Posts Tagged ‘Islam’

Kamila Shamsie’s Home Fire: A Modern Antigone

September 23, 2017

By Kabir Altaf

Imagine what Antigone would be like if the action was transported from ancient Greece to today’s London and the main characters were British-Pakistanis.  This premise forms the basis for Kamila Shamsie’s most recent novel Home Fire, which updates Sophocles’ tragedy and sets it in the contemporary context of the War on Terror and the struggle of European countries to deal with their citizens who join the “Islamic State”.  Though ultimately a derivative work—one that doesn’t stand alone without reference to the original—the novel has some interesting insights on what it means to be British and on Islam’s place in today’s UK.

Sophocles’ tragedy centres around the conflict between Antigone and Creon, her uncle and the ruler of Thebes. Antigone desires to bury her brother Polyneices according to religious law while Creon refuses to grant permission since he considers him to be an enemy of the state. In Shamsie’s update, Polyneices becomes Parvaiz Pasha, a young Londoner who becomes radicalized and leaves to work in the “Islamic State’s” media unit in Syria. His sister Aneeka (Antigone) first tries to enable him to return to the UK without facing charges and later to bring his body back to London. Her opponent is Karamat Lone, the British Home Secretary, himself of Pakistani and Muslim origin.  The equivalent of Creon’s refusal to allow Polyneices’s body to be buried in Thebes is Karamat’s order to rescind British citizenship from those dual nationals who act against the interests of the UK.  Thus, after Parvaiz’s death in Istanbul, his body is sent to Pakistan instead of the UK.  Aneeka then travels to Karachi to sit in protest outside the British Consulate until the government allows the body to be returned to the UK.  Her sister Isma (Ismene), on the other hand, attempts to distance the sisters from their brother’s actions.

Shamsie’s characters are all three-dimensional and none are entirely heroic or villainous.  Unlike Antigone, Aneeka uses sex to try to achieve her objectives, becoming involved with Karamat’s son Eamonn (Haemon). In the original play, Antigone is engaged to Haemon, but she sacrifices this relationship to fulfill her obligations to her brother.  Aneeka, in contrast, seduces Eamonn as part of a plan to bring her brother home. Though she does eventually fall in love with him, her initial actions cast her in a manipulative light—she prays and wears the hijab yet doesn’t seem to have problems with premarital sex.

Like Aneeka, Karamat is also a complicated character.  He is an integrationist who distances himself from his Muslim background and marries an Irish woman. He gives his son an Irish name, Eamonn, rather than the Arabic Ayman. Yet, he confesses that in times of stress he often finds himself unconsciously reciting the ayat al-kursi.  Asked in an interview to respond to the accusation that he hates Muslims, he replies “I hate the Muslims who make people hate Muslims” (231).  Shamsie heightens the dramatic conflict by giving the Creon character a Muslim background and depicts that type of Muslim and British-Pakistani who believes that in order to advance in mainstream society, he has to distance himself from his religion and be more loyal than the King.

One of Shamsie’s most interesting departures from Sophocles is providing a bigger backstory for the Polyneices character.  Sophocles begins his story after Polyneices is already dead, so we never learn what drove him to become an enemy of Thebes. In contrast, Shamsie shows the reader the process by which Parvaiz is radicalized, and thus highlights how lost and vulnerable young men are often exploited and brainwashed into waging jihad.  In Parvaiz’s case, he is a young boy who has never known his father, himself a jihadi, a fact that Parvaiz’s mother and sisters never discussed, fearing the negative consequences for the family.  When an older man comes along and asserts that Parvaiz’s father was a hero, Paraviz is naturally drawn to him and led down the path to radicalization.  In Shamsie’s narration, even the jihadi is a somewhat sympathetic character. His motivations are understandable though his actions are reprehensible.  

