Lessons in Religious Bigotry from Pakistan and America: Fatima Tassadiq

Guest Post by Fatima Tassadiq

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.

Islamophobic Ads in the MTA Transport Network in the USA
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.

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

Fatima Tassadiq is a doctoral student of anthropology at the University of Pennsylvania. She tweets @fatimatassadiq and blogs at fatimatassadiq.wordpress.com.

5 thoughts on “Lessons in Religious Bigotry from Pakistan and America: Fatima Tassadiq

  1. frz

    You are comparing institutional bigotry backed by bulk of the ruling elites, intelligentsia and common man with few instances of individual display of bigotry that was roundly condemned by everyone. Most US citizens joined ‘I Stand With Ahmed’ campaign but you picked up one British professor. Idea of a devious Jew underlies most Jewish conspiracies in Muslim societies and has deep religious-historic roots. Dawkins clock theory was just some dumb thoughts of an old man and you compare him with a member of the clerical establishment that upholds religiously sanctioned blasphemy punishments and often resorts to extrajudicial murder. Did Dawkins suggest a change in law so people like Ahmad get killed? Do you expect not a single person on earth to react differently to an event? What matters is how the state institutions respond and how much approval does an act of bigotry have in the society. And how can a poster quoting hateful passage from Quran be compared to hate speech against Ahmadis. Any Jihadi pamphlet is incomplete without this verse.
    What I find more disturbing is anti Muslim comments by top level conservative politicians. Now that is a threat to liberal democracy

    1. The article explicitly states that the major difference between Pakistan and the US lies in the fact that discrimination in Pakistan is institutionalized; that Ahmad was supported by many; and that Islamophobia by public figures is often roundly condemned in the US in a marked contrast to Pakistan.

      The fact that an increasing number of public figures can make comment about Muslims that they wouldn’t about other communities suggests a mainstreaming of bigotry — these are not a few isolated incidents.

      About comparing the two posters. Taking a ‘hateful passage from the Quran’ (without any context; who are the ‘they’; what event is this verse referring to) and slapping it onto a picture of the burning twin towers is a clear way of saying that terrorism is intrinsic to Islam and consequently all Muslims who are by extension responsible for 9/11. The hate speech aspect of it is pretty clear. This ad and the others in this series do not target Al Qaeda, they target all those identifying as Muslims. The fact that this passage is quoted in Jihadi pamphlets is irrelevant. Jihadis also support a beard, as do many non-jihadi Muslims on religious grounds– that does not justify labeling a beard as a jihadi symbol.

      1. frz

        “who are the ‘they’”?

        Event is the battle of Uhad. it’s nothing related to peace and humanity. This battle was part of a military conflict which ended in extermination/conversion of all non Muslims in Arabian peninsula.

        You suggest there is some true interpretation of Quran which Geller should tell jihadis who are blowing themselves up due to incorrect interpretation? Religious terrorist interpret Quran in their own way. Terrorist groups from Pakistan to Syria invoke such verses to kill Muslims and non Muslims alike. There is no true Quranic message.

        911 terrorists don’t represent Muslims. Muslims shouldn’t be apologetic about the acts of 911 terrorists. Quran doesn’t link law abiding Muslims to burning towers. Its the act of terrorism that unfortunately brought all Muslims under the radar. An Islamophobic poster would be if some Muslim looking man or women is shown next to burning towers.

        Muslims have no monopoly over Quran. Anyone can interpret and discredit it. Same goes for other religions. When Dawkins says Old Testament is one of the most hateful piece of literature ever written, he is not indulging in anti-Semitism.

        Jihadi violence is not motivated by facial hair. The word of God is what urges them to kill and provides moral justification. Why did previous PPP government remove jihadi verses from textbooks? The entire purpose of madrassa reforms is to remove hateful religious texts, tone down the jihadi message of Quran and focus on other benign issues

  2. K SHESHU BABU

    India as well as Pakistan as well as US or UK …what is in a name of a country? Every country has internal religious conflicts and opportunistic religious practices highly skewed against rationalists, let alone athiests. The levels of intolerance have been increasing especially taking political overtones. P. B. Shelley writings, specially, ‘in defence of Atheism’ were greeted with discontment in his days. A. C. Swinburne, a French poet wrote:
    ‘Who smites without hand and scourges without rod
    The supreme evil God…’
    Still, their works command great significance to this day. Telugu poet Sri Sri declared God as a ‘humbug’ in his writings and wrote a famous lyric on ‘anti-god’ in a film starring Madala Ranga Rao. The feminist athiest Ranganayakamma is too common in telugu literature to forget. Her ‘Ramayana Vishavriksham’ (the poisonous tree of Ramayana) has transformed the phylosophy of telugu criticism.
    As long as there is god, there will be science and ‘anti-god. But killing people and tortuning ideas can only lead to destruction of humanity. The casteist tendencies of India are making the dalits wean away from hinduism and he gods it represents. Gurram Jashua, a dalit telugu poet described hinduism as ‘the four-hooted snake’ (nalugu padagala haindava nagaraju) referring to the four-fold hindu caste system. Hence, religion and God should be seen as history of human development. As Sri Sri suggested, ‘no-god temples’ (Nir-iswar alayas’ must be constructed to make people aware of science, technology, history, phylosophy and the causes of notion of ‘god’.

  3. Pingback: Religious Bigotry: In Pakistan & America | Fatima Tassadiq

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