Shaheryar Ali

Years back when Hindu fascists demolished the historic Babri mosque, many headlines in the Indian press next day were some thing like “A day of National Humiliation”. The Indian media which every one these days in Pakistan seem to be lecturing on “ethics”,” professionalism”, “peace” etc. This was a true act of patriotism on part of India’s media. They were identifying a great distortion which was emerging in India’s secular democracy, the communal fascism which had the potential to destroy the Indian democracy. No concept of democracy is possible without “critical thought”, it’s the criticism which helps democracy evolve and flourish. All prejudices were once laws enshrined in the constitutions. Most of them represented the “national interests” of the states. Colonialism was one such thing, Slavery was another. Individuals challenged their states, faced persecutions and torture but they brought about a change. The societies which become totally non critical about their rulers and elites perish. As the Bombay tragedy unfolded, Pakistani media, state, political parties and even some liberal and ex progressives adopted a line which consisted of criticism of Indian press, media and government. A policy of continuous denial was adopted, in name of patriotism, in name of “support” of the democratic regime, in name of “peace”. What was forgotten was that India and Pakistani democratic regime effectively are hostages of the same enemy. Benazir Bhutto was shot dead by the same elements on which India is pointing fingers too, whose existence we were denying.

When the Indian government declared to the world that the attackers came from Pakistan, it was dismissed as “India’s obsession with Pakistan”, we were reminded by our Liberal Intellectuals that “Indians must stop blaming Pakistan for their own policy mistakes, India has 17 insurgencies”.  When India issued details of the terrorist Ajmal Kasab, it was turned into a “joke” by our press, leaders and intellectuals. First we were told “there is no FaridKot” in Pakistan, FareedKot is in Bangladesh” [Daily Jang]. This was too stupid so than we discovered geographical remoteness of FaridKot, some of our great Liberals couldn’t find Faridkot on map, it was mocked. No terrorist factory was discovered at Faridkot. It was a small village where no one has went on Jihad [Daily Jang]. Just like in Kargil when we refused to accept corpses of our dead soldiers, we refused to accept Ajmal Kasab. When some of us were trying to remind Pakistan, about the dangers of politics of denial, fatwas of ideological fanaticism were issued against us. Our government kept denying and United Nations Security Council banned Jammat ut dawa. We raided on all the offices which were denying. Where all these offices in Karachi, Multan, and Lahore did now came from?? RAW planted them over night or was it the work of Mossad?? Even China refused to block the move [A thing which she has done twice before]. If the epicenter of Mumbai attacks didn’t existed in Pakistan as India suggested and on which our blood boiled so fast why we are arresting innocent people than??

The most embarrassing development was the expose published by Dawn today, which now proves that the Terrorist infect is Pakistani from the same Faridkot which we couldn’t find on our map. His father identified him. Now what credibility do  our press, intellectuals, leaders, and government have? Who will now believe on us? Rehman Malik even today said he “wants proofs” from India. What proof is he looking for?

It’s a day of a national humiliation for us. Ajmal Kasab is a Pakistani from Faridkot a fact we kept on denying at every level. But will we learn but alas ‘we still need proof”.

Daily Dawn must be congratulated for this true act of resistance. It has made us all proud they have shown us the cancer which we keep denying. I will not be surprised if the story is retracted, the pressure of state is immense but Truth has come out. Dawn has done a great service to Pakistan, an act of genuine patriotism. Now we must act, not like as we did yesterday when 24 hour notice was given to Jamatuddawa activists to leave their offices along with the record. The police was waiting for “written orders” before they started the crack down. Neither should we act by making Hafiz Saeed a hero as we did showing his press conference and than detaining him in luxury of his home.  Perhaps now Liberal patriots will find the geographical location of FaridKot and will discover it is a recruiting ground for L e T and that FaridKot is not that “remote” either. Its time to clean our house!! Its time to accept and seek foregiveness.

Crackdown hints at Faridkot-Mumbai link

Dawn Special Report


KARACHI, Dec 11: The targeting of Lashkar-e-Taiba and Jamaatud Dawa and the rounding up of the activists belonging to the two jihadi organisations appear to have been triggered by information originating in India following the capture of one of the 10 men who attacked several targets in Mumbai towards the end of last month.

During the course of Dawn’s own investigations last week our reporters were able to locate a family who claimed to be the kin of the arrested young man in Mumbai.

The sole survivor among the 10 attackers was named as Ajmal Kasab and was supposed to belong to the village Faridkot in the Punjab. Media organisations such as the BBC and now the British newspaper Observer have done reports trying to ascertain the veracity of claims appearing in the media that the young man had a home there.

On Friday last, the BBC reported unusual activity in Faridkot near Deepalpur. A BBC correspondent located a house in the village, the then inhabitants of which carried the surname of Kasab (or Qasab as the word is often spelt here). But the residents denied any link with either Ajmal or with any Amir Kasab, the name of Ajmal’s father as reported by some of the media.

At the weekend, the Observer in England claimed that it had managed to locate the house everyone was looking for so desperately. Its correspondent said he had got hold of the voters’ roll which had the names of Amir Kasab and his wife, identified as Noor, as well as the numbers on the identity cards the couple carried.

Even though the news stories by both BBC and the Observer made a mention of the LeT, some television channels in Pakistan suggested that a connection between Mumbai and Faridkot could not be established beyond a shadow of doubt.

However, the man who said he was Amir Kasab confirmed to Dawn that the young man whose face had been beamed over the media was his son.

For the next few minutes, the fifty-something man of medium build agonized over the reality that took time sinking in, amid sobs complaining about the raw deal the fate had given him and his family.

“I was in denial for the first couple of days, saying to myself it could not have been my son,” he told Dawn in the courtyard of his house in Faridkot, a village of about 2,500 people just a few kilometres from Deepalpur on the way to Kasur. “Now I have accepted it.

“This is the truth. I have seen the picture in the newspaper. This is my son Ajmal.”

Variously addressed as Azam, Iman, Kamal and Kasav, the young man, apparently in his 20s, is being kept in custody at an undisclosed place in Mumbai.

Indian media reports ‘based on intelligence sources’ said the man was said to be a former Faridkot resident who left home a frustrated teenager about four years ago and went to Lahore.

After his brush with crime and criminals in Lahore, he is said to have run into and joined a religious group during a visit to Rawalpindi.

Along with others, claimed the Indian media, he was trained in fighting. And after a crash course in navigation, said Amir Kasab, a father of three sons and two daughters, Ajmal disappeared from home four years ago.

“He had asked me for new clothes on Eid that I couldn’t provide him. He got angry and left.”

While Amir was talking, Ajmal’s two “sisters and a younger brother” were lurking about. To Amir’s right, on a nearby charpoy, sat their mother, wrapped in a chador and in a world of her own. Her trance was broken as the small picture of Ajmal lying in a Mumbai hospital was shown around. They appeared to have identified their son. The mother shrunk back in her chador but the father said he had no problem in talking about the subject.

Amir Kasab said he had settled in Faridkot after arriving from the nearby Haveli Lakha many years ago. He owned the house and made his earnings by selling pakoras in the streets of the village.

He modestly pointed to a hand-cart in one corner of the courtyard. “This is all I have. I shifted back to the village after doing the same job in Lahore.

“My eldest son, Afzal, is also back after a stint in Lahore. He is out working in the fields.”

