Saturday, September 22, 2012

VIEW: Dissonance of Muslims

First Published in Daily Times / 22 Sep 2012

By Afrah Jamal

Nothing works. Major cities have been sealed and an angry mob rules the streets. Scenes from Pakistan on September 21, 2012 have a distinctly dystopian flavour. TV cameras cut to newsrooms happily discussing the need for peaceful protests as sweet sounding hymns play in the background and then cut back to the mob going berserk.

Someone picked the wrong soundtrack for the occasion.

Pakistan, badly battered by terrorism and in an economic bind, doubled as a set for some war zone on the eve of the ‘Love Your Prophet Day’. The sight of rampaging protestors including representatives from banned outfits closing on Islamabad’s Red Zone on Thursday evening was surreal. The army was summoned to safeguard the diplomatic enclave. The military was placed on high alert. And as the nation braced for yet another day of officially sanctioned protests, the mobile networks were shut down. No one really knows why.

A BBC anchor watching the scene compared the present mayhem to past protests that he thought had been peaceful. Pakistan’s initial reaction to provocative material posted on the Internet, capable of sending the rest of the Middle East into paroxysms, did seem tame in contrast. Some wondered if the low-key response was because the nation’s attention had wavered because of a devastating industrial fire in Karachi. Come weekend, that oversight had been corrected. Armed with the standard issue brand of outrage found in abundance in this restive part of the world, crazy-eyed protestors fashioned a violent response to the anti-film narrative, mob-style. The commercial hub of Pakistan was partially paralysed.

A religious scholar was seen downplaying the violence, citing the still standing structure of the US Embassy as proof. The reaction at the state level has been decidedly odd. They threaten to revoke Google Inc. employees’ visas, declare ‘Love Thy Prophet Day’, which really means another day of protest after a week of protest, and confer a seal of approval on marching protestors. And they ban 'YouTube, ensuring that 180 million Pakistanis who had no intention of seeing the wicked film would not be able to see the wicked film or anything else for that matter. Clicking on the link will redirect users to Google.

Afghanistan reportedly had gone a step further and blocked access to the host website ‘indefinitely’, along with Google, Gmail, and Blogger. YouTube refuses to take it down. But it has revoked access in Indonesia and India and removed the trailer from circulation in Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Libya. Scenes of arson and vandalism witnessed on the days leading up to the 'Love Thy Prophet Day' confirm that keeping the content off the air means little to the raging billions.

Since September 11, 2012, a female suicide bomber has targeted foreigners in Afghanistan. The US ambassador to Libya is dead. Scores have been injured in violent demonstrations across the Middle East and life in parts of Pakistan has come to a standstill. Because of all this, Bacile/Nakoula’s (or as some media folk like to say Mr. Malaoon) skewed vision has gone viral. We have done funny things in the name of God. Cadbury, Facebook, YouTube, Twitter and Flickr — all have been targeted at one time or the other. One source says the government is already eyeing software capable of blocking up to 50 million websites.

The sight of politicians harping on ‘a greater conspiracy’ followed by a never-ending parade of mullahs spewing poetry while urging calm and at the same time condoning the protests sent mixed signals. After the first two days of non-stop violent protests, a freshly repentant charlatan was observed waving a battered old Jewish conspiracy theory. The filmmaker’s Egyptian Coptic connection does not impress him. The cast’s outrage at being duped by the said Coptic does not interest him. What does interest him is the film’s release on the Jewish New Year; he should have thanked the Egyptian media for his thoughtful selection of the dates since the trailer has been on the Internet since July 1, 2012. The delightful monologue went unchallenged. More simpletons arrived.

One mullah happily objected to those pictures on facebook (it’s YouTube, but never mind). Another shrieked against those awful images on facebook (once again, YouTube). Another one, instead of responding to the questions, started congratulating the anchor on his good fortune that his parents named him ‘Muhammad’. Yet another naively suggests that the mob should be allowed to go up to the consulate and register their protest. After Libya, there is no chance of that happening.

