‘Craving Middleness’: A Critique

By Anjum Altaf

I have not read a piece as often in recent days as Craving Middleness. It identifies a problem that is central to the Pakistani predicament – the widening divide between those who consider religion a matter of private belief and those who consider it central to public life. And it recommends the eminently sensible need for a dialogue between the two if an impending confrontation is to be avoided.

While its two end points are so correctly located, the intervening argument seems entangled in claims that are contradicted by observable evidence. It is with reference to this middle that I hope to begin my conversation with the author for whom I have the utmost admiration.

I will argue that the author oversimplifies by dividing Pakistani society into those who subscribe to absolute religious morality as the framework for all behavior and those influenced by Western Enlightenment values of individual choice and rationality. This sucks the narrative into the ‘Us’ versus ‘Them,’ ‘Mythos’ versus ‘Logos’ paradigm that hinders sound analysis.

The oversimplification leads the author to make the following types of claims: “The Western logocentric worldview ruthlessly drilled into these minds that privileges objective, empirical knowledge and rationalist thought over the intuitive ‘mythos’ does not help create the sentiment that can make the daily prayer an act of loving labor.” This is tantamount to saying that there should be nobody in the Western world for whom prayer is an act of loving labor – a dubious claim at best and an arrogant one at worst.

Or take the following: “Religion with its core principle of a Transcendent Unknowable Absolute Truth intuitively experienced through the exercise of the mythos therefore is unappealing to the highly intellectualized mindset produced in modern urban schools. This also explains the rising incidence of Atheism in Pakistan’s institutions for the ‘privileged elite’ – high schools, colleges, universities.” The argument cannot help but conclude that atheism must be increasing in elite institutions, a claim that would be difficult to sustain with hard evidence. All observation (dress, ritual, political control) points in the opposite direction – religiosity in modern urban schools (take Punjab University as an example) has been visibly on the increase over the preceding decades.

The line of argument leads the author to the following: “Encouraging a culture of questioning, critical thinking and non conformism to convention, this kind of a ‘privileged’ education makes Atheism an exciting alternative many like to consider with some seriousness and express with an audacity that becomes admirable in that educational context.” Does this mean that in order to reclaim ourselves we would have to discourage questioning and critical thinking and promote a culture of conformism?

The author also claims that the widening gulf “is frightening because these ‘cultures’ overlap the stratification of the society along the lines of social class.” This, too, is contradicted by the fact that the ruling elite is much more religiously oriented than in the past – from Jinnah to Zia was a monumental change and the before and after Imran Khan can be seen as part of the transition. The fact that upper class women have been taking to religion in such numbers that they have become the subject of numerous doctoral dissertations and books also negates the thesis to which the logic of the author’s argument leads her.

It is very hard to accept at face value a claim like the following: “Nor is it wise in the least to think – as the secular-liberals tend to – that solutions to contemporary problems have to be found beyond religion, or that ‘progress’ has to ape the ‘Western’ paradigm and jettison religion like the Enlightenment West did – lock, stock and barrel.” Anyone can see that religion is fiercely alive and well in the USA many hundred years after the Enlightenment.

In my view the weakness of the author’s logic stems from the labeling of one group as ‘Western,’ attributing the ‘problem’ to the act of ‘thinking,’ and misconstruing ‘secularism’ as ‘godlessness.’ All of these are highly debatable claims.

It is difficult to argue that religion was central, in the sense implied by the author, to public, as opposed to private, life in India before the advent of the European Enlightenment. How central was it in the reign of Akbar the Great, for example? And what did being secular mean in that context – surely not godlessness but a commitment to pluralism. Clearly, Akbar had thought long and hard about what was needed for effective governance in a society characterized by immense diversity.

(For more on Akbar, see Amartya Sen, East and West: The Reach of Reason, New York Review of Books, 20 July 2000, pp. 33-38. Note, in particular, the following: “Perhaps the most important point that Akbar made in his defense of a tolerant multiculturalism concerns the role of reasoning. Reason had to be supreme, since even in disputing the validity of reason we have to give reasons. Attacked by traditionalists who argued in favor of instinctive faith in the Islamic tradition, Akbar told his friend and trusted lieutenant Abul Fazl (a formidable scholar in Sanskrit as well as Arabic and Persian): The pursuit of reason and rejection of traditionalism are so brilliantly patent as to be above the need of argument. If traditionalism were proper, the prophets would merely have followed their own elders (and not come with new messages)?”)

It was only the shattering psychic trauma of the end of Mughal rule that splintered Muslim reaction into many strands. At the two extremes were those associated with Syed Ahmed Khan – rejuvenation through thinking and engagement with ideas, without giving up religion – and those associated with Sayyid Ahmed Barelvi – regaining lost ground through fighting and defeating the ‘Other.’ As in most situations of crisis, the simpler narrative left a deeper imprint on the consciousness of the humiliated and the fearful.

There is a seductive power in a simple narrative (the clash of civilizations, to take another example) and it leaves the author enmeshed in the very trap she wants so desperately to escape. In the end she is unable to explain the most obvious conundrum of Pakistani life – all those who are exposed to ‘Western’ education at school are also exposed to religious education at home. They should be ideally placed to find the middle way. Why can’t they?

 

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38 Responses to “‘Craving Middleness’: A Critique”

  1. Abbas Raza Says:

    Excellent, Anjum! Thanks for this brilliant critique. I hope that it gives Ms. Sakeenah some food for thought. I couldn’t agree with your points more.

  2. Anil Kala Says:

    I am glad you wrote this piece, Anjum.

    Article of Ms Sakeenah reeked of appalling smugness. I don’t understand how Atheism or Western ways can be counter point of radical religion. Atheism, like the religion, can be practiced in moderate as well as extreme form, therefore staging it as counterpoint of radical religion was bad paradigm. By doing this she was not craving for middleness but sway of less radical religion.

  3. Kabir Says:

    I agree that the dichotomy that Ms. Sakeenah draws between “Western Enlightenment” and “religious” values is problematic. She does not account for the ability of individuals to compartmentalize various aspects of their lives. There are many “Western” educated professionals in Pakistan who, while open to critical thinking in their academic and professional pursuits, are remarkably unquestioning when it comes to religion. For many, religious practice is a domain where one turns one’s questioning mind off and just follows the rituals that one has been taught.

    Second, as Anjum mentioned in his critique, religion is alive and well in the West even today. This explains why US Evangelicals have had such a hard time getting behind Romney as they don’t believe that Mormans are real Christians. Another example is those who continue to believe that Obama is a Muslim despite his repeated assertions that he is a Christian. The fact that these beliefs affect the political calculus shows that religion is not irrelevant in the West.

    • Anjum Altaf Says:

      Kabir: Your point about compartmentalization is an acute observation that helps understand many other puzzles. It should certainly enrich the discussion.

      Human beings are multidimensional and it is always misleading to think in either/or terms – liberal or conservative, open or closed minded, secular or religious, etc. We all know people who are liberal in some aspects and conservative in others. Add to that Foucault’s observation that at all times there are specific things in specific societies that are taboo or difficult to talk and think about. Part of the reason is that talking about them is politically dangerous; another part is that thinking about them causes cognitive dissonance. Comparing the ideal with the reality causes such confusion that most people simply shut the thoughts out of their minds. When forced to talk, most react by becoming belligerent which is really a way of shutting off the discussion. Only a few respond by questioning deeply held priors.

