Jonathan Ferguson
The New Understanding: Post-Secular Pluralism and Universalism!

Liberalism, Islam and prejudice: interview with Khadija Khan

Full disclosure:

I am acquainted with Khadija Khan from the Facebook discussion group ‘Let’s Talk About Islamism,’ which is run by the Clarion Project.

Edits have been made to the questions and answers, in order to make the interview as clear and precise as possible for readers.

Firstly, Khadija, you are a Pakistani woman who has taken a strong stance against what, I guess, I could call ‘reactionary’ or ‘hyper-conservative’ religious tendencies in Pakistan.

So here is a woman from Pakistan who does not dress in the way Pakistani women are stereotypically portrayed as dressing. You make a strong emphasis on the importance of liberal values and a modern outlook.

I imagine the theocratic far right, the white nationalist or fascist far right, and the regressive left, will all find a rather ironic convergence here.

Do you think that all three factions will find you a little difficult to understand?

First of all, I feel honored to be able to answer your questions. It’s really remarkable!

Well. It might be surprising for many people but actually here in the West, I don’t dress very differently from how I used to dress up in Pakistan. Thanks to the brave rights activists in this country, women have not all lost their freedoms as yet.

Actually this country is on the crossroads either to becoming a totalitarian state like Saudi Arabia or Iran, or to sustaining its liberal status, as envisioned by its founders like Muhammad Ali Jinnah.

It is indeed a tough struggle, though; because the extremist Mullahs, (who have invested heavily in the radicalization of the country during the Past three decades, in connivance with the dictator-like Zia-Ul- Haq), seem to be on the winning side of the game.

I can comprehend a clear difference between conservative and liberal values in a country like Pakistan.

A country where demand for women’s right is considered something immodest and a rebellion against the religion.

It is certainly very hard to make your voice heard.

Besides this, I do consider religion as a personal matter, and as a guideline for personal maturation, in terms of bridging up the relationship between God and a human.

And that’s what the Sufi version of Islam teaches.

But sadly today’s Islamic societies are far away from this understanding of divulgence of religion on a personal level, and Pakistan is one of those societies.

Here many of the far right and liberals do not share my strong belief in human freedom from all kinds of prejudice and discrimination.
Because the Far Right believes that they are the only one who has got it right, whereas the modern Liberals think everybody is right.

But clearly the notion of everyone being right can’t include organizations like ISIS and Al Qaeda, as well as those who say they are the only ones who are correct!

The left, in particular, are inclined towards a state of denial, where they refuse to understand the centrality of the conflict between right and wrong, and prefer to pander to a single version of Islam.

According to them, the majority of Muslims are peaceful, and represent a peaceful version of Islam; yet, the same ‘peaceful’ majority allows human right abuses in the name of religion.

They are not violent themselves, but they maintain a studious silence when barbarians like ISIS, Al Qaeda and the Taliban go on to slaughter innocent men. women and children mostly from minority faiths.

Moreover, how can this majority encourage extremist laws? Like the Hudood ordinances and blasphemy laws, and hailing killers like Mumtaz Qadari.

My struggle is not only against the Islamist ideology which inspires terrorism, but also against the extremist teachings which buttress human right abuses; because Islamist terrorism is actually just an offshoot of this environment in which extremist ideology flourishes.

Look, I have no intention to be politically correct by endorsing one extremist faction or the other, just to appease people; be it extremists of the Left, or extremists of the Right. I want to voice the concerns of those who are the victims of this illegitimate reconciliation of religious extremism with human rights.

My position might be awkward for some, but I am strongly convinced that this is the correct stance.

What would you like to say to those who are disconcerted, and even afraid, to see an outward-looking liberal Pakistani woman who refuses to remain in the ‘boxes’ she is supposed to remain within?

Honestly this has been the strangest experience of my life. In the beginning my fight was against the religious fundamentalism that denies all rights to marginalized groups in Muslim societies.

But now, rather unexpectedly, I am fighting on the two fronts.

Also, I don’t wear Hijab; this is an act of rebellion against those who believe in tormenting women for not wearing it, as in Saudi Arabia and Iran; and also against those who have confused humanism with allowing people to continue their barbaric practices, even in the free world.

Admittedly, it sounds really fashionable when a women wearing some kind of veil comes forward and claims the way she dresses is her choice. However, such women totally forget to mention that the same veil is not a matter of choice in repressive countries, like those in the Middle East and South Asia.

In fact, women are punished and tormented, both socially and in some cases legally, for not abiding by the so-called Islamic dress code.
Presenting something which is a symbol of slavery and oppression as a fashion statement in the West is like presenting Nazi uniform as a modern day chic costume.

Now, you might ask me why Western Muslim women claim to feel empowered for wearing Hijab.

Well. Simply, because they don’t have to live in a totalitarian Muslim society.

A lot of white people nowadays are wary of abusing our racial privilege.

One might argue that on the one hand, it is fine to think carefully about the power dynamics here.

On the other hand, it is also possible to argue that (at least when taken too far), the notion of ‘white privilege’ can have a chilling effect on public discourse.

Do you agree or disagree with either of these two positions?

Racial privilege does exist. But I refuse to call it white privilege, even though the European and Caucasians inflicted horrors in their colonisation of Asia, Africa and Middle East in the recent past. But one cannot blame today’s generation for the crimes of their elders.

Society has to ensure that nobody is discriminated against, on the basis of their caste, color or creed; be that person white or black.

I would suggest tackling the racism according to its face value, instead of blaming only one kind of people for wherever it happens.

Do you think it is possible to hold to both opinions, or are they largely irreconcilable?

I personally see a lot of resistance against white privilege in the West by white people. It is really easy to appreciate that they have a sense of accountability.

By contrast, the majority of developing societies don’t even think about the sporadic racism and discrimination directed against their marginalised communities.

Similarly, what would you say to anyone who is racially privileged, and who is often afraid to speak out about religious extremism or about problematic or even abusive policies in other countries; for fear of being accused of racism, religious bigotry, or of trying to impose the ‘White Man’s Burden’ on others?

There is saying in German that ‘Ton macht die musik’ (Tone makes the music). This is exactly how it goes with the issue of racism. One can certainly draw a clear line between authentic criticism and bigotry.

Because one of these aims at the constructive development of humankind, whereas the other one seeks to insult human beings.
And I think that today’s world is more about classism than racism.

I also believe in seeing the things in context, and I don’t believe in painting everything on the canvas of racism.

Genuine criticism on real issues is the right of every human being; irrespective of cast, color or creed.

It is important to speak out whenever one sees injustice anywhere, and in any form.

We should also beware that today extremists cunningly exploit the concept of freedom of expression, in order to silence any valid criticism of their vile activities; whereas they use the same freedom of expression to promote violence and hatred against other people.

Hence, if you are a in a strong position, and you don’t take a fair stance against ongoing human rights abuses, then you are a silent spectator, who cowardly ignores the reality; just to be on the safe side.

It is always necessary to call out a wrong practice or a notion which is detrimental to critical thinking.

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About the Author
Dr Jonathan Thomas Ferguson is an alumnus of the University of Leeds and King's College London. He is interested in interfaith dialogue, international relations, the Apocalypse of Hope and spiritual matters generally.