This mob was out for revenge, not justice. The US has sunk $ 70,000 to distance itself from the film by running adverts. The US Embassy is constantly broadcasting pacifying messages on twitter. Pakistanis used the remains of the Internet to urge calm, but the protestors were not online. The same message broadcast via local mosques might have been more effective.

A local channel appeared awed by the “zabardast” (splendid) protest before reporting that they burned down a cinema in Quetta. The next day media personnel came in the line of fire; three cinemas and a police checkpoint in Peshawar were torched; the Chamber of Commerce was next and a plaza was attacked. Hours later, three more cinemas*, a couple of banks and popular eateries were reportedly set ablaze in Karachi. A disappointed anchorwoman asked where religious/political rallies were after witnessing anarchy all morning. On air, raging protestors were simply described as people ‘recording’ their “ehtejaj” (protest) in cities and alleyways instead of being condemned.

Now the French are braced for a backlash after a French magazine decided to publish derogatory images of the Prophet (PBUH). The BBC called the anti-establishment magazine that skewers politicians, the Catholic Church and the Pope on a regular basis, “crude, cruel, and intentionally provocative”. Their latest attack was apparently prompted by the frenzied reaction of the Muslim world. Danes will get it. A murder plot against the man behind the cartoon controversy prompted the paper to rerun the offensive images. In 2008, a text message regarding inflammatory material triggered a boycott of all things Danish and some not so Danish. Pakistanis are convinced that the Danish boycott somehow crippled the Danish economy. A scan of the Internet shows poorly worded appeals to re-apply those boycott tactics to anything sporting a ‘Made in America’ label. Karachi has already suffered an estimated Rs 12.5 billion loss of revenue and ‘production losses in main industrial areas’*. Roads have been painted over with flags of offending nations so that protestors can walk/drive/cycle all over them. Shockwaves from 17-minute clips, 12 sketches, or 14-minute trailers have the power to drive Pakistan to the edge.

"They keep tearing us down, we will keep cleaning up and rebuilding... they may have the power to knock us down, we will always have the choice to get back up again... Choose the right side, the side that builds, not the one that only knows how to destroy - Salma J."

The End

*Update: The number of cinemas torched in Karachi has hit 5. Nishat, Capri, Prince, Bambino, Gulistan. Here is a Beautiful Ode to the past by Talat Aslam

A Church in Mardan was set ablaze the same day. Property ransacked & some poor Christians were attacked. They are reportedly in critical condition.

Overheard on Twitter: 'Economic damage from yesterday's FREAKSHOW is estimated between PKR 76 bn to 100 bn.'

Shops in Sheraton Hotel & 3 KFC's (Karachi) also came under fire.

Last Night a Project Clean up for Peace was launched on Facebook where citizens have a chance to do their bit in cleaning up the city.


Images Courtesy of: http://www.colourbox.com/preview/1995536-121335-abstract-3d-illustration-of-red-heart-breaking-wall-strong-love-concept.jpg

http://www.techpavan.com/wp-content/uploads/site-blocked.gif

Saturday, September 1, 2012

BOOK REVIEW: The Perfect Gentleman; a Muslim boy meets the West — A Memoir

Thanks to Liberty Books for the review copy

Oct 2012: Thanks Imran Ahmad for the kind email & Mr. Asif Noorani for recommending this book.

First Published in Daily Times / Saturday 1 Sep 2012 under the title: The Ballad of East & West

A local singer who regularly goes on foreign tours admitted that after the Abbottabad raid, acknowledging his Pakistani origins can be a conversation ender, with the ‘gora’ (white) inevitably taking ten steps back. A local businessman confessed that certain foreign embassies now deem all Pakistani nationals as terrorists till proved otherwise.

