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VIEW: Eat, Pray, Agitate / by Afrah Jamal

First Published in Daily Times / Saturday, August 11, 2012

Republished in AhmadiyyaTimes

There was some chatter about a certain coffeehouse this Ramzan on both twitter and facebook. The random post that triggered the wrath had alleged that a posse of females were refused a place to pray en-masse inside the premises. Many agree that little cafes that serve coffee in cramped quarters are not obligated to patronise requests that will inconvenience other customers. Others gleefully scream ‘blue murder’ scrambling to retrieve the Islamic Republic part of Pakistan to bolster their case. Since religion is a contact sport, the new arena was readied for some fireworks. The social media resounded with ‘Down with aforementioned coffee house’ for a few days, offset by a ‘Chalo chalo coffee ke liye chalo’ (Let’s go for Coffee).

Was the café in any real danger? Yes. No. It is hard to say. A few hundred irate consumers threatening to stage a sit-in appear harmless. But they cannot guarantee that the moral brigade patrolling the region with their portable flame of hatred will be content with ill-conceived slogans. So, not harmless. Because ‘causes’ tinged with religious flavour, tend to bring out the crazies these days.

The controversy fizzled out eventually. Another rose in the shape of a campaign against the Ahmadiyya community that had lain dormant since February 2012 and was thoughtfully resurrected by the ‘Faithful’ in time for Ramazan. Bigotry laced posters appeared all over the social media exhorting the public not to buy Shezan products. As one liberal minded citizen used the same imagery to promote the maligned company, ‘Down with Shezan’ was already in line as the next new rallying cry.

Why would a small-scale conflict on the café’s facebook page unnerve so many? Or the incarnation of malevolent minds trigger such an inexplicable rush of fear? Threats uttered in the heat of the moment can be dismissed as idle. But with slick charlatans ruling the airwaves, hysterical bigots trolling the internet, large swathes of land have fallen to the savvy extremist with the shrill voice. That voice sadly dictates virtual headlines of the day. The nation is in the throes of a religious upheaval. The path to inter-faith harmony is rigged with discriminatory laws and random edicts that magnify paranoia and override reason. And, militancy knocks at the gate. In military parlance, this might be classified as a DEFCON 1.

Since 1981, the ‘no eating in public during the Holy month’ controversy returns every year. Cinemas remain open but the food section is cordoned off (sometimes with a slippery floor sign). Like the infamous blasphemy law that the Faithful are loath to abandon, the staying power of Ehtaram (respect)–e-Ramazan Ordinance is remarkable. The ordinance prompted the raid of two eateries in Sargodha, manhandling of a couple of journalists in Islamabad, and if the rumours are to be believed, may have led to the poisoning of nine Christian nurse trainees in Karachi. The changing décor terrifies Pakistanis; as does the extraordinarily resilient nature of hate campaigns. Like its fellow discriminatory laws, this ominous sounding decree is subject to misuse. It has overstayed its welcome. There are enough victims left in the wake of such ignorant laws to justify its demise.

Ms Clinton worries that “When it comes to this human right, this key feature of stable, secure, peaceful societies, the world is sliding backwards.” The attack on a Sikh place of worship in a suburb of Milwaukee by a white supremacist (not terrorist, mind it), and the burning down of a mosque in Missouri by unknown arsonists coming on the heels of this declaration guarantees the ‘land of the free’ a place in the bigotry contest. Of course, threats to raze minority places of worship using the law as an accomplice, gives the ‘land of the pure’ a good lead.

The Shezan saga made its debut in Feb 2012 when Lahore based lawyers had the bright idea of banning these products on court premises. Recently, six minarets of an Ahmediyya prayer house built in early 1980s, were demolished in Kharian city by the police citing the ‘Section 298-B and C of the Pakistan Penal Code’, at the behest of some religious sect. There are roughly 1-4 million Ahmedis (or Qadiyyanis as they are called), in Pakistan according to one source. The label of heretic conferred in 1974 painted a tempting bull’s eye on their back. They cannot afford to take these anti-marketing gimmicks lightly.

In the current climate of fear, and given the rapidly depleting reserves of humanity, the social media cauldron can manufacture fury at a moment’s notice. Mercifully, it is also the wellspring of reason that can block the incoming vitriol with a few choice words of wisdom. The late Cecil Chaudhry famously remarked: “By faith I am a Christian but my religion is humanity.” Right now, the social media sites mirror the external turmoil, and export agitation hastening the descent into chaos, the humanity part struggles to stay afloat.

It was a very small step for social media-kind when the coffeehouse protest was called off. Since the café management had already apologised, the entire drill was unnecessary. For now, the Shezan controversy is on the back burner. And, while the ‘eat in public at your own peril’ law is still in place, at least one public eatery was observed serving children out in the open. The little coffee house was last seen doing what they do best. Serve coffee. An en-masse prayer space is still not on the menu.

The End

Image 1 by Afrah Jamal
Image 2 & 3 Courtesy of: http://3.bp.blogspot.com/-Fwybx9tbwd8/TmdVq8XCWAI/AAAAAAAAA7o/QyU4iQEBEHk/s1600/shezan.JPG

http://fc00.deviantart.net/fs18/f/2007/166/7/5/defcon1_by_decar66.jpg

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  1. The concept of a peaceful society can not exist if there are humans living in it...

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