From West Philly to Gulshan-e-Iqbal and Back

I was in Philadelphia this weekend, visiting with my friends Sinan and Amy. Sinan was my ‘handler’ at Al Quds University this past summer and the time before; he handles the logistics there that I can’t. Amy is a nice Midwestern gal from Texas (go figure). They met a few years ago in Bethlehem, Sinan’s home town, recently emigrated to Philadelphia, got an apartment, got married, and settled in. They cooked me (well, really Sinan cooked us) a sumptuous dinner of maqluba followed by Palestinian coffee and pastries. We had dessert on a couch in front of a window that looks west and frames West Philadelphia. The window lets out onto a big ledge with just enough room for the two of them to sip wine and watch the sunset.

I was there on Saturday night, the day before Easter, so they asked me about my Easter plans. Boringly enough, I didn’t really have any. Meanwhile, they were going to go Easter services at the Baptist Church across the street. Sinan is Muslim, and Amy is Lutheran, but the point of going was less religious than neighborly: the point, as Amy put it, was that their neighborhood was one big family, and the Baptist Church was its “home.”

I don’t really know why I thought of that as I surveyed this morning’s news of the attack on Gulshan e Iqbal Park in Lahore. The only common thread is Easter—and in this case, it’s hard to think of flimsier fabric by which to forge a connection between the two places.

ISLAMABAD, Pakistan — A suicide bomber set off a powerful blast close to a children’s swing set in a public park on Sunday evening in the eastern city of Lahore, killing at least 69 people and wounding around 300, rescue workers and officials said.

The blast occurred in a parking lot at Gulshan-e-Iqbal Park, one of the largest parks in Lahore, said Haider Ashraf, a senior police official in the city. The bomb was detonated within several feet of the swings in a park crowded with families on Easter.

Jamaat-e-Ahrar, a splinter faction of the Pakistani Taliban, claimed responsibility for the blast. Its spokesman, Ehsanullah Ehsan, said in a statement that Christians were the target. …

The bombing came as large protests were held in other parts of the country to protest the execution in February of the man who murdered a secular politician five years ago. While public opinion has largely been galvanized by attacks on civilians by jihadists, particularly the killing of 150 people at a school in Peshawar in 2014, the protests are a sign that widespread sympathy remains for extremist groups in Pakistan.

The Jamaat-e-Ahrar spokesman, Mr. Ehsan, said the bombing “was also to give a message to government that it cannot deter us even in their stronghold, Lahore.” Lahore, the capital of Punjab Province, is the hometown of Pakistan’s prime minister, Nawaz Sharif; his younger brother, Shahbaz Sharif, is the chief minister of the province.

Elsewhere Ehsanullah Ehsan is quoted as saying “we have entered Lahore.” (Yes, I’m name dropping, but the government health adviser quoted in the preceding article, Salman Rafique, is another cousin of mine. My last post here expressed a whining complaint about my job, but right now, I’m glad I don’t have his.)

Obviously, I don’t live in Lahore, but if there is any one neighborhood I can claim as my own in that city, it’s Iqbal Town, and if there is any one place in Iqbal Town I can claim as my own, if only in the most attenuated way, it’s Gulshan e Iqbal. When I go to Pakistan ( I mean, on the few occasions when I have), I stay at my cousins’ place a block away from the park, and as often as I can, spend moments of repose in the park itself. My late uncle Kibriya, their father, used to take a daily constitutional there every morning after the morning prayer, and in his retirement spent the later part of the morning on a bench conversing with friends who had the same routine.

I hate to put it this way, but frankly, I’m glad he’s not around to see this. Of course, he was around the last time terrorists struck the neighborhood, that is, during the Moon Market attack of 2009, which doesn’t seem as long ago as it once did. I never asked him about it. Moon Market is where the family shopped each day for groceries. By chance, none of “us” were there when the bomb struck, and in some ways, that was all that needed to be said about it. I know it’s an exaggeration, but I can’t help thinking of all this, mordantly, in the terms of a GEICO commercial. If you live in Pakistan, you either get blown up or you narrowly escape doing so. It’s what you do.

