Monday, January 17, 2011

Louder than 27 bullets: America vs. Islam

“Pakistan is going down.” 

This was the headline pasted across the CNN broadcast as I prepared to board the 16 hour New York – Lahore trek, returning to a country I've grown to love deeply but that the newscaster was condemning as the most dangerous in the world. The news of the night (and eventually the week/month) was the assassination of Governor Salmaan Taseer, a man described as an exceptional figure in Pakistani politics, an ambitious and gloriously profane man, a flamboyant and bold leader, and a martyr who was willing to put his life on the line to defend a Christian woman sentenced to death under Pakistan’s blasphemy laws.

But despite the true hero Taseer was, it became clear – after landing back in PK – that a flood of opposition from the conservatives/extremists was rising, seeking to drown out his legacy and his ideals.
While it’s easy to sit back and observe the rising waters as they further divide the liberals and the conservatives, I believe this is a sofa seat that we, as Americans, can no longer afford to keep warm.

Afterall, if all that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing, then perhaps we are just as responsible as the extremists.   

As I read this quote yesterday, I thought about Salmaan Taseer’s life, the ultimate sacrifice he made, and wondered: what am I doing to unapologetically obviate evil from triumphing? What am I doing to defend hope from 27 more bullets of ignorance? What am I doing to live out Taseer’s dream of a militant-free Pakistan and to louden the cry of his daughter: that all those who share in the belief of Pakistan’s future honor her father’s memory and stay silent about injustice no longer.
So here’s my first step at staying silent no longer: Despite how individualistic and isolated Pakistan’s problems may seem, we Americans need to realize how profoundly, intimately, and tragically we are tied to these issues.

This is a strong statement, but one that is unfortunately backed by strong evidence. One thing that has become depressingly clear over the past week is that this polarization in Pakistan has been created by the local conservatives’ fears that Islam is under attack. And what makes this so personally painful is the possibility that the US is perhaps the primary perpetrator.

He goes on to make an extremely important, yet most often underrated, point: If the terrorists are perceived as terrorists, than you are winning the war. But, if they are perceived as freedom fighters who are protecting Islam, than you are losing the war.

From a policy and military perspective, there are profound implications to this statement, and I plan to write about those in my next post. But perhaps more importantly, there are also profound implications for you and for me – as global citizens, or even just human beings – and we cannot afford to ignore them.

As Khan points out, fighting terrorism is to win the hearts and minds of people, and by allowing the people in Pakistan to believe that this is a war on Islam, we are losing both.

US Vice President Biden – who visited Pakistan last week – gave a speech in Islamabad claiming that America is not attacking Islam, but that we embrace those that practice this great religion.

These are important words and a critical message coming from our country, however, the people of Pakistan need them to be more than just words. They need us to carefully and critically analyze if our actions mirror this belief, or if these words have merely just become a sound bite, a Twitter post, a Facebook status.

Does the way we personally approach issues such as the mosque at Ground Zero or the Quran burning in Florida indicate that we embrace those that practice Islam? What about how we look at someone in the airport or interact with people at work or at the store? What about the stories we tell to our family, the jokes we tell to our friends, or even the ideas we allow ourselves to think? And perhaps most importantly, what do we say to the millions who don’t believe in this idea, who naively still think Islam is the enemy?

We need to realize the sweeping and draconian damage that discrimination towards Muslims creates in our country, that each and every actions has ubiquitous consequences and that we cannot continue to ostracize this community, allow others to ostracize this community, or send the global message that Islam is the enemy of America.

This realization begins at a personal level, and it starts with me and it starts with you. Yes, it's easy to point at the seemingly never ending list of issues that Pakistan needs to sort out internally, but we have to play our part first. 

Instead of giving life to the very idea of religious intolerance that Taseer gave his life fighting, let’s work together to overcome evil by interrupting oppression wherever it’s found and by staying silent no longer. 


  1. Appreciate your bravery in this piece.

  2. Wow! Thanks for such an insightful and meaningful piece..I love listening to your thoughts come alive on paper :) its beautiful! So, I have to share an excerpt from the NYTimes OpEd piece i just finished reading before I came across your post...there is so much that resonates between both...

