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“If you ask me who I am, I will say I am a storyteller” – Reza Aslan

Interview with Dr Reza Aslan

“If you ask me who I am, I will say I am a storyteller”

Dr Reza Aslan’s journey has been long and winding. From a young Shia Muslim migrant from Iran to USA, to a converted Christian at the age of 15, to again a Muslim a few years later, Aslan’s journey is the quintessential journey of discovering one’s self and one’s religion. Perhaps this is why he resonates with his audiences and readers. Faith, however, has remained a constant with him. Answering a question from the audience at a packed auditorium at Habib University Karachi where he delivered a Yohsin Lecture on the topic ‘Why Do We Believe’ on June 13, Aslan distinguished between faith and religion with the help of a metaphor. According to him, when we dig wells, the wells may be different but the water under the earth’s surface is all the same. Similarly, the water is faith and the wells are religions — they are all the different paths to faith, he says.

In this exclusive interview for The News on Sunday, Aslan begins by talking about how he gets away with presenting opposing and often offbeat points of view. “When you are talking about issues of religion and politics, you are talking about things that are very deeply embedded into people’s identities, and sometimes will react if they feel their identity is under attack. My relative success has been predicated on having respect for people who disagree with me, and taking faith and religion seriously even when I disagree with it. Recognising that my arguments are always going to be founded upon reason and history and fact has, for the most part, inoculated me a little bit, but I still get into trouble all the time, both personally and professionally.”

As a person of faith, and one with a keen and critical eye on world history and politics, Aslan’s take on the role of religion in public life is unique. “I always make a clear distinction between Secularism and Secularisation,” he says, further explaining the two concepts. “Secularism is a political ideology that says religion should have no place in public life. I understand where that argument comes from but it doesn’t make any sense in a modern constitutional democracy if the entire point of a democratic system is to allow people to find representatives who share their values, their ideas, and their worldview. Religion becomes a very easy shorthand for those complicated notions. So it’s ridiculous to say that religion should have no role in politics and in the public realm. Of course it should.”

Pakistan has an extraordinarily unique history. “This country defined itself from the very beginning in terms that are impossible to actually live out. When you call yourself an Islamic state, you need to figure out what that exactly means.”

He goes on to add that Secularisation is about making sure that religion doesn’t have political authority, and that religious institutions are distinct from the governing bodies and the political authorities — that authority itself over the state should rest not in the hands of religious leaders but in the hands of political leaders. “Secularisation is very important when it comes to modern constitutional state because, particularly in countries where vast majorities share a single religious tradition, religion can very easily become authoritarian where those who disagree with the religion, those who have no religion and those who have a different religion become second class citizens. That is not a democracy.

“That’s what I think is important. Secularism is not the key to a functioning democratic state. Secularisation is the key to that, because Secularisation is about pluralism, about rights of all citizens regardless of their religion,” he says. In Aslan’s opinion, Secularism is based on the forceful removal of religion from the public realm which is anti-democratic. “It’s anti-democratic when France does it. It’s anti-democratic when Turkey used to do it. It’s anti-democratic when Egypt does it.”

Commenting on Pakistan’s historical journey and the role of religion in it, Aslan says that it is important to recognise that Pakistan has an extraordinarily unique history. “This country defined itself from the very beginning in terms that are impossible to actually live out. When you call yourself an Islamic state, you need to figure out what that exactly means. Does that mean it’s a state for a majority Muslim population or does it mean that it’s a state founded upon Islamic ideology or does it mean that it’s a state that is run according to Islam? I think the problem is that it was never explicitly defined; it becomes difficult to have these kinds of ideological conversations about the nature of the state when you have no choice but to build the state. That of course had to do with the fact that it was created in the midst of the single largest mass migration in human history to this day.”

According to him, that more than anything explains the tumultuous history of Pakistan going from a secular democracy to a military dictatorship to being a religious-inspired state, then back to being a secular democracy and then a military dictatorship and then a religious-inspired state. “What the experience of Pakistan shows — and that is precisely why it is so unique — is the difficulty of trying to define a nation state in religious terms,” he says, mentioning Israel as a cautionary tale, “a country that is disintegrating from within”.

