As zealous and patriotic as we Pakistanis are, government policy and the readiness to ban controversial works of literature have often led me to question the hypocrisy of our values. If those of us Pakistanis that are Muslim truly believe in Islam, then what is it about criticism of the faith that creates such uproar in Pakistan? True belief comes from the ability of a faith to withstand an intellectual challenge. If we are to rid Pakistan of its deeply-embedded intolerance and achieve thorough conviction, we ought to start with works of literature that have challenged our pre-existing notions. Within a state that has concretised so many obsolete fragments of Islam for the sake of its own socio-political gain, literature might just be the populace’s only means of taking matters of faith into their own hands.
A word of caution: I do not endorse offensive or obscene content from any of these books nor do I advocate for words of hatred towards Islam. This article has been written purely for the sake of initiating a thought-provoking discussion and enabling readers to understand two things: that you can appreciate, or merely respect, a work of literature even if it does not align with your beliefs and that you can find value in anything that you read, either in the form of a greater affirmation of your perspective or in something that either enriches or changes your current interpretation.
So in the spirit of celebrating our intellectual freedom, here’s a synopsis of each of the three most controversial works to have come to (and been banned in) Pakistan and what we can learn from them:
1. “Shame” by Salman Rushdie
Salman Rushdie is one of the most controversial writers of our era and one of the few – and perhaps the only – author that has managed to successfully integrate South Asian culture into the fantastical world of magic realism. However, I cannot delve into “Shame” without discussing his fourth novel and claim to fame: “The Satanic Verses”. In a bold attempt to create a work of Islamic satire, the novel earned him a fatwa in 1989 by Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini of Iran, who ordered the Muslim community to kill him at any available opportunity (talk about epitomising intolerance). The fatwa led to Rushdie spending several years incognito and under heavy security surveillance. Eventually, Rushdie was anointed as a Knight by The Queen of England. When the Pakistani Religious Affairs Minister Muhammad Ijaz-ul-Haq tried to condemn the action, Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto refused to comply, in spite of the fact that the book was loosely based on the Bhutto family.
The main character of the novel, the rather dull Sufiya bears the shame of her father, an increasingly successful officer in the military, who is disappointed to learn that his firstborn child is a girl. Sufiya absorbs the shame of those that surround her and eventually metamorphoses into a beast. Eventually, she finds herself on her deathbed where she is cured by immunologist Omar Khayyam Shakil. Their toxic love story and the recurring theme of shame become definitive of their fates.
Akin to one of his key sources of inspiration Gabriel García Márquez (author of the best-seller “One Hundred Years of Solitude”) Rushdie uses his work to criticise the dogmatism that plagues both Pakistan and India. In “Shame” Rushdie criticises the tendency of Pakistani society to gravitate towards extremes by depicting the dichotomy of shame and shamelessness, embodied by Sufiya and Omar Khayyam Shakil respectively. The shame that plagues Pakistani society is fundamentally rooted in the colonial exploitation of our people and until we learn to rid ourselves of it, we will continue to suffer.
2. “Jinnah of Pakistan” by Stanley Wolpert
“Jinnah of Pakistan” is an account of India and Pakistan’s partition, depicting Jinnah as one of the most compelling leaders of his century. The book was banned in Pakistan for alluding to Jinnah’s drinking habits.
Jinnah was an articulate lawyer, a man of integrity, wisdom and charismatic leadership. He was berated for many of his actions from equally representing Muslims in the union to, of course, founding Pakistan. However, Jinnah withstood all of the backlash and by the virtue of his will, determination and political acumen created Pakistan and now, in his own words, “there is no power on Earth that can undo Pakistan.” Wolpert illuminates the laborious political battles of Nehuru, Gandhi and Jinnah and the how their political ideologies and respective biases paved the way for partition. Amidst the political clashes the book also highlights Jinnah’s personal political journey and how several events and experiences came to shape his own ideology. In his youth, Jinnah was in favour of a unified India; however, as time came to tell he became unified India’s greatest opposer. Over the course of emaciation and murder attempts, Jinnah withstood all leaving behind a nation of incredible potential.
3. “The Truth About Muhammad” by Robert Spencer
Personally, I would treat this as work as a cleverly-written (in terms of manipulating language to seem like genuine academic or theological jargon), convoluted piece of pro-fundamentalist trash. This book should be circulated around Pakistan to demonstrate the exact opposite of what a practicing Muslim in the 21st century should be.
According to The Guardian, Spencer illustrates the clashes between the Islamic faith and “historical reality” highlighting the Prophet Muhammad’s supposedly xenophobic, suicidal and homicidal state of “martyrdom,” which the author has arguably written simply for the sake of being provocative (Rushdie wannabe alert!) Spencer asserts that jihadists (or the contemporary perverted, radical faction of Islam that has taken the world ablaze) truly encapsulate the Islamic ethos, as opposed to the rational, morally sound and intellectual Muslims that exist worldwide.
If anyone were to delve into the verses of any Abrahamic holy text (not just the Qur’an but also the Bible or Torah) they would find several cases of sexism, xenophobia, mass violence and proselytism and would similarly identify those cases as immoral as per contemporary dogma. Spencer can use the same verses to vilify Muhammad and play on existing bigotry towards extremists to fuel the flames of Islamaphobia but anyone with a Bible could fabricate an equally scathing portrayal of Jesus. However, in the eloquent words of Voltaire: “think for yourself and let others enjoy the privilege of doing so too.”