      Now that this issue has been raised again, I remember there were earlier discussions on the topic on the blog. Two, in particular, I can recall off-hand:

      http://thesouthasianidea.wordpress.com/2009/03/28/similar-and-different-what-else/

      http://thesouthasianidea.wordpress.com/2010/06/20/achievement-and-risk-taking/

  4. Anonymous Says:

    It is utter horse manure to compare the state of religion in Pakistan vs. the west and create a false equivalence.

    First of all, the US is an exception in the developed world in terms of the popularity of religion. Plenty of studies show this, here is one

    http://www.gallup.com/poll/142727/Religiosity-Highest-World-Poorest-Nations.aspx

    Using the exception of the US to generalize into “religiosity is important in the West” is a illogical.

    Secondly, even in the US, religion is nowhere near as powerful as it is in Pakistan or any of the Islamic countries, for that matter. Freedom of speech is protected, and separation of church and state is by and large enforced and held up by the courts. Non-discrimination in employment, business and other forms of societal participation is strongly enforced.

    Would a Sam Harris or Chrsitopher Hitchens even exist it Paskistan? Just today, the gay rights activist Dan Savage’s criticism of the Bible is a leading story on reddit:

    http://www.reddit.com/r/atheism/comments/sxejb/dan_savage_points_out_bible_is_proslavery_calls/

    Forget about protecting someone like Dan Savage, the barbarian society of Pakistan cannot even protect a Salman Taseer.

    There’s something utterly ridiculous in even attempting to compare a society whose lawyers publicly felicitate the murderer of Salman Taseer with a society where a Dan Savage can publicly criticize the Bible and speak out freely for gay rights.

    Come to think of it, if I apply the original article’s logic of “Encouraging a culture of questioning, critical thinking and non conformism to convention, this kind of a ‘privileged’ education makes Atheism an exciting alternative many like to consider with some seriousness and express with an audacity that becomes admirable in that educational context.”, it is clear that no intellectual life can exist within the realm of Islam. After all, if you are not allowed to question the ridiculous, medieval, misogynist, barbarisms that abound in Islam, how can you ever progress?

    If you watch the video of the Dan Savage speech, pretty well everything he says about the Bible is just as true of the Quran. The difference between the civilized west and the barbarian Pakistan is just that – in the west, for centuries, the society has protected the individual liberties and rights of people like Dan Savage, while Islamic societies have focused on quashing all dissenting voices. It is this unquestioning adherence to Islam – as advocated by the other author – that is the very root cause of the problems faced by Islamic countries like Pakistan.

    • Anjum Altaf Says:

      Anonymous: You missed the point. The critique was addressed to the following claim in the original article: “Nor is it wise in the least to think… that ‘progress’ has to ape the ‘Western’ paradigm and jettison religion like the Enlightenment West did – lock, stock and barrel.” A single counter-example is sufficient to discredit such a claim.

      The most egregious example in the West is the USA. That is not to say it is the only example – to varying degrees, the religious sentiment remains alive in countries like Italy, Poland, Russia and Mexico. The main difference is that in these countries religion has largely become a matter of private belief that can be discussed on the same terms as any other attribute of life. Even so, it is important to keep in mind that this was not always the case and it took a struggle within society to reach the position that exists today.

      In Muslim countries, religion still orders public life which is why the critique started out by describing the Pakistani predicament as “the widening divide between those who consider religion a matter of private belief and those who consider it central to public life.”
      Almost all the phenomena you mention stem from this centrality of religion but that is not to say that there is no struggle within Muslim societies. Change cannot be imposed from outside; it has to come from within as an outcome of the struggle. Such has always been the pattern of history.

      • Anonymous Says:

        Nope, I think it’s you who missed my critic. You said “It is very hard to accept at face value a claim like the following: “Nor is it wise in the least to think – as the secular-liberals tend to – that solutions to contemporary problems have to be found beyond religion, or that ‘progress’ has to ape the ‘Western’ paradigm and jettison religion like the Enlightenment West did – lock, stock and barrel.” Anyone can see that religion is fiercely alive and well in the USA many hundred years after the Enlightenment.”

        You are trying to refute (“It is very hard to accept at face value a claim like the following”) the other article’s claim (“Nor is it wise in the least to think – as the secular-liberals tend to – that solutions to contemporary problems have to be found beyond religion”) by pointing out to the US. I am pointing out the logical fallacy in your argument by presenting the following two facts:

        1.The original claim was about the West, you are pointing out only the US. The West is a composite entity with an intellectual and religious tradition going back much further than the founding if the US. Much of the Enlightenment era thinking happened not in the US but in Europe. if anything, the US is a child of the Enlightenment considering its founding fathers’ views all the way to the Jeffersonian separation of Church and State. Therefore trying to refute a claim made about the West as a composite entity by pointing out the US which is but one component of it is illogical.

        2.Even the counter example of the US you pointed out is extremely weak in the context of the argument. The US is indeed religious but, in fact, even then it has found many “solutions to many contemporary problems” including gay rights and abortion by indeed “going very much beyond religion”. As Dan Savage points out, southern slave owners did quote and swore on the Bible to claim institutional legitimacy for slavery, but that did not fly. Nor does it fly today when the state of California enables gay marriage by going against even the majority that voted for prop 8. That’s because the judiciary did go beyond the religious values of the majority of the voters in the state.

        Of course, European societies have gone far beyond the US in protecting gay rights and so on so it does not bear repeating.

        These are clear examples that show how far western societies – including the religious one like the US – still go far beyond the ridiculous archaic notions espoused by their populations. The reason why the US goes beyond the idiocy espoused by religion is thanks very much to the enlightenment idea of valuing individual liberty above the dictates of Christianity.

        So this is why I think your argument was wrong.

    • Anonymous Says:

      Of course, religion does matter to various degrees in many western societies. But ona relative basis, the power of religion in western countries is so many orders of magnitude lower compared to the power of religion in Muslim countries. typically, Islam is hte most powerful ideology in Islamic countries and the institutions of religion exercise powerful control over the society through direct mass mobilization or various organs of the state. In comparison, religion is nowhere among the most powerful institutions or ideologies in any western society. At best, it is one of the many competing interest groups within a standard democratic framework.

      I would contend that this is why western societies are progressive while Islamic societies are backward. If the most powerful institutions and ideology of a society are rooted in a set of retrograde ideas full of archaic notions, then that society cannot progress. Just as Europe could not progress in the dark ages when Christianity was ruling it. It had to break the shackles of religion and give birth to enlightenment thinking in order to progress as a society. Islamic societies are still living in dark ages and they will not go anywhere in a hurry until they stop drinking from the poisoned chalice of ideas offered by Islam.

  5. mazHur Says:

    ”In Muslim countries, religion still orders public life which is why the critique started out by describing the Pakistani predicament as “the widening divide between those who consider religion a matter of private belief and those who consider it central to public life.”

