By Sonya Rehman
I loved the Bollywood movie ‘PK.’
Barring the fact that it stars my childhood crush, Aamir Khan (pehla nasha, pehla khumaaaar!), the movie’s message is a significant one, and what makes it even more powerful is that it was released at a time when questions surrounding religion and faith have managed to take center-stage for both the individual and society today…more so today. I have written about alienation before; the lack of true connection in today’s day and age of likes, unfollowing, retweeting, unfriending, and fear of intimacy as a result of increasing dependency on technology, the psychological ailments affecting and debilitating a young generation the world over…spawning more alienation, alone-ness, unhappiness, dissatisfaction in a world gone awry.
God, Allah, The One, are you there? Allah, can you hear me? I hope I’ve dialed the right number…Allah, make it all better, look you’re all I have…God, speak to me, a sign, if nothing else – give me a sign.
Faith. Blind faith. What a privilege to believe in something, a higher power with such respect, adoration, to bow one’s head in faith, to remain resilient in the face of trauma and scarcity. Belief is a privilege. But in a world such as ours, extreme religiosity at times morphs into arrogance owing to a strange psychosis where one believes one is above the rest, the mind and heart, once released with faith, is blanketed over again, veiled once again.
Earlier this month I shared a photo (below) regarding the Charlie Hebdo attack on my public Facebook page which garnered an angry reaction from one of my undergraduate students.
My student private messaged me twice over asking me how I could be okay with cartoons insulting our Prophet (pbuh). My hands shook as I read his message – I was terribly disturbed and yes, fearful, too. I must state, my student is a sweet, shy young man, but the tone of his message was clearly angry. I stared at my screen for a few minutes, wondering how to tackle his message, if it was appropriate for me to dialogue with my student outside the classroom on a topic as sensitive as religion. But at the same time I was gripped by a sense of fear and I felt compelled to justify my beliefs.
So I wrote him a brief, curt message stating that while I found the cartoons insulting, I did not agree to innocent people being riddled with bullets under the banner of religion. I also added that I didn’t appreciate his informal way of speaking to me, given our roles, and that respect must be maintained, the teacher-student line, never crossed. The next day, before class was to begin, I asked him to sit with me in the teacher’s common room in the presence of one of my TA’s, while I clarified my position. Again, what was I doing? Justifying my beliefs. While the short conversation ended on an empathetic note (where I told him, time and again, he was like my child and that personal beliefs/views must be respected), I walked to the classroom with him feeling at odds. I was upset with myself. Upset with feeling fear for what I believed in – who the hell is anyone to judge one’s religious beliefs, or the lack thereof, who is to judge? Who? Throughout the day, I felt like I had robbed myself of something — dignity? Was that it? Self-respect? I didn’t stand my ground, I was on shaky footing, I had a lack of faith in myself, there was no confidence, hence my hasty reaction. I realized, later, I never, ever wanted to feel that level of fear again. Ever. I wanted to cry – the Peshawar attack, the images, the numerous articles I’d read on the survivors and the gruesome details of the entire tragedy was swimming in my head. For all my bravado when I hold my pen to write confessional pieces, my backbone was dissolved to dust with just the slightest provocation.
But religion is a personal matter – no matter what number you dial (a reference from the movie, ‘PK’) to reach God, it is between you and the Almighty. And that is all. But today, politics has obliterated the line of respect for the religions of the world – the media has made a mockery of faith, a mockery of what is crucial for man to believe in, to hope for, to hold on to…And, it has also made your beliefs, everyone else’s business. You’re either with us or against us, they state.
Almost a month after my college re-opened (schools and colleges across Pakistan were shut down due to security concerns), one of my TA’s greeted me with a hug, thanking me for wishing her a Merry Christmas via a Whatsapp message. She was touched. I was a little baffled, and asked her why she was thanking me? Oh because I read a blog online which said that you shouldn’t wish anyone a Merry Christmas in Pakistan, she responded with a smile. I was shocked. I brushed it away and rolled my eyes, muttering expletives about the lack of tolerance in the country. At that very moment, I wanted to tell my TA: I respect your faith, do you hear me, I respect your faith.
This week, we hired a maid who, after her brief meeting with my mother, stated; baaji, mein mussalman hoon [ma’am, I’m a Muslim]. Your faith has absolutely no bearing on your hiring, my mother had told her.
‘PK’ is an important movie for the world of today because it questions the rigidity and intolerance of faith in a sensitive, child-like manner. The movie stands as a gift for its audiences because it reinforces the notion that each of us is equal no matter what religion we are born into and/or adopt.
It left me wondering: Do our beliefs truly define us? Or do we define our faith?
What are “I” and “You”?
In the niches of a lamp
Through which the One Light radiates.
“I” and “You” are the veil
Between heaven and earth;
Lift this veil and you will see
How all sects and religions are one.
Lift this veil and you will ask –
When “I” and “You” do not exist
What is mosque?
What is synagogue?
What is fire temple?
– Mahmud Shabistari, 14th century
Original Language Persian/Farsi. Translation by Andrew Harvey