Wednesday, 8 April 2009

Treading Carefully in Lahore
By M Ilyas Khan
BBC News, Lahore

Wine glasses and tumblers sit in a row atop a huge sideboard along the wall and a couple of servants are rearranging furniture in the hall. They are laying the scene for the weekend party at an outhouse across the back lawns of a sprawling villa in the Gulberg locality of Lahore, Pakistan's cultural capital. But the hosts are increasingly nervous. "These days you have to be very careful about who to invite and who to pass over, because the word goes around and there are people who don't like such get-togethers," says one of the hosts, requesting not to be named.

Lahore's party scene has been unlike any other in Pakistan, bringing together aspiring artists, their potential promoters, business magnates, media dons, bureaucrats and politicians. But the growing influence of armed religious groups now threatens the late night revelries of the city's whisky-drinking professionals and topless dancers.

This threat became more pronounced recently when the city suffered two attacks by militants in a single month. "There's extra security at the gates, and we are increasingly careful with our guests' cameras. This is making everybody nervous," says the host. "During the last couple of years, the partying crowds have thinned out," he says. “When reactionary forces try to take hold of a society, art and culture are their first target” Imran Peerzada, Lahore impresario

The situation is no better at Lahore's famous Rafi Peer theatre which until recently was exporting dozens of live shows each month to rural and urban centres in Pakistan as well as abroad. There are hardly any programmes in the making now. "Things have been gradually getting tough since last year and this has led to widespread unemployment among artists and musicians," says Imran Peerzada, one of the owners.

Until last year, programmes overseen by Mr Peerzada alone employed 150 to 200 people, among them actors, puppeteers, dancers, technicians, set designers and other staff. Many more worked with Mr Peerzada's several brothers who together manage the company. Nearly all of them are unemployed now, he says.

This happened because of diminishing audiences as people have grown more cautious about their movements, he says, and also because the sponsors are increasingly reluctant to invest in live shows. Some artists also quit the profession because they were persuaded by Islamist preachers who have made inroads into the circles of actors, painters and musicians.

Aniqa Ali, a young singer who has just launched her first album, says she has come of age at a rather inauspicious time. "The launching [of the album] was good, but it was nothing compared to some launches I witnessed three or four years ago," she says. This is not good for a budding musician's career, she says, a problem made worse by a dearth of news about music, art and culture.

But for many there is a ray of hope. "When the attackers of the Sri Lankan team went unchallenged, the mood in Lahore was one of utter despair," says Yousaf Salahuddin, a socialite, fashion aficionado and music composer. "But the manner in which the attackers of the Manawan police academy were dealt with this week and the way people came out in support of the police, has been a great relief," he says.

To a casual listener, there is also a tinge of cynicism in his tone when he asks why the people of Lahore should be worried when no place on earth is immune to attacks by the militants? "When it first started happening several years ago, it came as a shock, but not any more. Now we have grown used to it." He may not be too far off the point. When asked if the militant threat was the greatest he had faced in his 30-year acting career, Imran Peerzada answered in the negative. "When reactionary forces try to take hold of a society, art and culture are their first target, and in Pakistan this has happened time and again."

“When you switch on the TV, all you see is news about suicide bombers attacking one place or another ” Musician Aniqa Ali

He says he still considers the days of General Zia-ul Haq, Pakistan's military ruler in 1980s and a self-styled Islamist, as the worst period. But the democratic governments that followed him were no better because they too danced to the tune of Islamists within the establishment. "The biggest dilemma of our generation has been to find a footing in a state that has been dictating culture to its people, regimenting them. This has stunted the growth not only of artists and musicians, but of all self-respecting individuals."

Both Mr Peerzada and Mr Salahuddin agree that the wave of militancy is a passing phase because it is opposed to the nature of mankind. But if history is any guide, says senior Lahore-based journalist Azmat Abbas, the current phase of religious militancy must show its ugliest face to the world before it passes into oblivion.

Dancing girls in north-western Pakistan have already seen that face. One of them has even been beheaded by fanatics who disapproved of her profession. But in a modern and culturally vibrant Lahore, that stage has still not arrived. Aniqa Ali worries about her career but, she says, she does not imagine being attacked by militants while walking down a street in Lahore. Not yet.

Nelofer Pazira: Sharia law is not the real problem for Afghan women

My phone has been ringing too many times these past few days – mostly journalists and producers calling to book an interview. I am an Afghan. The topic: "Sharia law in Afghanistan allows men to rape their wives." All of a sudden, there is an enormous interest in Afghan law. But all they are interested in is condemnation.

My favourite producer says: "We are looking for local outrage and you are our top choice." When I try to explain that I'm equally outraged at the way the media is treating this story, there is silence on the line. And when I say, what about context as well as outrage, she says: "Let me check to see if we have time in the show and I'll call you back right away." I never hear from her again.