Faridkot is far from the urbanites’ idea of a remote village. It is located right off a busy road and bears all the characteristics of a lower-middle class locality in a big city.

It has two middle-level schools, one for girls and the other for boys which Ajmal attended as a young boy. For higher standards, the students have to enroll in schools in Deepalpur which is not as far off as the word remote tends to indicate.

It by no means qualifies as Punjab’s backwaters, which makes the young Ajmal’s graduation to an international “fearmonger” even more difficult to understand. The area can do with cleaner streets and a better sewage system but the brick houses towards the side of the Kasur-Deepalpur road have a more organised look to them than is the case with most Pakistani villages.

The Observer newspaper reports that some locals seeking anonymity say the area is a hunting ground for the recruiters of LeT and provides the organisation with rich pickings.

The approach to Faridkot also points to at least some opportunities for those looking for a job. There are some factories in the surroundings, rice mills et al, interspersed with fertile land. But for the gravity of the situation, with its mellowed and welcoming ambience, the picture could be serene.

It is not and Amir Kasab repeats how little role he has had in the scheme since the day his son walked out on him. He calls the people who snatched Ajmal from him his enemies but has no clue who these enemies are. Asked why he didn’t look for his son all this while, he counters: “What could I do with the few resources that I had?”

Otherwise quite forthcoming in his answers, Amir Kasab, a mild-mannered soul, is a bit agitated at the mention of the link between his son’s actions and money. Indian media has claimed that Ajmal’s handlers had promised him that his family will be compensated with Rs150,000 (one and a half lakh) after the completion of the Mumbai mission.

“I don’t sell my sons,” he retorts.

Journalists visiting Faridkot since Dawn reporters were at the village say the family has moved from their home and some relatives now live in the house. Perhaps fearing a media invasion, nobody is willing to say where the family has gone.

Thanks Daily Dawn : Founded by  M.A. Jinnah

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Shaheryar Ali

Pakistan is not a democracy; it’s a country in democratic transition. After a long military rule, the oligarchy which has been ruling this country since day one has agreed to share some power with politicians. This arrangement is being hailed as “democracy” in Pakistan and which is also being blamed for every thing, from incompetence to corruption, two of the most frequently used charges which have been used by oligarchy to take power directly in their hands. Whilst corporatization of media is being hailed as “freedom of media”, aestheticization of radicalism is going on, the anti-establishment slogans of democratic forces are being converted into mantras chanted by every one from Jamate Islami to General Hameed Gul, and no one bothers to understand what the values of oligarchy were and what the values of democratic forces in Pakistan were.

With a country in democratic transition, we often forget that policies of post-colonial states especially those like Pakistan which had taken Neo-fascist turn some time in their history [Zia era], cannot be reversed in few months. It needs a structural reform within the state itself. With a few months of PPP-ANP coalition such a structural reform has not yet occurred. Attempts to do such reform have been severely criticized by dominant classes in Pakistan and hence have to be abandoned. Attempts by PPP to bring ISI under political control were converted into a scandal by corporate media and its allies. Similar campaign is going on with the Pakhtoonkhawa issue where Right wing has openly come up in arms against government. These two issues represent the core issues when it comes to challenge the oligarchy. ISI has been blamed by almost all political forces in Pakistan for its attempts to control democracy and for spreading Jihad. [Jamate Islami and PML-N joined this anti-ISI campaign during Musharraf era, once he has gone both of them have again joined the so called “patriotic camp” as opposed to Socialists and Nationalists who were historically considered Indian agents and security risks].

Mumbai attacks have once again exposed this paradox in Pakistan. In the name of Patriotism, public opinion in Pakistan is again being mobilized in favor of certain values of oligarchy. Every where we are listening to media , liberal and right wing  intellectuals condemning “blame game” and “India’s knee jerk reaction” against Pakistan. We are being reminded of the geographical remoteness of Fareed Kot and other “holes” in Indian propaganda. In all this patriotic discourse, what we are forgetting is that it’s Pakistan not India which has more at stake. The first victim of this sort of patriotism, which subscribes to values of Oligarchy and its State and not to the values of people, will be democracy in Pakistan and this time the state may not recover from its consequences. When Mr Manmohan Singh talks about “certain elements within Pakistan” being responsible for the attacks we are fast to condemn it. But are we that naive or suffering from collective amnesia. Have we forgotten that our agencies along with CIA supported insurgency in a country against a government which we recognized as legal government and had diplomatic ties with. For all the period of Afghan Jihad, our government at all international forums shamelessly maintained that Pakistan is “not interfering” in Afghanistan and our support is strictly moral and humanitarian in nature. Then any one who tried to warn oligarchy against it was termed as a “soviet agent” or “RAW agent”.
Did our denial do us any good? Today we are facing the consequences of our denials. The holy warriors we created with help of USA are now the greatest security threat our nation has ever faced.
Now lets come to India, we for the last 50 years or more are saying again and again at every international and national forum that Pakistan’s support to Kashmiri cause is “strictly moral, political and humanitarian”. Who are we trying to fool? India, the world or our selves? Have we not seen in our colleges and universities “Kashmir chalo” and “Jihad e Kashmir” programmes of Jamate Islami  and  Lashker e Toiba etc. Have we forgotten the money boxes at our departmental stores to fund “Kashmir Jihad”. Or have we forgotten the slogans of “ Sabilina Sabilina Al-Jihad Al-Jihad”. Have we forgotten the press conferences of Sallahuhdin of Hizab ul Mujaideen. Have we forgotten the CDs and DVDs of Kashmiri mujahideen , the messages of mothers that “if I had another son ill send him to Kashmir as well”. Was all this very far back? Most of these organizations were allowed to operate by different names in General Musharraf’s time but were they were destroyed? Have Mureedke and Mansoora been shut down? Hafiz Saeed and Molana Masood Azhar serving time in prisons?.

Have we forgotten Kargil as well? Didn’t it happen when Pakistan had a “democratic government.” Isn’t it a fact that the then Prime minister who was chief executive of Pakistan , with far more powers than PM Gilani, to this  day maintains that he was “not aware” of this operation at all. Have we forgotten as well that once again we maintained that those at the Kargil peaks were “Mujahideen” fighting Indian occupation, and than we accepted it was our regular Army troops and we had the audacity of giving our martyrs “Nishan e Haider”, those very officers whose corpses we were reluctant to accept a few days back. Have we forgotten all that? Have we forgotten that Right wing till few days back was calling to hang General Musharraf, for Kargil operation? So what great revolutionary reform Pakistan has done in her security establishment that they are now completely following political authority? What have been done to counter the Fatwas telling us about the great gifts in paradise for engaging in “Ghizwa e Hind”. Have some of our political parties and patriotic generals offered Toba for their ambition of putting “green flag” of Red Fort. Have we really forgotten all this?

Our great patriots through out 1990s kept vehemently denying reports in Indian and United States press regarding nuclear proliferation. We also kept denouncing Pervez Hoodbhoy , Munno Bhai and others who pointed fingers at Dr AQ Khan. Then one day whole world knew. Did our denials help? We had to bring “Mohsin e Pakistan” on TV to confess to his crimes. Now our patriots want us to believe that “only AQ Khan” was involved. Iqbal’s Merd e Momin use to load tonnes of equipment himself on planes and than use to fly it himself. Have we ever looked at our denials?
With this track record is it fair to blame India for a “knee jerk reaction”?