Fiercely and openly critical of Modi, Netanyahu, and Trump, Aslan says that it has been a very long time that Pakistan has had a Modi or a Trump. “We cannot say that there can never be the rise of a demagogue in Pakistan. But for the most part, I think the (political) trends are moving in a positive direction,” he says. Commenting further on the kind of political leadership he is wary of, he says that a global-wide identity crisis has created the vacuum for authoritarian demagogues to step in and provide an easy way for citizens of these states to define themselves according to religion or race or ethnicity etc.

“There’s nothing about India or about Hinduism that explains Modi, for example. What is happening in India and Israel and USA is a global phenomenon; it is not just about these individual countries.”

To Aslan, while religion is a potential tool for social stability, and collective identity, he feels that like any tool, it can be wielded in positive and negative ways. “It’s all about the person wielding it. I cannot say religion is a force for good or force for evil, or that it causes peace or causes violence. Religion doesn’t do any of those things. People do those things. Religion is a means for them to achieve those ends.”

When asked what he enjoys most — teaching, public speaking or writing books, his answer is simple. “It’s all storytelling. Stories are how we define ourselves and communicate our ideas to the world. The platform doesn’t matter. If you ask me who I am, I will say I am a storyteller.”

http://tns.thenews.com.pk/ask-will-say-storyteller/#.XRMmmugzbIU

Different strokes for different rozaydaars

Times have changed and so have the food choices of those observing the fast

Different strokes for different rozaydaars

The idea, back then, was that you need to stuff yourself with such food at sehri that will help you not feel hungry, nor thirsty till Iftar. While that never actually happened, nutritious and filling foods like khajlapheni, and qeema  or aloo parathas kept one full enough at least till mid-day. And then we topped it off with jugs of water, and lay there on a couch later, panting with over-eating, filling up our bellies in the hope that the holy month would suddenly give us the capacity of a camel to store food and fluids.

That was the era where we didn’t care about good cholesterol or bad cholesterol, and it didn’t really matter if, instead of losing weight, Ramzan meant gaining a few pounds. Ramzan is about self-control, starting with food. It actually has been interpreted by a foodie nation as being just the opposite — about indulgence in food. But with awareness about healthier food choices, all of this may have begun to change, at least in urban Pakistan.

One thing is for sure: the health-conscious fasting person now focuses more on sehri than on iftar, particularly, if the said person also wants to pray peacefully at night, at home or at the masjid. For such people, they have a completely altered routine in Ramzan. Heavy, oily food, and an overload of beans and chickpeas can cause bloating and digestive issues, even though the latter two are very good sources of nutrition and should be taken in moderation.

The one change that we see is that unlike earlier when people used to first have iftar, then dinner a few hours later, and then sehri, the more conscientious eater is eating just two meals a day, with in-between healthy snacking if needed.

For many of us, the parathas and khajlas made of white flour and laden with fats have been replaced by porridge, oatmeal, brown bread, chapatis made of whole-wheat flour, and even brown rice. However, some things still remain indispensable for sehri, like eggs. Eggs have earned that spot as a favourite for good reason. Eggs provide 13 essential vitamins and minerals (vitamin D, riboflavin, selenium), antioxidants Lutein and zeaxanthin, and high-quality protein, all needed for one who is fasting.

The new entrants are the health-benefit items that once were seen as medicinal, but are now seen as “snacks”.

Dates, traditionally seen as the thing to open one’s fast with, have now made their way to the sehri meal as well. They are not just high in antioxidants, fiber, and potassium, but also provide essential nutrients, such as vitamin B-6 and iron. Bananas, an essential component of the fruit chaat, is now being eaten by the health-conscious rozaydaar as part of the morning pre-fast meal as well, as they provide fiber, potassium, vitamin B6, vitamin C, and various antioxidants and phytonutrients.

One of the things a person fasting in summers goes through is possible dehydration, or an electrolyte imbalance. Bananas, known as the leader among fruits and vegetables containing potassium, help control muscles and blood pressure. Thus bananas replenish electrolytes.

While restaurants offer attractive deals, the regular and more cautious people who observe fasting are being seen avoiding the eating out experience. “Unless it is unavoidable, me and my family have stopped eating out to eat at iftar,” says a regular fast-keeper. “The food in restaurants, no matter how tasty, will be always more oily, more rich in spices, and probably less hygienically prepared compared to home-cooked food.”

