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Bridging the Divides: Muslims in Europe

11 September 2015
Praying Imam

Praying Imam

Islam is ‘incompatible’ with Western civilization is what we hear at the start of a new film Journey into Europe that looks at the much-hyped dilemma in much of Western Europe. The film deals with cascading phases of recent history: From the inclusive times of Muslim Spain to Ottoman Empire; and from the colonization to twentieth century immigration of Muslims into European lands. This film comes at a time when Islamophobia as a political and cultural attitude is on the rise; and Muslim extremists are asserting their political power and dictating domestic agenda in many parts of the world. Caught between these two extremes are the majority of Muslims, who, while united by their faith, are neither a monolith nor hold uniform views about organized religion or its political dimensions. The diversity within Muslims is an oft-ignored reality. Even more invisible is the variegated history of Islam and its adherents.


This is why Journey into Europe — a handiwork of Dr. Akbar S. Ahmed, the Ibn Khaldun Chair of Islamic Studies at American University — is both important and relevant to the current crises brewing across European countries. A Pew Research Center study tells us Western countries with significant Muslim populations are getting worried. Since 2011, the general population that is ‘very concerned’ about Islamic extremism has increased. For instance, after the murders of the Charlie Hebdo staffers, two-thirds in France are ‘very concerned,’ 29% more than the 2011 poll. In Spain, 61% are very worried about the extremist threat; and roughly half in Italy (53%) and UK (52%) and 46% of Germans are apprehensive. Their worries have increased in the past few years. (more…)

Negotiating Freedom of Expression

23 July 2015

The unresolved debate on freedom of expression was reignited when Islamic militants killed 14 staffers of French magazine Charlie Hebdo last January, ostensibly for the cartoons that offended Muslim sentiments. Earlier this year, two secular bloggers were hacked to death in Bangladesh. In other countries such as Russia and Iran, writers and journalists languish in prisons on similar charges. The intersection of faith, politics, and history has influenced the global debates on the “limits” to freedom. In June, the Center for International Media Assistance, in collaboration with Media Diversity Institute, held a panel discussion on the limitations on the state of media in multicultural societies. An all-women panel, a rarity in itself, included Razia Iqbal (BBC), Courtney C. Radsch (CPJ), Milica Pesic (MDI), and a well-known academic Verica Rupar.

Negotiating freedom of expression and respect for diversity is a delicate balancing act. The current crisis – of “Western” values versus Islamic teachings – is far beyond the problem of media ethics. Razia Iqbal at CIMA raised crucial questions about the social responsibility of journalists. For instance, is freedom of expression sacred, or is it a subjective construct located in the context of every country? The responses were spirited. Some felt that freedom of expression was linked to other rights such as privacy; and therefore it ought to be viewed in a subjective context. Panelists agreed that freedom of expression was a universal right, but that under certain circumstances, limitations were understandable. Journalists have to act in public interest, as they give voice to and act as public watchdogs on behalf of society. Therefore, media persons have to exercise discretion in deciding what to print or broadcast. That is at the core of the idea of “social responsibility.”

Should journalists practice self-censorship and stay away from certain issues in multicultural societies? One panelist noted that journalism does not exist outside the boundaries of a given society; thus, it should reflect the inherent multiculturalism of a particular context. But this leads to self-censorship. The case of Egypt, among others, is instructive, as unprecedented self-censorship is taking place there due to the pressures exerted by the state and lack of legal protection available to journalists. Multiculturalism entails respect for free speech and the availability of public space to enable diverse groups to air their views. Violence changes this dynamic—perhaps for good. This is why Charlie Hebdo’s editor has announced that the magazine will no longer publish cartoons of Prophet Mohammad.


Why India, Pakistan treat their Nobel laureates shamefully

21 July 2015

There is a common thread – of undervaluing our achievers; and looking at ideas, values and contributions from the jaundiced lens of partisan politics.

Amartya sen

In the early 1990s, as students of development economics we were told that Amartya Sen, an Indian, had contributed path-breaking insights into welfare economics. We learnt how he had shown the world that relative poverty mattered and that famines were not caused by a scarcity of food. Sen has added a new set of theories to philosophy and economics. By placing human concerns as central, his work on famines, poverty, gender inequality and political liberalism has altered the way development is viewed across the globe. In my practice of international development for the next two decades, Sen’s continuing contributions deeply informed my work.

Much of this South Asian pride melts away as I follow news and views in Indian media especially the unregulated space in social media. Sen is a villain. And his villainy is related to his unsparing comments about Narendara Modi prior to the 2014 Indian elections. Sen created a little disruption in post-Congress-fatigued India that was hankering for change. He referred to the “organised violence” against a minority community in 2002 and considered Modi’s record in office, as chief minister of Gujarat “terrible”.


Abdullah Hussein: alive in his vision

8 July 2015

The great Pakistani writer Abdullah Hussein is no more. Perhaps, he has been relieved of the agony that he underwent as a cancer patient, suffering in his last years all by himself. To say that he was a towering literary figure would be an understatement. Hussein was a trendsetter and a chronicler of our weary generations. Written in 1963, his tour de force, Udaas Naslain, remains the most memorable, grand novel, second only in its expanse to Qurratulain Hyder’s Aag Ka Darya. Both Hyder and Hussein were torchbearers of the modern, non-conformist sensibilities in contemporary Urdu literature. Hyder weaved the 5,000-year story of the Indian subcontinent and for her depiction of 1947 as just another moment in the grand continuum of history, was rebuked in Pakistan and soon left the country.

