This article created a firestorm of anger when it was published by the Express Tribune (ET) in Pakistan who ended up removing it from their web site. It was a test of free speech in Pakistan and it is clear that the country is still stuck in a time warp of religious hypersensitivity. I wrote a rejoinder to address the choice of language and to clarify (and to apologize if hurt was caused) but that has not been published yet. I have made some minor edits to the language in original article out of respect (but not out of fear). In the rush to write we can all be sometimes negligent and I recognize that the choice of words in describing some of the rituals was insensitive but certainly not hateful. To show due respect and in a spirit of amity I have removed the language which described the state of the mourners in the procession as "high on testosterone" (and God knows what else)." In retrospect this was indeed an inappropriate statement and I apologize unconditionally for use of that statement.
However, in my view we will never be able to resolve religious conflicts if both Shias and Sunnis continue to show such theological rigidity and not question each others' rituals that are divisive or which infringe on collective rights to public order and health. All I asked for was for Shias and Sunnis to examine their own rituals that perpetuate divisions. If we are not introspective and self-critical on these issues will never be resolved. Educated shias and sunnis have to work to push reform in each others' theologies. I will keep working on constructive confrontation as a means of peace-building but always strive to learn from my mistakes in process.
We need to deal with the toughest issues no matter how painful. Also, culture needs to change in all religious societies. It cannot be used as an excuse for ossification of rituals. I would do the same for many other rituals in other Faiths as well. My goal is not to disparage any faith and I have always respected the rights of minorities which is clear from my record as a writer, including one of my books on Islam and Education. My goal is rather to challenge the ritual manifestations that go against basic humanity. Being a minority does not give one the right to a particular ritual or immunity from criticism. Indeed, the critique of these rituals led to their stricter regulation in Iran itself where Shias are a majority (and where conversely they are often blamed for persecuting minorities such as Bahais or Zoroastrians).
I appreciate also the constructive feedback I received regarding historical material sent by some readers regarding the practice of tabarra which also has Sunni roots (but that does not make it right either). I am always willing and eager to learn multiple views of history but must always maintain that our basic commitment should be to a better future rather than being anchored in the past. Interestingly the very first oped I wrote for a Pakistani paper six years ago was on the topic of The Persistence and Peril of Memory.
In retrospect, I should have been more vigilant regarding my choice of words in the first two paragraphs. Writers must try their best to generate more light than heat but despite our best intentions sometimes incandescence of prose prevents such clear differentiation. Humility in matters of learning, and a constant struggle towards a truly humanistic culture must be our collective goal. The reaction to the article from many circles that otherwise advocate free speech was quite troubling and I have written about that aspect of this episode for Foreign Policy's Afpak Channel. I hope we all learn from this experience to improve our conduct towards each other but also towards the greater cause of questioning rituals.
Muharram is a time for reflection on many accounts. It is the start of the Islamic New Year but also a time of remembrance and renewal. Unlike most other faith traditions, the start of the new year for Muslims is somber and even melancholic in tone. The martyrdom of Imam Husain was a tragedy by any standard but let us also reflect on how this historic event has been distorted at the behest of culture to take on new heights of absurdity and masochism. It is high time Shia scholars address the malaise that has struck Muharram processions and the educated elite should not remain silent just because Shias have sadly been a persecuted minority in Pakistan.
Horses being paraded through streets with mobs of men, and even children as young as 5, bleeding themselves to unconsciousness, is an utterly embarrassing spectacle. I dare say the noble Imam would not have wanted his sacrifice to be remembered with such customs, which are indeed a danger to public health and communion. The same expression of sorrow can be shown in more civilized terms through prayer and reflection. Even if there is to be a procession, it can be undertaken with a certain degree of composure and respect for the spirit of the occasion. Indeed, in Iran, the headquarters of Shia tradition, using knives or chains (Tatbir or Qama Zani) for Maatam is strictly regulated. The origins of this practice in its current form can be traced to the Safavid period in the sixteenth century and is thus a relatively recent cultural corrosion.
Of particular note was the ritualistic invective (Tabarra) that evolved during this period, which was hurled on those companions of the Prophet Muhammad that Shias consider to be “enemies” of inherited succession such as Umar and Abu Bakr. Much of the sectarian violence between Shias and Sunnis in Pakistan can be traced back to the issue of whether or not these companions are to be respected or abused. It is high time that both Shias and Sunnis agree on mutual respect. Even if there is disagreement over history, we can move beyond such provocative displays of disfavor for each other.
Thankfully there have been some mainstream ulama who have tried to build bridges between Shias and Sunnis within a theological and historical context. For example, Maulana Ishaq’s sermons on Shia-Sunni unity (given in Urdu) which have hundreds of thousands of hits on Youtube are heartening. They discourage Shias from hurling abuse but also admonish Sunnis from being emotional about respect and adoration for the Sahaba which translates into the kind of madness we saw exhibited in the Kabul suicide blasts this past week. At the same time, such unity should not come at the cost of framing the issue in terms of adversarial relationship with non-Muslims (which is what has also happened in some of the recent displays of ostensible amity among the various madrassa ulama).
At the end of the day, what we need is a major pan-Islamic reconciliation process between sects, particularly Shias and Sunnis. Hate speech laws must also be clearly enforced to prevent incendiary information from spreading. Whether it is the acerbic strife between the Hazara or the Pakhtuns or the insanity of Shia-Sunni violence in Iraq, there needs to be a pact for peace from the grassroots. Peace education is also desperately needed in Islamic schools -- clear lessons on how to deal with dissent without getting violent. The work of Palestinian scholar Dr. Mohammed Abu Nimr on nonviolent approaches to dissent within Islamic societies may be particularly helpful in improving ways in which Muslims improve their relations with other faiths.
Let us hope that the tragic events in Kabul this past week will galvanize Pakistanis to work just as hard in resolving Shia-Sunni differences, rather than being complacent about a “peaceful” Muharram on this side of the border.