If we don’t have such “elements” in Pakistan, who are we fighting in FATA? Who are we fighting in Swat? If Pakistan does not have such elements then who is blowing these bombs in Pakistan? Or have Osama Bin Ladin, Bait ullah Mehsood and Mullah Omar signed a decree that India is not their target? Or have they declared Kashmiri Jihad invalid? Let’s take this argument that India is our professed enemy and threat to our state [Which Zardari denied in his interview], so she blames us for every thing. Who is killing Chinese persons in Pakistan? People’s Republic of China has similar complaints. Russia, Iran and Central Asian Republics all have at one time or another blamed these “elements within Pakistan”. So is every one our enemy? Is this paranoid and schizoid mentality with overt narcissism an expression of Patriotism?

The result of all these denials and non critical approach toward every declaration of oligarchy as patriotic values Pakistan’s very existence is now at stake. We find a strange pleasure in reminding ourselves that there are 17 insurgencies going on in India. Though we never bother to know about these insurgencies, most of them are Maoist insurgencies, which have very different character than Islamist insurgency [we can look at Nepal to see how these insurgencies work, how politics is always the base of such insurgency or one can read Eqbal Ahmad’s studies on Vietnam and Algerian resistance and Left wing guerrilla warfare to differentiate it from Islamist terrorism] or let it be A, B or C insurgency. We have 4 provinces, and we have insurgencies in 2. The third one is in midst of ethnic conflict between Mohajir and Pathan and a possible Mohajir-Sindhi conflict. Punjab has a deep conflict with Sariaki region, which is strongly becoming hub of religious extremism. Many suicide bombers belong to Saraiki South Punjab. Ghazi Brothers of Red Mosque also belonged to southern Punjab.

Furthermore, Linguistic chauvinism of Pakistani establishment has resulted in deep conflicts in all nationalities of Pakistan, Bengali, Sindhi, Baluchi and Pakhtoon. The Oligarchy’s refusal to resolve the Nationalist Question has pushed Pakistan to the limit. The disillusioned Pakhtoon Nationalists are joining ranks of Taliban in Afghanistan and Pakistan. Asfand Yar Khan is loosing legitimacy fast in Pakhtoonkhawa because nothing promised to him has been delivered yet. On the other hand a vicious campaign by Oligarchy against ANP is going on. Targeting Pakhtoon population in Karachi by a party with close ties to GHQ is yet another pressure tactic to discredit and break Asfand Yar Khan. How long ANP can withstand the rapidly growing deep resentment in Pakhtoon population living across both sides of Durand Line and keep insisting on doing politics of federation, [ANP opposed other nationalist parties position of converting Pakistan into a loose confederation of nationalities and  on this issue didn’t joined PONAM. It kept supporting a strong federal system with genuine provincial autonomy] is a matter I leave to history. But if ANP stopped federal politics it will be a tragedy similar to Awami League’s.

The same is happening in South Punjab. Baluchistan is already at a very advance level of chaos. One only has to observe what happened in Baluchistan on the death anniversary of  Shaheed Ballaj Murree to see the real situation. Mir Raisani’s puppet government has no legitimacy within the Baluch population. Oligarchy’s policy of divide and rule when it comes to national question has pushed Pakistan on verge of collapse.

With Karachi riots time has come that we should stop looking at others “knee jerk” reactions and first put our own house in order. For us this is an existential question. We need to reform our state structure; resolve the National question; redefine our provinces and undertake constitutional reform to make Pakistan a secular democracy. Ritualistic chanting of progressive slogans and cursing mullahs will not do us any good. We need to see what the progressive values were and who is behind the Mullah

by Shaheryar Ali

Fire billows from the Taj Mahal Palace hotel on 27/11/08

Once again they have attacked, at the heart of Bombay. Bombay is every thing which they hate. Bombay is Freedom, Bombay is Life, Bombay is Music, Bombay is Light. This is the  attack on city of Lights. 100 people have been killed in cold blood. The attack is an attempt to over throw Indian democracy and secularism. The madness which has engulfed this world due to George Bush’s and OBL’s war of Terror has now struck  India.

Mumbai citizen reads the morning newspaper on 27/11/08

India stands as an anti thesis of every thing on which OBL and Bush believe. A country with many languages, cultures and religions and yet a nation united on the principles of democracy , secularism, equality and social justice and modernism..

They will fail to destroy India , they will fail to destroy the thousands of years old tradition of culture of tolerance and wisdom. Bombay lives, united and whole, full of lights and music, it will once again be. Prophets of darkness can never defeat Light. Because Light is eternal because Light is truth .  Bombay is the new Beirut , a war zone , where Imperialists  and Fascists play havoc. But neither did Beirut surrender nor will Bombay.

The gloomy night which came to city of lights has reminded me the lines of Faiz Ahmad Faiz , which he wrote for Lahore. “O city of Lights”. Today his city is Bombay. Today our city is Bombay and we will not surrender.

“City of Lights”

On each patch of green, from one shade to the next,
the noon is erasing itself by wiping out all color,
becoming pale, desolation everywhere,
the poison of exile painted on the walls.
In the distance,
there are terrible sorrows, like tides:
they draw back, swell, become full, subside.
They’ve turned the horizon to mist.
And behind that mist is the city of lights,
my city of many lights.

How will I return to you, my city,
where is the road to your lights? My hopes
are in retreat, exhausted by these unlit, broken walls,
and my heart, their leader, is in terrible doubt.

But let all be well, my city, if under
cover of darkness, in a final attack,
my heart leads its reserves of longings
and storms you tonight. Just tell all your lovers
to turn the wicks of their lamps high
so that I may find you, Oh, city,
my city of many lights.

(Translated by Agha Shahid Ali)

Of the three great systems of exclusion governing discourse — prohibited words, the division of madness and the will to truth ———” Foucault

The non-existence of women is the most important problem that has plagued the discourse in the Muslim countries. “Representational discourse” is in itself a discourse of exclusion, the “woman” and “woman hood” are representational entities, the Woman has always been be represented in the discourse , she never had her own voice. The famous existential philosopher Simone de Beauvior whilst writing her seminal feminist work “The second Sex” reached the conclusion : “No Human is born a Woman”.

In fundamentalist ‘Islamic’ context this representational discourse acquired a legal status where woman was judged to be unworthy of testimony. De-humanization of woman reached its peak under the USA sponsored Islamization of the Muslim world. General Muhammed Zia ul Haq and the theologians brought the “Law of Evidence” according to which the testimony of the woman was to be considered half of that of man. The traditional reading of Islam brought about the concept of “Naqis ul Aqal” “semi compos mentis” for the Woman. An animal which is not capable of making independent decisions, is source of Sin and lust and hence must be covered in a black veil, to protect the piety of Men, whose place is within the 4 walls of the house and who cant leave it without a male relative escorting her.

“Zina” (or fornication) became the ultimate focus of the project that aimed to suppress women’s sexuality with the fear of stones and lashes. “Chador or Char divari” became the official state doctrine for “woman” with approval from Mansoora! [Pakistan’s self-styled Vatican, headquarter of the Jamate Islami]

The Progressive left led a heroic struggle against the Neo Fascist Zia ul Haq, resulting in one of the most brutal crackdown against them, hangings, torture,murders,exiles, lashes—. Fahmida Riaz , Kishwar Naheed stood up against this tyranny , the result was the emergence of a radical feminist discourse that was modernist and progressive and which challenged the Islamist discourse on woman.

