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Why Are So Many Pakistanis Offended By Pervez Hoodbhoy?

Junaid Jahangir writes how popular Pakistani imagination confuses its longing for an identity with paranoia about “Islam in danger”

Dr Pervez Hoodbhoy, an internationally renowned physicist from Pakistan, was recently informed that his contract at FCC University would not be renewed. This is not the first time a university has failed to retain the eminent professor after the end of a contract term, citing petty reasons, from his age to the nature of teaching contracts.

Dr Hoodbhoy is the recipient of several international awards and is well recognised internationally for his work. Last year, the University of British Columbia conferred an honorary doctorate upon him. Yet, in his own country, a sizeable segment of the educated masses bear ill will towards him.

This is evident from the vitriol Dr Hoodbhoy receives from many young people, who argue that Hoodbhoy misrepresents the views of Imam Al-Ghazali, the influential 10th-century Muslim scholar, in his book Islam and Science: Religious Orthodoxy and the Battle for Rationality. Incidentally, many of these young people are also those who promote anti-Semitic, homophobic and anti-democratic rhetoric, and defend the death penalty for blasphemy and apostasy.

It is not surprising that these young people enjoy popularity and clout among a large segment of Pakistani Muslims. This is because, on the one hand, they offer a semblance of community and identity to a people made fearful for the future of Islam, as they live in constant paranoia of “Islam in danger”. On the other hand, they provide validation for, and sanctuary from, a global environment of injustice against Muslims under Islamophobia (although, ironically, they do not perceive the same injustice in their own attitudes toward minority religious groups within Pakistan).

It could be argued that Hoodbhoy is targeted because of his “secular liberal” disposition, as it is seen to be anti-Islamic and therefore contemptible to many Pakistanis. However, Pakistanis have not spared even Muslim scholars like Javed Ahmed Ghamidi, or Malala Yousafzai, from their prejudices, suggesting that their hatred is really fueled by other factors.

So, what explains why Hoodbhoy is so hated in Pakistan?

The answer to this question is actually not very difficult. All three – Hoodbhoy, Malala and Ghamidi – challenge some part of the dominant narrative that has become an intractable part of the Pakistani Muslim identity. Anything which remotely threatens this dominant narrative faces fierce resistance.

Take Malala for example. In her book, she blames the hallowed institution of the Pakistan army for its initial role in abandoning her hometown to the Taliban’s mercy, as the army hoped to stymie the Taliban’s onslaught toward the rest of Pakistan. Or take Ghamidi who, in his work, challenges the long-held belief among Muslims about the death penalty being the right punishment for blasphemy and apostasy, while also supporting democracy instead of caliphates or empires. In a similar vein, Hoodbhoy challenges an old and revered tradition by refuting an eminent Islamic scholar like al-Ghazali, instead of offering him his obeisance. In each of these cases, the protagonists suffer people’s hatred simply for daring to target some or the other “sacred cow” in Pakistan.

A closer inspection reveals, however, that this narrative that feeds into the Pakistani Muslim identity rests less on Islam and more on the quest for an identity in opposition to India and the imperial West. Islam is abundantly diverse for it can be wielded to accomplish tazkiyya nafs (inner purification) as well as to establish a “pure” world order based on the age of Muslim empires. The fact that the favourite discourse of so many Muslim men revolves around the rights of non-Muslims living in an Islamic state, along with the implementation of laws found in dusty old books on jurisprudence, shows their nostalgia for a romanticised past of Muslim empires.

Such a glorification of the past is not unique to Muslims. Many white people, who seek to establish a predominately white society, also employ the Nordic past, which rests on the legends of Odin, Freya and Thor, to fulfill their need for “purity” and identity in an increasingly multicultural world. A similar narrative that rests on the pantheon of Hindu deities informs the search of young Hindus in crafting a Hindu identity in secular India.

All these identities seem to emerge at the expense of others. Young Muslims seek “purity” from the “corrupt” influences of Hellenistic philosophy and “deviant” Islamic groups. White people seek “purity” of a white-dominated society and young Hindus harken back to a past before the influx of Muslim Empires in the Indian subcontinent.

Coming back to Hoodbhoy, Pakistani men sneer at him not on the basis of Islam but rather on the challenge he poses to their “purity” and “identity.”

Some believe that instead of challenging the sacred cows, Hoodbhoy should play by their rules. However, this seems like an anachronistic demand to make in 2020 (even as Pakistan struggles to reform laws such as blasphemy laws on the basis of human rights, and the potential for injustice such laws inherently carry).

Hoodbhoy may have erred in his reading of Ghazali or emphasised one portion of his opinions over others. Indeed, many past Muslim scholars have held diverse opinions on the same subject. Imam Shafi’s opinions, for instance, are markedly different during the early and later stages of his life. Based on the predilection this presents, contemporary Muslim scholars ironically resort to the same solution they vehemently cry out against in other people: adopting the opinion that best fits their own preferred narrative.

If one looks, there are plenty of Muslim scholars who work toward bringing Islam and science closer. The position that Islam and science are mutually antagonistic has no grounds except in the minds of a small proportion of “scholars” who unfortunately often end up in command of large segments of the population.

Regardless, the motives which lead to such acrimony as faced by Dr Hoodbhoy, among many other brilliant scholars, rest much less on Islam than on a quest for national identity. Hoodbhoy is not hated because he threatens Islamic beliefs; he is hated because he challenges puritan ideologies, including the Pakistani Muslims’ nostalgic hangover from the earlier eras of Muslim empires.

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