Imran Ahmad, who recently concluded his 50-State speaking tour of the mainland United States, had occasional run-ins with the representatives of this fear-driven society that love to herd his entire ilk under a single scary looking banner. A Pakistani, growing up in London of the 1960s and 1970s, he must be familiar with the scrutiny that comes with being different. This first person narrative that dusts off 48 years of wisdom builds upon a young boy’s quirky (and chronologically arranged) view of the world to bridge the divide.

As a young Muslim, Ahmad aspires to be the perfect gentleman (sans the Eliza Doolittle/Professor Higgins dance) who will find himself constantly pitted against the current. As an immigrant’s son, he observes the best and worst of both worlds from his lonely perch. Seen through the haze of childhood, bigotry abruptly looms into view. Ahmad is two and accommodation is scarce for Pakistanis, “although many people in London were renting out rooms.” Those ‘No Irish or Coloured’ signs are a common sight in his Britain apparently. “The more liberal-minded ones had signs that read ‘No Coloreds’”, he observes wryly.

Whisked away from Karachi at an early age, he writes of those days with remarkable restraint, patiently examining numerous ugly looking fences built around visitors to the fair land. Racism manifests itself at every turn. Ignorance abounds. Identity undergoes regular facelifts. And the hunt for a perfect partner comes up against a familiar looking stone wall. “We are so boring, we make the Amish look like swingers.” ‘A foreigner in white English society’ who realises that ‘he doesn’t seem to fit into Pakistani society either’, Ahmad’s quest for a perfect foothold takes time, and a fair amount of ingenuity. His close encounters with racism and the religious divide prompt a visceral reaction; blending optimism with pathos gives evanescent memories a nice glossy finish.

He moves through the London of the 1960s initially baffled by the strangeness of it all. An American magazine’s coverage of war casualties captures Ahmad’s attention. “I never realized so many Americans are black.” Life’s coverage of the moon expedition prompts a different reaction. “These men are all white,” he wonders aloud, “unlike the ones killed in the war.”

This memoir records landmark events in the life of a young boy who idolises Spock and dreams of emulating Bond, and is smart enough to read between the lines of the Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. His Eastern orientation in a western culture serves as ballast; the long struggle with identity leads him to uncover aspects of Christianity and Islam that puts the ongoing religious debate in some context. While sub-currents of darkness course through the veins of his adopted culture, the casual tone adopted from the outset enables readers to navigate these murky waters without blanching.

The writer’s spiritual awakening and the struggle to reconcile the two halves to form a perfect whole is illuminating. His introduction to the concept of ‘rapture’ and evading attempts to be converted will be a recurring theme. Religion seeps into the most mundane of tasks. The ‘good Muslim side’ hastens to express reservations about bowing to the Master during a Karate session. Warnings of a hardline post-grad student on the ‘sinfulness of usury’ hover in the air as Ahmad applies for a car loan. But he is realistic, casually observing that “by these criteria, I should not have a savings account.”

Ahmad’s adolescent years spent circumnavigating cultural barriers and mapping vast ideological chasms remain significant. Faint echoes of memories carefully encased in amber continue to resonate in a paranoid world. The rest of the stage stays open, allowing the elusive Janice and other bit players a chance to bring some colour to the stark scenery.

While this book plays with the religious angle, it also makes several jarring pit stops at racist point. Moments of triumph or tragedy are relayed in short bursts. Ahmad will fail to secure that car loan by the way. “I can’t believe that after all these years with the Bank of Scotland, and with a very prestigious job offer, that he would not loan me £ 1,600 for a car to drive to work. Surely, it can’t be racism? After all these years,” he exclaims, “surely not?”

Imran Ahmad’s debut novel happily scrolls down a long list of minor dilemmas to try to resolve major conflicts in his life. Its subtle imagery leaves a lasting imprint. The book already has a devoted following. It first appeared under the title of Unimagined — a Muslim boy meets the West and was later published in the United States as The Perfect Gentleman. O, the Oprah magazine rates it as number one in ‘10 Titles to pick up now’; The Guardian, The Independent and Sydney Morning Herald categorised it as one of the ‘Best Books of the Year’. It is available at all major bookstores.