Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Raising the Hindu specter (Updated)

While scouring the websites of Pakistani newspapers during my daily info gathering session (aka lunch break), I was struck by this particular headline:

And while I would usually not read The News (mostly due to atrocious writing and lack of intelligent analysis), the headline encouraged me to give up a few moments of my time and delve into the article. I had a few thoughts as to why Ulema would support this ban:

1)Pakistani Ulema (as a group) are not particularly good kite fliers and want to hide their deficiencies in this regard.

2) Kite flying is fun. Since Ulema consider anything from which people derive pleasure to be un-Islamic, hence the banning of kites and Basant.

3) Basant is a cultural celebration with roots in Hinduism (See Vasant Panchami). Since Hinduism is "BAD" as it is not Islam, therefore Basant and all activities associated to it are also "BAD" and therefore should be banned.

4) Many people die every year due to deaths related to kite flying (esp. kite figthing). Since kite flying peaks during Basant, the Ulema support its ban to prevent these incidences.

(Image Credit: P.K. Bangash, Associated Press)

Of course, it was the Hindus.

Yes, the article also mentioned safety concerns, but only in the third paragraph (of four in total); the association of this festival with Hinduism was discussed in the first. At this point, it would be remiss not to mention that the Ulema in question (namely Maulana Izhar Hussein Bokhari, Maulana Akram Hamdani, Maulana Abdul Jalil Naqvi, Zahoor Elahi Qadri and Hafiz Iqbal Ahmad Rizvi) by no means represent all muslim religious clergy in Pakistan. But the percieved importance of Hindu associations of a cultural festival over the safety concerns with kite figthing begs this question:

What is it about Hinduism that raises our hackles?

This conclusion is not simply based on the actions of the few Ulema from the above article, but rather a bevy of personal experiences with friends, relatives, coworkers, acquaintances and strangers. When I asked an acquaintance about her decision to eschew the Mehndi (basically a celebration where Henna is applied to the bride, and upcoming wedding is celebrated with song and dance) from her wedding, she replied:

"The Mehndi is a Hindu tradition, I would like my wedding to be Islamic"

The ever increasing antagonism towards Hinduism and anything associated with it, reeks of an identity crisis. The quest for a "pure" Islam, a reaction to the decline of Muslim empires in the 19th century (although the Ottoman Empire was officially disassembled in 1916), requires a nemesis. And Hindu beliefs and practices provide the perfect one. Subcontinental Muslims don't have to look far to find a group correspondent with pagans of Mecca (as depicted in Islamic historical narratives).

(Image Credit: Flickering Screen)

It doesn't matter that what purists consider Islamic culture is derived from pre-Islamic pagan, Sassanid and Byzantine cultures. Or that several major trade routes intersected within the Arabian Peninsula resulting in the presence of other cultural influences. Or that the indigenous culture of the Arabian Peninsula to which purists aspire to is far from homogeneous, as seen in the present day differences between the cultures of northern and southern Saudi Arabia.

(Image Credit: CM Evans)

Reverting to an "Islamic Culture" mandates that there be one to begin with. As I stated in an earlier post, just because Islam emerged from the cultural context of the Arabian peninsula does not mean that the culture of  8th century Hijaz (eastern Arabian peninsula; location of Mecca and Medina) is religiously mandated. For a religion which claims to be for all of humanity, to impose the same culture on everyone else would be an act of imperialism.

Segregating cultural practices as either "Hindu/non-Muslim" or "Muslim" is not only far removed from historical fact, but also highlights our delusions. It is a manifestation of our desire to be linked with the grandeur of Damascus and Cordoba at the height of Muslim power, despite our lack of cultural, social and historical commonalities. Unless we admit to the fact that we are as much a product of the indigenous cultures of the Indian subcontinent as the Arab and Persian invaders, we are doomed to an eternal existential crisis.

And there's no-one left to blame
Oh, tell me when will you ...
When will you accept your life ?
(The one that you hate)
For anything is hard to find
When you will not open your eyes 

*Lyrics taken from Accept yourself, The Smiths