    At least in Pakistan this is not quite so. Nobody forces anybody to go to mosque or perform other religious duties. Everyone is free to do how he pleases with his ”religion’ at the personal level. But if he does it publicly he must be ready to expect reaction from others whose religious sentiments he would be trying to hurt and they often get hurt because of the existing majority and the law of the land. This condition, however, is not seen or met with in places where Muslims are in minority or living as a segregate entity such as in the West.
    Religion in Pakistan is more of a socio-political imposition laid down on the inhabitants by force of their majority. Things move there as the majority wants and that’s the way of democracy. Religiosity was observed by the founder of the nation, Jinnah, at the time of Independence by way of his giving up wine and switching over to shalwar sherwani and Jinnah cap. The majority or the attempt to rule them made him attend religious congregations and offer prayers as well. Even Z.A. Bhutto acted likewise and succumbed to public pressure in declaring wine haram, Qadiani’s non-Muslim, etc etc.
    Even today the majority in Pakistan is religious minded and doesn’t allow public derogation of their religious beliefs though privately it is done by a few ‘complacent’ and ‘westernized’ minds who, if you look at them closely, utter filth against their own faith only by word of mouth but are not ready to take it themselves. It may take centuries before atheism can scrub out the religious element so strongly embedded and aspired by people in the Muslim majority countries.

  6. Maryam Says:

    To begin with, some essential reading…

    I would strongly suggest a reading of Karen Armstrong’s thesis in which she posits that empowering the logos over the mythos was a ‘metaphysical mistake’. She writes:
    ‘But during the modern period, scientific logos became so successful that myth was discredited, the logos of scientific rationalism became the only valid path to truth, and Newton and Descartes claimed it was possible to prove God’s existence, something earlier Jewish, Christian and Muslim theologians had vigorously denied. Christians bought into the scientific theology, and some embarked on the doomed venture of turning their faith’s mythos into logos.’

    In the academic culture and educational paradigm I observe at the grammar school, I believe the equation is roughly of the sort… Reason, tagged as a higher intellectual function, is more reasonable than Emotion (and feeling), tagged as a baser intellectual function.

    James Secor, a good friend, writes:

    This, the raising up of Reason to the exclusion of emotion and feeling as the ultimate human characteristic that will lead humankind out of the cave of darkness and shadows to the bright sunlight of the wide-open plains, is a kind of perversion of the Humanist beliefs of the 12th and 13th centuries. The Humanists posited that if humanity were indeed God-made, then reason and intellectual endeavor were as worthy of consideration as spirit, both being, after all, a part of life. Enlightenment philosophers excluded emotion from the worthwhile, according to Jonathan Edwards (The Limits of Enlightenment Philosophy) and Ernst Cassirer (Enlightenment Philosophy).

    Enlightenment arguments were so ‘reasonable’ that people who questioned the relegation of emotion to a baser and all-but-useless instinct became known as Romantics, having no foot in reality. No one bothered to question just what it was Reason and rationality gave the world that was better and more uplifting than emotion/spirit; without the latter, progressive and forward-looking technology would know no bounds of behavior. Reason only sees itself, discounting half of humanity, even positing that the experience of living is reasonable. The Enlightenment philosophers, according to Allen Wood, “By becoming aware of the causes that move them. . .acquire the critical capacity of selecting which causes (which thoughts, conditions, sentiments, and passions) these will be” which smacks to me of a kind of judgmental bias, similar to that of the literary genre of Realism: this is what reality is because I say it is (What Is Philosophy?, notes from Wood’s Philosophy and Wisdom workshop).
    The emotional-spiritual in man had managed, in searching for a meaning to life, to lift man up out of the mud, if you will, and give him status. Emotion-spirit gave humanity something great about itself and something greater to strive for: it gave humanity an ethic. Reason and science give us a place–a niggling place at that–in a meaningless chaos, at the same time extracting us from our world (nature) and saying we’re better because we Enlightenment philosopher-scientists think so–and can prove it because we can think clearly and reasonably. A kind of tautology. Most of the Enlightenment proofs have since been disproven, including the role of emotion in decision-making.’

  7. Maryam Says:

    The balance I crave aspires to mediate and create a balance between the emotional and intuitive and the reasonable and intellectual, understanding both as intertwined and inseparable aspects of a holistic education.

  8. Maryam Says:

    For now, I am only addressing the points raised by Dr. Anjum Altaf.

    1. He says my concerns divide Pakistani society into those influenced by the Enlightenment Humanism and those who live by absolute religious morality. I would refrain from making bold claims about Pakistani society at large as I did not set out to do so in the original article. The original article does not aspire to assert that in any way. The educational trends and the general emphases in educational patterns I come across at the two very widely different environments I work in reflect this divide. That there exists a large, multi-faceted and jostling Pakistan in between the grammar school and the Islamic school should not be ignored, but I did not zoom my camera into that complex intervening milieu. Which does not however mean that it does not exist and that the islamic school and the grammar school stand for the two opposed ideologies Pakistan is all about.

    2. The logocentric worldview that emerges in Enlightenment thought certainly does make the realm of the intuitively experienced inaccessible as it cannot be rationalized. We all know of the enthusiasm for the scientific method, reason and empiricism that is relfected in the works of Enlightenment thinkers like Comte. This does discredit mythos aspects of belief and this is why the kids I teach find it hard to accept the fact Shakespeare so eloquently rendered in Hamlet:

    Our indiscretion sometimes serves us well,
    When our deep plans do pall: and that should teach us
    There’s a divinity that shapes our ends,
    Rough-hew them how we will,–
    That is most certain.
    -Shakespeare.

    However, it is not just the Enlightenment’s baggage that defines societies in Europe and America. Therefore, what I said about the effect of logocentrism does not indiscriminately apply to these societies, and it certainly cannot be concluded that someone in the West cannot perform prayer like an act of loving labour. I am sorry if the sentence you highlighted seemed to imply this. It certainly was not meant to.

    3. The rising incidence of atheism in Pakistani universities has been documented in other articles. You may want to read this: http://www.thecommentator.com/article/782/the_rise_of_atheism_in_pakistan
    However, again this does not automatically mean that there isnt simultaneously rising religiosity and fundamentalism in Pakistan’s universities as well. As I understand, both trends are on the rise and it may be an interesting subject for another article to study how the two phenomena are actually linked.

    4. As far as critical thinking and questioning is concerned, it is certainly a vital and healthy trend that MUST be encouraged. Religious faith and critical thinking/questioning are NOT mutually exclusive, at all. In fact, according to an Islamic prophetic tradition, ‘A good question is half of knowledge.’ Reason is a vehicle to the attainment of religious truth, and much has been written about it.
    However, even a questioning mind realizes and recognizes the fact that there are some questions and aspects of life impenetrable to reason, and this is where one realizes one has reached the edge beyond which an abyss intractable by reason lies, and to cross which Kierkegaard’s ‘leap of faith’ must be made.
    When the limitations of reason are not recognized, one may be led to apply reason as the sole means to traverse all domains-intellectual or spiritual, and laugh to scorn what is not amenable to that yardstick. Coupled with this is the modernist myth of all tradition and convention to be regressive, and the panacea lying in a liberation from tradition. It is a mix of these two that creates the sensibility that may be fertile ground for skepticism for all that is religious, seeing it as outmoded. Atheism may be an attractive alternative for someone with this mindset.
    In fact, I have experienced it firsthand. Many among my teenaged students have often expressed interest in atheistic ideas, and I held detailed discussions with them just to get to know the thought pattern. Apart from one student who had given the subject a very serious thought and was familiar with the Atheism vs Theism debate, all of the others failed to give any plausible reason or explanation for their professed position and eventually conceded that they found it ‘cool’, or that it meant one was ‘intelligent’, ‘bold’ and ‘unafraid’, or because a friend who was more popular went about as an atheist and they were influenced by that.
    On the other hand at the Islamic school, I find so much is uncritically absorbed and there is an oversimplification of complex ideas, as well as a naive ‘religion=good/ irreligion=evil’ understanding promoted among students which I find dangerous and out of touch with reality.
    The key of course is promoting ciritcal thinking, inquiry and research and at the same time teaching the etiquettes of seeking knowledge, the ethics of debate and disagreement; and understanding the foundations of knowledge, central to which is resolving the reason vs intuition question by clarifying that there does not have to be a ‘versus’ and that both have to be mediated, reconciled, understood as complementary and not mutually exclusive.