The last time I was there, I had a semi-apocalyptic conversation with one of my cousins, on a park bench in Gulshan e Iqbal (no less)–about terrorism (no less). What I now find eerie about the conversation is that what he said not only prefigured the attack, but prefigured the Jamaat-e-Ahrar spokesman’s description of the attack. “They’re here,” he said. “They’re in this city. They’re in every city. They’re everywhere.” There wasn’t much need to clarify the referent of the pronoun. “And they could blow anyone up anywhere, anytime. Look at these people,” he said, pointing to the throngs in the park itself. It was a mild day. I somehow remember that the grass was dead and the gardens pathetically unkempt, but the park was full of people. “Any of them, all of them could be targets, right here in this park. One guy with a vest is all it would take. They’re everywhere.”

I nodded sagely in agreement, but didn’t really believe him. Why would the Taliban attack some random park in the middle of Lahore? Then again, why not? I guess terrorists go where the people are. (It’s what they do.) But the fact is, my cousin sounded a little unhinged. Maybe the pressure was getting to him? Nothing that a little chaihalva puri, and channa couldn’t cure….

And then, almost to himself, he whispered, “We’re all terrorists. Inside, we’re terrorists. We invited them in, into our city, into our souls. We thought we could reach an accommodation with them. We thought our religion would give us immunity from their hatred. But it didn’t. Now they’re here and they mean to kill us all.” At this point, I wanted to interrupt, if only to tell him to please calm down and stop saying completely crazy-ass shit. But I didn’t. Eventually, he just fell silent on his own. It was time for dinner and time for the evening prayer, so we went home.

The truth is, prescient as he was, my cousin’s comments don’t make any literal sense. But they did make a kind of metaphorical sense. We’re accustomed to seeing those around us, in some sense, as fellow citizens or civic friends, or if that’s too pious or theoretical, at least with the sense of trust or benefit of a doubt we ordinarily accord to strangers, if only to get through the day. But what happens when the basis for that trust frays to the breaking point? In that case, every benefit of a doubt one accords one’s fellow citizens feels like a game of Russian roulette.

I know that my cousin meant more than that, but he meant at least that: Once upon a time, he seemed to be saying, it seemed that war with the Taliban could be avoided by means of a negotiated settlement with them. They had to be reasonable people–like all people–with reasonable grievances that were somehow reasonably satisfiable, at least in principle. The hopes for such a settlement were the expression of a kind of pious civic idealism for which we typically praise rather than blame one another. But then those hopes failed. And failed again. And again. And again. As they did, hope itself seemed to become a kind of suicidal impulse, a gun pointed at one’s head. To avoid war against “fellow Muslims,” my cousin had imagined that these “fellow Muslims” were not as dangerous as they turned out to be.  Eventually, it became clear that they were more dangerous than anyone could have imagined that they’d be. But by then, they were “here.” And notwithstanding the tough talk about “special operations” and so on, it was too late to do much of anything about it.

In saying all this, I don’t mean to be articulating an approach to policy, or making an ideological claim of any sort. I mean only to be expressing a kind of amazement and awe at the diversity of human experience, even within the narrow ambit of my own social circle. A Palestinian-American couple escapes the Israeli occupation to make a home for themselves in West Philadelphia. Their immediate impulse is to declare their surroundings a “neighborhood,” to declare their neighbors “family,” and to embrace that family in an ecumenical (or least intendedly ecumenical) Easter celebration. On the other side of the world, the same impulse marks one out for a violent death, so that the survivors, like my cousin, gradually come to believe that civic friendship is a luxury they can ill-afford. What is one to say or think when civic friendship becomes a vice that marks its practitioners out for the Darwin Competition?

There is something odd about being the clinically detached observer of these two ways of looking at the world, and of the two contexts in which they’re expressed—between open-hearted idealism and fortress-like fear, between a new life in the New World, and the unremitting carnage of the post-colonial predicament in the “Islamic World.” I want to say that there is a virtue that governs this domain and bridges both contexts—a virtue of hope consistent with the imperatives of vigilance, an attitude toward the human prospect that remains what it is whether one is watching the sunset in West Philadelphia or surveying the wreckage in Iqbal Town. I’m sure there is one, but if there is, it’s one of those “nameless virtues” that goes unnoticed for its lack of a name. It could use both–a name, and some notice.