One of the main themes of the novel is how Britain treats its Muslim citizens.  The story begins with Isma at the airport, enduring a lengthy interrogation that causes her to miss her onward flight to the US, where she plans to pursue her Ph.D.  The interrogation is particularly fraught because of her family background, though the experience of being questioned at Western airports is one familiar to many Muslim travelers.  More problematic is the media’s demonization of British Muslims. As Isma recalls a conversation she had during college: “The 7/7 terrorists were never described by the media as ‘British terrorists’. Even when the word ‘British’ was used it was always ‘British of Pakistani descent’ or ‘British Muslim’ or, my favorite, ‘British passport holders’, always something interposed between their Britishness and terrorism.” (38).  Later, Aneeka refers to the perils of “Googling While Muslim”, a nod to state surveillance of Muslims for any sign of extremism.

Diametrically opposed to the sisters is Karamat, who tells students at a Bradford school: “You are, we are, British. Britain accepts this. So do most of you. But for those of you who are in some doubt about it, let me say this: don’t set yourselves apart in the way you dress, the way you think, the outdated codes of behavior you cling to, the ideologies to which you attach your loyalties. Because if you do, you will be treated differently—not because of racism, though that does still exist, but because you insist on your difference from everyone else in this multi-ethnic, multi-religious, multitudinous United Kingdom of ours” (88). While telling Muslims that they shouldn’t freely express their religion is problematic, there is something to be said for greater assimilation into the societies in which Muslims find themselves.  Karamat’s most problematic action is the rescinding of British citizenship from those dual nationals who act against British interests.  Rather than dealing with why some young British Muslims are alienated from the larger society, this action simply ignores the problem by retroactively defining them as un-British.

Home Fire makes an interesting companion to Antigone though most of the power of the novel comes from seeing how Shamsie has updated that great work of world literature.  Without the literary resonances, the novel would simply be another work that attempts to deal with jihad and the place of Islam in the West, themes worked and reworked by many Pakistani novelists writing in English.

Kabir Altaf graduated from George Washington University with a major in Dramatic Literature.

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Awareness of History

November 29, 2015

By Anjum Altaf

I was reading an interview about philosophy when I came across some tangential remarks I felt would be useful to reproduce on this blog in this time of rising fundamentalism in the Indian subcontinent.

The interview is between 3:AM Magazine and the  philosopher Jonardon Ganeri (one of whose latest books is Identity as Reasoned Choice: A South Asian Perspective on the Reach and Resources of Public and Practical Reason in Shaping Individual Identities).

The tangential remarks pertain to the evolution of intellectual history in India.

The bottom line for JG emerging from his detailed research in the history of Indian philosophy is the following: “In India what Navadvīpa demonstrates is how wrong-headed are Hindu fundamentalist histories of Indian Islam.”

This fundamentalist history is very familiar and repeated in countless comments on innumerable blogs: Muslim invaders imposed Persian, oppressed Hindus, destroyed temples, decimated Indian scholarship, etc., etc.

Instead, what JG discovered was a surprise to him: “What I discovered was that at the same time Europe was undergoing a transformation from a mediaeval to a modern world-view, analogous processes were under way in India, and, even more surprisingly, that this was taking place among Sanskrit intellectuals at the height of the Islamic Mughal age.”

This is the reason JG advises people to learn from history, avoid locking themselves “into boxes” and “to be less dogmatic and categorical in their thinking.” He concludes with a recommendation that is eminently sensible but surprisingly hard for people to accept: those who desire knowledge should cultivate the intellectual virtues of keeping an open mind and seeing what turns up.”

The selected excerpts below speak for themselves. Key sentences are highlighted. The complete interview can be read here:

http://www.3ammagazine.com/3am/artha-india-and-the-global-preoccupation-of-philosophy/

3:AM: The world’s in a mess and it’s partly because people are ignorant of their own histories…

JG: Intractable conflicts arise when people think themselves into boxes from which they can’t escape…

3:AM: Last year you published ‘The Lost Age of Reason: Philosophy in Early Modern India.’ Certainly for me it was a revelation. The names were new to me and probably were to most philosophers working in the philosophical mainstream. Can you say something about these key figures and why they are significant? So the Bengali Raghunātha Śiromai was the inventor of the ‘new reason’ philosophy and shaped metaphysical enquiry through the sixteenth and seventeenth century. Can you say what this ‘new reason’ philosophy was and why Śiromai was so important?

