“How do you guys celebrate new year in Pakistan in line with Islamic principles?” a very learned German friend of mine asked me last New Year’s Eve in Sweden.
Coming from a person well-versed in history and contemporary politics, the question took me by surprise.
I immediately wanted to explain to him that not everything that happens in Pakistan is linked to Islam, but I held back.
The question reminded me of Islamic banking, television commercials of Shariah-compliant products, Ramazan transmissions aired by several Pakistani TV channels and many other modern-day ostentatious spectacles which invariably drag religion into everything.
And I realised he was probably justified in asking that.
As a Muslim, owing to many political, social, and historical reasons, one may land up in the most absurd situations even if one applies common sense.
Irony of bigots
First, one is always a Muslim. Period. The absence of religious freedom in most Muslim societies makes it next to impossible for one to deviate from the written and unwritten rules of behaving in a "Muslim way".
Quite ironically, one is always a Muslim in Western liberal societies as well, even if he/she proclaims to be not-very-religious, non-religious, or an outright atheist. They have a word for it: “ex-Muslims”.
One is expected to recall, delineate and enlighten the world as to how one is not-so-Muslim, having come from a Muslim background.
Second, one has to confront bigots within the Muslim community, who are allergic to the word "reason" – the kind of people who divide the world into us vs them.
In a not so dissimilar fashion, one also has to confront bigots outside the Muslim community, who think Muslims carry the Quran in one pocket and an AK-47 in the other – the kind of people who again divide the world in us vs them. The irony is that both kinds of bigots think that one belongs to the rival class of bigots.
Third, one has to put up with those naive foreign liberal friends, who think that the beard, veil, female genital mutilation, misogyny and pretty much every outdated worldview constitute Muslim culture, and that they have been sent to earth with the sole purpose of defending it on behalf of Muslims.
In this regard, the liberal left meets with the far-right and falsely assumes that Muslims are programmed a certain way, and that universal human rights should not be applicable to them because of the way they are.
Fourth, one – in both the so-called East and West – is always part of a broad, yet very narrow “Muslim community”, thanks to Pan-Islamism and multiculturalism.
This imaginary “Muslim community” tends to paint the diverse Muslim population with broad strokes of a single entity. In this case, all the actions of an individual are gauged against the so-called “community” standards, consequently leaving little room for individuality and self-expression.
Fifth, one is represented by folks who don’t seem to have been touched by the times we live in.
All European capitals have mosques which are funded by one or more oil-rich Gulf States, preaching a very literal interpretation of Islam, which has somehow become representative of all Muslims in the eyes of European governments.
Same goes for Muslim-majority countries – democratic or autocratic – where parallel bodies of clergy claim to represent the "religious conscious of the polity" – the ayatollahs in Iran, Council of Islamic Ideology in Pakistan, al-Azhar in Egypt, not to mention the muftis in Saudi Arabia.
If one is an ordinary being who believes that wrong is wrong, irrespective of who commits it, then one is surely in trouble.
Sixth, one is supposed to feel apologetic for each and every war crime hitherto committed by the US army for being perceived as "liberal" for stressing on necessary introspection, hence automatically a US ally in one’s native society.
On the other hand, one is also supposed to feel apologetic for every new atrocity perpetrated by the IS because – errr one is brown and Muslim, remember?
Seventh and lastly, one is also supposed to know what "the real" Islam is and then explain it to an alien audience. In other words, explain 1,500 years in three sentences.
Discovering the truth
It would probably take us decades to find out that Islam, as a faith, is not a monolith and there exists no such thing as “the Islam”.
There can never exist a thing as “the thing”, if it has been there for 1,500 years and belongs to one-and-a-half billion people inhabiting all the continents of the world.
My only fear is that by the time we get to find out, we may have already created “the Islam” in our senseless pursuit of proving its existence, and that may not bode well for the world.
Jokingly, I replied to my German friend:
“We eat each other alive on the occasion of New Year”.
For a moment, he thought I was serious. Then, on Easter day, I learned that a suicide bombing had killed dozens of children and women in Lahore. For a moment, I thought it was a joke.
This article first appeared on Dawn.