In the late 80’s when I completed my higher secondary school, I was already into reading books, not only the textbooks but all kinds of books. In my small town there was only one public library which had enough books for me to read. College library was non-existent. In those days there were good books, bad books and dangerous books. The dangerous books were usually banned by the government, and the bad guys like me would always be in search of such books. I remember a lot of such books including Madame Bovary, The Idiot, Kashti-e-Nooh, Candide, even Bible.
In my third year in college, we came to know that there is a new English teacher who has returned from Australia and he is teaching BSc English. But unfortunately his lecture was the first lecture of the day at 8am in the morning. And for two months I never attended any of his lecture. But soon strange stories and complaints about this lecturer start circulating by Jamiat guys. They said he is an atheist, smokes in the class (even smokes charas). All the Jamaati gangster were building a campaign against him. And that made it obligatory for us to attend his lecture. I still remember the first lecture I attended, he while finishing his lecture on “What Life has taught me” by Russell, he recited the following verses by Faiz.
اتنے ناداں بھی نہ تھے جاں سے گزرنے والے
ناصحو ، پندگرو راھگزر تو دیکھو
وہ تو وہ ھیں تمھیں ھو جاے گی الفت مجھ سے
اک نظر تم میرا محبوب نظر تو دیکھو
In my third year I had already memorised majority of Faiz’s poems and I was stuck that I have always overlooked this ghazal from Faiz.
So they said our this teacher was atheist. Those days atheism was something mystic. Most of the atheist were either under the shadow of Russell or under the shadow of Marx. From the appearance of our professor he didn’t seem to be a marxist. With a very expensive two piece suite and tie, and a car, our professor was a rich bourgeois not a proletariat. Russell type atheist were more intellectual and philosopher then a practical marxist atheist.
We (i.e. our group) were more Marx type atheist and usually did not indulge in much intellectual discussion of freedom of expression, democracy and liberalism as in Russell’s books. But this was very short period. Soon our group was transformed into a debating club for all kinds of ideas. My teacher had a profound impact on my atheistic views.
When I was young (in my teens) the term atheism was not known to me, but there was one term in urdu which always excited me it was “دھریہ” , which in English loosely meant “Atheist”. I remember when I won’t go to mosque like all my cousins used to, some old man will shout at me saying “اوے تو دھریہ ھوتا جارھا ھے” (hey you are becoming an atheist). I did know the meaning of “دھریہ” at that time.
My first introduction to Atheism was during weekly discussions in our home about Islam by some of my uncles and elder cousins. I was still young then, a lot of time in those discussion Ghulam Ahmed Pervez and Ghulam Jilani Barq will be accused of being atheist. One of my elder cousin was impressed by them. I like many other of my age fellows was attracted to read Quran translation.
But like many other young ones, pretty soon I was puzzled by the question of existence of God. Reading books, all kinds of books was my passion. And I started searching for those books in the library that will discuss one way or the other existence of God. But I did not find many.
There was an old rich man in his 80’s in our neighbourhood, who was disliked by all of our elders. There were many stories about him from being a gay to an atheist. He would usually sit outside his large house along with several other people usually young men in their 20’s. He will tell them different stories about Jinnah, Gandhi, Partition, Fatima Jinnah. He had taken part in politics but was now retired. The question of existence of God took me to his veranda. I was too timid to ask him any question but listened whatever he would say. And that was my first introduction to Khawja Ghulam Farid, Bulleh Shah and Ustad Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan. One thing I can recall now is that old man will every now and then insisted that Khawja Ghulam Farid and many other Sufis were “دھریے” (atheist). I heard a lot of Khawja Ghulam Farid kalam (work) from him.
In my second year in FSc. I was already “corrupted”, reading books on physics, literature, mathematics and religion apart from Imran Series, Ibn-e-Safi and even Bible, Qurani Tafseer. Luckily unlike most of my class fellow’s my parents wouldn’t force me much on reading my own textbooks. By the end of FSc. I had already read all sorts of Quarnic Tafaseer from Pervez’s Matalib-ul-Furqan to Moodoodi’s Tafheem-ul-Quran. But the question of existence of God still tormented me, I remember getting my first Bible from our library and started reading the old testament. Bible was also considered another dangerous book. Bible, Quran, Khawja Ghulam Farid and Bulleh Shah….. dangerous indeed.
Being a “Communist’, “Socialist”, “Marxist” was exciting in those days. I came across Maxim Gorki’s mother, than “Communist Manifesto” and finally “Das Kapital (The Capital)” . “The Capital” was just the book that cleared all my questions about the futility of religion. I was convinced that the religion is the opium for masses. I had just started smoking cigarettes and other stuff. And one day someone said religion is opium that’s why it is so good (those days Islam was not yet religion of hatred). “The Capital” helped me in looking at the religion in a different way. When I was reading tafaseer and listening to sufi kalam, I would always think the religion is indeed so good for common men (of course mullah was still considered as the epitome of all the evil). But after reading “The Capital” I realised why religion must look so beautiful on the face of it and hide its ugliness. But the question of existence of God still tormented me.
It was not until few months after my FSc. that I came across ‘Brothers Karmazov”, I told you there was a book “The Idiot” banned in Pakistan and I was trying to find that book. I did not find “The Idiot” then but found “Brothers Karamazov”. It was “The Book” I was looking for. Ivan asked what I always wanted to ask, Ilyosha did what I always wanted to do, and Mitya was what I was.