Fehmida Riaz is a true artist who never compromised , she was victimized by Zia ul Haq and his political Son Nawaz Sharif but she stood firm. Chador aur Char Divari is one of the most important poems ever written in Urdu. It traces the origins of Islamist exclusionist discourse and de constructs it. It asserts the “humanity” of woman , her independent will and voice and her challenge to the tyrants.

Translation follows

Four Walls and a Black Veil
What shall I do, Sire, with this black veil?
Why do you bestow on me this great favour?
I am not in mourning that I should wear it
To show the world my grief.
Nor am I sick That I should hide my shame
In its dark folds. S
Stamp my forehead with this Dismal seal?
If I am not too impudent, Sire
If you assure my life, may I tell you, Most humbly:
There lies, in your perfumed chamber, A corpse that stinks.
It begs for pity. Cover that shroudless corpse.
Not me. Its stench is everywhere. It cries for seclusion.
Listen to the heart-rending screams
Of those still naked beneath the veil.
You must know them well, these maids:
The hostage women of vanquished peoples,
Halal for a night, exiled at dawn;
The slave girls who carried your blessed seed
And brought forth children of half status only, yet
Was it not honour enough for them?
The wives who wait their precious turns
To pay homage to the conjugal couch;
The hapless, cowering girl-child
Whose blood will stain your gray beard red.

Life has no more tears to shed; it shed them all
In that fragrant chamber where, for ages now,
This sacrificial drama has played
And replayed. Please, Sire, bring it down.
The curtain. Now. You need it to cover the corpse.
I am not on this earth merely as a signet
Of your great lust.

These four walls and this black veil—
Let them bless the rotting remains.
I have spread my sails
In the open wind, on the wide seas,
And by my side a man stands,
A companion who won my trust

An exceptionally bold critique of the traditional values about woman
in Islamic societies, A historicist reading of the poem
can lead to accusation of Blasphemy!.Another of the crime
which was being done by Islamist regimes all over was the destruction
and denial of woman's sexuality. She was being ordered to lie
passively beneath the man, her husband as a religious duty. 
The woman who denies the advances of her husband was the subject
of curses by the Angeles of God,  the Aroused man
was like a solider of God with sword in hand, any
expression of sexuality by her was Sin ,her perfume could destroy
the piety of Men,her voice can make them mad and put them on
path of Sin and lust.Any awareness of sexuality could make her a
"Rebel out of control". In Arab world the mutilation of female
children in name of "circumcision" is the politics of orgasmic
control.By doing so these women are deprived of "sexual pleasure"
for ever, making them just an instrument for pleasure of the male.
Any pleasure on behalf of her is a Sin."Modesty" and "Asexuality"
were another of Islamists doctrines,challenged by Fehmida Riaz.
French Kiss is a lovely poem by Riaz, an expression of 
female sexuality and her humanity.

 

Deep Kiss

Deep myrrh-scented kiss,
deep with the tongue, suffused
with the musky perfume
of the wine of love: I'm reeling
with intoxication, languid
to the point of numbness,
yet with a mind so roused
an eye flies open
in every cell.

And you! Sucking my breath,
my life, from its deepest,
most ancient abode.

Kiss.
Wet, warm, dark.
Pitch black!
Like a moonless night,
when rain comes flooding in.

A glint of runaway time
fleeing in the wilderness of my soul
seems to be drawing closer.

I sway across a shadowy bridge.
It's about to end, I think,
somewhere ahead,
there is light.

Breaking the Silence----Fahmida Riaz

Shaheryar Ali

Of the three great systems of exclusion governing discourse – prohibited words, the division of madness and the will to truth …” Foucault

“If we don’t believe in freedom of expression for people we despise, we don’t believe in it at all.”, Noam Chomsky

The most important system of control of discourse working in the moslem societies is “prohibition”. An imagined ‘Islam’ has emerged as the single most important tool for censorship in Islamic world. When it involves other issues like “blasphemy” one could be certain that no voice will ever emerge in opposition to censorship. This is one of the most suffocating experiences to live in when those who struggled all their lives for change and freedom appear to be on board with the tyrants. It is precisely this “ideological gap” within the progressive and modernist moslem establishment which let people like Ayan Hirsi Ali to emerge!

Heroine of the “new Right”, its fashionable these days to slander and dismiss Ali in almost all progressive circles of Europe. The problem unfortunately will not disappear by this continuous “Tabbara” on her. The lacuna within the progressive left ,which has sealed its lips in name of “anti imperialism” on fundamentalism, freedom of expression, and Islamic roots of violence and subjugation of women, has to be filled. The alliances from Lebanon to Islamabad with Islamic fundamentalism have to be broken and progressive position be taken on feminism and other “transitory demands”.

Keeping the Neo-conservative political agenda aside ,Ali stands out as a bold and eloquent lady who has dared to break the silence on Islamic gendricide. “The caged Virgin” and “The Son Factory” stand out as phenomenal contribution on developing a radical feminist discourse in moslem world. The article I have chosen present the core argument of the progressive moslem left , the argument of “moderate moslem majority” – that “the moderates” are silent .

I recall a line: “Since the holocaust, you know what the Jews fear the most?” ” The Silence!”

Queer As Folk

*************************************

Islam’s Silent Moderates

Ayan Hirsi Ali

In the last few weeks, in three widely publicized episodes, we have seen Islamic justice enacted in ways that should make Muslim moderates rise up in horror.

A twenty-year-old woman from Qatif, Saudi Arabia, reported that she had been abducted by several men and repeatedly raped. But judges found the victim herself to be guilty. Her crime is called “mingling”: when she was abducted, she was in a car with a man not related to her by blood or marriage, and in Saudi Arabia that is illegal. Last month, she was sentenced to six months in prison and two hundred lashes with a bamboo cane.

The woman and the man guilty of adultery or fornication, flog each of them with 100 stripes: Let no compassion move you in their case, in a matter prescribed by Allah, if you believe in Allah and the Last Day. (Quran 24:2)

Two hundred lashes are enough to kill a strong man. Women usually receive no more than thirty lashes at a time, which means that for seven weeks the “girl from Qatif,” as she is usually described in news articles, will dread her next session with Islamic justice. When she is released, her life will certainly never return to normal: already there have been reports that her brother has tried to kill her because her “crime” has tarnished her family’s honor.

We also saw Islamic justice in action in Sudan, when a fifty-four-year-old British teacher named Gillian Gibbons was sentenced to fifteen days in jail before the government pardoned her this week; she could have faced forty lashes. When she began a reading project with her class involving a teddy bear, Gibbons suggested the children choose a name for it. They chose Muhammad; she let them do it. This was deemed to be blasphemy.

Then there is Taslima Nasreen, the forty-five-year-old Bangladeshi writer who bravely defends women’s rights in the Muslim world. Forced to flee Bangladesh, she has been living in India. But Muslim groups there want her expelled, and one has offered five hundred thousand rupees for her head. In August, she was assaulted by Muslim militants in Hyderabad, and in recent weeks she has had to leave Kolkata and then Rajasthan. Nasreen’s visa expires next year, and she fears she will not be allowed to live in India again.

It is often said that Islam has been “hijacked” by a small extremist group of radical fundamentalists. The vast majority of Muslims are said to be moderates. But where are the moderates? Where are the Muslim voices raised over the terrible injustice of incidents like these? How many Muslims are willing to stand up and say, in the case of the girl from Qatif, that this manner of justice is appalling, brutal, and bigoted–and that no matter who said it was the right thing to do and how long ago it was said, this should no longer be done?

