When I was in college because of my appearance and name people would sometimes assume I was of Pakistani origin. I would explain that I was born in Bangladesh and raised in the United States. If they were international students from Pakistan or the Arab world they would sometimes respond, “OK, but you are Muslim.” I’d have to explain that my parents are Muslim, but I was not religious, and an atheist in fact. Quite a few of the foreign students were not clear what an atheist was (probably in large part because English was not their native language). I told them it meant that I did not believe in God. I never encountered anger or outrage, but it was clear that some of these men and women were shaken by my rather casual expression of disbelief. The more liberally minded would wonder if I was spiritual at all, had I explored Sufism? If my interlocutor was bearded usually there would be very little follow up and we would part ways rather quickly.
I perceived that they were fleeing some sort of abhorrent contagion.
What was on evidence was a cultural difference. Atheism has existed for all time and in all places among some individuals (South Asia’s indigenous materialist atheist tradition were the CÄrvÄka). But the rejection of God is taboo in some places today. These places include regions of the United States. I attended a conference recently where one of the presenters gave a talk on how to mobilize collective action effectively to further goals of social injustice. One of his slides had a list of insults that one might hurl at someone to hurt them. On it was the n-word and a pejorative term for gay men. As well as the term atheist! After the presenter finished his talk and was ready for a Q & A, the conference MC joked "So you think that atheist is an insult? You’re from the South aren’t you?” The presenter seemed embarrassed, and admitted he was from Texas. In hindsight this was a slide that perhaps needed a little touch up in light of the fact that his audience was saturated with West coast based techies.Differences of values define what separates us across cultures. Sometimes those values and beliefs are quite fundamental. My existence as an atheist (and more rarely, an atheist conservative) has offended people on occasion throughout my life. I can not help that. But across the chasm of values we do remain human, and can empathize and relate based on the many universal aspects of humanity which bind us together as a species.. Those of us who share our residences with other species, colloquially termed “pets,” also comprehend that the ties of empathy can transcend humanity itself.
Being assumed to be Pakistani is my primary personal interaction with this identity at this point in my life. As a child my family socialized a great deal with Pakistani Americans, but as an adult most of my thoughts relating to Pakistan have been more geopolitical, and have made me more aware of difference than commonality. I was particularly disturbed by the assassinations of Salmaan Taseer and Shahbaz Bhatti. These events, and the public response in Pakistan, reinforced my confidence in a scary datum, the fact that 76 percent of Pakistanis support the death penalty for apostates from Islam. Even Pakistani social liberals, making a plea for tolerance, pluralism, and critiquing fundamentalism, can be found to accept in their presuppositions a very alien world view. Thinking Aloud: The return of jahiliyah:
At a time when enlightenment is seeping through the Islamic heartland in the Middle East, jahiliyah (stubborn arrogance) is taking Pakistan by the throat. If the founder of the country, Muhammad Ali Jinnah, were alive today, he would live in fear, like the millions of others who share his secular ideology.
The problem with this editorial is that the writer, whose views are generally consanant with my own, uses the broader framework of Islamic fundamentalists. He implicitly degrades the time before Islam as one of darkness, jahiliyah. Public reason is not possible when the argument presupposes particular truths which have a sectarian valence. The jahiliyah as a modern term of opprobrium was popularized by Sayyid Qutb, the intellectual godfather of Al Qaeda. Sometimes the tools of the oppressor must be discarded lock, stock, and barrel, before you can challenge them in a full-throated fashion.
And with that, I come to Veena Malik’s tirade on Pakistani television. Watch the whole thing, but the actress upbraids a pompous mullah about his moral imperiousness and hypocrisy.
(Note: For readers concerned about the fact that the video was translated by MEMRI, see Aziz Poonwalla’s point)
I don’t know much about Veena Malik. Her appearance on Big Boss has been mentioned here, and I’m sure some readers are versed in her filmography first hand. She’s some sort of celebrity, and with celebrity comes some particular quirks of personality, and a general penchant for controversy. In fact, an attempt to withdraw from celebrity and controversy by an actress can itself become a controversy!
But in this instance she highlights a dynamic which seems all too common. Powerful men who demand and command authority in all domains, and assert that men must be above women in all things, lose all accountability and self-control in the face of female beauty. In the face of this beauty these men of power demand that women take responsibility. The stong aim their ire at the weak! Women who are enjoined to render unto their menfolk the powers over their lives find that they must now own up to all the consequences of their actions, because the very existence of their bodies enforce a tyranny of license upon the world.
Veena Malik pointed out the hypocrisy of the whole system. The emperor has no clothes in this case. The next time I see the headline “Pakistan” in my RSS reader I will make sure to remember her. I may not know much about this woman, but I believe I know enough.