I recall when we were living in the Diplomatic Enclave at Chanakyapuri in the 80s in New Delhi. It was a cosmopolitan mix, as much of a melting pot as the 80s decade would allow - consulates from countries all over, including State Commissions from all states of India formed a backdrop to my formative years in a Catholic School in Nehru's India. In our Moral Science classes we were taught from all religions; the adage "all people on this Earth are equal" etched onto our minds by word and deeds of an assortment of strict, kind, gentle, serious-looking nuns and a Mother Superior. Be it tales from the Ramayana in Hindi textbooks, or the Bible stories in the library or the Buddhist North-eastern girls inclusively singing in the choir for Christmas, or the Kathak group mates who told me the symbolism of "alta" (red-dye) while applying it to my feet, or the Sikh girls reciting the Gurbani at assembly explaining the meaning - the ethos of the school was dripping with secularism, multiculturalism, plurality and unity in diversity.
Except for my family which found excuses of not integrating into the housing society or the school programs involving music, dance, art, trips or any other extracurricular activities. Today after three decades I know it was because of my mother having been brought up in a Jamaat household with four other brothers - the product of a madrasa education under the shadow of a Sunni-Al-Hadees mosque, until ''peer pressure'' due to advancing Pandit families made them shift to the progressive S P College and the football teams and they started advocating for the education of their sisters. The same "peer pressure" which makes Muslim families change from orthodox to modern, integrate and adapt secular, progressive lifestyles is what had made our father enroll us girls in a Missionary school run by Catholic nuns - the simple motive of giving an English education to his two girls.
A fond memory is of my father delivering the Christmas Tree from the hills of Kashmir Valley to my class teacher at their home every year until 1984 ripped Delhi apart and exposed us to the communal forces hiding under that veneer of secularism. Nevertheless, it was a delightful moment the day my class teacher Sr. Francis learned we had been initiated into the Quran reading at home by a Maulvi engaged in imparting Hifz (oral recitation) to us. It was a proud moment to be told to bring verses from the holy text for school assembly especially the ones which all lives were equal and that all of the humanity and the natural world was God's Creation.
I do not recall whether my mother found such a verse or not, but I did recite something equivalent to the instructions given and spoke up shyly in front of my school. It went further when it was discovered I was from the beautiful state of Kashmir and was told to prepare a chart series on Jammu and Kashmir for the Social Studies class which eventually spilled over to a lesson about the origins of the Himalayas in Geography class. It was a near perfect education one could hope for in the 80s considering that technology hadn't yet made inroads, the computer was a distant dream, the there was no Internet and some Muslim families like mine despite their postings in metropolitan cities did not make much of an effort to celebrate colourful and sparkly festivals such as Holi, Dusshera, and Diwali.
There is another memory of our Maulvi going all purple in the face one Diwali night in 1983, having made the mistake of coming home to teach the Quran on a night when firecrackers were bursting all over the city. The exclamation - "These are the noises of Shaitan (Satan)!" brought giggles from us girls (my sister, me and a cousin) knowing Maulvi Sahab would leave early. I was not a very sharp child then, but years later the contrasting attitudes of the nuns vs the Maulvi struck in an epiphany when the mosques in Kashmir started blaring hate speeches in 1990.
What I took away in those formative years in the "heart of India" was utmost respect for human lives no matter where they came from or what religion they followed. When Reader's Digest became a permanent subscription to our home in Srinagar, the stories of people stranded in adverse circumstances and the whole community putting up rescue efforts to help one little boy lost in the woods, one woman trapped in a building, one dog fallen down a mine shaft, were etched on my mind. That is where I got my first lessons of Liberty, Equality, Freedom, Human Rights, Individuality, and Humanity - in those stories, despite the odds how people came together to save one life. Back then there was no concept of the West, or the Enlightenment or Science, but these stories spelled out what we have enshrined today in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. And the fact that all of these stories came out from the West was not lost on me.
So today as the reports of the hashtag #HangAyazNizami trending came up, I got thinking about this culture, this ideology and what a life meant and what was taught. It seems silly to state the obvious - that Muslim culture does not think much of a life, not just because of the rising clamour asking for the death of the blogger but in its obsession with lifestyle choices, in thought policing, and the choke hold on personal space of an individual as compared to a civilization which in its postmodernist and culturally relativist fatalistic attitude believes in giving a wide berth to such a "culture" and upholding the "human rights" of even stabbers and bombers.
This is not to generalize the Eastern culture as fatalistic and all of us not respecting life. The growing number of Muslim doctors, scientists, engineers, volunteers, charitable organizations and dissenters mainly are proof of the balance between faith and reason, the rejection of violent verses and drawing of spirituality from Islam's message. The Kashmiri group which volunteered to rescue people stranded in the September 2014 flash flood, irrespective of creed or religion, praying and boarding rafts, getting survivor groups in makeshift camps, praying and then repeating the rescue missions again are my personally favorite witnessed examples. Nor does it mean that Western imperialism or its manufactured wars are not a reality, but since the news headlines, feeds, media and dominant narrative is about violent Muslims and their attitude towards those who criticise or want to leave Islam, it becomes pertinent to recognize the "problem" the violent interpretation of texts brings with it.
