My internal conflicts

Guest Blog by Amer Nazir

I hurried towards the train station to catch the 7:51. I was dressed well – in my Canali suit and my Hugo Boss overcoat. At the entrance to the station, I saw two people handing out leaflets. The one on the right was Susan Krammer, the local Liberal Democrat MP.

She paused when she saw me… and I saw her struggle for a moment though she did hide it well… ‘And how are you?’ she asked as if she had placed me at once without any effort at all on her part… ‘I am well,’ I replied, with my eye towards the approaching train that I did not want to miss… ‘Mrs Krammer,’ I continued hastily, ‘I will never forget your kindness…!’ ‘That’s what we are here for,’ she replied, ‘you know where to reach us if there is anything we can do for you in future as well…’

I bowed, said my goodbye and ran towards the train – but she called after me…’By the way, you look terrific,’ she said. I turned around and saw that she was beaming – there was pride in her eyes…

Once on the train, I thought of her. I could imagine her being a bit indulgent this morning. An indulgence well deserved. I imagined her telling her assistant right at this moment in a hushed tone that I was an ex-asylum seeker – perhaps just to motivate the young man about the moral significance of their job…

She, Susan Krammer, an MP on the opposition benches, had made their lives miserable a couple of years ago. She must have written at least six letters to the Home office over a period of four months and had spared no one… One of the letters to the Home Minister stated that the documents in my possession were a blatant proof of my persecution at the hands of the Pakistan Army regime for years at end and that I was never taken to a court of law – that leave alone prove my guilt, I was not even allowed to prove my innocence…

She urged that I should be allowed to stay in Britain since my wife and daughters were British and residing in this country. That I should be given a work permit at once so that I could earn a living once again and gain some dignity back in my life – exactly, what the Pakistan Army government had denied me for years… And she wrote that I had been eligible for a British nationality since 24 years due to my having married a British citizen – but that I had chosen to sponsor my wife for a Pakistani nationality instead…

It was because of Susan Krammer therefore that my asylum case was given a priority. I was refused asylum and yet I was awarded Humanitarian Protection by the British government which is rare when it comes to Pakistanis…

This morning as well, the train to London was packed in the rush hour, some were blessed to have enough space to spread their newspapers – others, caught fleeting glimpses of news from wherever they stood – and it was then that I saw the headline screaming from every newspaper… the Taliban had shot dead a young innocent lone British woman social worker… And strangely, my thoughts went to the Islamic preachers which were there at the Kingston Town Centre every weekend spreading their message but are never shot…

And then I thought of the unsuspecting commuters in the train that whether they knew who I was – after all I had all the wrong credentials, I am a Pakistani, a Muslim even though quite liberal, an ex-asylum seeker who wore Canali and looked terrific in times of an economic slowdown, who may have sneaked a job from a local… and that would they shoot me if they knew…

I decided that morning to look out of the train instead of indulging in my favourite train-past-time – to imagine the life of any commuter who attracted my attention for the next half an hour. I chose that day to not look at my fellow commuters as if I was guilty of an offence which was yet not clear to me – perhaps because I was a man who held beliefs quite different to them and who yet had no qualms whatsoever to enjoy a life which their society had to offer. And therefore, I looked out… and on every platform that we passed there was this latest advertising campaign for a new product that said… ‘What would you ask God – if there was at all a God…’ or something to this effect…

I had observed a strange phenomenon in the last few years. Although not a rule as such, but I had found that the hearts of those who prayed five times a day and mentioned God and prophet at every opportunity were cold and dead. They were harsh and passed judgments at the drop of a hat and were unwilling to give a margin of doubt. It seemed as if they already felt blessed having supposedly fulfilled their obligations to God which somehow accorded them a superior status and made others inferior – as if they had a license to impose their judgements on others. As if they were the viceroys of God on earth and had to punish the lesser mortals.