11 thoughts on “From West Philly to Gulshan-e-Iqbal and Back

  1. Irfan, your posting is very eloquent, and therefore very moving. Your account of your friends’ way of thinking in West Philadelphia and their activity on Easter in comparison to the way of thinking and acting at the same time thousands of miles away in Lahore, Pakistan is profoundly disturbing. Some 70 killed and 340 wounded in an urban park, among swing sets for children, the bomber supposedly targeting Christians but the victims mostly Muslims. Later the same day, 2000 protesters expressed outrage at the execution of the assassin who had murdered a provincial governor for supporting the relaxation of blasphemy laws. The protesters called for the immediate execution of all those convicted of blasphemy.

    So what’s the connection between the two events? Were they coordinated or completely separate? Probably the latter, but regardless of whether or not coordinated, both events give evidence of a profound dysfunction, an utter failure of civil society: a justified targeting of the slaughter of innocents, and a rabid insistence on sharia law, which demands capital punishment for blasphemy. A pattern has been established; it shows only signs of continuing indefinitely, and every iteration of the pattern increases the dread, the despair that you describe.

    Vaclav Havel once opined that what is painfully emerging is a single global civilization of multiple cultures. Samuel Huntington, focussing on “civilizations” rather than cultures, believed that the major civilizations–Western, Sinic, and Islamic–have unassimilable premisses and are bound to conflict. The two events in Pakistan on Easter indicate that some regard the Western premise of liberal tolerance and pluralism as a threat to a whole way of life and must be resisted to the death. As in New Hampshire: “Live free or die”; so the Taliban and other jihadists: Sharia or nothing.

    I see the situation as a failure of religious and philosophical leadership. I believe it goes back to Averroes’ critique of al-Gazel, who had insisted on the occasionalist notion that all causation was directly divine, or transcendent, whereas Averroes maintained that God had created a world in which natural causation is immanent. Al-Gazel’s prestige and rhetorical power has enabled his position to hold off against Averroes’ Aristotelian, “Western” separation of philosophy and theology, with the concomitant separation of “church and state,” with the result that any polity based on Islam must tend toward theocracy. Bin Laden was not only resentful of American presence in Saudi Arabia, but of the umma’s (forced) acceptance of Western colonial notions of social governance following the dissolution of the caliphate after WWI. Islamic political thought that accepts al-Gazel’s authority does not recognize the nation-state system as valid because its premises are secular. Those Islamic “modernists” that accept the world order followed by international bodies such as the United Nations, the IMF, etc. are seen by the jihadists as sell-outs of their core identity. Jihadists dying for their cause are analogous to the Christian martyrs under Roman rule.

    It’s one thing to force tribal societies with localized religious beliefs and practices to assimilate or die; it’s another to present this non-negotiable imperative to an entire civilization embracing over a fifth of the world’s population.

    It seems to me that the crucial and fundamental effort in resolving the horror of jihadist terrorism is PHILOSOPHICAL.


    • Thanks, John. It’s always a boost when one’s English teacher praises one’s writing.

      I really don’t know enough about Ghazali and Averroes to answer your second question. But my Al Quds University colleague Sari Nusseibeh specializes in Islamic philosophy, so the best I can do for now is refer you to his stuff. The top paper on this page, “Islam: Lawmakers and Philosophers” might be up your alley.

      But I have a definite view on your first question. You ask about the connection between the Gulshan-e-Iqbal attack in Lahore and the protests against Mumtaz Qadri’s execution in Islamabad:

      So what’s the connection between the two events? Were they coordinated or completely separate?

      I’d say “probably neither,” because there’s a third alternative. The two events were probably not logistically coordinated. (Maybe they were, but there’s no evidence of it right now.) But they weren’t entirely separate, either. They were simultaneous expressions, by different parties, of the same basic ideology, and the same campaign against a secular civil society. Qadri was executed for assassinating Salman Taseer, a critic of the blasphemy laws; the protesters obviously regard Qadri as innocent of any wrongdoing, and regard Taseer as having deserved his fate. The Lahore attacks targeted Christians, presumably on the premise that Christians aren’t sufficiently controlled by sharia in their activities. Both sets of activities were undertaken to weaken Pakistan’s already weak commitment to non-sectarianism in socio-political affairs. So yes, they want “sharia or death,” with a preference for death over sharia.