Usually, Muslim groups like the Organization of the Islamic Conference are quick to defend any affront to the image of Islam. The organization, which represents fifty-seven Muslim states, sent four ambassadors to the leader of my political party in the Netherlands asking him to expel me from parliament after I gave a newspaper interview in 2003 noting that, by Western standards, some of Muhammad’s behavior would be unconscionable.

A few years later, Muslim ambassadors to Denmark protested the cartoons of Muhammad and demanded that their perpetrators be prosecuted. But while the incidents in Saudi Arabia, Sudan, and India have done more to damage the image of Islamic justice than a dozen cartoons depicting Muhammad, the organizations that lined up to protest the hideous Danish offense to Islam are quiet now.

I wish there were more Islamic moderates. For example, I would welcome some guidance from that famous Muslim theologian of moderation, Tariq Ramadan. But when there is true suffering, real cruelty in the name of Islam, we hear, first, denial from all these organizations that are so concerned about Islam’s image. We hear that violence is not in the Quran, that Islam means peace, that this is a hijacking by extremists and a smear campaign, and so on. But the evidence mounts to the contrary.

Islamic justice is a proud institution, one to which more than a billion people subscribe, at least in theory, and in the heart of the Islamic world it is the law of the land. But take a look at the verse above: more compelling even than the order to flog adulterers is the command that the believer show no compassion. It is this order to choose Allah above his sense of conscience and compassion that imprisons the Muslim in a mindset that is archaic and extreme.

If moderate Muslims believe there should be no compassion shown to the girl from Qatif, then what exactly makes them so moderate? When a moderate Muslim’s sense of compassion and conscience collides with matters prescribed by Allah, he should choose compassion. Unless that happens much more widely, a moderate Islam will remain wishful thinking.

Miss Ali was born in an influential Somili family, her father was a major political figure who resisted the Marxist dictatorship in Somalia, She was raised a devout moslem and has studied at a Saudi religious school as well, she escaped to Europe to avoid a forced marriage and abuse. She studied dutch and Political Science in Netherlands and soon rose to prominence . She was elected to the Dutch Parliament on a Liberal Party ticket, initially she was in Labour which she soon left due to “Left’s silence” of Islamic fundamentalism. Deeply influenced by “European Enlightenment” she came out strongly against organized religions including Islam and Christianity. She wrote the screenplay of VanGoh’s movie “Submission” that made her a target of extremists. These event made her closer to the Neo-Conservative right. She is fellow of the conservative American think tank “American Enterprise Institute”. An out spoken feminist and secular humanist ,Ali has received many prestigious honors as well as death threats. She is included in Time magazine 100 most influential thinkers. Her work on comparison of thought of John Stuart Mill and Islam and her defense of European Enlightenment as “collective human asset” are especially important.

Discourse” is nothing but all “written and verbal communication”. In line of Gramsci and later Foucault we have to understand “discourse” as “institutionalized” way of thinking, or in words of Judith Butler “limits of acceptable” speech. Its these limits which must be subverted in order to reach a true libertarian discourse. The discourse is controlled by means of “exclusion”, no other opinion simply exists. Foucault writes: “I am supposing that is every society the production of discourse is at once controlled, selected, organized and redistributed according to a certain number of procedures, whose role is to avert its powers and its dangers, to cope with chance events, to evade its ponderous, awesome materiality. In a society such as our own we all know the rules of exclusion. The most obvious and familiar of these concerns what is prohibited “Of the three great systems of exclusion governing discourse — prohibited words, the division of madness and the will to truth ———” “I believe we must resolve ourselves to accept three decisions which our current thinking rather tends to resist, and which belong to the three groups of function I have just mentioned: to question our will to truth; to restore to discourse its character as an event; to abolish the sovereignty of the signifier…. One can straight away distinguish some of the methodological demands they imply. A principle of reversal, first of all…. Next, then, the principle of discontinuity ….” I am planning to do all this , i am trying to bring forward the “prohibited voices”, those which have been totally eclipsed in the society by the dominant discourse. This is not “endorsing” one and rejecting “others”, rather, its simply a act of breathing , an act of subversion ,of saying what is not pleasant to hear, Its simply an act of living in the rotten stagnant conformity. Due to the overtly political nature of “war on terror”, Islamism has suffered a qualitative change , it has taken the postmodern shape. The Progressive Islamist circles have in turn become “Post-Islamists”, the result is emergence of a discourse which is reactionary, anti modern and some times overtly racist and fascist. Islam has nothing to do with violence Islam needs no re thinking or change Its all Jewish conspiracy Its all America’s fault. Professor Ziauddin Sardar is a post colonial theorist based in the United Kingdom, he has contributed a lot on “Islam and civilization” debate. He also initiated the famous “Brown saab” debate with distinguished British Novelist [controversial in Islamist circles] Sir Salman Rushdie. A committed and believing Moslem, Sardar has an Islamist past but his empirical and enlightened approach has made it possible for him to contribute on problems of Islam in perhaps most influential way. These  two articles subvert the dominant approaches to understanding Islam in Post-colonial era. Shaheryar Ali (more…)

Discourse” is nothing but all “written and verbal communication”. In line of Gramsci and later Foucault we have to understand “discourse” as “institutionalized” way of thinking, or in words of Judith Butler “limits of acceptable” speech. Its these limits which subverted in order to reach a true libertarian discourse. The discourse is controlled by means of “exclusion”, no other opinion simply exists. Foucault writes:

“Of the three great systems of exclusion governing discourse — prohibited words, the division of madness and the will to truth ———”

“——One can straight away distinguish some of the methodological demands they imply. A principle of reversal, first of all…. Next, then, the principle of discontinuity ….”

I am planning to do all this , i am trying to bring forward the “prohibited voices”, those which have been totally eclipsed in the society by the dominant discourse. This is not “endorsing” one and rejecting “others”, rather, its simply a act of breathing , an act of subversion ,of saying what is not pleasant to hear, Its simply an act of living in the rotten stagnant conformity.

One of the great “prohibiter” is “Islam” and “Honour of Prophet”, this brilliant article by Aatish Taseer tends to highlight the aspects of these two ideas which usually remain suppressed . A frank simple report but the one which shakes a lot of certainties. It was published in “Prospects”. The prose is enchanting, Taseer has a innocent frankness which simply is enlightening

“The Fastest Growing Religion of the World”

“Our soul, our blood, kind and gentle is our Prophet.”

A Damascene Conversion

Aatish Taseer

The last time I saw Isak Nilsen, we were eating okra and mutton in my flat near the diplomatic quarter of Damascus. The 22-year old Norwegian, who had been in Syria for four and a half months, seemed impatient to go before a sheikh and make the simple testimony—“There is no God but God and Muhammad is his Prophet”—that would introduce him to the society of the believers. Three days later he was on a plane back to Oslo, evacuated from a country where the faith put him at risk.

Isak’s Christianity was different from most of my European contemporaries. He was a theology student on his way to a career in the Norwegian church. He really believed that Christ had died on the cross for our sins and was the son of God. Yet now Isak was on the verge of converting to Islam, with its “clarity,” its “completeness” and its willingness to enter spheres of public life from which his church had long since retreated. Two days after our lunch the faith he was about to embrace did enter public life, but it was an entry far more violent than he would have liked. The same words that were to have been his conversion testimony had become the slogans of an angry mob attacking his embassy, burning his flag and threatening his friends.