“When the fast is broken after almost 15 hours, it takes the body time to adjust to eating and drinking. It’s not a good idea to suddenly overload your system after a break from eating for a long time. The food’s not going anywhere! Why not have it in breaks, going gentle on your system?”

Also read: Oh, this makes sense

The new entrants are the health-benefit items that once were seen as medicinal items, but are now seen as “snacks”. You might see a particularly health-aware friend munching on iceberg lettuce with pine nuts topped with chia seeds as a post-iftar snack. Another relative might be having a combo of flaxseed, pumpkin seeds, and prunes with yogurt at sehri. And yet another one might be seen sprinkling moringa leaves powder on top of a sugar-free fruit chaat.

Different strokes for different rozaydaars.

Yes, times have changed and so have the food choices of those observing fast. Many of these changes are positive. Perhaps people have begun to realise that Ramzan and fasting do not remind us of stuffing our mouths with food on tables laden with 20 items, but in fact this month is a reminder of the joys of simple, wholesome, healthy food that is a blessing from the Creator. Abundance is, then, perhaps, in our attitude towards food, not in the quantity. It is the month of gratitude. Good health calls for gratitude, and practical gratitude demands taking care of your health.

Happy fasting and healthy feasting.

http://tns.thenews.com.pk/different-strokes-different-rozaydaars/#.XRMjE-gzbIU

Day 18. Day 19 #Ramadan #Quran #Verseoftheday #HumanLifeIsSacred #ValueOfLife

Day 18 – VALUE OF HUMAN LIFE

Because of that, We decreed upon the Children of Israel that whoever kills a soul unless for a soul or for corruption [done] in the land – it is as if he had killed the entire mankind. And whoever saves one – it is as if he had saved the emtire mankind. And our messengers had certainly come to them with clear proofs. Then indeed many of them, [even] after that, throughout the land, were transgressors.

This is verse 32 from  Sūrat al-Māidah, Chapter 5, of the Quran.

The words are powerful and clear. While the contextual address is to the Bani Israel, all of humanity, and every witness and reader of the Quran is addressed here. Allah (swt) who loves each human, His unique creation, more than the love of 70 mothers put together, is reminding us what each life means to him.  Prophet Muhammad (saw), in his last Sermon on the sacred day of Hajj, the 9th day of Dhul al Hijjah, 10th year after Hijrah, in the ‘Uranah valley of Mount Arafat, said these words that remain etched in history:

O People, just as you regard this month, this day, this city as Sacred, so regard the life and property of every Muslim as a sacred trust.

This verse 5:32 needs to be read and re-read, in our hearts, from our lips, in private and in public, to remind us of the value of the life of each person in the sight of Allah.

The same message is repeated in Verse 17:33 of Surah Bani Israel (Chapter 17):

And do not kill the soul which Allah has forbidden, except by right. And whoever is killed unjustly – We have given his heir authority, but let him not exceed limits in [the matter of] taking life. Indeed, he has been supported [by the law].

Saving a single life, by any means, whether medical treatment, charity, and service of humanity, wins us limitless reward. The opposite will have the opposite results. These verses remind us yet again – each life matters.

 

 

 

 

A few good “F” words for the new year

By Farahnaz Zahidi

new year fireworks

Last year sped by just like all the years before it. Glorious on many counts, it also had its downsides that come with the package of any given chunk of time. Standing in my balcony, braving the rare chilly Karachi winds against my face, I am taking inventory of the year gone by. Some unresolved resolutions are jumbled up in the knapsack of my mind while some new resolutions have also found their way in.

‘What are going to be my focal points in the year to come?’ I wonder.

Somehow, a lot of ‘F’ words spring up in my mind – good ones, I must add.

Family: They may be irritating, annoying and an eternal encroachment on my personal space, but they are what makes life worth living for me. They demand a lot, but also give much more in return. If there is anything that is the ‘real’ thing in life, it’s your family; and if the real stuff sucks out the best out of you, it also gives you the best life has to offer.

