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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

Fresh thrust on social sciences and liberal arts

Academics question quality of education and lack of level-playing field for the youth of Pakistan, laying emphasis on the importance of fostering a sensibility for social justice at a conference at Habib University

Fresh thrust on social sciences and liberal arts
Closed doors of narratives that open only for a select few, and educational disciplines that act as isolated bubbles — that is the academia we mostly see. But in a postcolonial world, Pakistan is seeing a fresh thrust on social sciences and the emergence of liberal arts educational institutes. When scholars open their doors to the public and invite them to engage in conversations that problematise and aim to solve issues, you know that there is progress.

Talking of Pakistan’s struggle with education at the core of development, postcolonial higher education is an often ignored part of it. “One of the major demerits of postcolonial education has been that ‘education’ has almost exclusively meant ‘technical education’. In contrast, pre-modern forms of knowledge were very sensitive to the fact that knowledge was an end in itself rather than a means to something else,” said Dr Shahram Azhar, Assistant Professor, Social Development and Policy at the Habib University (HU), Karachi. Recently, HU held its third ‘Postcolonial Higher Education Conference’ highlighting the specific historical and educational challenges of the postcolonial world, under the theme ‘The Inheritance of Injustice’.

The educational system replicates and reproduces the inequality that exists in society, and this is completely unacceptable. A country that does not provide opportunities to its weakest members of society cannot prosper.

Sharing his views with TNS, Azhar added that resultantly, we have ended up with people with a lot of technical expertise but the inability to creatively apply those techniques to our unique social and economic conditions. “We’ve essentially been trying to copy and paste Western models of knowledge and thinking. What we have inherited is a colonial way of reasoning about the world; colonial education was precisely the production of knowledge for colonised subjects, rather than citizens.” In a world where the aim of learning is earning, Azhar’s words ring true.

In a divided and polarised Pakistan, liberal arts and a better thought out system of education can play a positive role. “The place where Pakistan finds itself today is rife with ethnic and class bias, gender disparity and religious bigotry. People often blame this on lack of political leadership but one of the reasons for this intolerant attitude and lack of civic responsibility is our failing education system. From the earlier dictatorial times when state funding would be diverted towards the sciences and very little towards social sciences, it has set in an attitude towards education as a means to an end instead of an end in itself,” said Dr Sabyn Javeri, award winning writer and faculty member at the HU, who was part of a panel at the conference. Her paper was on “Teaching Feminist Fiction in the Pakistani Undergrad Classroom.”

Speaking to TNS, Javeri said that one of the things that a Liberal Arts education does is that it provides you wholesome, all-rounder access to learning. “It is interdisciplinary, a mix of science and humanities. It promotes broad-mindedness, tolerance and pluralism, which is very necessary in a country as diverse as ours. This singular approach to studying where science students are not exposed to literature or even the fact that reading out the text book is not encouraged, is promoting a dangerous, extremist mindset.” She said that encouraging students to question was a core advantage of this system.

Azhar’s views echo the same thought. “A liberal arts education, like that at the HU, strives to change the irrational way of looking at education by incorporating a sensibility for social justice, equality, egalitarianism, peace, and tolerance in students so that they can creatively apply the technical knowledge that they acquire to improve the lives of others around them.”

However, unless the academia and scholarship play their part, achieving the goals Azhar mentioned, seem impossible. In his opinion, while academic scholarship can play a central role in fostering pluralism, it would depend, in turn, on the degree to which it can foster a sensibility for social justice. “This must happen at multiple levels: at the level of producing new research and knowledge, at the level of designing curricula that transfer that knowledge to students, and at the level of how that knowledge is transmitted to students. We have to develop sensitivity to diversity; religious, cultural, political, linguistic, gender, class — within our education systems and this must happen at all levels of the process of producing and disseminating knowledge,” said Azhar.

However, reality remains that while such an educational system is the ideal, few have access to it. Azhar candidly termed the current level of inequality in Pakistan’s social system ‘vulgar’.

“The educational system replicates and reproduces the inequality that exists in society, and this is completely unacceptable. A country that does not provide opportunities to its weakest members of society cannot prosper,” Azhar said. She finds this very disturbing. “On one hand we have world class universities like the IBA, LUMS and HU, but how many people have access to them? With the level of state education, only pupils hailing from a certain class, pass the stringent tests of these prestigious institutes. Yes, there are scholarships and equal opportunity policies, but how many from under-privileged backgrounds have the awareness to make use of these policies. And even within class, there is gender bias.” A conference like this one really helps, she said, adding, “People are thinking about it and that’s always a good sign.”

Talking of solution to this jarring disparity, Azhar mentioned multiple solutions that require a multi-pronged approach. “First, it calls for active participation of the well-to-do sections of society. They need to step up and create other charitable institutions that make it possible for members from marginalised socio-economic backgrounds to access higher education.

“Secondly, we need more state support. Ultimately, a model like the HU can only be replicated at a higher level via state support as there are limits to what private institutions can do,” he said.

As a third tier of the solution, he mentioned the need to democratise education and educational institutions. Students, then, must be made to participate in the process of deciding what they study, the policies that govern their lives, and how those policies should be executed. “We cannot have a democratic society if schools, colleges, and universities are undemocratic.”

 

Farahnaz Zahidi

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The writer is a freelance journalist with a focus on human rights, gender and peace-building. She works in the field of Corporate Communications.

What causes violence in South Asia? It’s all about identity, says Dr Vali Nasr

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Published: November 23, 2014

“This is about power; this is about hegemony,” Vali Nasr. PHOTO: HABIB UNIVERSITY FACEBOOK

KARACHI: Dr Vali Nasr knows what causes violence in South Asia. “It’s about identity. It’s always about identity,” he says.

A leading academic on Middle East and the Islamic World, Dr Nasr spoke to The Express Tribune shortly before his talk on ‘The Growing Role of Sectarianism in Muslim Politics, Globally and in Pakistan’ at Habib University on Saturday.

Nasr has a strong connection with Pakistan, where he worked as part of his PhD research. “Coming to Pakistan is like a home coming,” he said. He is calm, yet candid, when he talks about the schism between Shias and Sunnis. “Sectarianism is the oldest conflict,” he said, adding that the desire of one community to exert power and dominance over another is in no way restricted to the Sunni-Shia conflict. “This is about power; this is about hegemony.”

Drawing a backdrop to understanding the present-day global politics, the rise of militancy, the difference between Islam and Islamism and the issues Pakistan is facing, Nasr explained to a packed auditorium the problems and the possible solutions. “Unfortunately, the dominant discourse in the Muslim world does not promote pluralism,” he said, talking about why religion becomes puritanical, and is seen as black and white with the belief that only one interpretation is correct.

Therein, according to Nasr, lies the root of sectarianism. “Modernity and reformation in the Muslim world today is much less tolerant than tradition was,” he said. “Those who talk of modernity today want to jump from tradition to liberal secularism. Where is the historical process for this?”

When asked a question about the rise of extremism in Pakistan, he said: “When the rich become disconnected with the poor, the poor turn to the clerics.”

In Nasr’s opinion, the strain between Pakistan and India is not just Kashmir. “Pakistan is still toying with various ideas of identity, whereas India has still not reconciled to the idea of Pakistan,” he said. He also spoke about Lahore and Karachi in the 1940s as places with pluralistic societies in this region. In his opinion, the solution to sectarianism in the region will have to be through strong will and determination at all levels of society.

Published in The Express Tribune, November 23rd, 2014.