“For the first time in my life I am inclined to support a gagging order, but only once for this particular project of hate,” said the man they called Mr Scribe, sometimes lovingly, sometimes sarcastically.
Mr Scribe was referring to a Google decision to block a hate film – “Innocence of Muslims” – in the Middle East, a decision some Muslim governments copied.
The film, which ridicules Islam and the Prophet, caused widespread and violent protests in the Middle East and the Muslim world. The reaction also scared American Muslims who worry that violence in their homelands will further erode their already vulnerable position in the United States. Many feel that since the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, other Americans often look at them with suspicion and fear.
So the Washington gang of self-proclaimed Muslim intellectuals decided to devote an entire evening to discuss this film and the Muslim reaction to an otherwise insignificant hate project.
Tonight they met at the Virginia Tavern, instead of their usual Shisha Bar, because they wanted no distraction and there was always plenty at the bar.
They were worried, all of them. Most had not seen the film but all were affected by it.
“This is insane,” said Rasheed, who taught mathematics back home but was a grocer in the US. “You do not kill an ambassador, period.”
“Right, right,” shouted others, referring to an arson attack on a US consulate in Libya which killed Ambassador Chris Stevens and three other diplomats.
“But please note that the film is also very offensive,” said Rahim, now a cabdriver but an accountant back home.
“Yes, yes,” other agreed with him too.
And this was their dilemma, they were Muslims and Americans. The American inside them was upset over the Muslim reaction. The Muslim inside them found the film sickening. And most people around the world have not yet learned to think as humans only; so there was no third angle to this dispute.
But Shah Jee, who once worked as a calligraphist with a famous Pakistani painter, Sadequain, tried to push the third angle.
“Sadequain once drew a name, NISHOW on a piece of paper, put it before me and asked: ‘What do you see from your side?’” said Shah Jee.
“I said: ‘MOHSIN’ because that's what I saw from my side, although I knew NISHOW is a female name and MOHSIN is a male name.
“Then Sadequain said, ‘see how two people can disagree with each other and yet both can be right.’ And this is one lesson I never forgot.”
The gang was silent. “Well said, Shah Jee, well said,” said Foroud, an Iranian poet who now worked as a realtor in Virginia.
“Try telling this to the Taliban and they will kill you for quoting a Shia artist,” said Zalmay, an Afghan political activist.
“Who was Sadequain?” asked Sanjay, a school teacher in India who now ran a candy shop.
“You may have seen his mural at the Ghalib Library in Delhi,” said Shah Jee. “He was an incredibly generous man. Once I went to see him on my motorbike. He said: ‘Aren’t you getting married this year?’ I said, ‘Yes.’
“So you need a car," he said. I just smiled. He went inside, brought a painting he made in Delhi, signed by Indira Gandhi, and said: ‘Sell this and buy a car." I did not. I still have that painting.”
“No, Shah Jee, no, no stories tonight,” the gang shouted. “Let us focus on the film and the reaction.”
“Why are Muslims so violent?” asked Sanjay.
Such a question by an Indian could have caused riots back home, but living in America had softened them. Besides, all of them had a bonding gel, they all drove cabs when they first came to America. Some still did. And the bad job market had forced some others to return to their old profession.
Living abroad is difficult, especially for those who come from countries where families and friends provide a safety net and coming abroad means losing that safety net. So the need to stay together is stronger than other considerations, political or religious.
“Religious fundamentalism had a meteoric rise in the Muslim world over the past half century,” said Mr Scribe, quoting from an article he read on the internet.
“In the mid-1950s all Muslim leaders were secular, and secularism in Islam was growing. But the West, in its desire to combat communism, encouraged fundamentalism.
“Iran under Mohammed Mossadeq, Indonesia under Ahmed Sukarno, and Egypt under Gamal Abdel Nasser were all secular. It changed in the 70s.
“Following the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979, the CIA armed the fiercest and most ideologically charged Islamic fighters and created an extensive globalised jihad network. Today, as secularism continues to retreat, Islamic fundamentalism fills the vacuum.”
As Mr Scribe stopped, Rahim said: “Stop copying from the internet, tell us what you think.”
“I think we are paranoid and suffer from an inferiority complex,” said Foroud. “You do no go on attacking embassies and burning down properties because someone somewhere made an insignificant movie.”
“Yes, who benefitted from this violent reaction?” asked Zalmay. “The film producers, who had failed to make any impact at all. Not a single person outside their crew came to watch the movie when they showed it at a US cinema.
“And it remained unnoticed on Youtube for two months. So they dubbed it in Arabic and sent it to an Egyptian television channel, and as they expected, the Muslim reaction made the film famous. Now everybody wants to watch it.”
“Yes, Zalmay, but you should also understand the Muslim reaction,” said Haider, a barber with a master’s degree in political science. “The film is about the Prophet (PBUH) and they are very sensitive about it.”
“Right, Haider, but does the Muslim reaction help their cause?” asked Foroud.
“Let’s first define the Muslim cause,” Mr Scribe suggested.
They all laughed. “Mr Scribe you always come out with the most obvious question. We all know what the Muslim cause is,” said Khalid, who runs a music shop.
“So define it,” said Mr Scribe. “What is it? Economic revival? Political power? Democracy? Palestine? Kashmir? What?”
Now the others were silent.
“Yes, he is right. It is difficult to define the Muslim cause,” said Foroud, “but let us focus on this issue. Here the cause is simple, to defend the Prophet (PBUH).”
“And does the violent Muslim reaction help defend the Prophet (PBUH) or does it harm the cause?” asked Mr Scribe.
“I think it harms,” said Rahim.
The conversation stopped as the tavern’s owner, Qizilbash, placed cups of hot green tea and cookies before them. It was close to midnight, the tavern had shut its doors to customers. Some went out with their tea to smoke.
When the conversation resumed, Rasheed raised an issue they all wanted to discuss but were reluctant to do so. “What does it mean for us who live in America? How will this violence impact us?”
There was no immediate answer.
But after a while Shah Jee spoke. “Last year, I purchased a house in Lahore. I fear that one day the Americans may ask us to leave,” he said.
“Yes, but Lahore is not safe either,” said Khalid.
“And who can say that the Taliban will not return if I went back to Kabul?” asked Zalmay.
“I know some physicians who have purchased apartments in Dubai,” said Mr Scribe.
“We are no physicians, we cannot live in Dubai,” said Haider.
“Where will we go if anti-American feelings and protests continue to increase?” asked Shah Jee.
Nobody had an answer.
The author is a correspondent for Dawn, based in Washington, DC