As a birthday present on my 26th, Fazal and Ain, my two good and close New Jersey friends, showed me the Indian comedy-drama film, PK. Amani, their 5-year old granddaughter, accompanied us as well to the cinema. Born to an American-Pakistani Muslim mother and an American Christian father of Lebanese origin, Amani is a perfect and beautiful blend of Arab, American, Pashtun, Christian, and Islamic identity features.
Sitting beside Amani and eating popcorn while watching the movie, a thought from my past struck me: In childhood, my religious mentor taught me that Muslims are the best people on the planet Earth. I grew up hearing conceited claims that Heaven is only for Muslims. And that non-Muslims will be burnt in Hell forever. Does not matter who. Nelson Mandela? Mother Theresa? All of them. Their virtuousness and humanity does not count at all because they don’t believe in ‘our’ God and our religion, Islam. I was told. I was also taught that non-Muslims could never be friends with Muslims. And that we can never share meal with them as they are not pure like us (Muslims).
Absurd lessons such as these imply that non-Muslims must immediately convert to Islam in order for them to be good human beings and on par with Muslims. It seems as if human dignity is inherent in Muslimness only. However, I have successfully escaped this trap through my own reflection, and through appeal to reason, love, and compassion.
I admit though that I am neither a scholar of Islam nor of religion in general. I have no authority, like everybody else, to certify who is superior and who is inferior in the sight of God. But I do believe that the universality of a religious ideology (Islamic or else) does not mean its uniformity, as there exist a variety of popular religious beliefs with relative strength, potential, and their acceptance by humongous populations. Therefore, they all deserve equal protection and space for an unrestricted and independent practice.
As my train of thoughts continued, I looked at Amani and wondered: What religion does she belong to? Islam or Christianity, a blend of the two, or something in the middle? Or, does her religious identity, if anything, matter at all? Then I wondered what religion does her family as a single whole belong to? What religion does the feeling of love, which bound her parents together, belong to? The answer is that there are no clear divisions due to the complex and crosscutting nature of human identities that interlink us all in multiple and unbelievably varied ways.
But my country Pakistan is the complete opposite of what I believe in and hold dear to my heart. It does not even remotely resemble a place where people of diversity could live in unity and harmony. Far from accepting people of other religions, extremist groups and their sympathizers among masses are at daggers drawn with their coreligionists. Shia Muslims, Ismailis, Ahamdis, Christians, Hindus, and pagan communities in the farthest north of Pakistan have been perpetrated violence against by extremist groups for quite too long. As there does not seem any change in the exclusivist thinking of the people and policies of the state, religious violence is on a rise.
Since the beginning of 2015 only, there have been some large-scale attacks against religious minorities. While the irreparable wounds of Shikarpur and Youhanabad attacks against Shia Muslims and Christians respectively are still fresh in our memory, yet on May 13 another horrific episode of violence was unleashed on Ismailis in Karachi. 43 people including 16 women were murdered in cold blood. I am sure that as some are lamenting the brutal killing of Ismaili Shia, there may be many others who live indifferently in its face as they are led into make-believes that eliminating such ‘heretics’ from the land of Islam and Pakistan is the responsibility of ‘true’ Muslims. And such is also the popular public narrative at homes, in social gatherings on streets, in Islamic education classes at schools, and on loudspeakers in mosques. And this kind of religious hate and exclusivism boils down to one simple but dangerous idea that sectarian killing is necessary for purifying Islam from ‘apostates’. Our collective silence and inability or unwillingness in the face of such murderous ideologies has created a huge void filled in by the preachers of violence and murder in the name of faith.
Therefore, it is high time that we reappraise our thinking by developing a pluralist thought and hence a tolerant society. Accomplishing such pluralism requires challenging individuals, groups, and institutions that desire to impose their extremist narrative on others through violence regardless of their choice in faith. We also need to educate our younger generation which is being, and will continue to be, trapped into make-believes that I experienced myself once. But doing so is not easy when parents forbid their children from reading books antithetical to their beliefs. An educated friend of mine, who is pursuing a master’s degree in the US, was stopped by his ‘educated’ father from reading a book on secularism. Much harder as it is, I suggest it is through trust with our family and friends that we can make pluralist mindsets popular and acceptable among them, in our immediate social circles, and eventually in our communities.
Moreover, with our world coming much closer together than ever before, we have much in common to unite than fight for. I am aware of the fact that religious boundaries can’t simply cease to exist, and certainly for multiple practical reasons and purposes. But, I believe, we can still be accepting of others by thinning our self-created thick and impenetrable walls of religious and cultural identities. Doing so is possible by appealing to our human identity, which is the strongest, the most transcendental, and above all else.
All this may seem too quixotic but still possible and appropriate. And idealism for peace is more than worth trying for. I believe that it is only love for humanity that will counter religious biases and violence justified on their bases. I am not against religion. But its criticism does warrant merit when loathsome and dangerous ideologies associated with it are promoted at the cost of humanity. I do acknowledge that religion does have conspicuous and valuable contributions in providing hope to the hopeless and helpless, in disciplining society, and in reinforcing ethical and human values but it has also limited the scope for practicing humanity.
But I also believe that human beings are hard-wired for virtuousness. Which means they are inherently empathetic without believing in any form of religion. And it is no surprise that many smile at me. I feel loved by thousand others. Million others accept me without any discrimination, no matter where I am in the world. And I see them on my side. On the side of humanity.
PK, released in December 2014, also makes a solid and timely plea for deconstructing millennialist religious narratives propagated by religious “managers” (as rightly called in the movie). On reflection, in the real world, these religious entrepreneurs and their franchises are engaged unabashedly in presenting differences of faith as an existential struggle for establishing transcendental and eschatological truth i.e. their brand of religion is absolutist and superior to all others. It is at such critical juncture that the film strongly demands from us the reappraisal of our thinking about the world and our fellow humans on the planet Earth.
Finally, we need to look at life as a much bigger and richer entity than religion. Religion is just a tiny part of it, not the other way around. There is no one prescribed way to enjoy, live, and understand life in order to be at peace with it. There are in fact million ways to look at it and to live it. Religion, among others, is one way of looking at life and the world. The solution to our problems lies not in aggression but in introspection. In inclusiveness and acceptance of others. Not in Muslim exclusivism. And we must understand that every person has inherent dignity in them, and must strive to act in ways that reaffirm the inherent dignity of every person regardless of faith.