      This article by Saroop Ijaz is six years old, but very timely and informative. As it happens, it was written just a few weeks before Salman Taseer’s assassination (ST was assassinated in January 2011).

      This article was written by Taseer’s son a few days after the assassination. What he doesn’t mention is that among the people praising Mumtaz Qadri were prominent members of the Pakistani equivalent of the Bar association (PDF, see pp. 255-56). So the pattern was put in place years ago, and it’s not clear how to break it.

      Liked by 1 person

      • From Sarah Crysl Akhtar:

        A response to you and JR Holt, with respect:

        It’s not a great chasm in world views. It’s politics. Here’s a panoramic but personal perspective on the last 40 years in Pakistan:

        I first visited Pakistan in 1976 during the waning months of the Zulfikar Bhutto regime. Bhutto was a leftist secular populist (notwithstanding his political base as a feudal landlord from the medieval Sindhi heartland). He was cozying up to China which was becoming a major trading partner for Pakistan were made and showing a little too much independence for Washington’s taste.

        It was a very uneasy time–I was warned repeatedly by my middle-class Pakistani friends to take seriously how many phones were tapped. But I never felt in any personal danger as a NY Jewish woman who made her background emphatically clear to everyone she met, because I knew everyone would otherwise assume I was Christian.

        Bhutto was overthrown in a coup by Gen. Zia and put on trial and eventually executed. The one judge who refused to railroad him had to seek political asylum in the UK (friends of mine were friends with his younger daughters and told me about those perilous last months before they left Islamabad).

        And Reagan and fundamentalist nutcase Zia between them basically created the Taliban. Zia began the destruction of the Pakistani Army as a purely secular institution and funded all sorts of domestic terrorist organizations and it became easy to target all minorities–not only Christians but Ahmadiyas etc. And the Saudis began funding madrasas and building mosques and flooding Pakistan with their own particular version of Islam.

        I was back living in Pakistan in the early ’80s. Even during Ramzan [Ramadan], people in Lahore were going to amusement parks and street fairs and eating ice cream in the daytime if they felt like it. I could travel up to Swat on my own and have jolly conversations with the old ladies in my friends’ village, where they would say earnestly “Hazrat Muhammad” and I would reply cheerfully “Hazrat Musa!” as we shared our religious differences…

        Not long after I did happen to accept Islam of my own free will (I’m currently an apostate to two count ’em two faiths, but never mind…) but I remained unmistakeably American, and was living in Peshawar and working as a private citizen in a job I’d found locally, and never had a problem with anyone.

        I married in 1985 and returned to NY with my new bridegroom, and didn’t visit Pakistan again for 16 years, just after the Musharraf coup. And then we moved there as a family for 18 months.

        Lousy timing, for sure.

        My kid’s first day at school in D. I. Khan was 9/11/01.

        And then the war in Afghanistan started. A mob tried to burn down our cable business. We spent the rest of our time under police guard. Our women’s center was allowed to exist because our family had a trusted reputation. But eventually the Taliban began threatening to shoot women seen riding on the backs of motorcycles or bicycles–how fathers and brothers transport girls to school–and when we returned to NY we decided it was too dangerous for our female staff to keep the center open.

        The Islam of the Pakistan I knew is not this Saudi cancer. There has always been tribalism, but even within families in the most conservative areas, some people were more liberal than others.

        And some people who wore the strictest possible purdah in, say, Swat, discarded it when visiting Islamabad or Karachi. Purdah was a social convention and not some deeply-held spiritual value. It was a mark of status that you didn’t let the ordinary people in your village see your wife or your sister. But you enjoyed showing your liberality in the anonymity of cosmopolitan society.