So in the coming year, more cooking for my daughter; more walks (and simultaneous talks) in the park with my partner in crime; more evening tea trysts with my mother, whose eyes light up when she sees me; more patient time-spending with my sisters, who feel I ‘need to be more available on Skype and phone’ ; more brainless laughter over childhood jokes and discussions about Pakistani politics with my brothers; more hanging out with my nieces and nephews (a price one pays for being the youngest aunt); more one-dish dinners with relatives, and lastly, more visits to the distant aunts and cousins.

I mention all these people because they will be the first to arrive if I am in trouble. I know for a fact that they will stand by me even when I have a runny nose and a swollen face owing to allergies.

Friends: What could make life more enjoyable than the company of a good friend? As the years speed by, friends become even more important than before, and here I mean all kinds of friends; the ones who pump up my ego by giving me a healthy dose of compliments on how I look and how well I write; the ones who can say anything directly to my face when I need to hear it because they have known me since I couldn’t even tie my shoe laces; the ones who will swing by my house uninformed, plop themselves on the jhoola (swing) in my lounge and tell me their sob stories till my head spins; the ones who will go all motherly on me and make me tea and kebabs when I go to them in need of a pep-talk; the just-for-fun friends with whom I go out to share crazy laughter over coffee; those who are ready to mentor me in unsaid ways; the ones who will accompany me to the Imran Khan jalsa; the ones who call me a day before the jalsa, worried sick that I am going to a public place, and tell me ‘it’s so dangerous, you idiot’.

So in the coming year, more time-spending with my besties, if that’s possible, because they are already a major time-drain – one that is so worth it.

Food: Being a hardcore foodie, this one should actually top the list, but this year I plan to have yummier but healthier food. More concentration on fish, fruit, figs, and fresh greens instead of the regular doses of nihari, garlic-mayo fries, cheese dripping pasta and cheesecakes that all go and deposit themselves straight on the ‘troubled zones’.

So food, my first love, you are (still) on top of my priority list, baby. I am going to relish your each morsel and not gulp you down in a hurry. I will enjoy my cups of tea steaming hot and not let them get cold while other things, like phone calls and door bells, get in the way and destroy the taste of my chai because I have to micro-wave it endless times. I will also not serve food in pots, pans and degchis. I will make an effort to garnish it with ginger, coriander, parmesan, and fresh cream. Food will be a work of art and a sinless joy this year (ok family, don’t get your hopes high!).

Fitness: Looking good, feeling that extra spring in your step, experiencing that non-lazy bouncy feeling that makes you upbeat every morning – that’s what fitness gives you. And this poor ‘F’ was so neglected last year. So here is a solemn resolve; more healthy food, more walks and aerobics, less stressing, and most importantly more sleeping on time. Intermittently, let me enjoy a few last days of couch-potatoing, brooding over useless stuff, and sleeping at 2 am.

Fun: Being a serious-about-life and I-will-make-a-difference kind of person has a downside; you become too purposeful for your own good and at times forget to do brainless stuff just for fun. Things like watching an old Govinda movie, going out impulsively to have chaat, sleeping in late and buying yourself an extra pair of shoes just take a back seat.

So, I plan to have more fun next year, which would incorporate all the above mentioned ‘Fs’ but also include writing just for fun; some frivolous blogging, not merely journalistic endeavours that reek of activism, but also stuff like food blogging and a bit of dabbling with utterly emotional romantic poetry that makes my heart sing. Sounds like a plan!

Faith: My mainstay, my anchor, which sometimes gets buried under endless chores and to-dos. I feel that my time has drifted away with nothing actually useful done when I spend less time in prayer and a strange weariness clouds my happiness when I talk less to Allah (on the prayer mat or otherwise). So more of prayers and zikr in the coming year, and of doing things that will please God, which will definitely entail making His creations happy; serving, loving and spending (both money and time) on people I come across in my life.

Hence, my ‘F’ list comes to an end with Faith, and my faith says that I do not know for sure if I even have the next 24 hours to live. However, I have hope in His Mercy, and I will strive to live a life of better quality in the days and years to come, and leave the rest to Allah.

New Year – Bring it on.

Published here: http://blogs.tribune.com.pk/story/9618/a-few-good-%E2%80%9Cf%E2%80%9D-words-for-the-new-year/
Published: December 31, 2011