    Religion is fiercely alive, most certainly. To address the question one needs to look into the secularization thesis and the whole debate surrounding it. Institutional religion has declined, but new religious movements and fundamentalist religion is on the rise to fill up the vacuum, and many actually see it as a reaction to the phenomenon I identified (banishment of the sacred lock stock and barrel from spiritual and social life). Religion is changing in form and postmodernity’s embrace of the sacred is its rejection of modernity’s disenchantment and disengagement from the sacred. However, there are many other factors, and it would probably need another interesting article to analyze this, as this discussion was not quite the point of the original article in the first place. You may want to read this for a fuller picture though: http://www.alternet.org/visions/154738/atheism_rising_but_god_is_not_dead_yet_10_ways_religion_is_changing_around_the_world?page=entire

    P.S: I am sorry but I will only be addressing the concerns of Anjum Altaf. It is not possible for me to browse through and comment on all of the replies. Thank you for your interest, you all add value to the discussion.

  9. mazhur Says:

    .

    //I would contend that this is why western societies are progressive while Islamic societies are backward. If the most powerful institutions and ideology of a society are rooted in a set of retrograde ideas full of archaic notions, then that society cannot progress. Just as Europe could not progress in the dark ages when Christianity was ruling it. It had to break the shackles of religion and give birth to enlightenment thinking in order to progress as a society. Islamic societies are still living in dark ages and they will not go anywhere in a hurry until they stop drinking from the poisoned chalice of ideas offered by Islam.//

    Apparently a poor assessment of the factual situation. Muslims were ruled by dictators ( the Caliphs and Sultans) when they excelled in science and arts while Europe was plunged in Darkness. This was so because the Muslims had zeal for knowledge much of which they acquired from the Greeks and Indians. They had their works translated in Arabic and Persian and
    benefited from them. Muslim scholars of yore were ‘patronised’ by the State regardless of its kind or nature. Even tyrants like Taimur the Lame had forced Ibne Khaldun to write down world history.
    Then there were a number of Muslim scholars who researched and
    fully delved in the pursuit of knowledge. One such man was Farabi

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Al-Farabi

    You can find out more about Muslim men of knowledge who flourished under the Caliphs or the so-called Muslim states of yore.This clearly shows that Islam as a religion was of no hindrance to learning even under the Islamic rule whether it was Caliphate or tyranny. In fact most of the learning process was done under tyranny as, needless to say, many tyrants appreciated learning and promoted it by ‘patronizing’ men of letters.

    Dark Ages was the time when Europe was under the swell of Christianity and its stake holders, the clergy, who used religion only to enrich themselves. This was the main reason sciences could not flourish during that time. Next to this was poverty and lack of interest in learning by the rulers.

    Reason for the Muslims lagging behind Europe now or after the advance of learning in the West is not separation of Church and State but it is mainly due to good governance and Organizational and administrative measures. Islam encourages learning but it seems not so with many Muslims or Muslim countries. Richer Muslim countries are callous with regard to learning while poorer countries do not have the resources for it. For poor Muslims countries it has become a matter of survival,,,they have no resources or encouragement/inducement by the state to research and show up with some originality of learning or science. In fact it the death of the Islamic system of government that has added to the misery of the Muslims in the field of learning. A few who have done or do something to serve the goal of learning mostly do it on their own but who cares??

    Thus learning cannot be achieved only by separating the Church and the State but there is more to it. Alleviation of poverty, dedication to work, education , justice and rule of law are the main element for the win-win situation of the West.
    Calling religion as idiotic is below good thinking as no religion teaches escape from learning. It is the socio-economic structure plus enthusiasm and concern of the state that provides the necessary impetus to its citizens to learn and research.

  10. Anonymous Says:

    Maryam,

    I think the fundamental flaw in your argument is exactly that – there is no impetus to go from

    “However, even a questioning mind realizes and recognizes the fact that there are some questions and aspects of life impenetrable to reason, and this is where one realizes one has reached the edge beyond which an abyss intractable by reason lies,”

    to

    “and to cross which Kierkegaard’s ‘leap of faith’ must be made.”

    The first part is recognized by modern epistemology – see Popper, for example. We clearly know that there are unknowns, and possibly unknowables. But you are taking that self-evident reality to jump off into claiming that religion or mythos is valuable. Why? There is absolutely no basis to make that leap of faith. There is no basis to think that religion may help us know any of the unknowns or unknowables any better than what can be known by reason.

    Even if you claim that one must take it on faith that the religion does provide the answers there is no way to know the quality of the answers that religion provides. Nor do we know how religion would respond if some of the answers provided by religion are obviously not right.

    On the other hand, so much of the stuff contained in religion is just that – stuff and nonsense. So much of what is espoused by religion is demonstrably false and against basic human values. So much of Islam, for example, is misogynistic and anti-infidel. Believing in that would be utterly retrograde.

    So, on balance, I see no justification for taking that leap of faith into faith, so to speak.

  11. Bettina Robotka Says:

    Dear Anjum,

    Thank you for drawing attention to the discussion in your web blog which I tend to forget reading. I have read now both Maryam’s contribution and your critique and I would like just to add some thoughts, may be not too well formulated.

    Maryam’s complaint as far as I can see is that for Islam not only to survive but to be able to sustain a Muslim community based on Islamic values it needs to re-think and revisit Western ideas critically. What she says is that those ideas are taken for granted in the private schools of Pakistan and are not to be discussed – as teaching in most of Pakistani educational institutions (may be LUMS is the exception) goes without discussion and critical questioning. What she is asking for is not the rejection of western ideas and institutions but their critical check as to how such an idea or institution would be helpful in a Muslim/Islamic society.

    Now how do we critically check? In the West, she says, human reason is the one and only means to find out truth while Islam teaches that human reason is limited and only God knows all. From Iqbal’s ‘Reconstruction’ we can also learn that in Islam we have three valid means to reach truth (which always is a part of the Truth with capital letter). Those three are human reason, spirituality or mythos as Maryam calls it, and revelation. Revelation being God’s word is of course the Truth with the capital T which humans can perceive only partly and incompletely. You see the difference? Human reason is not irrelevant but only a part of the truth. By limiting discussion to human reason only we limit Islam which may very well lead to atheism because it makes the owner of human reason – man – superior.