JG: The names were new to me too before I started laboriously trawling through manuscript catalogues in India and Nepal. I gradually began to notice that something very exciting had been going on in this period, something never mentioned in the standard histories of Indian philosophy which generally try to reinforce a picture of India as an ancient civilization.

What I discovered was that at the same time Europe was undergoing a transformation from a mediaeval to a modern world-view, analogous processes were under way in India, and, even more surprisingly, that this was taking place among Sanskrit intellectuals at the height of the Islamic Mughal age.

Early modernity, I discovered, was not an exclusively European affair after all, but, rather, different forms and varieties of modernity were emerging concurrently in many places. In trying to give some context to the rise of these new philosophers, I found that they were mostly concentrated in two cities where there was a lot of interaction between Muslim and Sanskrit intellectuals, namely Benares, or Varanasi, and a smaller place in Bengal called Navadvīpa, or Nadia in its latinized form

3:AM: Given recent contemporary history, it is fascinating to read about the complex Muslim-Hindu interaction of Navadvīpa at this time…

JG: Navadvīpa was one of the great powerhouses of philosophy in the seventeenth century, and had been for three or four centuries. Before that, Buddhists had set up monastery-universities in Nalanda and elsewhere, but Navadvīpa was organised around a more traditional South Asian model, and was more like an extended intellectual community. One could get an extremely good education in the techniques of philosophical reasoning there, and students would come from all India for it, whatever their religious background. It seems quite likely that there was even an exchange with the flourishing intellectual culture in Tibet.

One thing which became clear to me is that the philosophers here enjoyed an enormous amount of intellectual liberty, and pursued a whole range of very innovative research programmes into all manner of topics in pure philosophy, especially semantics, epistemology, metaphysics, but also into the philosophy of law, and areas of social and political philosophy. I wondered what explained this unparalleled level of intellectual autonomy. The most evident fact about Navadvīpa was the strong ties it had with the larger world of Persianate and Islamicate scholarship, as a result of an enlightened history of Muslim governance.

I don’t think that it is any coincidence that one of the great religious reformers of the time, Caitanya, came out of Navadvīpa at this time. My primary interest is in the astonishingly modern, and yes basically secular, philosophy that was created, but I do think that Navadvīpa is great example of the tremendously progressive impact that Muslim attitudes towards intellectual inquiry have had on the world. In India what Navadvīpa demonstrates is how wrong-headed are Hindu fundamentalist histories of Indian Islam…

3:AM: You regret the historical facts that brought the new reason philosophy to a standstill. This was the collapse of the Mughal power and the new British imposition of fiscal arrangements and educational policies that funded colonial universities and colleges and down-graded the poorer, traditional networks in which the new reason philosophy had thrived. So we Brits were the bad guys here! Can you say something about this?

JG: Yes, Richard, I’m afraid we were. Britain did a lot, at the end of empire, to destroy the evidence, but on 18 April 2012 a large cache of Foreign Office documents whose very existence had been kept secret was forced into the public domain through a legal action taken by the Mau Mau. They paint a picture of atrocity and inhumanity that the British have worked hard to erase from the collective psyche.

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Understanding Communalism: The Past is No Guide to the Present

October 14, 2012

By Anjum Altaf

The present in South Asia is messy, gruesome and unpleasant; no wonder we keep referring back to the past to make sense of it. Most of the time, however, we end up distorting the past to craft seamless narratives that accord with our current sensibilities. I will argue in this essay that there is no such continuity to be crafted and enter a plea for the past to be left alone. (more…)

Theater and Social Change in Pakistan: The Plays of Shahid Nadeem

July 1, 2012

By Kabir Altaf

Art does not exist in a vacuum. The artist lives in a particular social context and his or her work reflects the era in which it was created. Artists have long been concerned with exploitation and injustice. Rather than have their work simply reflect the society around them, many artists wish to use their work to change conditions on the ground. For example, Bertolt Brecht (1898-1956) believed that plays should not cause spectators to identify emotionally with the characters on stage but should rather provoke rational self-reflection and a critical view of the onstage action. Thus, Brecht used techniques that would remind the audience that the play was a reflection of reality and not reality itself. By highlighting the constructed nature of the theatrical event, Brecht hoped to communicate to the audience that their reality was equally constructed, and thus changeable.