Hussein’s characters in Udaas Naslain recount the upheavals that Indians had to engage with since 1857. The novel’s formidable brush depicts the early 20th century milieu of Punjab as its protagonist experiences the rapidly changing political events. Hussein presents a panoramic, existentialist view of the First World War and how that impacted the ‘natives’ in the Indo-Pak subcontinent. The most moving parts of the novel concern the Partition of 1947. Towards the end, the book’s main character, Naim Baig, grapples with a new reality along with immense emotional and historical baggage.

Not unlike Hussein, his almost anti-hero, Naim Beg, is an idealist, but is swept away by larger historical forces. It is Naim’s persona that struck a chord with the post-independence generation, for it was as unfulfilled as him. As Pakistan’s chequered history evolved, the incoming generations have also found a voice for themselves. The novel has an innate absurdist streak, which fits in well with the society that we have created in the preceding decades. Fifty years later, Udaas Naslain remains in print with dozens of editions keeping it accessible. Its everyday language enriched the scope of Urdu fiction. Some found its language obscene and before the morality brigade could strike, the state awarded it the Adamjee Award.


Save Palmyra From ISIS’s Rampage

26 June 2015


Photographs of Palmyra by Felix Bonfils, Myron Bement Smith Collection, Freer Gallery of Art and Arthur M. Sackler Gallery Archives.  Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C.

Photographs of Palmyra by Felix Bonfils, Myron Bement Smith Collection, Freer Gallery of Art and Arthur M. Sackler Gallery Archives. Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C.

The Smithsonian’s Freer Gallery of Art and Arthur M. Sackler Gallery have placed on view a relic from ancient Palmyra in Syria. In addition, the galleries are displaying images of 18th century engravings and 19th century photographs from its archives. In the wake of Daesh or the Islamic State’s offensive in Syria, this exhibition has attained a symbolic significance. Being held in the capital of the world’s only superpower with a questionable Syria policy, the display reminds us of what is at stake.

It was exhilarating to be connected with this rich past of humanity and at the same time extremely devastating to remember that we live in a world where our ancient treasures can be wiped out while we look on helplessly.


Haliphat – a limestone funerary relief bust on display at Sackler- stares at you with an intense expression. Her two fingers on the chin represent modesty and virtue. For a moment it seems like a reflection on what is happening in Palmyra today. Halpihat has been dated back to 231 C.E. The almost-alive figure displays Roman and Aramaic artistic styles, reminding us of how Palmyra was the bridge between the East and West.

The Islamic State reportedly has planted mines and bombs in Palmyra. It is unclear if ISIS intends to destroy Palmyra or is using the threat as a strategy to deter attacks by Iraqi forces. Nevertheless, our collective heritage under grave threat. (more…)

Music: Tabla master Sandeep Das & Kayhan Kalhor

16 May 2015

Tabla master Sandeep Das joins multiple Grammy nominee and co-founder of Masters of Persian Music Kayhan Kalhor following their March D.C. appearance with Silk Road Ensemble 
The U.S. does not boast many kamancheh (Persian spike fiddle) performers, let alone any in the same league as Kayhan Kalhor. He is, quite simply, the most internationally acclaimed master of this instrument, which produces a broad range of sounds, from an almost percussive bark to a sweet, throaty tone. The Tehran-born Kalhor closes out Washington Performing Arts’ season-long exploration of the Silk Road, performing with artists from other countries on the historic Silk Road, on Saturday, May 16, 2015 at 8pm at Sixth & I Historic Synagogue. Kalhor is joined by his Silk Road Ensemble colleague, renowned table master Sandeep Das. This is the second time this season that D.C. audiences will be treated to Kalhor and Das’ inimitable style. Their Jugalbandi was peformed at the lauded March 1, 2015, Washington Performing Arts presentation of Yo-Yo Ma’s Silk Road Ensemble, of which Kalhor and Das are original members and frequent collaborators. (more…)

Ideology, impunity & chaos

15 May 2015

The sheer barbarity of the attack on the Ismaili community in Pakistan’s largest and one of the more misgoverned cities shocked the country. It is not the first time that such a sectarian attack has happened. During the past two years, more than a thousand people have been killed in targeted sectarian attacks. However, this was the largest attack on Ismailis. The head of the Ismaili community, Prince Karim Aga Khan, rightly termed the massacre of 43 men and women “a senseless act of violence against a peaceful community”. It is ironic that the Pakistan movement owes its genesis to the contributions of Sir Sultan Muhammed Shah, Aga Khan III who was the founder, patron and the first president of the All-India Muslim League. In fact, the Quaid-e-Azam was born into an Ismaili household. Today’s Pakistan is clearly an unsafe place for this community.

The National Action Plan (NAP) against terrorism has been under implementation since December. Evidently, it is going nowhere. In January, dozens of worshippers were killed in an imambargah located inShikarpur, Sindh. There have been several other incidents of sectarian killings and now the Karachi carnage comes as a rude reminder that perhaps, the strategy to fight terrorism is flawed or is just another un-implementable document.

While military action to eliminate hideouts of the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) may be a good short-term measure, Pakistan cannot curb the menace of extremism and terrorism without working towards an ideological reorientation. In March, the government reneged on two vital commitments: regulation of religious seminaries and dismantling of proscribed terrorist groups. In fact, such is the power of these militias that they have been openly holding rallies despite the announcement by Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif while launching the NAP that “no armed organisation will be allowed to operate”.


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