“Why do they pick on us Pakistanis?”

A brilliant and brave answer from one of the country’s leading academics.

The news of the death of Salman Taseer, the secular Muslim governor of Punjab Province, came as a profound shock. Not because of the killing itself, as such acts of murder and violence have tragically and depressingly become part of daily life in the self-proclaimed "Islamic Republic" of Pakistan, but because he was slain by one of his own bodyguards.

As the Guardian's Declan Walsh notes, the killing has exposed:

. . . a vein of deep-rooted extremism that has infected even the senior security forces.

Taseer was shot 27 times yesterday by one of his own bodyguards, who was reportedly enraged by Taseer's opposition to Pakistan's draconian blasphemy laws.

The Quilliam Foundation's briefing on the assassination observes:

Taseer's murder by a trusted member of an elite counterterrorism unit (who believed that he nonetheless had a divine duty to kill the governor for criticising Pakistan's blasphemy laws) shows that extremism in Pakistan is driven by ideology as well as by organised militant groups such as the Pakistani Taliban. Extremist takfiri ideology, a relatively modern import to Pakistan, has now affected many aspects of Pakistani society and culture and continues to spread through schools, mosques, universities and television channels. Similarly, the belief that any Muslim individual can spontaneously take violent action in order to "protect Islam" is also becoming ever more widely accepted in Pakistan – independent of the activities of jihadist groups.

This is a worrying trend. Regular readers of this blog will know that I don't always agree with the Quilliam Foundation but I do believe, on this occasion, that Muslims can no longer do their best impressions of ostriches and keep their heads in the sand. Denial is not an option. That such murders have become regular occurrences in the world's second-largest Muslim country is sickening and appalling, and needs regular and repeated condemnation from Muslim groups and, in particular, Muslim ulema (scholars) across the world. What on earth are thousands of so-called Muslims doing joining up to a Facebook page supporting Taseer's killer? How can the Jamaat-e-Ahl-e-Sunnat Pakistan group, representing the mainstream Barelvi school of Sunni Muslims, justify telling people not to offer funeral prayers for Taseer?

I've long believed that we British Muslims must be at the forefront of campaigns against takfiri and jihadist violence, against killings, shootings and bombings in the name of Allah, the Prophet Muhammad and the religion of Islam. To borrow a line from Robert Kennedy (or was it Rabbi Hillel?): if not us, who? If not now, when?

My advice to the Muslim Council of Britain, for example, would be to get a "not-in-my-name"-style press release out to domestic and foreign journalists as soon as possible. Silence is not an option. As I argued in a blog post in August 2009, we Muslims expose ourselves to the charge of double standards when we bleat about killings of innocent Muslims at the hands of non-Muslim armies in Palestine or Afghanistan or Chechnya, but then keep schtum when Muslim crazies start shooting and beheading non-Muslims, as well as other Muslims like Salman Taseer, and do so in the name of God and His prophet. And, above all else, where is our humanity? As I wrote back then, "Islam is a humanitarian, not a sectarian, religion and so selective outrage will not do."

On a related note, as more gloomy news emerges from inside Pakistan, I spotted, via Twitter, a piece by the brilliant and brave Pakistani physicist and commentator Professor Pervez Hoodbhoy; in fact, it's a transcript of remarks he made at a recent talk in Washington, DC to Pakistani professionals settled in the United States of America, entitled "Why do they pick on us Pakistanis?"

Hoodbhoy argues:

If Pakistani Americans wish to feel welcome in the country they have chosen to live in, then, they must judge the west and Pakistan using exactly the same criteria, and expose three popular falsehoods.

First, it is a lie that American Muslims are victims of extreme religious prejudice. Certainly, no country is free of religious discrimination. But, the secular west is infinitely less discriminatory than any Muslim country. How many churches are there in Saudi Arabia? Yet Muslims have built hundreds of new mosques in America – with Saudi money – and many after 9/11. New churches or temples are impossible in Pakistan; even old ones are burned down by rampaging mobs.

In America, Muslims successfully use the legal system to seek damages if there is discrimination in matters of employment, housing, or access to public facilities. But in Pakistan, if you are a Christian, Hindu or Ahmadi, you simply accept your fate.

Second, it is a lie that US Muslims are physically endangered. In fact, Muslims are far safer in the US than in Pakistan. Does one see Kalashnikov-toting guards during Friday prayers outside a mosque in the west? Yet if you are a Barelvi or a Shia in Pakistan, your life may end at your place of worship. Scattered body limbs and pools of blood at Data Darbar, Abdullah Shah Ghazi and the Pakpattan shrines testify that the cruellest of Islam's enemies come from within.

While Pakistan's terrified religious minorities live in fear of an intolerant majority, American Muslims get protection both from its people and the state. A personal example: the day after 9/11, I was appalled by the wild joy among my students. Worried about my former students, now studying in various US universities, I emailed them. Their return emails were reassuring. White American students had formed defence committees; no Muslim student was ever harmed on any campus. So even though George W Bush – a religious zealot – was preparing to invade Iraq, ordinary Americans were largely decent.

Third, the nauseating hypocrisy of Pakistan's radicalising west-hating, west-baiting leaders needs to be exposed. For example, Imran Khan – who speaks of the west as the fountainhead of evil – prefers to keep his family in London and New York, owes his fame to a game invented by British colonialists, and employs real doctors rather than hakeems for his cancer hospital.