For the past six weeks I had been in Damascus talking to young people about the place of religion in their lives. The Syrian capital is, to those interested in understanding Islam and Arabic, the key—what Boston is to liberal secular types. Abu Nour University, which reached its zenith under the late grand mufti of Syria, Sheikh Ahmad Kuftaro, is a favoured destination for students from non-Arab Muslim backgrounds hoping to gain or regain knowledge of the religion. On an average day Chechens, Indonesians, Pakistanis and British and American Muslims crowd the university’s corridors on their way to Koran and Arabic classes. The approach to Abu Nour is through a famous Damascus souk dotted with 13th and 14th-century minarets. Nearing the giant, still-new marble edifice, one begins to see bearded, robed and veiled figures from across the globe, standing out among the Syrians no less than Ella, my tall, blonde girlfriend.

The more secular Damascus University also attracts many foreigners for whom Islam holds a strong appeal, and it was among these students that I first experienced the city. I arrived in Damascus on a rainy Christmas eve after a gruelling bus journey from Aleppo, in northern Syria. I went to a flat in the embassy district that my friend Chad shared with Isak, the Norwegian student. Over the coming six weeks, Isak and I came to know each other reasonably well. That night he and a Norwegian friend of his were tucking into salmon and a bowl of gløgg, a Scandinavian winter drink. The three others in the room were my friend Chad—in Damascus to improve his Arabic—and two South Africans of south Asian extraction, brother and sister. The sister, Semeya, wore a headscarf and was bewitchingly pretty.

Over the gløgg, Isak mentioned his plans for a career in the church. Inspired by his vocation and by being in the city where Paul had converted to Christianity, I suggested that we go out, despite the bad weather, to find a midnight mass. The two Norwegians were fired by the idea and we set out in the direction of the old city, passing Straight Street, the street with a kink described in Acts as “a street called Straight,” a remark which Mark Twain cites as the only bit of facetiousness in the Bible. Such is the religious diversity of Damascus that we confused Catholic churches with Orthodox ones, Greek ones with Armenian ones, and wound up, well past midnight, cold, wet and unblessed.

Over the next few days I spent a lot of time in this curious milieu with Chad and his circle, discovering the hamams and souks of the city that I was to live in for the next two months. It took me a few days to realise that there was an Islamic current running through many in the group. It was hippy Islam, if such a thing is possible. The gatherings of Chad and his friends were inter-religious, multi-ethnic and tediously respectful, but Islam was always present. It was in the sparseness of people’s flats, the fondness for facial hair in the boys, the studied, serene voices and the abundance of fruit juice. I quickly grew tired of it, and after a dry Christmas dinner I befriended Even Nord, Isak’s friend, a Norwegian with a glint in his eye and knowledge of the Journalists’ Club, a place where we could get a drink.

Like schoolchildren, Even and I had given the others the slip and were heading off for a beer when Semeya, the South African beauty, found us and pulled Even aside, appearing to scold him in low tones. She knew where we were going and felt “uncomfortable” about its environment. It was fascinating to watch her, almost self-consciously demure under her headscarf and long eyelashes; I wondered what emotional blackmail she was employing and to what spiritual end. At last, after withholding his purpose and describing the place as a cafeteria, Even managed to extricate himself.

But the Journalists’ Club is not a cafeteria. It is a large gloomy room with hideous blue and gold interiors that derives such popularity it has from being the sole drinking establishment in that part of town. Even and I settled down under the fluorescent glare and had just ordered a beer and a glass of wine when Semeya appeared again, looking like a terrified, hunted creature. She quickly came over to our table, fussing to Even about how uncomfortable she was. “I just don’t feel right,” she whispered. She addressed hardly a word to me and spoke to Even in Arabic, which I don’t understand. Then she produced a sheet of Arabic verbs and studied them silently for a while; and then as quickly as she had come she was gone.

It was over a drink with Even that I became aware of the strange appeal of both Islam and Semeya in his life. “In the west, we are all about rights,” he said, “but we have forgotten about limits.” He said he and Isak had both been impressed by Semeya’s spiritual quest. “She’s here only to develop her relationship with God,” he said, admiringly. It sounded like she had seduced them both with her piety.

What had seemed to me a fine example of female guile was to Even evidence of how Islam curbed the excesses of modern western life. “The only immorality in the west these days,” he said, “is to speak of morality. I am so tired of this hedonistic lifestyle, I want something simple.” He was blond, athletic and handsome, and knew a fair amount about Norwegian death metal music; I expect he also knew something about the western excesses of which he spoke. But I didn’t share his pessimism, and after a drink or two we parted ways. It was my first taste of this kind of talk. I had no idea how much more was coming my way.

The next day I left town and went travelling for two weeks with Ella. When I returned, I ran into Chad and Isak at an estate agent, where I was looking for a flat. Isak had his parents with him. The Eid holiday was beginning and they were about to set off around Syria. I learned from Chad that Isak, before the arrival of his parents, had been travelling with Semeya.

Once I had settled into an old 1920s flat, not far from the French embassy, I asked Even to take me to Abu Nour, the university where international Islam broods high up the hill overlooking Syria’s capital. I thought Even would be the perfect guide to this mysterious, slightly intimidating quarter. He spoke good Arabic; was, like Isak, his friend and apparent rival for Semeya’s affections, increasingly Muslim; and with a peculiar charisma moved through the dustier parts of the city like a favourite blond son. After lunch one day, he and I set out through the Souk Jouma. As we made our way past stalls full of dates, olives, meat and blood oranges, past electrical repair shops, camel butchers and a man drying trotters with a blowtorch, I caught my first glimpse of Abu Nour students. There were small Indonesians with conical hats and wispy beards, vast African women in coloured veils and pale Europeans with red facial hair. The scene culminated in a small square from where Abu Nour’s white minarets were clearly visible. The square was packed with internet cafés, Islamic literature and a store called Shukr specialising in stylish Islamic clothes for western markets.

We were looking for Tariq, a fix-it man known to all the new arrivals. We found him on one corner of the square, a big, meaty figure with a friendly manner. “Where are you from, brother?” he asked. “I welcome people from every country because everyone was very nice to me when I was in Europe. I can help you, brother, and unlike a lot of guides, I don’t ask for your money. What do you want? Arabic? Koran? A lot of people come here from all over the world—Africa, England, Pakistan—to learn about Islam.” Unlike a lot of guides who say they don’t want money, Tariq truly didn’t, which made me even more nervous. In a country where it is rumoured that 10 per cent of the population are informers for the mukhabarat, I was concerned that Tariq was making his money elsewhere. It was Thursday and we agreed to meet the next day before Friday prayers.