I'll repeat the usual mantra: any law or practice that treats any member of a society, men or women, with prejudice should not be tolerated. But with the West's hysteria on this issue, I wonder whether we're not projecting our own fears of sharia on to what's unfolding in Afghanistan. In the West, we hear the word sharia and we tremble because all we know of Islamic law is the Taliban, the Danish cartoons affair and executions in Saudi Arabia.

In the case of Afghanistan, the new legislation will affect women of the Shia minority – about 5 per cent of the population. The majority of all Afghan women are in fact hostage to far more draconian practices, enshrined in customs and traditions that date back to pre-sharia days – and are in some cases contradictory to Islam.

Even in its conservative interpretation, Islam recognises women's rights to land ownership. It insists on the "consent" of both sexes when entering a marriage contract or sexual relations. What is branded as "sharia" for Shias in the legislature is basically giving Afghan men the right to control their wives, which is already practised widely.

While Hamid Karzai's government may call for the review of the law the attitude of Afghan men won't change with the re-wording of a legal document through external pressures, especially from the West.

Most Afghans suffer from lack of security. Afghan TV programmes break taboos by reporting frequent cases of rape and the abuse of young women. Powerful mafia gangs operate freely amid corruption. Most Afghan journalists working for one of the 14 independent television and radio stations risk their lives to report these stories; and the victims of these crimes and their families face social humiliation – in some cases retaliation and threats – by going public.

But there hasn't been a single protest in the West about these crimes which are affecting the lives of women every day – not a single expression of support for these victims who, of course, don't make it into the headlines; because we are too busy looking for "local outrage" in order to condemn the Afghan government.

This week more than 100 Afghan women from 34 provinces met in Kabul to discuss the situation of women in the country; they highlighted insecurity as the biggest impediment to their freedom and equality. Most women fear to leave their homes, to attend school or go to work – not because of their husbands, but because they don't feel safe. Their rights to education, freedom of movement and action are guaranteed in the Afghan constitution, but the gap between words and reality is too huge to be bridged simply by revising a few clauses in a legal document. Sure, we must fight to protect the legal rights of women. But we must also seek ways to bring about change so that legislation is relevant to the lives of women and men in Afghanistan. The majority of Afghans cannot read and write; an even greater majority don't go to the courts to resolve family and marriage problems. The few who are educated who might seek legal help are sceptical about the rule of law because of the corruption and lack of trust in the Afghan government and the judicial system.

This government has lost its legitimacy because most Afghans view Karzai as a Western puppet. Mr Karzai, of course, has been making concessions to conservatives to prove he is the leader of a sovereign state – in the hope this will help him win the next election. But causing him this international public embarrassment and forcing him to give in to even more Western dictates is undermining his already shrinking local popularity – let alone any chance of re-election.

By all means, help Afghan women. But spare me the hysteria.

The writer is an Afghan-Canadian journalist and film-maker. She starred in the award-winning film, Kandahar, loosely based on her own attempt to find a childhood friend in Taliban-ruled Afghanistan

Tuesday, 7 April 2009

Alas, they left without any assurances...just left

This translation of a ghazal by Noor Jehan dedicated to those effected by the Italian earthquake. God rest their souls and peace to those who lost their loved ones.

lo chal di'ay woh hum ko ta'suli di'ay be'gayr...lo chal di'ay...
ek chand chup gaya hai ujala ki'ay be'gayr...

Alas, they left without any assurances...just left
Like a hidden moon that brings no moonlight

un sey bichar kay hum ko tamana hai maut ki...
ati nahi hai maut lekin ji'ay be'gayr...

Separated from them I now only desire death
But death only comes at the expense of living too

mangay sey mil saki na humay ek bhi khushi...
pa'ay hai lakh ranjh ta'muna ki'ay be'gayr......

Even through repeated asking/praying I received not one state of happiness
Though I gained many grievances without asking/praying for them

e-subt e-ishq aur na leh imtihaan-e ghum...
hum roh rahay hai naam kisi ka li'ay be'gayr...

Oh grievance of love do not test my pain no more
It is a day of tears without stating any names

ek chand chup gaya hai ujala ki'ay be'gayr...
Like a hidden moon that brings no moonlight

lo chal di'ay woh hum ko ta'suli di'ay be'gayr...lo chal di'ay...
Alas, they left without any assurances...just left

Earthquakes, Prayers and Questions

BBC Radio Scotland
Thought for the Day
Tuesday 7th April 2009
Amanullah De Sondy

A powerful earthquake hit the medieval city of L’Aquila, 60 miles north-east of Rome yesterday. With the total number of dead rising it is said that as many as 10,000 buildings in the medieval city, as well as thousands of homes and a hospital, have been damaged. Images of cars covered in rubble, locals looking shocked, wrapped in duvets clutching their belongings have been shown on the news. I feel like a helpless bystander, praying and watching the misery and grief of others, finding it difficult to truly understand their plight.

