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 The media’s new front
Monday, December 14, 2009
Ayesha Ijaz Khan

The writer is a London-based lawyer turned political analyst.

In a recent episode of “Capital Talk,” Hamid Mir suggested that in response to the Swiss ban on minarets for mosques, we, in Pakistan, should encourage our Christians to build as many churches as they like and in whatever style they prefer. This is exactly the type of openness, tolerance and respect for plurality that Islamic civilisation displayed at its zenith, at the time when it ruled as far as Spain.

This is also the type of broadmindedness that western countries had exhibited previously, by attracting the best minds from diverse backgrounds and accommodating them. Yet, since 9/11, to varying degrees, nearly every country in Western Europe, along with the United States, Canada and Australia, has either passed laws or manifested societal intolerance in the form of Islamophobia. The long-term ramifications of this increased prejudice, if it is to continue unabated, will undoubtedly mean a decline of western dominance and civilisation as we know it.

However, the corresponding question is: are we in the Muslim world going to respond to this in a narrow-minded, defensive and reactionary manner? Or are we going to realise that what made the western world great, in the first place, and Islamic civilisation before that, illustrious, was very closely linked to how comfortable diverse groups of people with varying practices, cultures and, indeed, disparate religions felt in a given polity?

What is particularly disturbing about the Swiss ban is the fact that it was decided by the people in a democratic initiative. But this is a weakness of the vote, which if not guarded against will result in nothing but what Alexis de Tocqueville called “tyranny of the majority.” Democracy, as it has been developed over the years, calls for majority rule but with protection of minority rights. This is a most essential concept for democracy to work. In Pakistan, the blasphemy law is also an unfortunate example of tyranny of the majority, ostensibly worse than the Swiss ban on minarets because it endangers the lives and security of innocent citizens.

In order to establish any type of moral authority in the world, Muslims will need to rethink the injustices committed in the name of Islam in their own countries. Nearly all countries of the western world deride the secondary status to which women are often relegated in the Muslim world. When the Swiss talk about it, one must take it with a grain of salt, however, given that they only gave their women the right to vote in 1971. And while women’s rights are a fairly new concept in the western world at large, they are, we must acknowledge, way ahead of the Muslim world. If one looks at inheritance laws, laws allocating assets to divorced women or even laws defining maternity rights of working women, the western world is far ahead of what the Muslim world has to offer. Therefore, it is odd for us to keep chanting about the rights Islam gives women, if we fail, correspondingly, to interpret those rights in the light of modern-day realities and in conjunction with a global standard that has now been set. As long as we fail to do this, we will continue to be the subject of ridicule.

Our laws could be better, but what is even worse is societal practice. In spite of the fact that in Pakistan, since its inception in 1947, we have given our women the right to vote, in certain parts of the country women are nevertheless denied this right by their own family and community members, and there is regrettably no action taken against these tyrannical forces.

A recent television show by the courageous Munizae Jahangir highlighted the plight of women IDPs from Waziristan in Dera Ismail Khan, as women are not allowed, according to certain tribal custom, to come out and procure their own rations. Given that a large number of men have died in the recent unrest, this practice is heavily discriminatory towards women, yet it is taken lightly by society at large.

In the case of the IDPs from Swat, women were not allowed to step out of the tents in spite of the severe heat at the time. This resulted in terrible skin rashes and breathing difficulties, but a tyrannical tradition was given preference over the health of the displaced women. There is no religious justification for this obsession with segregation. In fact, during the lifetime of the Prophet (PBUH), men and women prayed together. Even in the case of prayer, there was no segregation. My mother, a regular visitor to Mecca, informs me that until the late seventies, there was no secluded prayer area for women at the Haram either, and thus families prayed together in a congregation of men and women.

If we are to progress as a society and prevent the takeover of our communities by unlearned and bigoted forces, then we must be willing to rethink these false notions of honour and revisit traditions that are discriminatory. We cannot create an environment that becomes conducive to dominance by barbaric forces, and this becomes much easier when segregation to the point of discrimination is tolerated. As it was decided in the landmark case of “Brown vs Board of Education” in the United States, many years ago that “separate cannot be equal” and that if blacks are to have the same rights as whites, they must be allowed to be educated in the same institutions. The same holds true for women in Pakistan. The only difference is that we do not have a legal impediment to this but have some very impermeable societal bars that must be eradicated.

Recently, I received a sad email entitled, “Suicide bomber was my cousin,” written by an Afghan woman called Sahar Saba. Sahar described her time in Pakistan during the Soviet-Afghan war as follows: “The Afghan refugee camps in Pakistan were in practice run by the Mujahideen, even if the UNHCR officially managed their affairs. In these camps, girls’ education, music, TV, or any liberal pursuit were banned. Women had to wear burqa. My father wanted me to go to school. Rawa, an Afghan women’s organisation, was running underground schools for girls as well as boys.” She attended the Rawa school, but the cousin who later became a suicide bomber was condemned to the boys-only madrasa run by the Mujahideen, where “the primers were filled with talk of jihad and featured drawings of guns, bullets, soldiers and mines. These textbooks were, ironically, developed in the early 1980s under a USAID (US Agency for International Development) grant to the University of Nebraska and its Centre for Afghanistan Studies.”

For too long, we have allowed our religion to be hijacked by forces that have interpreted it in ways that is killing our society. In order to rectify it, the army will have to continue its battle until these forces are militarily defeated, the government will need to regulate both mosque and madrasa, as well as work on governance issues so that poverty is not become a feeder for terrorism. The opposition will need to make sure it does not confuse the people on these sensitive issues critical to our survival as a nation-state, the judiciary will need to deliver justice and punish the perpetrators of terror, the civil society will need to actively organise and condemn cultural practices that make the environment conducive to such malaise. But, most of all, the media will have to play a big role in addressing this as Pakistan’s biggest problem; yes, bigger than corruption and sovereignty issues. Media owners and managers need to be serious about not allowing their outlets to be used by forces that misinterpret religion or encourage any sort of intolerance.

Website: www.ayeshaijazkhan.com

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