    And in light of the many articles and memorials today to Sargent Shriver, the founder of the Peace Corps, I believe its appropriate to shed some light on how we can begin to become soldiers of "Peace"!

    Sharing the Burden of Peace
    "...A big reason that some nations view us so warily is that we assume the role of global cop — or, as they see it, of global bully...The cost of being global cop isn’t confined to money; there’s also the ill will that gets generated by the policing...This is a special problem when terrorism is your main enemy. After all, anti-American terrorism emanates from grassroots hatred of America; that’s what keeps Al Qaeda stocked with recruits. More specifically, the problem is hatred born of the belief that America is at war with Islam. So when, in trying to neutralize a threat that confronts the whole Western world, we invade Iraq, or do drone strikes in Pakistan, inevitably killing civilians, we’re being double suckers — footing the financial bill and also magnanimously directing the future blowback toward ourselves...We’re getting drawn into a vicious circle. By declaring ourselves global cop, we direct so much of the world’s lethal animus toward us that increasingly it does seem to make sense to take the lead in policing the world. So we dig ourselves into an ever deeper hole with a policy that, in a perverse and ultimately catastrophic way, renders itself ever more plausible..." -- Robert Wright

    So, how do we begin to reverse this vicious and catastrophic cycle we're in? I think you've touched on a large piece of it. It not only comes down to changes in national policy on defence spending, but on a personal level, much needed self reflection on how we regard those different then us! Thanks :)

    "Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called children of God." -- Matthew 5:3-10

  3. or at least an attempt at it... thank you for the encouragement, I definitely appreciate it

  4. wow, thanks Brenda, such a perfect quote! actually, I feel like I should just cut and paste this whole comment as my next blog post!

  5. Benje,

    I don’t see things as black and white as you've highlighted in your post.

    Salman Taseer's murder is largely the result of the struggle between secularism and extremism, which has been prevalent in Pakistan (when General Zia imposed marshal law) a long time before US's involvement At the heart of the issue is the blasphemy law. After the creation of Pakistan as the Muslims became the majority community there was no reason to keep the law in the statute book. However, instead of abolishing the law, General Zia made the laws on blasphemy more stringent. Legislations undertaken during 1980-1991 (life imprisonment was replaced by mandatory death penalty) made the Muslims more intolerant towards non-Muslims. From 1948-79 eleven cases of blasphemy were registered. Only three cases of blasphemy were reported during 1979-86. Forty four were filed during 1987-99. In 2000 fifty two cases were registered out of which forty three were against Muslims and nine were against non-Muslims. This shows that the laws are being abused more blatantly by the Muslims against fellow Muslims to settle old scores.

    Pakistan’s problems are more fundamental. The country continues to face a deep identity crisis. Unlike neighboring India or Bangladesh, where pious Muslims advocate for maintaining a secular, religiously neutral political space, in Pakistan any mention of secularism is seen as loss of control by supremacist religious tendencies among Muslims.

    The big question for the US is to decide if Pakistan is worth 'saving' from the inevitable conquest by the Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan, Laskar-e-Taiba and myriad other religious extremists who are regularly attacking the very foundation of modernity in Pakistan. What makes things worse in the abysmal state of the current government. The deep divide within Pakistani society between the ostensibly religious and avowedly secular, between the Westernized liberal elite and ordinary Pakistanis threatens to further destabilize Pakistan

    I hope that the people of Pakistan will take this tragic incident to look at the struggle between secular and religious forces in the country – a struggle that is largely based on their personal history and prejudices - instead of blaming the West.

  6. Its as much what we knowingly allow as what we don't question.

    Among Indians, there is belief that Pakistan gets empowered to 'do evil' because of American support. America has historically not bothered about what Pakistan does or thinks as long as it continues to function as a puppet in Asia.

    This questioning too comes only when its function as puppet is obviously a dysfunction. Yet, America's role in Pakistan has directly contributed to the destruction of the moral fabric of the society.