    There is another argument also which I tried to explain in our conference in February but I think I didn’t do a good job because it was not understood. What I was trying to say was that believing in God in Christianity or Islam means act according to the values which the religion teaches you. What are those values? Not being a Christian I have consulted the Internet for those and I found they are much similar to the Islamic ones: honesty, living a simple life, loving your neighbor, respecting your parents, giving to the poor, forgiveness, cooperation rather than competition, attending to human needs and not wants, not amassing wealth. The list could be amended. Now if those values are sustained by all believers what would society look like? Exactly, there would be no capitalism and liberalism. That was why in Europe there was a need to replace the Christian values with more convenient ones: competition, consumerism, development of wants into needs, individualism and egocentrism. For that God was replaced by man who is now the ruler of the world and can mould it according to his needs (or wants?).

    My argument was that the development of capitalism made it necessary to replace religion and religious values at least in the public sphere where the market is located. For the outside part of religion, that is prayers and service, the religious formalities (and holidays) were kept alive but relegated into the private sphere so that they don’t interfere with the market (or can be utilized by the market). But honestly, can you be competitive and individualistic in your office from nine to five and charitable, humble and compassionate after office and on Sundays? There may be always individual exceptions to the rule, but the (systemic) rule is that it is impossible and that you start having the same values in private as in public sphere which makes religion an empty shell. And then it doesn’t matter if I go to church or not.

    While in Europe and the West it was possible to divide the society into a public and a private sphere and world into its material and its ideal/spiritual components (or at least it seemed to be like this until recently) Islam rejects a compartmentalized view of the world and the creation and of God (tauhid). That is why Iqbal said that everything secular is deeply sacred in the roots of its being. David Martin, a well-known scholar in the field of secularization and secularism, has observed in his recent book (2005) ‘Islam, helped by its location in societies at a developmental level prior to individualization and privatization, as well as by the absence of reformation and enlightenment, continues successfully to mobilize resistance (against secularization)’ (p.63). This would counter or at least stall the fears of Maryam that atheism is imminent in Pakistan.

    But even if atheism is not imminent as Maryam feared, capitalism is intruding and our business and management schools are promoting it. And Islam is in a fix in Pakistan (and beyond) which makes discussion a must. While secularism in the form that the West has developed it (and may want to revise it in some future) is not possible in Islam and a Muslim society, there is a second meaning of secularism (apart from separation between politics and church/religion) and that is religious tolerance. The Peace of Westphalia was also putting an end to religious wars in Europe realizing that the dogmatic problems between Catholics and Protestants could not be solved militarily. This part of secularism is valid for the Islamic world and Pakistan. But we can find the roots and principles for religious tolerance within Islam itself, we don’t have to throw God out or relegate Islam to Friday prayers.

    That would be my critique to both of you.

    Dr. Bettina Robotka is a historian and a Senior Researcher at the Seminar of South Asian History and Society, Humboldt University, Berlin. She has taught in Karachi and recently presented a paper at a conference on secularization at the Lahore University of Management Sciences (LUMS).

    • Anjum Altaf Says:

      Dear Bettina,

      Many thanks for joining the discussion and enriching it with your thoughts.

      There are some points that could be interpreted in ways that seem unclear or problematic, and though these are not necessarily the positions I hold, I would like to explore them further with you.

      1. “In the West… human reason is the one and only means to find out truth while Islam teaches that human reason is limited and only God knows all.”

      I don’t see this as a contradiction. All it is saying is that human reason is the way to find out truth AND that we don’t know everything. This should be quite acceptable to a ‘reasonable’ person.

      But the implications of the statement can be problematic:

      i. What are we supposed to do if we accept that we don’t know everything? Stop trying to find out? Had we accepted this position how would there have been any progress in knowledge?

      ii. Do we know the exact line beyond which reason cannot help us find the truth? If so, isn’t that equivalent to saying we know everything – what can be known and what cannot be known? This is a contradictory claim that history has negated. The line between the known and the unknown is a moving one and is pushed outwards through the efforts to reason.

      iii. Does this not create the danger that those who claim to know more than others would exploit the prohibition on reason to exploit the latter? Should the latter take the line drawn between the known and the unknown for granted or should they reason for themselves?

      iv. Is God just the name we are giving to what we don’t know? If we accept that we don’t know everything how do we know that someone or something knows everything? How do we know God exists? Isn’t there a contradiction between the claim and the conclusion?

      2. I don’t see why reason should lead to making man superior. Superior to what? Reason can just as easily lead man to realizing his small place in the universe.

      3. I don’t really see the connection between the rise of capitalism and the ills of modern society in Europe you are alluding to (there are other ills of course, but societies lagging in the development of capitalism also have their ills). Are you claiming that in pre-modern India, because there was no or less contradiction between the public and the private, everyone was living a life that was characterized by “honesty, living a simple life, loving your neighbor, respecting your parents, giving to the poor, forgiveness, cooperation rather than competition, attending to human needs and not wants, not amassing wealth”?

      4. Pitting secularization (in the sense of godlessness) against Islam is used to sidetrack the real issue. As I tried to highlight using Amartya Sen’s article on Akbar, in India it has long been understood as the neutrality of the state between religions. This is a common sense view that emerges from within Islamic scholarship as well (see Barbara Metcalf’s book on Maulana Husain Ahmad Madani or see Akeel Bilgrami’s Secularism: Its Content and Context).

      5. The real point where we go astray is when we think in binary terms that an individual can either be completely secular or completely religious? This is clearly false. There are many aspects of our decision-making in which God is much less central than in others. For example, a student’s decision to attend LUMS as opposed to another college may have nothing to with godly concerns whereas his or her decision to contribute a percentage of income to Zakat may be completely determined by them. In this sense, the world of secular decision making is one in which God is not central but this has no bearing on being fully religious in other spheres of life. There is no necessary contradiction between the two as any real lived experience would testify.

      I hope we can continue this discussion.

  12. Maryam Says:

    Thank you Bettina Robotka, for mediating and tying the loose ends. I find myself heartily in agreement.
    Peace

  13. Dr. Bettina Robotka Says:

    Dear Anjum,

    You asked in your opinion piece ‘Is human reason harmful’?’ My answer was that human reason is a gift of God, it is what makes man His khalifa. Therefore, it is not harmful in itself but a valid way towards knowledge and truth. But I think and that was what Maryam was trying to say that relying on human reason alone and putting it above everything else is harmful because it makes you deny the existence of all those things which you can’t explain by using human reason including the existence of God. I think there are more things existing than we can explain by human reason, (human reason meaning logic and experiment both). The fact that there are things which we can’t prove by experiment or logic doesn’t necessarily mean that they don’t exist. But that is what Enlightenment has postulated: human reason as the one and only measurement of truth. That is why enlightenment philosophy has postulated that man is reasonable and acts reasonably. That is the basis for Kant’s ideas of the categorical imperative and the ideas about market economy. But the proof of the pudding is in the eating. History and present time shows that man is not reasonable. Since the French revolution we have fought two world wars, developed weapons of mass destruction and are currently trying to fight terrorism by applying more terrorism. Human reason IS limited and humans are driven by unreasonable motives.