People like Mrs Krammer seemed to have missed this grand opportunity to be pious and hence self-righteous. They helped mankind because their heart bled for the sufferings of others. They were perhaps aware of their own fallibility as much as of others – and their self-worth depended on their going beyond the call of duty. They beamed and felt pride when they saw that people they had helped were now coping well…

‘A religion is judged by the character of its followers,’ someone said to me once… ‘No,’ I replied. ‘It is not true. Religious practices are suppose to inculcate humanity and piousness and not the other way around. The practice of fasting amongst other benefits, is also suppose to bring awareness of the hungry and the desolate, it does not mean killing innocent people while on fast or planting bombs to kill innocent people. It is a matter of interpretation which is a problem here.’

‘And look at it from another angle,’ I said. ‘It is not as if Islam has landed ten years before 9-11. It has been there for centuries. And if killing innocent people was salvation then the world has a problem. It is coming to an end. It would be hard to stop billions from performing their sacred duty. Surely, the reasons lie somewhere else…’

And therefore this morning also, I looked at the reasons in the train, I checked my mail and again saw the pictures of devastation, the mutilated bodies, the images of children with amputated limbs that reach my e-mail every morning. The consequence of the American bombs dropping in Afghanistan and now Pakistan…

Three years ago, I had joined English Pen, an organisation that protects the rights of writers and thinkers all over the world. My objective was to learn what I did not know. The Pen (English Chapter) events that I frequently attended in my first two years provided me with my initial lessons towards freedom of speech and thought – and it was a delightful experience indeed after having lived in a society where an uncomfortable uttering could cost one his life. And, I could imagine, this time with sorrow, what my country could have been if the silent majority had been allowed a voice as well… I knew I would not have had to come here to live in that case… I would, rather, I could, have stayed home…

And then the English Pen launched a campaign for Freedom of Expression. There were several events and a book edited by Lisa Appignanesi. At that time there was a move by the British Muslims to have a resolution adopted that could bring them at par with the Christians and the Sikhs through a legislature that would have also banned attacking Islam and it’s Prophets – a move that the English pen vehemently opposed and actively contributed towards it being turned down…

The book ‘Free Expression is No Offence’ was launched late night at a venue owned by Patrick Neate – a popular novelist and a good man… Many imminent writers spoke on the occasion including Monica Ali but the show was stolen by Hari Kunzru… who is now the Vice President of English pen. There was thunder in his tone when Hari kunzru read a piece written about 50 years ago by another author. And having read a few minutes, Hari then defiantly looked at the BBC cameras and made his contention clear. Almost as if the point may escape notice, he emphasised that he had just broken the law of the land. Smiling to the camera he dared the government to arrest him under the British law of Blasphemy…!

The British Law of Blasphemy lies covered under dust wherever it is suppose to be buried – its benefactors, if at all, being the Christian and the Sikh faiths but not the Muslims… the piece that Hari read was a fiction that had earned a jail sentence for its writer a few decades ago. It was a beautifully written piece and was extremely descriptive – but I guess, a bit more descriptive than it should be for a prophet… but then again this is a matter of personal interpretation.

However, the law that I thought was being more acutely challenged here was the Law of Libel – which though would have only come into effect if Jesus was alive and well today… perhaps he may have taken Hari to court, sued him good, and taken him to the cleaners…

Anyway, Hari carried the night. It was a response to the Law of Blasphemy that the British Muslims were trying to quote for their benefit at the time but with no success in the end… the response on the agenda by the ‘intellectuals’ was to have the British Law of Blasphemy repealed instead of allowing another religion to rest in its shade.

