By Yasser Latif Hamdani
Ambassador Dr Akbar S Ahmad asked me to speak to his class at the American University in Washington D.C. along with Ambassador Arsalan Suleiman, who is White House’s special envoy to the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) about Islam and some of the challenges that Muslims face in the 21st century as a global community. I feel the interaction that happened is worth recording and presenting to the readers because it shows how the young people around the world are looking at Muslim world in general and Pakistan in particular.
Dr Akbar S Ahmad needs no introduction. Veteran civil servant from Pakistan, his contribution to the cause of fostering greater understanding between the west and Islam is second to none. He has been doing it for more than 20 years, and has authored countless books on Islam and Pakistan. As Pakistanis we owe him a debt of gratitude for making the film Jinnah, which is now being aired on mainstream American channels like the TCM. When I was a young undergraduate in the US 16 years ago, his film and work made a tremendous impact on me, and therefore, to be able to speak to his class was a personal honour for me.
Ambassador Arsalan Suleiman is an extremely articulate young Pakistani-American, a lawyer from Harvard, and a consummate diplomat who represents the US government and the president of the US in the OIC. In his remarks he spoke of how the US engages with the Muslim World on issues like blasphemy and defamation of religion. He explained how the US policy is at cross-purposes with many of the Muslim states on the issue. The US constitution has, in the first amendment, the establishment and free exercise of religion clause along with the freedom of speech clause. These constitutional provisions guarantee freedom of religion, non-interference of government and the right to engage in free expression openly without any restrictions.
This means that as the White House’s special envoy, Suleiman has to walk a tight rope, which he does beautifully. He is a practising Muslim and a proud American, and for him these two things do not clash. Here is an exposition of Islam that is not in clash with secularism and modernity. That a young Muslim, whose family hails from Sahiwal in Pakistan, not far from Lahore, can make it to such a senior rank in the US administration speaks volumes about how fair and level the playing field is in that country. He spoke with the confidence and dignity of a high-ranking functionary of the US government.
I wish we treated non-Muslims in Pakistan with the same honour and dignity that the US accords its Muslim citizens. Sure, there are concerns about the demagoguery and anti-Muslim bias, but the core of American values is unshakeable, which goes right back to Thomas Jefferson and other founding fathers, who spoke of inclusiveness of all faiths, including Islam, more than 200 years ago. There is something extraordinary about a country that remains loyal to the vision of its founding fathers. It is a matter of tremendous pride for young Americans who were listening to us. As a Pakistani, I was envious as well as sad because Pakistan is not that country, at least not yet.
In my remarks, I spoke about Jinnah’s vision for a tolerant and inclusive Pakistan, and how far we have deviated from it. I spoke about Jinnah’s cabinet, which included a Hindu as the first law minister and an Ahmadi as the first foreign minister. I then explained the blasphemy laws in some detail, and needless to say, the audience was shocked that laws like this could exist in a modern nation state in the 21st century. They were even more surprised to learn of the intra-Muslim bigotry, and how it is reinforced by the anti-Ahmadi laws in Pakistan. I told them that Pakistan’s constitution too had the free exercise clause but that the free exercise of religion in Pakistan was conspicuous by its absence. I blamed the pusillanimous ruling elites of Pakistan for not having the resolve or the desire to stand up against the reactionary and regressive forces that keep Pakistan backward.
A very perceptive and engaging audience, the class asked about differences between various sects of Islam. In a pointed exchange, it became clear to us that Pakistan and the Muslim world were at least 500 years behind the rest of the world when it came to accepting religious differences and celebrating diversity. This is despite the fact that Islamic history points to a time when free thinkers like Rhazes were celebrated not persecuted. I pointed out that just as Jinnah would be disappointed with the state of Pakistan today, the Holy Prophet (PBUH) would not have approved of the murder and chaos falsely perpetrated in his holy name around the Muslim world. The heirs of the civilisation of Cordoba have made a royal mess of things in the 21st century.
It saddens me as a Pakistani to have to present a picture of Pakistan that is so unflattering. Perhaps one day I would get to hold my head high in front of audiences in the west and tell them that we too have a country, a legal system and a tradition that is tolerant and accepting. One longs for that day. May it come sooner rather than later. In the meantime we have people like Dr Akbar S Ahmad and Arsalan Suleiman holding the flag high, and that gives one hope for the future.
Yasser Latif Hamdani is a lawyer based in Lahore and the author of the book Mr Jinnah: Myth and Reality.