playing with discarded pages or those who threw the pages there? What happened to the Quranic injunction of aamal (actions) connected to neeyat (intent)? There is no answer. We are all just imposters, hypocrites, cowards, who hide behind the name of Allah, when there is nothing left to our moral, social and religious discourses.
I apologise to Rimsha Masih, once again.
The writer is an Assistant Editor at Daily Times. She tweets at @MehrTarar and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org