    Humans by applying their reason found that God was not understandable or proven by experiment, so He can’t exist. Enlightenment philosophy clearly states that men is the highest development of nature and as such is capable and has the right to rule, exploit and manipulate the world, nature and even man according to his wishes. ( nuclear experiments, genetic manipulation). By denying the existence of God man has put himself into His place and is in the process of destroying the creation. I think Man by denying his limitations has lost balance. The problem is not in man wanting to know more (or even all) but in the fact that he doesn’t have the morality to handle the knowledge that he is aiming at. What to do you ask, stop trying to know more? You ask for ‘progress’ in knowledge. But how do you define progress? Is a genetically manipulated humanity progress and more knowledge? Is killing more people in a shorter time progress? I don’t think that; so and we might agree to disagree on this point.

    (ii) You ask ‘Do we know the exact line beyond which reason cannot help us find the truth?’ No we don’t and there is no need for this as long as we recognize that there IS a point somewhere. We can push the line but it is important to acknowledge that we will never reach the point when we know ALL. Knowledge should not be a means of power or domination. That is why knowledge should be accessible to everybody. This includes religious knowledge as much as worldly knowledge. But by selling education for money you and I are both limiting knowledge from those who can’t pay.

    (iii) The line between the known and the unknown should be a personal one, determined only by the personal limitations of curiosity or mental capacity, not by money or formal access to that knowledge (like no school close by).

    With regard to (iv) this is a very personal experience. There are as many answers as there are humans. In any case all attempts to understand the existence of God by human reason have so far produced teleological, cosmological and other arguments. At the end of the day each and everybody has to develop his own argument because the ‘human reason’ that we rely upon so much works quite differently in different people and cultural surroundings. Most Muslim thinkers including for instance Ibn Sina and Ghazali have at one point doubted the existence of God and I think this doubt is a necessary and important step towards its confirmation …therefore it says: LA illah… before ila allah.

    3. No, the characteristics I was quoting are the characteristics of a good, an ideal society. Religion –all religions- and philosophy have aimed at giving a guideline towards an ideal human society where man can live happily and fully develop his capacities. No society so far has come close to it ( may be it comes close to the idea of paradise on earth) but at all times have thinkers tried to describe such an ideal society and show ways to reach it. For man’s happiness you need a certain (limited) amount of material conditions but you need also things like peace of mind, justice, companionship and the like. The main thing is that capitalism is destructive in the sense that it defines progress as material progress only and is based on a competitive instead of a cooperative way (quantity instead of quality) to reach ‘progress’. That has resulted in a knock-out system and while globalization is inevitable it has made it an unjust process with winners and losers. My critique of capitalism may not be very professional because Iam not an economist but I think capitalism (profit and exploitation in the Marxian sense) is destructive of itself and of the world as such and I only hope that it destroys itself before it destroys the world. In any case you agree that capitalism has many defects and one major reason why we are in this world is to create a better society if not an ideal one; at least that is what I think and why Iam taking the effort to live and argue.

    4. I agree that secularism comes into this discussion only because it is understood as laadiniyat and this has to be put right. That part of secularismis under revision even in the West though iam not sure about the outcome.

    5. Exactly, binaries are a mental construct to explain two sides of the same coin and they don’t exist separately in the real world. Still the student deciding to opt for LUMS could be a believer or an unbeliever or someone in between and the payer of zakat could be a believer or an unbeliever or someone inbetween. That is why it is not the deed or decision itself that counts but the intention that is standing behind it. But you might disagree with this because you can’t prove intentions by human reason….

    I think we should continue to discuss. Iam deeply unhappy that my capitalism argument is conclusive only to me. Anybody out there who can help?

    Maryam, it’s always good to find mental companions!

    • Anil Kala Says:

      When you begin with the declaration ‘Human reason is gift of God’ you surrender objectivity. Human reason is not gift of God but the result of evolution over millions of years. Nobody gifts something in parts over millions of years. Are you suggesting that if humans had blind faith, God would have gifted them electricity, aero-planes, factories high yield seeds etc?

      The unreasonableness that you list for the cause wars, mayhem and other tragedies is also not the result of human reason, neither it is result of blind faith but the result of intolerance. There is no middle ground between hard rationalism and blind faith but they can exist harmlessly if they show tolerance to others point of view. Pope has strong views on abortion but this doesn’t bother those who are for abortion. The problem arises when a Mullah thunders ‘throw acid on women wearing jeans’

      What the author should be seeking is tolerance not a compromise on artificial middle ground. The choice to pick should be left to individuals.

  14. Anjum Altaf Says:

    Dear Bettina,

    Thanks for continuing the discussion. I would like to argue the following points in your comment.

    1. “[R]elying on human reason alone and putting it above everything else is harmful because it makes you deny the existence of all those things which you can’t explain by using human reason including the existence of God.”

    This is hard to agree with. Relying on human reason is quite compatible with the position that there are things that are unknown or that there may be things that might forever remain unknown. Reason and doubt go together.

    2. “History and present time shows that man is not reasonable.”

    This is an altogether different and unrelated point. Relying on reason does not automatically make one reasonable. Neither does reliance on faith else the Age of Faith would have been an exemplary one which it was clearly not any more than the Age of Reason.

    3. “Since the French revolution we have fought two world wars, developed weapons of mass destruction and are currently trying to fight terrorism by applying more terrorism. Human reason IS limited and humans are driven by unreasonable motives.”

    I don’t consider this guilt-by-association argument relevant to the discussion. There have been conflicts both in the Age of Reason and in the Age of Faith, both post- and pre-Enlightenment. If we want to understand the reasons for conflicts we have to look elsewhere; perhaps there are human motivations that are not susceptible to control by either reason or faith. The fact that conflicts occur cannot be used to reject either.

    The same response applies to your remark about nuclear experiments and genetic manipulations. Some pretty horrible things happened before the Enlightenment (e.g., inquisitions, burning people at the stake, etc.). One can argue that the belief that God desired a particular type of order and that some people were chosen to realize that on earth made humans equally unbalanced and the instruments of oppression of those who disagreed.

    More problematic was the fact there was no agreement on the order that God desired on earth. Different groups had different perceptions and each believed its own was the correct one; hence the conflicts of the Age of Faith.

    4. “Knowledge should not be a means of power or domination.”

    This too is not relevant to the discussion. Does this mean that to eliminate domination one should eliminate knowledge? What does this have to do with reason or its absence?

    “But by selling education for money you and I are both limiting knowledge from those who can’t pay.”
    This is an even more unrelated point with no bearing on reason. Is this saying that in the Age of Faith the Church provided knowledge to all?

    5. I still can’t understand how you can reconcile a claim that one can’t know everything with the simultaneous claim that you know for sure that God exists and also what God is like, wants, etc. There is no semblance of the doubt that you assert is necessary and important. Reason does not preclude holding beliefs or hypotheses about the unknown that may turn out to be right or wrong or remain unresolved forever.

    6. One doesn’t need religion or any particular religion to derive the attributes of an ideal society. These are universal attributes accessible to common sense. Capitalism may be just as destructive of the ideal society as feudalism and slavery were in their times yet all religions approved of slavery. The point remains that if one wishes to associate capitalism with reason than one must associate slavery with faith. Both these associations are unwarranted.

    If you look around the world today, would you say that the closest we come to the ideal society as described by you is in the Scandinavian countries? What would be the equivalent in the Age of Faith? What conclusions should we derive from this observation?