Two of Brecht’s most famous plays are The Threepenny Opera and The Good Person of Szechwan. Both these works reflect Brecht’s concerns with the exploitative nature of capitalism. (more…)

‘Craving Middleness’: A Critique

April 25, 2012

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. (more…)

Craving Middleness

April 8, 2012

By Maryam Sakeenah

I travel across two worlds in my 20-minute commuting distance between both my workplaces: a modern religious school and a private grammar school where scions of Pakistan’s moneyed elite are privileged with quality education in tune with modern needs. The mindsets I deal with, the attitudes I encounter make for interesting comparison. At the religious school, the concepts of the sacred and the profane as defined by absolute religious morality are the framework for all thought-patterns and behaviour. Fidelity to the sacred is the highest value promoted and readily accepted – at least ostensibly – in an environment designed to actively encourage it. At the grammar school, the central value is free thinking and critical inquiry rigorously promoted by the administration. The curriculum is built around and disseminates post Enlightenment Western perspectives and metanarratives, with the fundamental premise being that of morality being relative, and of individual liberty being the highest value to be protected and safeguarded. Students are taught to invariably seek answers and explanations through logic, and question where the logical basis for an assumption seems unsatisfactory. (more…)

M J Akbar’s Tinderbox: The Book in Images

August 9, 2011

By Anjum Altaf

I was asked to review M J Akbar’s new book Tinderbox: The Past and Future of Pakistan and have done so; the review appeared in the May 2011 issue of Himal Southasian magazine. Here I wish to attempt something different – to convey to the reader a sense of the book through the images that came to mind as I read it.

Tinderbox

Tinderbox is a particularly apt metaphor for present-day Pakistan. I reached for the book with a sense of excitement and anticipation at the prospect of learning whether the tinderbox would explode or somehow be defused. The issue had been on many minds and the focus of many talks for some time. A member of the family had put it thus after attending one the talks: (more…)

God, Music and Food for Thought

July 14, 2011

By Anjum Altaf

In a discussion of the arts, it was mentioned that middle-class families in India encouraged children to learn classical music because it was a mark of high culture; it made one special in one’s esteem and in that of others. It was then asked why classical music was not healthy in Pakistan given that much the same considerations should be applicable across the border. It is my sense that the question was less an expression of belief and more an opening for a discussion and I am going to exploit that to speculate on some topics of interest.

The one-word, and not altogether flippant, answer to the question is God. Hindu deities (Krishna and Saraswati, to mention just two) not only approve of but delight in music. Whether Allah approves or disapproves is still in doubt with no resolution in sight while the camp of disapprovers continues to add adherents. (more…)

Explaining Pakistan’s Drift to the Right

July 8, 2011

By Anjum Altaf

I wish to explain Pakistan’s long drift to the religious right while going beyond the argument that Islamism is at the root of all the country’s problems, a formulation that begs many questions: Why was Pakistan amenable to Islamism? Why this particular form of Islamism? Why with seemingly so little resistance?

My focus will be on the structural factors that opened the political space first for Islam and then for Islamism while remaining cognizant of the fact that an explanation is not intended to be an excuse. Nor is it an attempt to shift blame, distinctions many are too impatient to make. The blame rests squarely on Pakistanis but that does not obviate the need for an alternative but coherent explanation of the events of the past sixty years. (more…)

Testing the Hypothesis of Sexual Repression in Pakistan

June 29, 2011

By Anjum Altaf

My response to Christopher Hitchens’ article in Vanity Fair was not well written because it got hijacked into areas that I did not intend to stress. In this post I will try and refocus the discussion on what I consider germane to the objectives of this blog, i.e., to examine a hypothesis critically in order to establish its validity.

The task therefore is to describe the hypotheses proffered by Hitchens and suggest how they may be fairly tested. As part of this exercise, I am not concerned with disputing or establishing the truth of facts; the emphasis is solely on the exercise of reasoning through the arguments assuming the facts to be true.

The central concern for Hitchens is the situation in Pakistan. This concern is well placed and thoroughly justified. The challenge that Hitchens assumes is to identify the most fundamental cause that explains this situation. (more…)