Ban on Ajoka’s Burkavaganza: Unveiling freedoms – by Afiya Shehrbano

Unveiling freedoms

I believe Samia R Qazi of the Jamaat-e-Islami was right to campaign for a ban on Ajoka’s Burkavaganza– but for very different reasons. If Samia Qazi had just sat through one showing, she would’ve realised that the only reason Burkavaganza should not play is, that its bad theatre. This does not mean all Ajoka productions are bad quality nor does it suggest their work has not contributed towards a very effective politics that challenged clamping of freedoms under the Zia period. But this one falls short of an opportunity to problematise a very complex symbol of the burka – particularly in an age where it’s so incredibly contested. The play may have worked better if it was more subtle and if it had included a critique of the liberals’ own fear of it. At best, it may serve better on the streets and in communities rather than for a liberal audience confirming their own liberal politics.

Let’s examine the arguments on both sides. Most liberals argue for Ajoka’s freedom of expression on the basis of a moral claim (and by the way, many of them have also not seen the play). The trouble is then, that the religious right can equally claim moral injury to their religious sensibilities – in this case, in the form of the burka. Both are intangible values. Who is to decide which party is injured more when their values are under perceived attack?

However, it would’ve helped her case if Qazi had seen the play first. Then she could’ve legitimised her objection based on ‘rational’ argument, which appeals to modernists. Also, such rationality is, after all, what the JI says distinguishes them from fundamentalists.

Secondly, the argument for free expression rests on the myth that democracy is about inalienable freedoms. In fact, all democracies rest on some normative framework that defines what is permissible and prohibitive – and nearly always, the majoritarian principle reigns supreme.

Take the protest of Muslim minorities in Europe on the Danish cartoons issue. Here, the European concept of freedoms, as defined within a Judo-Christian tradition, prioritised the right to expression, over religious sensitivities (unless they’re Judaic or Christian). The cartoon, perceived by minorities as anti-Islamic, was not banned.

We may not like majoritarian conservatism but it’s hypocritical to change choice in freedoms when the context changes. If our liberals supported the majoritarian sentiment that didn’t want a ban on free expression in Europe, then they should respect the same principle of majoritarian (religious) sensitivities, in Muslim-majority countries. The proviso is, these should not hurt or impinge on the security of people or country. Those liberals who are a little more evolved and want to adhere to some universal notion of freedoms, the argument they face is that, universalism is really a substitute for western liberalism.

On the other hand, it’s a pity that Samia R Qazi used political intimidation rather than open engagement on the issue. This swept the deeper conflicting issues under the carpet of censure. Her political activism deflected away a possible discussion on how moral injury differs, according to sensibilities. Many liberals do inflict moral injury by poking fun at the burka and beards. However, the right wing also inflicts ‘moral injury’, not by mocking but when they accuse NGO liberals of being anti-state and anti-religion. The trouble is the unwillingness to engage on the thorny concern of where freedoms start and end.

In many cases, unfortunately, the idea of sensitivities becomes an excuse for political point scoring and playing power games. How can one support then the kind of vigilantism that preys on college campuses where power-mongering youth groups go about threatening any perceived anti-Islamic act, such as listening to music or taking photographs? They pick up their legitimacy directly from JI mainstream political activism that sets the tone for such blackmail.

However, the right-wing is an easy target because it is expected (by liberals) that religious groups would be intolerant. What is under-discussed is the spirited lack of tolerance amongst liberals. This is especially true when liberals are challenged, not by the religious right, but by their peers. The unwillingness to accept critique, very different from criticism, is unparalleled amongst the liberal elite of this country.

The social fear of critiquing our own community of liberals often encourages mediocrity. Therefore, any liberal endeavour is considered worthy, especially one which embraces some vague notion of liberal entertainment. It even becomes celebrated as a counter balance to extremism and expressive of higher culture. Any questioning of the purpose, the framework, or the politics of liberal activism, raises their status quo sensitive hackles.

If one questions the shoddy research of NGOs; or the false political consciousness that promotes film festivals as cultural resistance; or why, in a country where children still persistently suffer polio, that UNICEF decides to fund fashion shows; or if one questions the forced removal of caricatures of politicians from art exhibitions, this immediately provokes an outraged defence of liberal-sponsored activities.

Instead of engaging in a discussion over the worth of such activities which are presumed to be promoting liberal values, the defensive response tends to accuse and black-list the critic and his person, class background, the use of English language and intellect. This incredible inability to absorb critique is not considered ‘illiberal’ at all. If anything, the analyst is accused of “criticising” for the sake of personal relevance or as futile intellectual adventurism. How is that different from Samia Qazi’s accusation that NGOs and liberals critique religious actors and their faith-based work, simply to gain relevance and legitimacy from western powers?

While I support Qazi’s right to campaign against the play, I don’t support its ban. But I am left wondering at the liberal hypocrisy demonstrated by those liberals who take cover behind the democratic right to freedom of their expression, but presumptively over-rode the people’s democratic choice of governance and supported a military dictator’s rule over that of a democratically elected government. Before Musharraf’s government first banned Burkavaganza, a letter was reportedly written to Musharraf expressing support and allegiance to his ‘state jihad’ against the threat of religious extremism in 2002. According to such liberals, some freedoms (and some religious rhetoric, presumably) are higher than others.

Given this shaky perch on the political high-moral ground, I don’t support in this instance, Ajoka’s supposedly liberal cause of exposing the moral hypocrisy or misuse of religion. But I don’t support the ban because I consider both, the glorification and/or the banning of abstract complex symbols, like veils and art forms, as simply demonstrative of political opportunism.

Samia Qazi may have unwittingly exposed how shallow liberal notions can be, by targeting Burkavaganza. Unfortunately, she has done it through uncrafted political coercion rather than intellectual engagement. In the process she lends the liberals’ agenda more due than they deserve. However, perhaps there is a case to be made regarding the use of the Burka as an unlikely prop, in recent fashion shows?

The writer is an independent researcher based in Karachi. Email:

Source: The News, May 09, 2010



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