  15. Maryam Says:

    I would like to share the following: http://www.ted.com/talks/questions_no_one_knows_the_answers_to.html?utm_source=newsletter_weekly_2012-03-13&utm_campaign=newsletter_weekly&utm_medium=email

    And http://www.nytimes.com/2012/03/25/books/review/the-righteous-mind-by-jonathan-haidt.html?_r=3&ref=books (courtesy Dr. Anjum Altaf)

    As well as http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=J4uMe2k1NaY

    I would suggest a reading of the works of Charles Peirce who posits that the God idea makes Science and Reason possible. That should be an interesting way of looking at things.

    Anil Kala, you are right that the middleness we seek is not a half-way half-baked identity-less and mutated state, but a space in which tolerance, respectful disagreement and a genuine desire to understand and grapple with ideas different from one’s own subjectively held opinions becomes possible.

  16. Maryam Says:

    As far as Anonymous’s argument of the unreasonableness of making the leap of faith is concerned, well, even if you dont want to call it by its name, we are always making leaps of faith, and even scientific knowledge will not be possible without it. Scientific knowledge is also based upon presuppositions that the scientist takes on faith, and these are unverifiable. Induction and deduction are the ways of reaching scientific truths, but they are not the origins of knowledge. We all presume so much that is not demonstrable or even explicable- that is how we are constructed.

    I choose to make the leap of faith as a matter of faith, and that personal choice has to be respected. As far as your opinion that religion is against basic human values is concerned, that too is your presupposition and a subjectively held opinion- because many have also ‘demonstrably’ proven religion’s contribution to the humanistic tradition. It depends on what to you is religion- actions of individuals, interpretations of clergy, dynamics of power politics that dignify themselves in the garb of religiosity? Or the ethos of revealed knowledge which has ‘demonstrably’ transformed individuals, ordered communities and has inspired selfless action larger than life.

    And we can agree to disagree on this, and live with our differences.
    Peace
    :-)

  17. Anonymous Says:

    “well, even if you dont want to call it by its name, we are always making leaps of faith, ”

    My argument was that there is no basis for making such leaps of faith, not that we don’t. The act of making those leaps does not, by itself, say anything about whether the act itself is justified or not.

    “and even scientific knowledge will not be possible without it. Scientific knowledge is also based upon presuppositions that the scientist takes on faith, and these are unverifiable. ”

    This is a specious argument for a number of reasons.

    1.The presuppositions as you call them are nothing but axioms used by scientists to build models. Science is engaged in the perennial quest to reduce the number of assumptions one must make to explain natural phenomena. As we know more, the number of such leaps we need to make and the size of chasm they are leaping over are both reduced.

    Think about this: for Kepler, explanation of planetary motion was based on more leaps of faith than for Newton after discovering the laws of gravity. Simply put, the only leaps of faith we must make are to jump over what we don’t know – yet. They are not a permanent feature.

    2.How are they unverifiable? All of science is based on nothing but verifiable and replicable experiments. You want to verify gravity? Drop a stone on your foot!

    “I choose to make the leap of faith as a matter of faith, and that personal choice has to be respected.”

    Sorry – you have a right to make that choice but no right to have it respected. That is the fundamental feature of civil discourse – I have just as much right to consider your beliefs as utterly ridiculous even though I may defend your right to hold them.

    “It depends on what to you is religion- actions of individuals, interpretations of clergy, dynamics of power politics that dignify themselves in the garb of religiosity?”

    Well, religion has been an instrument of power and oppression. You cannot separate the ideology from the institutions and power structure it has created! Every one of the clergymen fully justified their acts of violence in the name of religion – and they continue to do that today. Surely, the ideology that enables them is not innocent – it has blood on its hands.

    “Or the ethos of revealed knowledge which has ‘demonstrably’ transformed individuals, ordered communities and has inspired selfless action larger than life. ‘

    Sorry, revealed knowledge is an oxymoron. It’s utterly ridiculous to revere something some dude claimed to have heard from angels centuries ago as “revealed knowledge” – especially, as you can see for yourself that so much what is contained in that book of revelations is utterly contempt-worthy. Come on, the world has moved on, we should know better.

  18. Anjum Altaf Says:

    Maryam: I feel we have digressed from the main themes of Craving Middleness: Is there a middle way? Can it be found? How are we to get to it?

    It is my view that there are enough people who wish to find unity in diversity for a start to be made. Of course, there are people at the extremes but it is not cost-effective to try and convert them at this stage. The strategy should be to form a critical mass of those who are willing to pull together despite differences on issues.

    My image of the situation is that of a sinking boat. It would be fanaticism for those in it to pull in different directions. Those who wish to survive should isolate the extremists at both ends. If we continue to harbor sympathy for “our” extremists we will all drown together.

    • Anil Kala Says:

      Anjum if your reading is correct then the situation in Pakistan is very encouraging. If there is a silent majority seeking unity in diversity then all it needs is an able leader to turn the table. The change occurs quite dramatically but the problem is that the two extremes your are talking about is not visible to us outsiders. There appears only one extreme and that is religious extreme. It is not a sinking ship pulled in different directions but a weakened ship pulled only in one direction so fast that structure is collapsing from the stresses it exerts.

      The only impetus that drives this madness comes from hatred; hate the West and hate India.

      • Anjum Altaf Says:

        Anil: The notion that everyone in Pakistan hates the West and hates India is greatly exaggerated. What has to be kept in mind is that South Asia as a whole is a socially conservative region and in times of stress that color is the most visible. But when you look at any society close up you will find an entire spectrum of views. The nature of the media is such today that some views get more projection than others. The situation in Pakistan may not be very encouraging but it is nowhere as discouraging as it appears and, as you note, things can change quite dramatically. That is why the struggle has to continue even when the odds seem forbidding.

        One experiment that might help you get a sense of this is to use India as a parallel. What are its silent majority and fringes like? What gets the most media coverage? Even to think of one India will lead to a very misleading generalization.

      • Anil Kala Says:

        Anjum: I would only agree with you partially. It is true that often what hogs TV time is not widespread public opinion but it can also be true. The case in point as Anonymous points out; Salman Taseer episode. It boggles my mind that someone can be so enraged by mere suggestion of dismantling blasphemy law to kill a person and then multitudes celebrate that killing so spontaneously. Clearly people are on edge and extremely insecure. Then there is the case of Anna Hazare, He hogged the TV time and one is inclined to believe he had support all over the country so much so that the government virtually bent down to his feet.

        But I agree that public allegiance to such a cause is very brittle, slightest indication of benefit accruing from a different stance will make the public change their stance very dramatically.

        • Anjum Altaf Says:

          Anil: The Salman Taseer incidence was indeed bizarre. There are two parts to it: an individual becoming so enraged as to kill another and others celebrating the killing. Godse became enraged enough to kill a leader of the stature of Gandhi. Do you think if there had been TV and Facebook and Twitter at that time, there would have been evidence of many people celebrating? Narendra Modi is celebrated as a great leader and many want him to be the Prime Minister of India. Is this less bizarre? These are big countries and the number of people who celebrate bizarre events has to be seen in proportion to their overall populations. This is not to say that there are not major problems in Pakistan but generalizing from bizarre events misses the reality of what is going on.