On the way back, Even suddenly grabbed my arm and we slipped into a side street off the main souk. Even knocked on a black metal door and after a short wait, a small Asian man in grey Arab robes opened the door. He hugged and kissed Even profusely. He welcomed us into a sitting room and then into a further room, which looked like a tiny presidential office. Above a big desk and chair there hung, on one side, the Syrian flag with a picture of the president, and on the other a flag I didn’t recognise: red stripes and yellow stars and moons on a black background. We were in the headquarters of the Pattani United Liberation Organisation, of which I had never heard, and the little man was its president in Syria. Cakes and soft drinks arrived and the man unburdened all the details of the plight of his people in southern Thailand. He produced his wife and a little baby a few minutes later. Then he insisted we watch a film about a massacre in Pattani, in which a soft-spoken American narrator told of the horrors of Thaksin Shinawatra’s regime in Thailand. When it was over, the little man said, “Pattani want peace, but Shinawatra want to make war.” At this he laughed maniacally and pointed to the wallpaper on his computer. “It say, ‘Thailand will be destroyed and Pattani will rise.’” Again he laughed his hellish laugh and we took our leave, Abu Nour and its environs now seeming to me like some rabbit warren of extras from a jihad film.

The next morning Tariq took me to the translation room of the mosque at Abu Nour, where you can listen to the sermons and prayers in a number of languages. On the way I confessed to him that I didn’t know how to pray. “No problem brother, we will teach you,” he said. We entered the great building with hundreds of other people. Tariq led me up a few flights of stairs on to a balcony, from where I could see hundreds of white caps below. I followed Tariq into an annexe where a handful of students were watching a sermon on television. Tariq sat me down next to a short, south Asian brother dressed in white. “Please brother, teach him to pray,” said Tariq, and with that he left. I greeted Mohammad, who turned out to be from Australia, and thanked him for his help as he passed me some headphones. When the sermon had finished, he suggested that we do our ablutions.

I followed Mohammad into the washing area. He taught me how to wash Islamically: my hands up to my elbows, my face, a portion of my hair and my feet up to my ankles. He seemed to notice that I was less diligent than he was, and he said, quietly: “The Prophet used to do it three times.” When we returned to the translation room, a few robed, bearded figures had come on to the stage. Mohammad whispered to me that Abu Nour often had guest speakers, and that today they had the grand muftis of Syria and Bosnia, as well as the Syrian minister of culture.

I put on my headphones and started to listen to an English translation of the words of Salah Kuftaro, director of the university and son of the former grand mufti. His speech, like those that followed—except for the grand mufti of Bosnia, who preached the need for understanding—was all incendiary politics. Each time the formula was the same: Islam is a religion of peace, tolerance and moderation, they would say (as if answering a counter-claim); a reference to the glory of the Islamic past and the need to guard against the enemies of Islam; then a congratulation to the present regime for doing so. Kuftaro finished by saying: “It is easy to get depressed in these times, to see the forces against Islam. The Islamic world is fragmented and divided. It is so because of the west and the influence of its ideas. First they rob us economically, then they rob our land, and once they have done that, they rob us culturally.”

After he had finished, we prayed. I had a rough idea of what to do and managed to get by without drawing too much attention to myself. When it was over, I was introduced to some of the brothers from Britain and America. Mohammad suggested I join them at the Kentucky Fried Chicken that evening, but I declined. As I walked back through the souk, I felt drained. The speeches had been so full of grievance, so closed to the idea of real reconciliation. I knew that in a country where the discussion of politics is forbidden, the mosques were the only outlet for these issues, but I still wondered why the preachers were so reliant on confrontation to get the message across.

I spent several days meeting privately with some of the people I had met at the mosque, trying to understand what had made them give up their lives in the west and turn to Islam. Simplicity, clearing away the clutter of modern life, was a big theme. Completeness was another: a single divine philosophy managing every aspect of life and conduct. Routine was another still: praying and fasting ordered the mayhem. And identity: feeling part of a universal brotherhood where other identities had failed. There were brothers like Fuad, a British Asian from Doncaster who had escaped his corporate job in Bristol to come to Abu Nour. “It was so grey,” he said. “The drive to work every morning, operating on mechanised time, arriving to find you have 200 emails. I realised that to succeed in that world, in the corporation, you had to serve the corporation. And for what? For money? Instead I chose to submit to something true, something with meaning.” There were many like Fuad.

Since arriving in Istanbul three months earlier, beginning a journey through the Dar al-Islam—land of the believers—that would also take me back to my own long-obscured Islamic roots in Pakistan, I had seen how Islamic “completeness” informed ideas of language, science and history. Khaldun, my Arabic teacher in Damascus, who was desperate to move to America or Britain to convey the word of Muhammad, showed me how Islam lived even in the pages of his English-language textbook. He pointed to a small multiple-choice exercise in which the author had suggested that in order not to be rude, it was better to say someone was not handsome rather than that he was ugly, or to say that someone was not interesting rather than that he was boring. “See,” he shouted, “this is like Islam! English is a moral language.” Zahir, the translator of the Friday sermon at Abu Nour, had shown me how science came from the Koran. Nadir, my guide and translator, showed me that history itself came from Islam. In a frustrated moment, he said: “We used to have a great history. Not before Islam of course, but since.” By “we” he meant Syrians, who a mile away had founded the Christian church, and who, a millennium before that, had invented the alphabet.

“This land has had a great history for thousands of years that pre-dates Islam,” I said.

“Yes,” Nadir answered, “an immoral history.”

I had never heard of such a thing, but Nadir’s idea, like Khaldun’s, was part of Islam’s all-encompassing nature. If you had it, you needed nothing else. “If I find one thing,” Nadir said, “one thing that the Koran doesn’t cover, I will renounce the faith.” But Nadir could never find that one thing because Islam served as the source of everything. Unlike Even, I was beginning to feel that this, not the hedonism of the west, was the real problem of limits.

It was during these disheartening discussions with Syrians and visitors alike that I saw Isak again. We arranged to have lunch in the old city, in a restaurant that had once been a stable. I brought Ella, and Isak was with Chad. I hadn’t seen Isak since that time outside the real estate office. His friendly face, supported by a physical and emotional solidity, made him the sort of person people like to trust. Seeing Isak, I had a thought I’d had before: he would make such a good priest.

“Does studying theology usually lead to a career in the Norwegian church?” I asked him.

“Yes, after the MA, which includes a year of training, you become eligible to join the church,” he said.

“Is that a route you plan to take?” Ella asked.

“Yes, well, actually…” he said, and then turned to Chad with a coy smile, as if about to make a confession of love for his friend, asking, “I can tell them, right?”

Chad shrugged his shoulders. “It’s up to you…”

“Actually,” Isak said, turning to Ella and me, “I’ve become more interested in Islam.”

“What has interested you?” I said.

“The fact that it handles politics more openly,” he answered. This aspect of Islam was precisely what was putting me off, but Isak felt that in the over-secularised environment of Europe, the church had lost its role as a forum on political issues. “Islam,” he continued, “discusses politics more honestly.” He also emphasised that he liked the prayers five times a day, that the faith had a tangible quality and ruled over all aspects of its adherents’ lives. I had heard this a million times before, but never from a potential priest and someone used to the vast freedoms of Scandinavia.

So great was Isak’s passion about Islam that Ella finally asked: “Would you think of converting?”

“I am actually in the process now,” came the reply.

I was sure the seductions of Semeya had played some part in this, although Chad assured me later that this was not the case. As I spoke more to Isak, he mentioned travelling to Palestine years ago on an inter-faith trip with Muslims and being struck by the passion of their belief. It was exactly this aspect that worried me about Isak’s conversion. I felt that it was Norway rather than the Abu Nour side of Syria that had found the proper role in life for faith. While the passion and fervour of deep faith attracted Isak, it unnerved me.

I asked what his parents thought about his conversion and he said they didn’t know yet. But his mother had returned to Norway from Syria with “sparkles” in her eyes. “It’s not like the politicians and press want us to believe,” she had told people back home.