If Hari was flamboyant, Monica Ali was careful. She was non-committal to the theme of the evening – the real underlying theme which was a particular religion under scrutiny. Her effort seemed to aim at keeping the overall facade intact and she read out some supposedly daring text from her new novel that in the end only consisted of a few swear words. The idea seemed to be that it was all about freedom of expression whether it was swear words or a religion – that, somehow both amounted to the same. That it was not about a religion in particular… I guess she was careful, also perhaps because she is either a Muslim herself or perhaps she has already received her share of controversy and the ensuing limelight… after all she has a book that was short-listed for the Booker, and now a movie… and thus she seemed content for the time being… there did not seem any point in her inviting attention to herself – at least not yet…

But what disturbed me was the fact that I felt not just offended but angry when Hari was reading the piece of eroticism. Jesus Christ is a highly revered prophet in Islam. I could not accept his fall from dignity… his dignity, as I perceive it, but which being a subjective matter again, could well be confined to me alone though I don’t think that is the case… Anyway, Hari has his rights. I have mine. But why does it have to be a zero-sum game… I had thought… Expression may be free at some places at least – but offend it most certainly did…

Next week, there was another Freedom of Expression event. A Pakistani British drama writer (I forget her name – perhaps because it is of no consequence anyway as far as I am concerned) talked on the stage about her experience of staging a play in Birmingham about the Pakistani dancing girls which was abandoned because of threats to her life by the Pakistani Community in the UK. The young writer giggled and played to the predominantly white two hundred strong audiences…

And perhaps because I was still angry from the Hari reading or perhaps I was just not sure and therefore at the question time I asked the young lady that I could not understand why this happened to her… I explained that Fauzia had written a book about the Lahore Red Light district dancing girls and had it even published in Pakistan – and yet she had not received any threats from anywhere so why was it so in her case…that was it something else which is not being discussed here. When the only conclusion of the audience could be that it was another issue of might is right – of arm twisting and unreasonableness…? That were we being made aware of all aspects of this case…?

The girl did not reply, in fact she seemed a bit scared since my colour of skin matched hers… and the answer was given by another writer who was sitting next to her on the stage. An Irish writer whose name I forget as well, whose house was bombed in Ireland since he wrote, according to him, what the Irish did not wish to see written…

‘I will answer you,’ he said in his lovely accent. ‘I am a writer who writes what he sees… so if I go to a pub in Ireland and I see these men spitting on the floor then I write about that – but they then turn around and bomb my house for writing what I see with my eyes since this is not what they prefer to read in print… they say they don’t want me to write about Irish people spitting in pubs…you demean us they say… now what’s my fault eh…I am just a writer…I write what I see…’

And therefore, the Irish writer carried the day just as Hari had carried the night a week earlier. Lisa Appignanesi now took over the mike and congratulated the Irish writer on his answer. ‘Very eloquently put,’ she said while giving me a look that could have killed me, she was smiling though… her ever present smile. It was a smile of triumph which I suspect hid an equally present disgust for me and I avoid her since then more so since she is now the President of English pen. As it is, her smile always reminds me of my House Master in Cadet College Hasanabdal – who was always smiling when he slapped you… I always thought this was a bit too literary for my taste…

And thus, I made a policy decision that day. I would never ask a controversial question when part of a general audience… Firstly, one can be seen in the wrong light if the audience is being prepared for a different message but most importantly I could not have been allowed the opportunity to answer the Irish writer and make the event seem like a debate instigated and pursued by a mere mortal soul from amongst the ordinary audience… who were suppose to be there to listen and not learn…or to at least learn only what was intended for them to learn…

I was fuming nonetheless, and in the next interval I took James Flint to the bar for a drink. James is also a published novelist. ‘So you have finally got it off your chest,’ he said to me. ‘Without success of course,’ I answered.

‘The Irish man is right,’ I continued. ‘But then when we are talking about serious matters, of far away lands, and distant cultures – one wonders where the sense of responsibility has vanished… And what would you say to a writer that is depicting things that his audience cannot discern for themselves first hand. I guess readers can make up their minds about whether there is spitting going around in Irish Pubs or not – but what when they are dependent on the writer who claims that the grass is blue and the sky green on top of K2 as seen by him in person – where is the sense of responsibility when readers are unable to ascertain since there are no other views and versions…where is the other point of view… and is this not why there is so much trouble in the world in the first place?’