It was also the time when Faiz took over me. I remember and still miss my long walks in the park and roads reciting all poems of Naqsh-e-Faryadi, Sham-e-Sher-e-Yaaran. Faiz has a very subtle relationship with atheism of that time. Atheism was about rejecting the use of religion for evil purposes of bourgeois. Atheism was about rejecting spread of hatred by the clergy of different religions and sects against each other. Atheism meant superiority of human intellect over anything else (religious dogmas and sacred books). Anybody possessing all these features would automatically qualify for the title of Atheist. In our conversation we’ll often wonder if so and so was atheist or not. I remember I always insisted that Faiz was an atheist. I would quote my favorite stanza.
خوش نشیں ھیں کہ چشم ودل کی مراد
دیر میں ھے نا خانقاہ میں ھے
ھم کہان قسمت ازمانے جاییں
ھر صنم اپنی بارگاہ میں ھے
And then I will quote
جس کو شوق نبرد ھو ھم سے
جاے تسخیر کاینات کرے
چاند کو گل کریں تو ھم جانیں
My friends will tell me how Faiz wrote “Naat” , “Marsia” and other religious content (I will explain later why a lot of great atheist would not mind (and in fact take pride in) writing some kind of apparently religious content). Similarly we’ll talk about Josh Malih Abadi being atheist or not. Ghalib being atheist or not. Jinnah an atheist. Bhutto an atheist…. After reading “Karamazov Brothers” I found everyone an atheist.
With Faiz and Dostoevesky mixed together and then Marx’s criticism on religion. Everything just lead to the path of of Atheism. Remember it was not that easy to proclaim or even discuss atheist views in home, college and gatherings. But it was so easy to express your atheist attitude without fear of any real threat. My good English teacher was different then us but he would talk eagerly about Russell and Western Philosophy. But I always found difficult to grasp Russell’s views at that time.
Another aspect of Atheism of that time was scientific exploration, I remember few of my friends going to the medical college after FSc. And I was surprised to notice that all of them somehow ended up becoming devout muslim. Our group however was in Physics and Mathematics. Physics was my favorite subject, specially the elementary particle physics (modern physics as it was called in college). I remember having those discussions on Islamic embryology, Quarnic maths and Islamic Big Bang. And my muslim friends will always advise me to say the kalama again after every such discussion.
So in summary Atheism of 90’s was about tolerance, compassion, and critical thinking. Years kept passing, I turned a bourgeois myself ending up in the capitalist capital of the world. Still an atheist but nothing to worry about.
And then I started noticing a particular of type of people on social media talking excitedly about atheism. Some of them with pen names and other with their real identities. It was a pleasant surprise for me. So here I am back in my youth watching the people talking about atheism but this time in rather more bold manner.
Soon I realised that this was a different kind of atheism, I engaged in discussion with few of them expecting that they might be talking about only one aspect of atheism. But it was not the case. This atheism was characterised by the hate speech against other religions. In fact the hate speech our atheists use will be exactly the same (word by word) that my Islamist friend would used against the other sects. This atheism was characterised by sharing nude and semi-nude pictures to show their “liberalism” and provoke other people. This atheism was characterised by bad mouthing and threatening people having different views. I was dumb founded, what is this new atheism. And then I realised that I knew this atheism since long but with a different name. It was indeed the Islamism that I had been struggling against since my youth.
Majority if not all of the people in this new breed of atheist came from an extremist Islamist background. I recalled my old childhood friend who was a devout muslim, and thought what if he had grown up in the 90’s he would have been exactly the same as these atheists. Our new atheist were the outcome of the Salafi/Deobandi Islamism, which was preached by people like Zakir Naik, Anjum Chaudhary and taught in the rich families living abroad or in big cities of Pakistan. These atheist were trained in their hate speech from their home. Hatred for Ahmedis, Shias, and other religious beliefs of poor downtrodden people of Pakistan was instilled in them from their childhood. They grew up considering the “Islam” they follow as the “best of religions”. They “accepted” Islam on the “scientific” grounds. Meet a well-to-do family in London, and ask a pretty looking, scarf-wearing young girl of eighteen about Islam and she will explain you how Islam is the best of the religions. Open a tv turn on an Islamic Channel (Peace TV, Islam Channel and 100 others) and listen to English speaking young guy explaining how Islam is the most modern religion that can solve all the problems of the humanity. Don’t stop here ask the same girl or the young man his views about Jews, Christians and Ahmedis. You will find the extreme hatred, explore more ask them about the other Islamic sects like Shia, Bralevis and you will find more hatred. They will tell you how these sects make a mockery of a beautiful religion.
Ten years later our this youth brought up in the pool of hatred against all other religions and people, looks around and finds the bitter truth, the truth that it is the ideology that he has been practicing is worst of all. The “beautiful religion” that he was proud of is indeed the cause of all terror in the world. Our “Islamist” has turned into an “Atheist”, but his atheism is of a different kind, he does not need to unlearn anything. Our new-born atheist uses the same hate-speech, same extremist views against all other religions as he used to do before becoming the “Atheist”. However he finds two new things to do, one to his delight and one to his dislike. The “liberalism” that he used to condemn the western society for, the freedom of expression expressed through the body, becomes his only expression of “liberal views”. Look at our new atheist’s social media posts you will find nude and semi-nude pictures expressing his/her “liberalist point of view”. The second thing which he “reluctantly” does is to condemn his past religion and religious views.
I call this conversion of Atheism into Islamism. An atheism expressed through hate speech, preached like a religion and defined by the extremist views.