By Ghazala Akbar:
Last week I attended a funeral, followed by a ‘Mehendi’ (Henna) ceremony. Fortified by a chicken tikka masala, I was also able to sandwich in an episode from the new BBC sit-com, ‘Citizen Khan’. What’s the big deal you might very well ask or the connection? This is all part of the vicious circle of life and death. Well to me it was a big deal. A humongously big deal. Here’s why:
The ‘Mehendi’ was held within the precincts of a picturesque old English Church, the bride, a British Asian Pakistani Muslim. The deceased also a Pakistani Muslim was buried in a famous Victorian era graveyard just a few yards away from where Karl Marx, co – author of the Communist Manifesto lies. ‘Religion,’ observed Marx some 160 years ago ‘is the opium of the masses.’ The TV show revolves around a pillar of the Pakistani Birmingham Muslim Community, Mr. Khan and his family. It is centered round the local mosque and Community Center and features a welcome non – stereotype, a ginger-haired, white English Imam. Potboiler? Read on…
The bride at the mehendi ceremony arrived to the accompaniment of an ear- shattering Bhangra beat and the usual razzmatazz that is now obligatory in South Asian weddings. In case you were wondering, the groom was a British man, part Christian, and part Jewish. People of THE BOOK. Yes, he is White and yes yes…he has converted to Islam, not forcibly but in deference to the Sharia law forbidding the marriage of Muslim women to non- Muslim men. He didn’t really have to convert but did of his own accord. Britain is not an Islamic country…not yet anyway. The Sharia is not applicable. Anybody can marry anybody as long as they are 16 years of age.
The whole ceremony went off without a hitch. The only bit of excitement and a hint of officious intervention came from the traffic police who politely threatened to tow away a car that was parked ‘Citizen Khan’ style on the pavement. Disappointingly, no Anglican Priest thundered out in flowing robes at the head of a blood-thirsty mob to protest at the sacrilege in the church, charge all with blasphemy or threaten to restore the Spanish Inquisition.
The Church, as many Churches do, serves the local Christians as a place of worship but also rents out its Community Hall to the general public regardless of their beliefs. The hall is perilously close to the Church graveyard. My Pakistani sensibilities acutely aware of all things concerning the afterlife, made me feel that the drumbeat might disturb the souls in eternal sleep or the nerves of the living engaged in quiet contemplation, but no matter. Marriages, births, deaths…the circle of life continues.
Following funeral prayers at the London Central Mosque the deceased was driven to Highgate Cemetery accompanied by his wife, children, mother, family members and friends, Men and… Women! (Do I hear a gasp?) Nobody asked about his faith — whether he was Shia, Sunni or the unmentionable ‘other’. No one raised objections to the presence of women or questioned the deceased’s right to be buried in a predominantly Christian graveyard. How do I know it was a Christian graveyard? Simple. The number of crosses indicated who the majority of the inhabitants were.
He was laid to rest with dignity and respect. All the obligatory Islamic prayers were recited and the rituals observed. His life has been cruelly cut short but he lies peacefully, secure in the knowledge that if his family chose to put verses from the Holy Quran on his headstone…or even a Cross, or a Star of David, for that matter, no busybody would jump up and down accusing them of blasphemy or deface his grave.
Citizen Khan, the television show re-cycles tired jokes from the 1970s interspersed with a few contemporary barbs: (‘on the ITV news today there were 7 items relating to Pakistan, two of them actually positive…’) It uses not-so- subtle humour to point out the hypocrisy and idiosyncrasies of British Pakistani Muslims. The message is clear. We need to lighten up, take a long hard look and see ourselves as we appear to others.
As sit-coms go, it’s a bit tame. Not a patch on ‘Goodness Gracious Me’ or even ‘Mind your Language’. But at least it portrays a tolerably positive image. Mr. Khan is an upwardly – mobile aspiring businessman, not a recently-arrived, Islamo-fascist, honour – killing immigrant scrounging on welfare benefits as Right-wing British tabloids would have you believe. The BBC has received several hundred letters of complaint but no BBC office has been set alight by angry mobs or producers summoned by Judges for promoting obscenity.
