A counter narrative

January 28, 2018

Ziauddin Yousafzai and Muhammad Iqbal who spoke at a recent conference in SOAS, London, embody a progressive Pakistan

A counter narrative

Too many Pakistanis have suffered at the hands of extremism and violence. The latest victim, a college principal in Charsadda, was killed because he reprimanded a student for his absence from college. The student, who had been participating in the Faizabad dharna instead of attending classes, shot the principal, accusing him of blasphemy. For the record, the martyred principal was a Hafiz-e-Quran and had a Masters in Arabic, Pashto and Islamiat.

Once again, religion was used to justify a murder. Once again, an enlightened citizen was targeted, one who understood the essence of religion far better than his wayward attacker. We have seen this before, most recently in the tragic case of Mashal Khan.

Last weekend I had the good fortune of being able to spend some time listening to and interacting with Mashal’s father, Muhammed Iqbal, who was invited to SOAS (University of London), in collaboration with Bloomsbury Pakistan, to deliver the 2018 Bacha Khan Lecture. Malala’s father, Ziauddin Yousafzai, introduced Muhammad Iqbal as Iqbal Lala, as he is affectionately known, as the "bravest Pashtun he ever met".

Students like Malala and Mashal dared to dream. They dared to think freely, and most importantly, they spoke truth to power.

Iqbal Lala’s composure and dignity in the face of adversity was as inspirational as Ziauddin Sahib’s eloquence. As they took the podium, one after the other, their courage, integrity and above all, their humanity, shone through. Both are humble men, neither comes from a wealthy background or a big city. But both share a vision for a progressive Pakistan. As they spoke, I could only wish that university students and civil society in Pakistan had the opportunity to listen to what they had to say, that the Pakistani state could ask for their guidance in helping to build a counter-narrative against the extremist ideology that is destroying the fabric of our society.

Strikingly gracious despite his enormous grief, Iqbal Lala was proud of the fact that people of all religions, Hindus, Sikhs, Christians and Muslims, of all sects, came to pay their respects at the death of his son. Referencing Muhammed Ali Jinnah’s famous speech of August 11, 1947, wherein he advocated the rights of all citizens to practice their religion as they deemed fit and for the State not to interfere, Iqbal Lala emphasised the need to make the contents of that speech a part of the Pakistani constitution.

Equally, he stressed the importance of harmony among the disparate ethnic and linguistic groups of Pakistan. In spite of the horrific manner in which his precious son was maimed and killed, Iqbal Lala harboured no ill-will and displayed no sign of hate towards any group or community. This is important because too often the only counter-narrative to religiously-inspired politics in Pakistan is based on ethno-linguistic affiliations, which, in turn, can be as divisive.

The idea of moving beyond identity politics for a common citizenship based on progressive ideology is really the only counter-narrative that can bring together the many different groups of people within Pakistan to rally against the shared enemy: extremism and violence. Iqbal Lala spoke of the need for safety of all our citizens. He mentioned that in the days of his youth the people of his town did not have doors but only curtains and yet people felt safe. He talked about eid melas where both women and men participated in the public space.

Both Iqbal Lala and Ziauddin Sahib spoke earnestly about breaking the shackles of patriarchy, and in his introduction, Ziauddin Sahib noted that when Iqbal Lala’s first daughter was born, he made sure to celebrate the birth with the fanfare most often reserved for sons in his village. "Real tabdeeli," Ziauddin Sahib said, "is when a brother says he will check with his sister before making a plan with his friends instead of the other way round." He also stressed the importance of inculcating a democratic culture at home, whereby children can freely express their thoughts. These are the family values that he said he and Iqbal Lala had wished to impart to their children.

"Don’t kill them for their questions. Answer their questions," Ziauddin Sahib stated. Students like Malala and Mashal dared to dream. They dared to think freely, and most importantly, they spoke truth to power. Malala spoke out against Talibanisation at a time when the Taliban had wrested control of Swat. And Mashal exposed the corruption at the upper echelons of Wali Khan University. For this, they were targeted. Sadly, when minds are stifled and free expression is restrained, those who wish to turn religion on its head, to justify violence in its name, are given a free rein because reason is taken out of the discourse.

Repeatedly, we have seen those who wish to promote a rational discourse on religion, men like Javed Ghamidi, fend off attacks on their lives or flee the country, while those who yell abuses in the name of religion or destroy public property or orchestrate killings, the likes of Khadim Rizvi, Sufi Mohammed or Ehsanullah Ehsan, call the shots. It is a depressing reality and makes one despondent to think about it, and yet a man like Iqbal Lala, having suffered the most
deadly blow, continues to remain optimistic.

"I have met many good people in Pakistan," he said. "After Mashal’s murder, I know that there are many flowers in Pakistan. It is just that they are yet to become a bouquet."

As he spoke of Iqbal Lala’s resolve, Ziauddin Sahib noted that Iqbal Lala, to him, is "the embodiment of Surah Asar". Surah Asar, one of the shortest surahs in the Quran and hence easy to memorise, emphasises the importance of righteous deeds, truth and patience as the essence of religion.

Unfortunately, those who use religion for political gain, or as a weapon of fear, dissociate religion from its most elementary virtues. Making this distinction, of following the core principles of religion in our personal lives but putting an end to the abuse of religion in the public sphere, is more crucial than ever before.

A counter narrative