          • Anonymous Says:

            The celebration of Taseer’s murder was just one visible aspect. albeit one that spectacularly demonstrated the power and ugliness of religious fundamentalism. let’s not forget that the very existence of blasphemy laws and how they are applied to oppress minorities in Pakistan is, by itslef, an abomination. That someone would murder Taseer for merely hinting a reconsideration of these laws indicates how powerful the religious propaganda is and how much mass support it has. That people would celebrate it in streets and the government was reduced to being a mere spectator against it is another symptom of what the society really wants. The fact that the rich and famous and powerful in Pakistan did not even want to be seen at his funeral speaks more strongly than anything else about what the reality of Pakistan is. Islam is the tiger that Pakistan created and is riding on. Good luck getting off without being eaten alive!

          • Anonymous Says:

            The contrast against Godse and Narendra modi could not be clearer. We don’ thave tv footage of people celebrating Godse but what we do have is tv footage of masses of people mourning Gandhi’s death. We have media coverage of a nation in utter shock and grief. We have the evidence of a court condemning Godse and sentencing him to death. Similarly, we have a relentless condemnation campaign in the media against Modi. We see him being politically opposed everywhere – from elections to debateas in media to pressure groups in the US working against him to even online protestors condemning him in the Time magazine poll recently.

            The difference between a civlized society and one that is not, is not that bad people or ideologies do not exist in civilized societies. The difference is in how they deal with it. It’s just absurd to draw any parallels between Godse and Taseer’s murderer.

            In any case, pointing to Modi or Godse does not help us understand the role of Islam or how it has poisoned Pakistani society any better.

      • Anil Kala Says:

        Apparently my comment gave the impression of contrasting India with Pakistan which it was not. Anna Hazare and Salman Taseer were cited only to show that what hogs TV prime time can reflect widespread public opinion.

        Godse example does explain an enraged individual going to the extent of killing another fellow but I wouldn’t speculate that he would have been glorified had that happened in this age, rather lynched if he were free. 2000 innocent Sikhs were lynched after ghastly killing of Indira Gandhi.

        Anjum you only reinforce my argument that what hogs prime time on TV is really public view by citing Modi expample. Modi is not projected as hero on TV but he is held as a hero by a large Hindu majority as reflected in repeated wins in polls.

        • Anjum Altaf Says:

          Anil: My intention is also not to contrast Pakistan with India – this discussion is not about scoring points. The reason for the references was that when one looks at something closer to home, it helps put things in perspective. Bizarre things happen in all countries. They do tell us something but it is usually misleading to generalize from them. Leaders of a political party encouraging the lynching of innocent citizens and remaing free after all these years, some being hailed as heroes, is pretty bizarre. But to jump from there to identifying something in the DNA of a religion would be even more bizarre. As I have mentioned before, there are some very serious problems in Pakistan but in my view an across-the-board condemnation would not be accurate. Of course, people can hold the opinion that the situation is unreformable. Only time can provide an answer to that.

  19. SouthAsian Says:

    Here is an interesting attempt of science to understand spirituality. The author concludes by saying:

    “Fortunately, as a scientist my interest lies solely in the physical world and speculations about the spiritual dimension lie well beyond scientific scrutiny.”

    http://www.theeuropean-magazine.com/649-schj-dt-uffe/650-the-neuroscience-of-prayer

  20. Maryam Says:

    Thank you Dr. Anjum Altaf. Even though there is as I said ‘a jostling Pakistan’ between these two extremes, the problem is that it is the self-appointed spokespeople of these extremes (religious and pseudo-liberal) whose charged rhetoric drowns out other voices, who have usurped the authority to represent and define identity and ethos of this nation. Both feed off each other and lend strength to each other. Although their language is different, their thought-patterns and perspectives are almost mirror-images: I find Mitt Romney and any random ‘West’-bashing local extremist cleric have quite a lot to share. And, as you have said, the solution lies in empowering and giving voice to those standing apart in the midst of the melee who refuse to take sides in the tug of war even while being gracefully poised in the values they adhere to. That is where the camera has to zoom in, and that discourse of middleness needs to drown out the babel of the crying banshees.
    Middleness is not an identity-less half-baked, spineless fluidity, but a space for genuine and respectful understanding beyond otherization, and a belief in those universal values that are at the heart of life and the world, and recognizing which has tremendous healing potential for our fractured, discordant state. Middleness, as you said, is finding unity in diversity, looking at the big questions beyond the either/or or ‘versus’ construct.

  21. Anonymous Says:

    “Middleness is not an identity-less half-baked, spineless fluidity, but a space for genuine and respectful understanding beyond otherization”

    Well, considering that the very foundation of religion is based on virulent otherization, how is possible to find a non-trivial middleness beyond facile platitudes? Let me quote Dr Ambedkar on this:

    “Islam is a close corporation and the distinction that it makes between Muslims and non-Muslims is a very real, very positive and very alienating distinction. The brotherhood of Islam is not the universal brotherhood of man. It is the brotherhood of Muslims for Muslims only. There is a fraternity but its benefit is confined to those within that corporation. For those who are outside the corporation there is nothing but contempt and enmity.” [Thoughts on Pakistan, Dr. B.R. Ambedkar, 1940]

    Simply put, how can we ever hope to find middleness with Islam when the contempt of the existence of an infidel or apostate is built right into its very DNA, is part of the “revealed knowledge” (to use your term), is believed by a substantial number of its adherents, is relentlessly propagated and propagandized, and is supported by societies like Pakistan where murderers of Salman Taseer meet with public approval?

    • Anjum Altaf Says:

      Anonymous: You are certainly entitled to your opinion but it is contested by serious scholarship. Readers can refer to both and reach their own conclusions on whether recent events in Pakistan support the sweeping generalizations you have made.

      For the most recent historical account see the essay by Peter Brown in the New York Review of Books:

      http://www.nybooks.com/articles/archives/2012/may/10/byzantium-islam-great-transition/

      • Anonymous Says:

        Well, considering that Dr Ambedkar actually evaluated Islam along with other religions as a means of emancipation from Hinduism for the lower castes, I am quite comfortable that his scholarship would stand up to scrutiny.

        I am not sure how familiar you or other readers of this blog are with Dr Ambedkar’s writings on this topic.He spent considerable time and effort on analyzing different religions. He was quite aware of how momentous his choice would be in its impact on the socio-religious fabric of India as well as the power relationship between dalits and others. He did not reject Islam and Christianity lightly. I strongly recommend reading his thoughts and analysis on why he chose Buddhism as a means of protesting against and politically weaken Hinduism.

        Of course, there’re plenty of other serious scholars who have called out the backwardness, violence and polarization inherent to Islam. As you said, everyone can read all different viewpoints and come to their own conclusion.

        • Anjum Altaf Says:

          Anonymous: Dr. Ambedkar is well known on this blog and recognized for his stature. If you enter his name in the search box you will see more than a dozen entries. The first goes back to when this blog was started. This is what it said:

          “We will also highlight the contributions of Dr. Ambedkar who, in our view, was one of the outstanding intellects of those times. It is a telling commentary that his observations are virtually unknown in Pakistan.

          At the very least his cogently argued text of 1940 Pakistan or the Partition of India should be required reading for all who wish to understand the issues of those times.”

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