    From the birth of the country, when America found opportunity in a young government looking for godfathers to its unhesitating supplies of arms and then radicalization of the population to create a steady stream of insurgents for Afghanistan, then going against the very cohesiveness of the country by forcing the government to walk a different direction from the people.

    Even about terrorism, India had been raising the alarm for decades before 9/11, but got dismissed, because that didn't fit with what US wanted to believe. 9/11 happened and the US still didn't want to open its eyes. Today, they accept that Pakistan directly trains insurgents in Afghanistan and Kashmir as a matter of regional policy, but still continue to pretend that Pakistan has a valid claim on Kashmir, because they want to keep Pakistan happy.

    This kind of duplicity cannot lead to values. When text books preach hate against India and the West, or Hindus, Jews, Christians, and other assorted Kafirs, the children grow up KNOWING that the west is evil (though it has sponsored its very functioning from its birth), Hindus are cowards (never mind that the country doesn't know that it lost four wars against those cowards) that Christians want Muslims dead (even though they are the greatest source of humanitarian aid), and other bizarre claims we hear on the net.

    It is fine to say that the introspection begins with each of us. That is good. That makes us better people. But, if this radicalization needs to be countered, we need to stop pampering the government and speak the truth that the citizens are never told. We need to break through to all those fantasies of moral and military superiority brainwashed into them to manipulate them into paths of hate. We need to stop staying silent when faced with outright lies that only enables those hate spreading claws to sink deeper into their society.

    THIS is the real difficult deal. To disagree when the Bangladesh massacre is called anti-Pakistan propaganda. To disagree when India is called cowards and no match for Pakistan's bravery. To disagree when people of other religions are called oppressors. To state the truth as we know it with conviction, because only when different perspectives are on offer can we realize that there is more to things than we are told. Only then do we realize that we may be getting used for supporting military ambition by being fed lies. Then, we start examining the consequences of all the hate floating around.

  7. Khuram, great to get your thoughts and insight on this – was hoping you’d comment.

    You’re absolutely right, and I hope I wasn’t suggesting the situation is black and white, since it’s clearly anything but! The US is only a part of the problem, but my point is that it’s a part which has largely been ignored/avoided/unnoticed/etc. by Americans.

    Each day I spend in PK I realize how increasingly complicated the situation (e.g., the identity crisis you mentioned) is, but my prayer is similar to yours, that people will use this tragedy to begin the restoration process.

    What that will look like, I’m honestly not sure. but what I do know is that America’s actions (or inactions) will either support or discourage this process.

  8. Vidyut, many thanks for reading and for the comments. I completely agree with you as well, that we need to completely transform the system of information communicated and “speak the truth that the citizens are never told.”

    In order to have this message received though, I think Khan’s point about winning over hearts is critical. Without doing this – without mutual respect and deep appreciation for each other – it’s doubtful that this message of truth will ever be received. The problem that American’s (and likely others in the international community) have, is that we’ve done the exact opposite, and as a result, we have zero moral authority to speak any type of truth.

  9. It is a very positive article for someone who understand Islam...but the masses are completely clueless on the religion and Pakistan period. So as much as I agree with the article, ignorance is too widespread in America about Islam...I don't think anything can overthrow the media campaign spreading that Islam is terrorism (even though it's not) because it is so widespread!

  10. thanks Hadji for the comment, and as afraid as I am that you're right, I really hope you're wrong! I also feel that I'm being overly optimistic here, but either way, we've gotta start somewhere... The alternative just isn't acceptable.

  11. Well said Benje, well said. Our nation's opinions do not exist in a bubble, and America will never be a true global leader until the entire nation understands this.

  12. thanks so much Kevin, always love hearing your take on things... Hope all is going well on your end!

  13. Benje;

    a well thoughtout artical and i can see the rays of hope as its getting pitch dark and a large number of pakistanis thinks the way taseer said;but they are silent and the end to this silence is not too far as we and the world cant afford to see absolute darkness.
    Dr Ahmad

  14. bahut shukriya Dr. Ahmad. the darkness is indeed strong, but I pray that you're right about the rays of hope shining through soon! I also have seen so many who think as Taseer did, and I definitely share your hope that the end of their silence is not too far, inshaallah.