“What isn’t? Syria or Islam?” I asked.

“Both,” Isak replied.

There was something touching about the openness of his thinking, his willingness to take on belief. More than he knew, the open society he had lived in had shaped his thinking and made the conversion possible. Yet had it been too open? Too diffident? So much so that he now wanted to embrace its opposite?

I asked him if he was worried that his faith would diminish once he was out of an Islamic environment. It was hard to imagine the ritual ablutions among the pubs and wooden Lutheran churches of Fredvang, his fishing village in Norway. “Well, I’ll pray five times a day,” he answered. “And I’ll have the Koran.”

I knew he meant it, yet I felt that Islam was so public a religion, so exacting in its control of the physical details of everyday life, that in distant, cold Norway, with no sound of the muezzin for miles, it would be harder to find the direction to Mecca. I saw Isak as a friend by now, and feared it would all lead to an ugly outcome: hysteria, breakdown, a loss of faith.

The next (and last) time I saw Isak, it was for lunch at my flat. The cartoon furore was brewing up and a Norwegian paper had just printed the images. Isak was critical of the paper’s decision. He said the publication was a small religious rag with a tiny circulation, one they scoffed at in Norway, and that its decision had less to do with free speech than with circulation.

Isak stayed with me most of the afternoon and we spoke again about his conversion. He said the most significant obstacle was a question on the nature of Christ. The Muslims treat him as a great prophet, and give him the title of Ruhollah, or spirit of God, but do not accept that he was the son of God and died for our sins. I said that purely for aesthetic reasons it would be sad to lose that story. Isak replied, “No Muslim could accept that Christ was the son of God because to them God is a flawless entity. He doesn’t come upon the earth and experience, hunger, poverty and death.” It was a conversation for which I had little training. My concern was that the faith—not the precepts but the feeling of faith, and its limitless quality in Islamic society—was overrunning Isak’s careful theological training. He admitted, “Lately, from friends and people I’ve been talking to, I’ve had more influence from the Islamic side. I feel like a split personality.”

The next day, the cartoons were the subject of the Friday sermon from the pulpit of almost every mosque in Syria. Even and I returned to the translation room at Abu Nour. From below, Kuftaro was speaking: “The Europeans are using all their power to destroy our faith. It is our Islamic duty to boycott all goods from these countries.” He compared Islam’s situation today to its situation in 7th-century Arabia, where it was also beset and surrounded by enemies. Not once did Kuftaro make any distinction between the papers that had published the cartoons and the countries themselves. “When our sanctity is oppressed,” Kuftaro continued, “we will sacrifice our souls, spirits and bodies for you, O Prophet.”

Even and I looked nervously at each other. It was chilling to think of identical sermons taking place throughout the country, attended by so many people. Demonstrations were now taking place every day outside various European embassies in Damascus.

After the sermon, brother Rafik, an African-American from Florida who had once told me to listen to the ringing in my heart that is Islam, defended the sermon. “Well they got their response, didn’t they?” he said. “If it’s response they wanted, they have it. There are men sitting on their embassies with AK-47s.” I questioned weakly whether threats and violence were a fitting response to what was indeed a provocation, but one within parameters western liberals considered legitimate.

“Yes, but who gave you that right, if not God himself?” brother Rafik replied. It was hopeless; he had yielded entirely to scripture.

Even and I went back to his house and he prepared lunch for a few friends. We had barely finished eating when we heard the next stage of “the response.”

“There is no God but God, and Muhammad is his Prophet,” rang out from the pavement below. We opened the window and saw that a small but fierce crowd of about 100 people, consisting of women in headscarves, children, old and middle-aged men and youths, was marching under the green banner of Islam in the direction of the French embassy. Some women from the crowd who caught sight of us on the balcony gestured to the girls to cover their heads. Even and I raced downstairs to see the demonstration.

If we hadn’t known what the context was, it would have been hard to make out the cause of the demonstrators. Their chanting, though strong and angry, was simple and repetitive: “Muhammad is the Prophet of God” again and again. The women who chanted had tears running down their cheeks and the message was so simple that a small child on someone’s shoulders led them in their divine slogans. His shrill voice raised their temperature and some at the front of the crowd began to scuffle with the police standing in front of the embassy. They pushed harder against the line of police, but they didn’t have enough momentum or mass to break it. One demonstrator threw some garbage at its steep concrete walls.

It was pathetic to see this crowd with its one slogan yelling angrily at an edifice that did not answer back. It was all they had understood of the situation, all they had been told: the enemies of Islam had directed an offence against them and it was their Islamic duty to respond. They knew nothing of the modern systems from which the provocation had emerged nor how to distinguish between the institutions that were accountable and those that were not.

Suddenly a Syrian friend of Even’s appeared from the crowd. The man had been part of the demonstration, which had gone from the Danish embassy to the French. He was in a state of exhilaration, laughing and joking at Even being a Norwegian. We followed him deeper into the crowd, but they were pushing against the police line again and I stopped. Even and his friend went closer to the front.

Then with no warning, the friend turned around and addressed the crowd. “This is my friend. He is a Norwegian and a good man.” A menacing silence came over the crowd. I feared for Even’s safety. The friend picked Even up on his shoulders and said: “Speak for your country.” Even, if he was scared, showed no sign of it. He took in the crowd for an instant and then addressed them in Arabic. “This is just an embassy,” he said, in a loud clear voice. “It is not actually the country. This incident is the result of lack of understanding. We need to understand each other better. Then we will have the chance to live in togetherness and we can show proper respect to you. Inshallah, Inshallah, Inshallah.” The crowd roared in approval and someone shouted, “He accepts Islam.”

EvenAddressing an angry crowd in a language that was not his own was an achievement for Even in itself, but the message that had come so simply to him was far

Pictures: Basel Abazeed

beyond anything the crowd had come up with. His message was full of diffidence and sympathy, keen not to blame but to comprehend. In the west such words would be clichéd; in the Arab world Even’s statement resounded with freshness.

We went back to Even’s house afterwards with his Syrian friend. “I wish I could have said more,” said Even, the adrenaline still strong in his voice. “I didn’t have the words. What I really wanted to say was, ‘We know you’re angry, but we still don’t know why.’”

We knew still less the next day, because the feeling of faith had broken its banks and submerged its own precepts. Even walked with the crowd that set fire to his own embassy. Pretending to be a Swede, manhandled and accused, at one stage he feared the crowd would turn on him. Teargassed by the police, he sought refuge with the wounded in a mosque. But when he returned to my flat, the detail that had impressed itself on him was that the crowd had prayed in the street before attacking the embassy, crying, “Our soul, our blood, kind and gentle is our Prophet.”

Some of the Norwegians of Damascus were to have a dinner that night, but it was cancelled as the rioting continued into the evening. As the news made its way across the world, Norway announced it was evacuating its citizens. By 4am, the first planes had started to leave. It was sad. I knew many of them. They were the best of the international lot: the majority had come with an idea of public service and they were the most keen to be part of Syrian life. Even decided to stay. He felt he had many Syrian friends who would protect him should things get ugly. Isak also wanted to stay, but his parents disagreed. The next morning he called me to say that he was leaving within the hour because of fears for his security. “I’m sure things will be fine in Damascus,” he said apologetically, “but now there’s this small, 1 per cent doubt in my mind