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November 30th, 2007 - Deep Background
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deepbackground
Date: 2007-11-30 23:01
Subject: On Correct Thinking
Security: Public
At the very end of October, a colleague of mine, whom I'll call P, traveled home to Pakistan to visit his aging, ailing parents. This was just a few days before Musharraf declared a state of emergency and started throwing the lawyers in jail. (To give you a sense of the kinds of folks who tend to work in this IT department, two of my co-workers separately joked with me that "Musharraf must be a Shakespeare fan," a reference to the line in King Henry VI, Part 2, "First thing we do, let's kill all the lawyers.") P made it back to North America safe and sound; apparently, the town where his family lives was completely unaffected by the situation, and his reaction to the whole affair was about as nonchalant as you can get. He put the full blame for the situation on the Supreme Court, not on Musharraf, which indicates to me that either we're not getting anything close to the whole story (actually, that's probably just a straight-up fact), or Musharraf's efforts to control the local media have been effective, at least in those areas of the country where people have not been personally affected by the state of emergency. Or maybe P doesn't see Musharraf's actions as such a big deal because, being a member of a persecuted Islamic sect, he has seen human rights abuses in his lifetime more serious than anything Musharraf may be perpetrating.

I had an eye-opening conversation with P a couple of days before he left. P had mentioned to me in the past that his sect, the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community, is roughly to Islam what Mormonism is to Christianity, inasmuch as both groups believe there were new revelations made to latter-day prophets in the 19th century and new canonical texts written that constitute extensions of the Koran and the Bible. Both the Ahmadiyyat and the Mormons have been persecuted as heretical. The city where P grew up was founded by members of his sect as a place where they would be able to practice their religion in peace, but under the civilian regime of Nawaz Sharif the city was renamed, and it is now largely controlled politically by the minority of orthodox Muslims who live there, mainly because in 1974 a provision was written into the Pakistani national constitution that rendered Ahmadis legally as non-Muslims. At one point during P's childhood, food supplies coming into the city were essentially cut off by the government; he remembers one stretch of some weeks when he ate nothing but squash because that's all that was left in the city. Anti-Ahmadi massacres have happened semi-regularly throughout Pakistani and Bangladeshi history. The first Pakistani Nobel Prize winner, Abdus Salam, actually had the word "Muslim" sandblasted off his gravestone by the government because he was an Ahmadi adherent; this happened in 2006. We hear a lot about the supposedly moderate and secular nature of Pakistani Muslim society, but then again America is supposedly moderate and secular as well, and we saw anti-gay marriage referenda win by 2-to-1 margins across the country in the last two national election cycles, so I suppose moderation and secularism have their limits wherever you go.

This conversation with P, and my subsequent reading on the treatment of the Ahmadiyya community, got me stewing. It seems to me that the Ahmadis are victims of the soft zealotry of Correct Thinking. I don't know whether or not most Pakistanis feel any real animus towards Ahmadis (do most Americans feel any real animus towards gays and lesbians?), but there is clearly a general, if tacit, acceptance, written into the state constitution no less, that Correct Thinking is a matter of national importance, and that the Ahmadiyya community, by not thinking Correctly, does not merit the respect of the nation or the security of its civil rights.

At the risk of letting loose my inner Christopher Hitchens, if there is one idea the West has given to the world that is really worth fighting for, it is that there is no person, sect, government, corporation, scientific body, religion, or other human organization that may rightfully lay claim to Correct Thinking. The harm Correct Thinking causes, running along a spectrum from self-loathing to ostracization, to persecution, and finally to bloodshed, continually makes the world a little bit worse place to live on a daily basis. It pops up everywhere: in the bluster of both right-wing and left-wing blogs; in laws like the one in Turkey that makes it a crime to insult the Turkish state (for instance, by mentioning the Armenian genocide); in corporations where "buying into the company agenda" supercedes all other concerns. My wife, who's a doula and childbirth educator, had a colleague who recently left her job because she believes the Ann Arbor Lamaze office does not Think Correctly about epidurals.

Along these lines, there is this headline today from the New York Times: Calls in Sudan for Execution of British Teacher. What is the crime of this nefarious woman, Gillian Gibbons? Apparently she allowed her class of 7-year-olds to name a class teddy bear Muhammad. She's already been convicted of "insulting the religion" (15 days in jail), and now protestors (mostly, as the article notes, "government employees ordered to demonstrate") want her head. The absurdity of this situation--it sounds like an Onion article--is exceeded only by its repugnance. I do not claim to be Thinking Correctly when I say that it is far, far too late in human history for so many millions of our species to still be living under systems of law that compel a particular set of beliefs, whether they be religious, political, economic, or otherwise. But I think the evidence is clear that prosecuting thought crimes is a loser's game, and the government that tries to dictate Correct Thinking is both morally bankrupt and setting itself up to fail. The Pakistani government has no business defining what a "true Muslim" is; the Sudanese government has no business jailing a woman for using a name in an unorthodox context; the Turkish government has no business persecuting writers for talking about massacres that happened nearly a century ago; Western European governments have no business jailing scholars for questioning facts and figures about the Holocaust; and the American government has no business investigating what books Americans are reading or indefinitely imprisoning human beings because of their beliefs.
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