And hence this is my story – a life of internal conflict. Gratefulness, guilt and anger followed by gratefulness again to the society I live in. I do not know the answer since I do not have that sort of intellectual capacity. At times what I see I don’t like. I see opportunist that thrive in confusion. I don’t know where a line should be drawn in terms of freedom of expression if there should be any drawn in the first place… I simply don’t know…

However, I do know that Salman Rushdie is anotherwise good writer but so are many others. To me his success is more like an artificial smile though. A bit exaggerated… In any case, one needs to be half mad to try and finish his book in the first place and hence he is no entertainer at least. And it is also not as if he has ever done any good by converting a Muslim into a non-Muslim, or managed to show Muslims the folly of their ways with his freedom of speech. In fact he is not brought any intellectual damage to Islam at all. All he is supposed to have done is insulted prophets and that’s all – which is the lowest form of dissent… and yet this is his main claim to fame. In fact, in my view, Zadie Smith, on the other hand, describes the practicality or the absence of it much better when it comes to religions.

To me, Salman Rushdie is only a cheap sensationalist – because of whom I am concerned that there may be a terrorist attack on a train in which my daughters might be travelling… Salman Rushdie is an unnecessary phenomenon in my view – as unpractical as some would argue religion…his freedom of expression is not important enough to cause a war – not worthy of causing death to innocents…

And I do know another thing… I know that there are people in certain parts of the world who have nothing. No schools, no colleges, no Human Rights, no nothing – nothing at all except their families and their faith. This is all that they have – which they place on a pedestal and worship, which they would defend… for which they would kill whether rightly or wrongly. As it is there is nothing else on offer to distract them from what they think is divine. And after all, it is not as if they can indulge in intellectual pursuits… they know nothing of such pleasures, the concept does not exist for them…

Family and faith is all that they have… and why take that away from them as well – the last straw to which they cling… would it be worth it… would it not be cruel… would it be worth putting them on an alter in the name of freedom of expression which they will never know first hand in their lives in any case… Should freedom of expression not be about tolerance to own and each others beliefs – what is termed as our way of life – your way of life… Where is that responsibility…

The militants are what they are today for perhaps other reasons… the cultural depravity, the corrupt regimes, the illiteracy, the injustice and the hunger… and of course that human need to find a reason and a cause to live and die for however misguided that might be – and which is obviously exploited by the so-called freedom fighters – the ones with the guns and those with the pen… who spread hate and not understanding and win prizes for themselves in the process… some aspire to become knights and Dames others War-lords… the common man suffers in any case as there is after all no absolute and definitive answer…

Where has the love and respect for others gone? What sort of animals would kill a good woman who was helping mankind in Afghanistan? What kind of animals would drop bombs on innocent citizens living in mud houses? Why are people who respect humans and take pride in helping others, who willingly give a benefit of doubt… so few and far in-between?

The train reached Clapham Junction from where I changed trains to reach office. Thank you Susan Krammers of this world – you offer hope to common people like me whose lives are pulled in opposite direction by the intellectuals of this world – by the War Lords. Those who would do anything to prove their point…



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9 responses to “My internal conflicts”