The earthquake in Italy made me think back to the history of Jerusalem, which also experienced violent earthquakes. One of Islam’s holiest mosques, the Al-Aqsa and the Dome of the Rock has also been badly damaged and even destroyed by earthquakes in the past. We don’t know why God allows such disasters to happen. But is it possible to take something positive away from the aftermath of an earthquake? Of course, easy for me to say in my comfortable setting, but perhaps such events can remind us all that however sanctified and holy the land, it cannot be just a warm feeling or thought, it must change the lives of those who revere it, preserving rights and humanity. Opulent places of worship are not revered for their architectural worth but what acts take place within them. Pushing us to consider that buildings and homes can be built and destroyed for a variety of reasons but their significance in our lives must push open the doors of our hearts to one another, as a shared humanity, in our moments of hardship as well as ease.

This reminds me of the 20th century Scottish author, Lewis Grassic Gibbons’ famous book ‘Sunset Song’ in which his main theme is ‘nothing endures but the land’, as life is given and taken by God on a daily basis, the land we all build and re-build our homes upon continues to live on, in the hope that we learn something about love from it for each other on earth.

Episcopal Minister Defrocked after Becoming a Muslim

SEATTLE, Washington (CNN)

Ann Holmes Redding has what could be called a crisis of faiths. Ann Holmes Redding says she sees no contradiction in being both a Christian minister and a Muslim. For nearly 30 years, Redding has been an ordained minister in the Episcopal Church. Her priesthood ended Wednesday when she was defrocked.

The reason? For the past three years Redding has been both a practicing Christian and a Muslim. "Had anyone told me in February 2006 that I would be a Muslim before April rolled around, I would have shaken my head in concern for the person's mental health," Redding recently told a crowd at a signing for a book she co-authored on religion.

Redding said her conversion to Islam was sparked by an interfaith gathering she attended three years ago. During the meeting, an imam demonstrated Muslim chants and meditation to the group. Redding said the beauty of the moment and the imam's humbleness before God stuck with her.

"It was much more this overwhelming conviction that I needed to surrender to God and this was the form that my surrender needed to take," she recalled. "It wasn't just an episode but .... was a step that I wasn't going to step back from."

Ten days later Redding was saying the shahada -- the Muslim declaration of belief in the oneness of God and acceptance of Mohammad as his prophet. But Redding said she felt her new Muslim faith did not pose a contradiction to her staying a Christian and minister.

"Both religions say there's only one God," Redding said, "and that God is the same God. It's very clear we are talking about the same God! So I haven't shifted my allegiance." Video Watch Redding say, "Being a Muslim makes me a better Christian"

The imam at the Islamic Center in Seattle, Washington, where Redding prays said she brings the best of both traditions to her beliefs. "Coming from an example of wanting to be Christ-like and coming from the perspective of wanting to follow the best example -- the example of our prophet Mohammed -- it all makes sense then," Benjamin Shabazz said.

There are many contradictions between the two religions. While Islam recognizes Jesus as a prophet, Christianity worships him as the son of God.

James Wellman, who chairs the department of comparative religion at the University of Washington, said that while it is not unusual for people to "mix and match" beliefs, it is almost unheard of for a minister to claim two religions.

"When you take ordination as a Christian minister, you take an explicit vow of loyalty to Jesus. It's hard for me to understand how a Christian minister could have dual loyalties," Wellman said.

Redding said she sees the theological conflicts but that the two religions, at their core, "illuminate" each other. "When I took my shahada, I said there's no God but God and that Mohammed is God's prophet or messenger. Neither of those statements, neither part of that confession or profession denies anything about Christianity," she said.

To her parishioners and family, though, Redding has turned her back on her faith and office. There was, she said, "universal puzzlement" at her decision to convert to Islam but still remain an Episcopal minister.

"I have people who love me very much who really don't want me to do this, and I love them very much. And I would love to be able to say, 'Because I love you I will renounce my orders' or 'I will renounce Islam' ... I hate causing pain to people who love me, that's not my intention," Redding said.

The Episcopal Church also rejected Redding's religious choice. "The church interprets my being a Muslim as 'abandoning the church,' " she said. "And that [there] comes an understanding that you have to be one or the other, and most people would say that. It simply hasn't been my experience that I have to make a choice between the two."

The Diocese of Rhode Island, where Redding was ordained, told her to leave either her new Muslim faith or the ministry. A diocese statement said Bishop Geralyn Wolf found Redding to be "a woman of utmost integrity. However, the Bishop believes that a priest of the Church cannot be both a Christian and a Muslim."

Even though she has been defrocked, Redding said she is not capable of turning her back on either faith. She said she wants to continue speaking about and teaching religion and perhaps even travel to the Hajj, a journey to Mecca that every Muslim is supposed to make in their lifetime.

Redding said she does not want her belief in two religions to diminish the value she holds for both Christianity and Islam. Each faith by itself is enough to fulfill a person spiritually, she said. "It's all there. I am not saying you have to go somewhere else to be complete. Some people don't need glasses, some people need single lenses. I need bifocals."