KARACHI, March 26: It was a gripping exchange of ideas that provided a perceptive audience with sufficient food for thought. The occasion was the launch of a book, Fatal Faultlines – Pakistan, Islam and the West, by distinguished columnist Irfan Husain at a local hotel on Monday.
The event was aptly moderated by chairperson of the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan Zohra Yusuf.
Introducing the author to the gathering, she talked about the time his writings for The Star often landed the paper in trouble during the military rule of Ziaul Haq because of which he had to change his by-line week to week.
She then put the first question to the author as to how the idea of the book came about. Mr Husain said he was in Sri Lanka in July 2010 when he received an email from an American publisher (who was a regular reader of his columns that he writes for Dawn) suggesting that he write a book. It was a challenging undertaking because in order to pen a column one had limited space (1,000 or so words) but writing a book was like working on a huge open canvas. He said he gave it a thought and agreed. It took him a year or so to complete the book. Since he led a peripatetic life (between Sri Lanka, England, Canada and Pakistan), it posed a bit of a logistic problem, he said, but in November 2011, the book finally came out in the US, and later on in India.
On the contents of ‘Fatal Faultlines’, Ms Yusuf asked him to explain issues such as Pakistan-US relations, Muslims hatred of America and the misunderstood concept of secularism. The author said they were a few of the themes of his writings for the past 40 years. He argued, “You cannot have democracy without secularism.” Pakistan was damaged by the misunderstood concept of secularism where it was taken as ladeeniat (lack of religiosity or atheism). He said people needed to understand that they could be religious and still be secular. Similarly, people in the West found it difficult to comprehend why Muslims got upset when their faith was discussed. They looked at Muslims as fanatics. “There are misconceptions on both sides, which need to be
addressed. Soul-searching is required,” he remarked.
About the anti-Americanism that existed in the region, Mr Husain said that though what the US did in Iraq was appalling more Muslims were killed by other Muslims, yet we did not blame our own people. According to a UN report, four-fifths of Afghans
were killed by the Taliban, he said.
This made Ms Yusuf bring up the point that while 517 people were killed in drone attacks, 1,715 were killed during recent acts of violence in Karachi. And while 24 Pakistani soldiers were killed during the Salala incident, 25 soldiers were killed by the Taliban whom they’d kidnapped, but no one demonstrated against the latter. It was a case of ‘double standard’, remarked Mr Husain.
Talking heads on TV whipped up the other kind of frenzy — no one was doing service to the truth, he lamented.
Ms Yusuf turned to the subject of Muslims’ treatment of Muslims and said countries like the UAE and the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia did not give citizenship to Muslims of other countries who were born there. In Saudi Arabia, no one was allowed to build a church, yet the country was financing mosques, chairs for Islamic Studies in institutions etc in other parts of the world, said
the author. He asserted that we were living in a state of denial and did not question such important issues.
Ms Yusuf shifted gears and touched on the threatening hate-mail that the columnist got. He retorted that he also received a fan-mail and said the job of a columnist was to ask questions.
When she mentioned to him that he’d written the book for a western audience, Mr Husain agreed. He said the publishers were western. Besides, after 9/11 as a newspaper columnist his western readers used to ask him as to why Muslims hated them. He
said the people in America tended to be insular, more involved in domestic matters. They needed to understand US policy vis-à-vis the Middle East. He said now questions were being asked in the US and there’s pressure for pulling out of Afghanistan
(apart from the economic problem that the country is faced with).
On the issue of whether the contours of Pakistan-US relations should be made by parliament, the journalist said he did not think
the government should outsource foreign policy to parliament because it was to do with day-to-day affairs between countries.
It was no business of parliament. If parliament took care of that matter, it’d be set in stone. The government just passed the buck to parliament, he opined.
After the dialogue, Mr Husain read out a passage from his book. It was about how extremists recruited children to act as suicide bombers.
Then the floor was opened for a question-answer session for the audience.
Replying to a question about the future of secularism in Pakistan, he said it was bleak because people equated it with atheism. People with secular views should make their voices heard, he added. Answering why people in Pakistan liked to be in denial, he articulated that because it was easier to be in that state than to face reality.
When someone spoke about an article written by Dr Pervez Hoodbhoy on the Afghanistan situation after US troops’ supposed pull-out, he said he agreed with Dr Hoodbhoy — it would be back to square one in Afghanistan.
Touching on Pakistan Army’s concept of strategic depth with reference to Afghanistan, he said that we should stop fiddling with Afghanistan. On Samuel Huntington’s theory of the clash of civilisations, he said he did not buy the idea because Muslims
belonged to different cultural backgrounds.