by JULIE POUCHER HARBIN, EDITOR, ISLAMiCommentary on FEBRUARY 18, 2016:
In November I had a chance to sit down with policy analyst, journalist, and scholar Raza Rumi at the ISLAMiCommentary office of the Duke Islamic Studies Center and speak to him about countering violent extremism in the Middle East and in Pakistan, and the plight of journalists in his native Pakistan.
Rumi was at Duke to lead a conversation on “Countering Violent Extremism: The Case of Pakistan.” He had been invited by the Duke Pakistani Students’ Association and his visit was co-sponsored by the Sanford School of Public Policy, the DeWitt Wallace Center for Media and Democracy, and the Duke Alexander Hamilton Society.
Rumi has been living in the U.S. since shortly after a March 2014 assassination attempt on his life that left his driver dead and guard seriously injured. While escaping with minor injuries, he said that after his car was ambushed he felt “insecure” and “traumatized,” and had to leave Pakistan after a few weeks. State agencies and local police, he said, couldn’t promise it wouldn’t happen again. (Police later reportedly implicated members of the Taliban-affiliate Lashkar-e-Jhangvi in the attack) […]
Pakistan’s Supreme Court has upheld the death penalty for Mumtaz Qadri – the policeman who murdered former Punjab governor Salman Taseer in January 2011 for an alleged act of ‘blasphemy’. I analysed the implications.
The Supreme Court of Pakistan on 7 October upheld the decision of the trial court and the Islamabad High Court and rejected the appeal against Mumtaz Qadri ’s death sentence. The defence lawyers had argued that because the slain governor Salman Taseer termed the blasphemy laws as “black laws”, Mumtaz Qadri had the right to kill him.
The obiter dicta from the bench, as reported in the press, were also encouraging. Supreme Court Justice Asif Saeed Khosa, while discussing the case, remarked that “criticizing blasphemy laws does not amount to committing blasphemy” and that Mumtaz Qadri had no legal grounds to take the law into his own hands. The fact that such a remark clarifying that “questioning the blasphemy law is not blasphemy” becomes a cause for celebration says quite a lot about the socio-cultural milieu of Pakistan. Similarly, it is highly unlikely that the apex court would have actually bought into the sham arguments presented by the defence lawyers and overlooked the rather clear admission of the accused.
The idea of committing violence as a religious obligation is neither alien nor criminal for a sizeable number of people
However, the temporary euphoria after this judgment must not conceal the fact that a former Chief Justice of Lahore High Court and a former judge of the same court were defending the accused largely on theological grounds. In fact the former judge, Justice Mian Nazir Akhtar, in an interview declared that disliking kadoo (pumpkin) was akin to committing blasphemy, since that was a vegetable preferred by our Holy Prophet (PBUH). While the verdict is an important step to establish rule of law, the lawyers who showered rose petals on Mumtaz Qadri will not disappear nor will young students who vandalized a vigil for Salman Taseer earlier this year.
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. […]
I spoke with Clarion about fighting for fredom of speech when the price for failure is death.
Raza Ahmad Rumi is a Pakistani policy analyst, journalist and an author. He has been a leading voice in Pakistan’s public arena against extremism and human rights violations.
In March 2014, he survived an assassination attempt in which his driver lost his life. Within weeks, he left Pakistan and has been affiliated with the New America Foundation and the United States Institute of Peace.
He graciously agreed to speak with Clarion Project’s Research Fellow Elliot Friedland about Pakistan, free speech and blasphemy legislation.
Clarion Project: You are a writer. What challenges have you personally faced due to what you write about in Pakistan?
Raza Rumi: When you write about growing radicalization and extremism and call for introspection, critique the role of clergy, then your writings are edited so as not to ruffle too many feathers. At times, one is labelled as anti-Muslim and anti-Islam for demanding a rational discourse on religion and its public manifestations.
Earlier, this opprobrium was restricted to verbal abuse and attacks, but now it has taken a dangerous turn with the increase of blasphemy law victims and in my case an assassination attempt.
Though I must clarify that writings in English draw less attention than those in the vernacular languages, I got into serious trouble due to my views aired on the mainstream Urdu broadcast media. My public engagement with media, academia/think tanks and civil society was too much for the extremists (backed by elements within the state) to handle. So they tried to silence me once for all.
“Would you permit me to teach my children that God is greater, more just, and more merciful than all the (religious) scholars on earth combined? And that His standards are different from the standards of those trading the religion” — Nizar Qabbani, Syrian poet.
Much has been said about the French magazine Charlie Hebdo and its slain cartoonists and their provocative cartoons about Muslims. Satirical representations of the Muslims in Europe do merge with racism and evoke destructive passions. But the barbaric killing of journalists exercising their right of free speech is beyond condemnable. It strikes at the heart of press freedom.
Muslim communities in most Western countries view themselves as besieged collectives. Issues of integration, racism and the colonial baggage resonate each day. But in the past two decades especially with the rise of violent extremism as global phenomena, these complexities have become even more intractable.
By brutally killing staffers of Charlie Hebdo magazine, the violent extremists have offended their faith far more than the perceived blasphemy of the magazine. Theirs is a political ideology — of using terror as a weapon — to avenge a history, to settle grievances and to assert power through violence.
Billions of men and women who practice Islam often have little input in shaping such narratives of hatred. Such violent ideas emanate from the minority schools of thought within Islam, which rationalize the killing of ‘infidels’ and their ‘associates’. This ideology is the same that hounded Salman Rushdie, and killed Theo van Gogh in Amsterdam for a film.
Ironically, the main targets of this ideology have been Muslims themselves. From the mass killings of Hazara Shias in Afghanistan and Pakistan to the ongoing killing spree in Syria and Iraq, it is the Muslims that bear the brunt of this violent mindset.
Dozens of Sufi shrines and hundreds of schools have been blown up in Pakistan by extremists. Most of the 50,000 Pakistanis killed in the last decade were Muslims. And in this day and age this ideology prevents the majority of Pakistanis to access YouTube simply because somewhere, someone lampooned the holy figure of Islam.