Then to have that "interpretation" normalised and percolated down through sermons, school curriculum, moral policing, fooling Western liberals in creating laws for blasphemy, using the West's liberal laws to proselytize 'jihad', highlighting cultural symbols like the 'hijab', and a London Muslim Mayor's declaration last year that "terrorism is a given in urban culture" (my paraphrase). This "normalization" is something that South Asia will have to gear up for battle. And this is Pakistan's defining moment - whether it will spare the life of Ayaz Nizami and other bloggers and use this moment in history to turn around their path and create new reasons for which their nation was created.
Over the course of many years, interacting with Pakistanis online and offline, many idealistic, realistic, optimistic, pessimistic, hopeful, disillusioned ones showed me the same concern - that their nation was being marauded from within. They expressed helplessness that the military-mullah nexus had held all of them in a hostage situation (me mirroring the hostage situation inside Kashmir Valley with theirs) and they could find only one way out of it - to push back. There was a shared worry too of India going the "Pakistan way". Sadly, their worries turned to reality when we actually had an atheist rationalist H. Farook brutally murdered due to his open stance on religion by his "friends".
I completely empathize with the Pakistani dissenters, myself hailing from a country where the slightest criticism of the majority government since its rise to power can earn you the warning - "Pack your bags to Pakistan" - Pakistan having become the dirty word for ''anti-national elements'' long before the JNU fiasco, whether you are a celebrity or an ordinary person. It was a 'dirty term' for me personally since the 1990s, when it became clear our boys were disappearing from their homes, schools/colleges and neighborhood for arms training across the border to jihadi camps based in ''Azad Kashmir''. Many were being 'disappeared' by the Indian Army in custodial deaths or mass graves as a proxy war (Shadow War) by the Pakistani Establishment or Deep State was being fought on the streets of Srinagar and the border towns of Uri and Kupwara.
As technology made inroads and the Internet advanced to social media, we became aware of the reality of Pakistan that our grandparents and parents had painted so rosy for us. Gradually, as Salmaan Taseer's assassination for defending a Christian woman from the blasphemy charges and the tragic death of Sabeen Mahmud unfolded, a deep respect, awe, and admiration replaced the initial hostility and mistrust that is ingrained in the secular Kashmiri since the 90s. We watch, observe, listen and read with fascination as the country is churned in the battle for rationality, secularism, social justice, women empowerment, and the shedding of the trauma and bitterness of the Partition - an event which it seems has divided people forever, neighbours against neighbours, brothers against brothers, people from the same race sharing much of the ethnic-lingual identity, cuisine, art, culture and political philosophy.
India too is embroiled in a battle within - the fight to keep it a secular, socialist state, with extremist elements in Hindutva or Islamism in check; the fight spilling out with many misguided Social Justice Warriors (SJWs) disconnected from reality (also dubbed the "outrage" brigade, advocating idealistic, utopian ideas of ''commune'' style open borders in a volatile region. Since the same ethnic-lingual identity and penchant for rationality is present in our fellow beings across the border, we have no doubt that they will prevail over this unfortunate legacy of history. Hence, as the clamor for the hanging of a blogger gets louder, the voices of rationalists has to get louder, as it surely must have since the news of detaining them on blasphemy charges broke out.
I recall watching askance as Jibran Nasir, a lawyer and activist, organized a civil society protest against the chief cleric of Lal Masjid, Maulana Abdul Aziz after the latter refused to condemn the siege of the Peshawar Army Public School. Watching him and others chant slogans and light candles in a vigil for the school children killed in the attack brought to mind a brave step by a Kashmiri politician years ago when he had dared to lead a candle light march in a town, protesting against the killing of Kashmiri women by the Lashkar cadre on the allegation of them being informers. But for a protest to be successful as Jibran Nasir's was, there has to be a tipping point of conscientious citizens in numbers who will come forward, daring to brave bullets, intimidation, and threats. No need to reiterate that the Kashmiri politician's protest did not find many takers. But just like the Lal Masjid protests were successful and managed to stir people to action across Pakistan, we can be assured that the Pakistani bloggers will find their compatriots rallying behind them before the International community sets pressure on the Deep State.
It seems childish to get into a discussion of what it is that scares the hell out of people about rationality or criticism of their faith. I can only point it back to the civilizational attitude regarding a life. You can test it too - a culture that spends millions on the research of the life cycle of a bug, or one which pumps petro dollars into poor nations to indoctrinate the entire population into jihad.
I have no doubt Pakistan will prevail and it will be due to the courage of brave bloggers, journalists, lawyers, activists, scientists, TV talk guests and the ordinary scared common person who in his/her heart knows Islam's core message of divinity developed over the years, not at its founding is being twisted.