Mehdi Hasan is a contributing writer for the New Statesman and the co-author of Ed: The Milibands and the Making of a Labour Leader. He was the New Statesman's senior editor (politics) from 2009-12.

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It's easy to see where Berlin is being rebuilt – just hit the streets

My week, from walking the streets of Berlin to class snobbery and the right kind of gentrification.

Brick by brick, block by block, the people are rebuilding the city once called Faust’s Metropolis. To see it clearly, put your boots on. One of the most bracing walks starts by the Gethsemane Church, which served as a haven for dissenters in the last days of the GDR and takes you down ­towards the Hackescher Markt.

Here, in what is still the eastern half of a divided city that wears its division more lightly, is a Berlin experience both old and new. In three decades of frequent visits, it has been fascinating to note how much this part of town has changed. Even a decade ago these streets were rundown. With crumbling buildings showing bulletholes, it wasn’t hard to imagine what the place looked like in 1945. Now there are lilacs, blues, and yellows. Cafés, bars and restaurants abound, serving the young professionals attracted to the city by cheap rents and a renewed sense of community.

 

Breaking the fourth wall

Looking north along Schliemannstraße, you’ll find a delightful vista of well-tended balconies. It’s a pleasant place to live, notwithstanding the gaggle of grotesques who gather round the corner in the square. On Kastanienallee, which forms the second leg of the walk, an old city feels young. It’s a kind of gentrification but the right kind. There’s more to eat, to drink, to buy, for all.

Berlin, where Bertolt Brecht staged his unwatchable plays, was supposed to have been transformed by a proletarian revolution. Instead, it has been restored to health by a very middle-class one. Germany has always had a well-educated middle class, and the nation’s restoration would have impossible without such people. The irony is delicious – not that irony buttered many parsnips for “dirty Bertie”.

 

The new snobbery

The British Museum’s survey of German history “Memories of a Nation” is being presented at the Martin-Gropius-Bau as “The British View”. Germans, natürlich, are curious to see how we observe them. But how do they see us?

A German friend recently in England  said that the images that struck him most forcibly were the tins of food and cheap booze people piled up in supermarkets, and the number of teenage girls pushing prams. Perhaps Neil MacGregor, the former director of the British Museum who will shortly take up a similar role here at the new Humboldt Forum, may turn his attention to a “German View” of the United Kingdom.

There’s no shortage of material. In Schlawinchen, a bar that typifies Kreuzberg’s hobohemia, a college-educated English girl was trying to explain northern England to an American she had just met. Speaking in an ugly modern Mancunian voice that can only be acquired through years of practice (sugar pronounced as “sug-oar”), she refer­red to Durham and York as “middle class, you know, posh”, because those cities had magnificent cathedrals.

When it comes to inverted snobbery, no nation can match us. To be middle class in Germany is an indication of civic value. In modern England, it can mark you as a leper.

 

Culture vultures

The Humboldt Forum, taking shape by the banks of the Spree, reconsecrates the former site of the GDR’s Palace of the Republic. When it opens in 2018 it will be a “living exhibition”, dedicated to all the cultures of the world. Alexander von Humboldt, the naturalist and explorer, was the brother of Wilhelm, the diplomat and philosopher, whose name lives on in the nearby university.

In Potsdamerplatz there are plans to build a modern art museum, crammed in between the Neue Nationalgalerie and the Philharmonie, home to the Berlin Philharmonic. Meanwhile, the overhaul of the Deutsche Staatsoper, where Daniel Barenboim is music director for life, is likely to be completed, fingers crossed, next autumn.

Culture everywhere! Or perhaps that should be Kultur, which has a slightly different meaning in Germany. They take these things more seriously, and there is no hint of bogus populism. In London, plans for a new concert hall have been shelved. Sir Peter Hall’s words remain true: “England is a philistine country that loves the arts.”

 

European neighbours

When Germans speak of freedom, wrote A J P Taylor, a historian who seems to have fallen from favour, they mean the freedom to be German. No longer. When modern Germans speak of freedom, they observe it through the filter of the European Union.

But nation states are shaped by different forces. “We are educated to be obedient,” a Berlin friend who spent a year at an English school once told me. “You are educated to be independent.” To turn around Taylor’s dictum: when the English speak of freedom,
they mean the freedom to be English.

No matter what you may have heard, the Germans have always admired our independence of spirit. We shall, however, always see “Europe” in different ways. Europe, good: we can all agree on that. The European Union, not so good. It doesn’t mean we have to fall out, and the Germans are good friends to have.

 

Hook, line and sinker

There are fine walks to be had in the west, too. In Charlottenburg, the Kensington of Berlin, the mood is gentler, yet you can still feel the city humming. Here, there are some classic places to eat and drink – the Literaturhauscafé for breakfast and, for dinner, Marjellchen, a treasure trove of east Prussian forest delights. Anything that can be shot and put in a pot!

For a real Berlin experience, though, head at nightfall for Zwiebelfisch, the great tavern on Savignyplatz, and watch the trains glide by on the other side of Kantstraße. Hartmut Volmerhaus, a most amusing host, has been the guvnor here for more than 30 years and there are no signs that his race is run. The “Fisch” at twilight: there’s nowhere better to feel the pulse of this remarkable city. 

This article first appeared in the 01 December 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Age of outrage