All these three events at quintessentially English settings, fictional and real made me think of my country of origin, Pakistan just 6000 miles away but centuries behind in terms of religious tolerance, human rights and the rule of law. I cannot even come close to imagining the ordeal of Rimsha Masih, the mentally-challenged child accused of blasphemy whilst burning the trash. I despair at the thought of the thousands of Christians and other minorities living in fear because they are born of a different faith and want to remain thus.
Here I am, technically part of a religious minority in the UK. I am not vilified,treated as a pariah or threatened with death on the grounds of my faith. There is Rimsha, a native Pakistani citizen whisked off by helicopter from Adiala Jail to an undisclosed location. With the threat of summary mob justice, even the streets of her hometown are too unsafe for her to travel by road.
As I contrast my position with that of Rimsha and other minorities in Pakistan and the religious freedom and protection of the law that we take for granted here, I recall the words of an astute poet /philosopher from Pakistan who observed pithily that when he travelled to the West he saw no Muslims but plenty of Islam but when he returned to the East, he saw plenty of Muslims but no Islam. Now I understand what he meant
Forget the arguments for and against the reform of the Blasphemy law, or the oft – quoted mantra that the law is fine, but the application is faulty. We can argue over its provisions till eternity and probably will. What is most disquieting about the Rimsha affair is the cruelty, lack of humanity and compassion wantonly displayed by the so called defenders of the faith, the courts, and the law- enforcers in the Islamic Republic of Pakistan.
A poor illiterate child, the daughter of sweepers, the lowest of the low, working at a job most Pakistanis cannot bring their pure hands to even contemplate doing is accused, arrested and sent to a maximum – security prison while the great and the good take three weeks pontificating over her age, mental condition and suitability for a trial for an offence that carries the death sentence! She should be in school for pity’s sake!
It is enough to make you wonder who is more mentally-challenged, the accuser or the accused? Who is the guilty party? Who is defaming Islam? It’s not people of other faiths who are giving it a bad name. We seem to be doing a pretty good job of it ourselves. If anybody should be tried, it is all Pakistani Muslims collectively as a nation. We are all guilty.
However, all is not lost. There is a faint glimmer of hope. In this climate of fear where the outspoken Governor of Punjab Salmaan Taseer and the Religious Minorities Minister Shahbaaz Bhatti were both gunned down for speaking out, the one redeeming factor is the courage displayed by the two witnesses who counter – accused a cleric of planting extra ‘evidence’ to frame the girl.
It took them three weeks to obey the dictates of their conscience but they did. That is courage worthy of a Sitar e Jurat, a medal the State hands out to those who distinguish themselves in battle. As a senior Government official, speaking on conditions of anonymity said ‘look this time the mob did not attack the house or kill the girl. If you look at the way people have spoken out for Rimsha, the positive role played by the media and the charges against the Imam, none of this would have happened before.’ Progress indeed.
More advances could be made if the ubiquitous Pakistan media were to go a step further and actively promote a positive image of Pakistani Christians. They should take the lead of the cleric Tahirul Ashrafi who commendably referred to Rimsha as a ‘daughter of the nation’. This is a far cry from those bigots who regard the term Pakistani Christian as something of an oxymoron. Christians are the largest religious minority in Pakistan.
Pakistani Muslims need to be re-educated about Christianity. They need to come across Christian names in textbooks and they need to see Christians characterized prominently on television soaps and dramas…as lawyers, doctors, engineers, teachers… not as Minorities but as Pakistani citizens. This ought to be done 24 x 7…not just on Christmas Eve. Perhaps one day, in the not-too- distant future, a channel can also have a TV serial around a fictional Pakistani Christian family called ‘Citizen Rimsha, daughter of Pakistan.’ As Martin Luther famously said ‘I have a dream…’!