  1. ms.shah Avatar

    I like your approach and the questions you rasied are dilemma of every muslim living abroad.
    My own conclusion is no different that common man is suffering.
    Faith I like to keep despite having everything.Like you I feel sad when Christians mock Jesus Chriest .Seeing gay Bishops is hurting as well.
    freedom of expression ,yes I hold it extremely dear but I do not see why I have to put up with cartoons or Sitanic verses.I can show my dis-respect for the person who doesnot show respect to my values.
    Somethings define us and we cannot compromise on them.Prophet Muhammad and Quran is one such value to me.
    But the danger to Prophet PBUH and Quran is not from outside it is from within.It is Muslims themselves who have forgotten Judgement is for God alone.purity of heart is judged by Him and for Him alone.
    The Charity worker’s murder is extremely sinister because it is not intended only to the West it is intended to the women in general to say you should not step out of your homes.
    Islam which is a limitless religion beyond caste and creed ,people are trying somehow to limit it to men only .Particularly men with beards.
    This wave we have to confront.It is not a matter for Zardari or Musharaff of COAS to respond or retaliate ,muslims themselves have to be vocal about it.
    A woman in hijab is respectable and so is the one which is without.
    Life is a right given to every being and soul which is born in this world and it should not be taken away because of diffrence of openion,expression,gender and race.
    Pakistani Muslims in the world by and large are tolerant and liberal muslims.We have to preserve Islam the way it was brought to us by our Sufis.
    if anything it is time POLITICS should be separated from Religion.
    We have to look at Terrorism as a political issue.Not as a religious or social issue.
    same goes for our relations with India and China,they are our neighbouring countries our disputes and friendship with them and rest of teh world should be on political basis not on religious basis.

  2. guYasir Avatar

    Political Zionism Vs Islam battle line being drawn

  3. guYasir Avatar

    Globalization Vs Islamization battle is on its way

  4. karachikhatmal Avatar

    the comments section on this website is becoming increasingly irrelevant. its like reading what pakistani ‘rednecks’ would have to say, all the while knowing that its educated people who are doing so.

    you have several worthy points, and i enjoyed your article until i got to the criticism of rushdie. i don’t know how mcuh of his works you have read, but if you read “Shame” you will find its one of the best books written about pakistan and what is wrong with it.

    he’s not someone who’s done little else than insult the prophets. read also the “moor’s last sigh” to get an idea of why we find ourselves where we are. hint – look up what happened in spain in 1492.

    point is a brilliant article like this loses its lustre when you attack at our attackers in the same vein – without giving them due respect.

    salman rushdie is often impossibly irresponsible, especially as a person. i don’t agree with many of his views. but at least get to know salman rushdie the author.

    i don’t give a shit if the white man respects us or not. our own enlightenment is our own concern. we need to be patient, and intelligent. talking about battle lines being drawn is one example of the reckless stupidity that seems to drive muslims as a society.

    please forgive my rant, i did enjoy reading your article, and it was for the most part spot on.

  5. dr.jawwadkhan Avatar

    nice think piece amer nazir!
    I completely agree with ms.shah .Freedom of expression should not imply as a tool to attack on the reverend religious personalities and to achieve some loathful international goals.

  6. ms.shah Avatar

    Karachi Khatmal
    Thanks for recomending” Shame “.i dare to read that .As I said earlier I have no curosity to go near twenty first century art and literature,Milan Kundera,Paulo ,Chomsky and Rumi do me fine.
    I went to Sachi and Sachi London art gallery and literally I had to swallow vomit at least on three occassions.One of the masterpieces is made by “kali mukhyian” when you get close to frame you realise what it is.
    Maybe that is what twenty first century has become in modern terms.
    I can learn religious tolerance and preserving art from West but to understand my religion and my society and my people I prefer through my people where art is still an art and poetry if someone writes is still a poetry.
    SO on your recomendation I will read Shame.I can assure you I will read without prejudice but if it is a waiste of my £10.00 and a torture to my mind,I will make sure to send you a love letter.
    best regards:)

  7. Soldier Bazari Avatar
    Soldier Bazari

    Susan Krammer saved your sorry rear and you couldn’t find a minute to thank her. Talk about desi gratitude!

  8. Faisal.k Avatar

    Great piece aamer shows a lot about the inner workings of a forced expat. As for yr rushdie comments, when the world is at war based on religon opportunists of both extreme make a lot of moolah usually. For the people who advocating reading his other books, please let me know which among them made any ripples in the publishing world. To me he is a sensationalist…all he does screams lookit me lookit me.
    So aamer when can we expect a book from you?

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