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Death of diversity

May 14, 2016

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THE recent brutal murders of secular and atheist bloggers, gay rights activists, academics and writers in Bangladesh have shocked the world.

Outfits claiming to be affiliates of the militant Islamic State (IS) group have accepted responsibility. In Pakistan, too, several civil society members who opposed fundamentalism have been murdered in broad daylight. In both countries, few of the perpetrators have been arrested.

Other Muslim countries, too, have seen killings in the name of Islam; some have been the scene of ethnic and sectarian cleansing on a horrifying scale. So why can’t so many Muslims let people of different faiths, views and lifestyles live among them in peace? In a column in the Guardian recently, Elif Shafak, a Turkish writer, says:

“It is hard to be an Armenian in Turkey. Or a Kurd, or an Alevi, or gay, or a conscientious objector, or a Jew, or a woman, or somebody who just doesn’t happen to agree with what’s happening in the country… An ‘ideology of sameness’ dominates the land. That ideology is shaped by Turkish nationalism, Islamism and authoritarianism blended with machismo and patriarchy. The tension in politics permeates all aspects of daily life.”

In Pakistan, we could add Hindus, Christians and Ahmedis as well as Hazara Shias to Ms Shafak’s dismal list; except that life for them isn’t just ‘hard’, it’s often very short.

I suppose minorities in Pakistan should be grateful that we haven’t (yet) begun treating them as the IS does, but for those at the sharp end of our religious zeal, I doubt if this is much of a consolation.


Differences are something to celebrate, and not erase.


A few years ago, while flying from Colombo to Karachi, I found myself sitting next to a member of the Tableeghi Jamaat, the evangelical outfit that travels the world to convert people to Islam. This worthy, after insisting on praying in the aisle, thereby blocking it for the crew and other passengers, turned to me, no doubt thinking I was Sri Lankan, and said in English he would like to discuss religion with me. In Urdu, I told him to mind his own business and leave me in peace.

At Karachi airport, while we were waiting for our luggage, the call to prayer was made on the sound system. Needless to say, my neighbour ignored it and chatted on with his pals. I later learned that the Tableeghi Jamaat regularly travels to Sri Lanka to save Buddhist souls.

So why do so many Muslims have a problem with diversity? One of the most wonderful things about our world is that it is populated by such a vast collection of people of different ethnicities, languages, beliefs and lifestyles. Millions have no belief at all. We dress differently, eat different food, and have a bewildering array of customs.

For me, these differences are something to celebrate and enjoy, rather than wish to erase.

If people were privately disapproving of diverse traditions, skin colour and nationalities, there would be no problem. But far too many Muslims believe killing all those who are different is their religious duty. Thus, a poor Ahmedi shopkeeper was murdered in Glasgow because, according to his killer, he had somehow ‘disrespected Islam’.

By imposing the harsh, literal interpretation of religion exported and promoted by Saudi Arabia, we have turned Pakistan into a drab, monochromatic landscape where colour, laughter, dancing and music are frowned upon, if not entirely banned. And yet Islam in South Asia was once characterised by a life-enhancing Sufi tradition that is now under threat. More and more, we are following the example set by the Taliban.

It would seem that many Muslims are bent on isolating themselves from the rest of the world. Instead of building bridges, they are busy erecting walls. When they have moved to the West, they make little effort to imbibe the host culture, living in self-created physical and mental ghettos. Many opinion polls show the gulf between immigrant Muslim communities and the locals.

Given these attitudes, combined with a succession of terrorist attacks in which thousands have been killed in the West, we should not be surprised at the backlash that has developed.

Although Donald Trump’s Islamophobic message is extreme, he is clearly speaking for millions of Americans when he says he wants to prevent Muslims from entering America.

Often, Muslims in the West complain that they are not allowed to build mosques by local authorities. But they are silent on the ban imposed by the Saudis on building churches or temples in their country.

Clearly, there is a double standard at work here: we reject divergent views, beliefs and lifestyles in Muslim countries while demanding acceptance on our terms in the West.

As we are discovering, things don’t work like this in the real world.

irfan.husain@gmail.com

Published in Dawn, May 14th, 2016