The Problem With MNIK

By Yasser Latif Hamdani


Late last week I attended a packed show of “My Name Is Khan”  in Lahore’s DHA Cinema and while I went through all the emotions the film maker wanted to evoke,  I found the film entirely misplaced and misdirected.   The film itself was well made 70 percent of the way. It began to go downhill from the time our hero returned to Georgia to find it stuck in the Civil War era and by the time President Elect Obama made his appearance the film which is essentially Khuda Ke Liye meets Forest Gump meets Rainman meets Milk was completely over the top.

My objections however have nothing to do with Karan Johar’s Masala mix which was to be expected from a Bollywood film. After all Karan Johar is no Shoaib Mansoor and for Karan Johar this is not a life-long undertaking.    Instead my issues arise from the point of view of someone who is self conscious and self styled as a secular-minded modernist of Muslim background who wants to see the Muslim world re-join the world in its march of human progress.   To me the message that MNIK gives is entirely wrong and dogmatic but I’ll come to that in a minute.

In the subcontinent,  secularism is understood primarily in three ways.  The first is the point of view of the small but very Islamist sections who feel that secularism means not just an indifference towards but outright persecution of religion to drive it out not just from the public space but from personal as well. This view equates secularism to irreligiosity or even inherently anti-religion positions.   The second point of view is that the state should ensure equality of citizenship, freedom of religion and an impartiality towards all faiths.  This second view is more in line with modern state secularism and seeks to ensure that everyone is free to go about their own business so long as it does not turn into a brawl.  The third point of view is one which interprets secularism as harmony between religious minded of every religion.  This third point of view is sadly the cause of much heartbreak for good natured people who foolishly ascribe to it.

Sadly MNIK’s message has to do more with position 3 and that minimizes its message.   Towards the end,  Rizwan Khan’s Bhabi- played by our very own Sonia Jehan, the granddaughter of the immortal Nur Jehan- dons the Hijab proudly and makes an emotional point about it.  Hijab is a dogmatic Muslim position which is highly controversial and many Muslim women don’t consider it part of the faith.  That in of itself would not be the problem but the fact is that the dogma of Hijab derives itself from the same rigid straitjacket that frowns on pluralism and modernity. Therefore the pluralistic ethos which seems to underpin MNIK thus sits quite uneasy with the kind of  “Muslimness” it purports to champion simultaneously.   It reminds me of the poignant criticism that Mahatma Gandhi failed to take into account in his own attempts to reconcile orthodox Islam with Hinduism. Achyuth Patwardhan wrote: 

‘It is, however, useful to recognise our share of this error of misdirection. To begin with, I am convinced that looking back upon the course of development of the freedom movement, THE ‘HIMALAYAN ERROR’ of Gandhiji’s leadership was the support he extended on behalf of the Congress and the Indian people to the Khilafat Movement at the end of the World War I. This has proved to be a disastrous error which has brought in its wake a series of harmful consequences. On merits, it was a thoroughly reactionary step. The Khilafat was totally unworthy of support of the Progressive Muslims. Kemel Pasha established this solid fact by abolition of the Khilafat. The abolition of the Khilafat was widely welcomed by enlightened Muslim opinion the world over and Kemel was an undoubted hero of all young Muslims straining against Imperialist domination. But apart from the fact that Khilafat was an unworthy reactionary cause, Mahatma Gandhi had to align himself with a sectarian revivalist Muslim Leadership of clerics and maulvis. He was thus unwittingly responsible for jettisoning sane, secular, modernist leadership among the Muslims of India and foisting upon the Indian Muslims a theocratic orthodoxy of the Maulvis. Maulana Mohammed Ali’s speeches read today appear strangely incoherent and out of tune with the spirit of secular political freedom. The Congress Movement which released the forces of religious liberalism and reform among the Hindus, and evoked a rational scientific outlook, placed the Muslims of India under the spell of orthodoxy and religious superstition by their support to the Khilafat leadership. Rationalist leaders like Jinnah were rebuffed by this attitude of Congress and Gandhi. This is the background of the psychological rift between Congress and the Muslim League’

By championing the cause of the fundamentalist and orthodox Muslims in the name of pluralism,  MNIK greatly weakens its own praiseworthy humanist message.   Furthermore,  MNIK seems fall into the same pitfalls of Paki-bashing when it presents the clean shaven Dr. Faisal Rahman, a medical doctor of South Asian descent, as a terrorist-recruiter.  This is wrong on two counts – 1. most extremism in mosques is preached not by medical doctors, especially of South Asian origin, but by clerics funded and educated by Saudi sponsored Salafi groups and are mostly of Arab origin.   2.   Most Muslim doctors of South Asian descent in the US are Pakistani.   Therefore the angle was mala fide and wrong.   As a general rule, most Pakistani doctors I have come across in the US are voices of reason and moderation and when – if at times- they form part of mosque groups, they tend to act as bridge builders between the community and the society outside.

For these reasons and more,  despite being thoroughly moved by Shahrukh Khan’s remarkable performance as an autistic man,  I am very disappointed by the film because it will only strengthen extremists and only give American Muslims another reason to remain illiberal in their approach to Islam and America. In comparison  Shoaib Mansoor’s brilliant Pakistani film, Khuda Ke Liye, is not preachy and it does not purport to present Islam as what it is not.   What it does is document the struggle and travails of moderate Muslims stuck between the Mullah and American wrath. It too champions identity,  but in contrast to Sonya Jehan’s Hijab-donning ritual,   Khuda Ke Liye has a young man in jeans and baseball cap from the burger class laying an equal claim to faith to that of a Mullah.

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