By Arshad Alam for New Age Islam
December 18, 2013
It is rare these days for good news to come from Pakistan. All that we hear about this country is underwritten by violence: between Shias and Sunnis, Deobandis and Barelvis, Muhajirs and so called ‘original’ Pakistanis. Of late, visible violence against women has increased and so has the attacks against religious minorities like Christians. So it was refreshing to read that Bilawal Bhutto plans to organize Basant festival in Sindh. So far this young Bhutto has not shown any political maturity which might make him into a sound leader which is sorely lacking in Pakistan. But through his courageous intention to revive Basant, Bilawal seems to be inaugurating a new language in the politics of Pakistan. And the best part about this language is that it indigenous to Pakistan: as compared to Malala’s voice becoming the voice of Europeans then being thrust upon the Pakistanis to tell them how backward they were, here is a voice which is authentically rooted in the cultural matrix of Pakistan and who is trying to revive a pluralistic cultural from the clutches monochromatic mullahs.
Basant or ‘Jashn e Bahar’ is a South Asian phenomenon. Over the years, partly due to interpretive stress of returning back to ‘original Islam’, Muslims have become increasingly uneasy with the festival. In Delhi, Muslims celebrating Basant had almost become a thing of the past unless few context sensitive Muslims got together and revived it.
Every year, people get together in Nizamuddin Basti to celebrate the spirit of togetherness and reclaim the common the cultural grounds which existed between Hindus and Muslims in this country. Reclaiming Basant as a space for cultural hybridity was a political act which challenged the insular understanding of dominant Islam which was increasingly getting de-culturalised. In Pakistan, fanatic Muslim groups like the Jamat ud Dawa and Jamat e Islami had publicly threatened people against celebrating Basant because they understood it too Hindu a festival to be adopted by Muslims. Attempts by Najam Sethi, who had become the caretaker Chief Minister of Punjab in April this year came a cropper due to the intransience of the bureaucracy and political parties. And that’s the bigger problem: that there are two few Muslim voices speaking up against de-contextualisation of Muslim tradition that is happening in the name of returning to true ‘Islam’. On the contrary, there is active connivance on the part of the political class to make Muslims forget their own cultural heritage. One can only think of how Shahbaz Sharif, banned kite flying during Basant in the Punjab. Although legitimized on health grounds, it was clear to everybody that Sharif was playing to the religious hard-line gallery.
This is what makes Bilawal different so refreshingly different from others. In articulating the need for a context sensitive Islam, he minced no words in saying that Pakistan is being dragged backwards and is being made to forget its history and culture. Needless to say, the religious establishment of Pakistan would not be happy with his statements. Their reactions would be along old repeated lines: that Islam is under attack from a western educated ‘liberal’, that there are attempts to promote ‘Bid’ah’ in Pakistan, etc. The more important thing is how Bilawal would react to this criticism. Would he buckle under pressure from the religious conservatives as many have done in the past, or would be steadfastly stand with his plan of organizing Basant? One can only hope that he does not surrender meekly to the obscurantist brigade. Only then perhaps one would believe that he is a man of conviction.
The problem raised by Bilawal is not just unique to Pakistan. Creeping Wahhabisation of Indian society has also meant that the Muslim religious establishment is at complete unease with anything to do with cultural sharing between communities. It is no longer strange today to hear debates about the Islamicity of Muslim women wearing Sindoor or wearing a Saree. It is a sign of our times: of an invasion of intolerance where anything which not remotely connected with Arabia is deemed foreign and therefore liable to be discarded.
The slow death of classical music within Muslim society and the slow but sure disappearance of communities of Muslim folk music practitioners can be related to this process of de-contextualized Islam which a certain interpretation of Arabian Islam favours. The point to understand and reiterate is this: separated from their own cultural traditions and heritage, Muslims become alienated in their own land.
This alienation forces us to draw succor from ourselves, thus fostering an inward looking mentality. We end up meeting only our kinds, talking about the same kind of topics over and over again. Slowly this process of self alienation will lead us to such a state where we would hardly know what is going on in other communities, their likes and dislikes. If communities have to share a future together, then this process must stop. It is for this reason alone that Bilawal must be congratulated: for expressing the hope that religion and tradition should and must co-exist, even in Muslim contexts.
Arshad Alam is a social and political commentator