        When the US gives up its very bestest friends in Riyadh, maybe we’ll turn this stinking tide back. Otherwise–

        Liked by 1 person

        • Just a very quick response to Sarah: I don’t fundamentally disagree with the history you recount, but the people marching in the streets of Islamabad are not there under Saudi orders or even Saudi influence. They’re there because they really believe that Mumtaz Qadri is a moral hero, that blasphemy should be punishable by death, that Easter should not be a nationally recognized holiday, and that Pakistan should be governed by their version of sharia. The problem has its distant origins in Reagan’s support for Zia, and Zia’s support for theocracy, but at this point, it’s simply a widespread, homegrown, indigenous problem. Saudi Arabia could sink into oblivion and the problem in Pakistan would remain almost exactly what it is. One of the items I linked to itself links to an article describing lawyers of the Lahore High Court performing an honorary namaz-e-janazah for Osama bin Laden after his assassination. Imran Khan and his PTI remain popular despite their abject commitment to appeasement of the Taliban, and even their willingness to side with the Lal Masjid insurgents. Attitudes of that sort just point to a nation-wide abdication of reason and flight from reality, the sort of national psychosis that grips a nation from time to time. In our country, the Republicans are suffering a similar malady.

          Liked by 1 person

  2. It does seem, however, as Sarah C. A. suggests, that even though Pakistan has a “widespread, homegrown, indigenous problem,” much of the jihadist radicalism infecting the Middle East can be traced to the deal made between Ibn Saud and the Wahhabi sect: the House of Saud gets to have political power, and the Wahhabis get to run the culture. (Thus, when I taught at the College of Petroleum and Minerals in Dhahran in 1967, the local Wahhabi morals police would allow my wife to ride unveiled on the back of my scooter because, as a Westerner, I was a guest contributing to the money supply, which was under the purview of the political establishment. Since I was part of the goose laying the golden eggs, I got to keep my head.) Given the Quranic mandate to spread the umma, and given the financial means (through oil revenues) to do so, the Wahhabis have established fundamentalist madrassas everywhere, and the generation now in their twenties that were raised on the illiberal jihadist message anchored in the absolutism of Quranic authority are all but incapable of critical thought. Suicide for the Cause is now an act of heroism rather than despair. Zealotry in the Age of Information and WMD is a global horror.


    • From Sarah Crysl Akhtar (responding to Irfan):

      The most fervent Muslims in Pakistan can’t even understand the Quran in its original language. They are dependent on what their mullah tells them it means.

      When Zia took power he tried to ban English-medium schools. That caused an uproar in the upper classes and didn’t last long. Meanwhile Saudi-funded madrasas have “educated” two generations of very unsophisticated young people.

      The generally moderate Islam that used to be prevalent in Pakistan is being brutally wiped out. Sufi poetry reached some of its most glorious heights in the indigenous languages of the Pakistani plains. Now Sufi shrines are being destroyed and Sufi mosques bombed. To be moderate–even when that moderation has nothing to do with “Western” values–is to be a follower of a “false” Islam.

      It’s illegal for Ahmadis and Ismailis to call themselves Muslims or their places of worship mosques. It didn’t used to be so.

      I’ve seen educated Pakistani women from families I knew well–who grew up relatively liberally and became doctors working in the US–become exponentially more conservative and begin to dress in the Saudi style of hijab. Women who were bareheaded in their own adolescence are forcing their American-born daughters to wear the hijab–not even dupattas [loose flowing scarves].

      I used to be able to feel the difference in the atmosphere, going from the Frontier to the Punjab–a real loosening of constricted tribal attitudes. Sure, there was always a considerable streak of fundamentalism in the Punjab. But people let others choose their own paths–even within large extended families you’d have real divergence of views and observance.

      Now the cancer is eating the Punjab too. This is an imported disease.


      • I’m the last one to disagree with either Sarah or John as to the Saudi origins of the problem in Pakistan. I’m proud of the anti-Saudi hate-blogging I’ve done here at PoT (like here and here). I went so far as to describe Nawaz Sharif to The Nation (the American one) as “the Saudi choice for a proxy ruler for Pakistan.” And I didn’t mean it as a compliment. It turned out to be a little unfair, as well. Nawaz Sharif turned out to be a better ruler than I had expected him to be, and less beholden to the Saudis than I had expected him to be. But my point is, his relative independence didn’t change much of the larger picture.

        Once you catch a disease, it doesn’t really matter where you got it: the point is, you have it. Yes, the religious madrasas are often Saudi funded, and have indoctrinated the unsophisticated. But the supporters of PTI and the lawyers of the Lahore High Court aren’t unsophisticated. Neither is Imran Khan! Neither is the officer corps of the military–very conflicted about whether to fight the Taliban or to ally with them. Neither were the educated urbanites whose reaction to the assassination of Osama bin Laden was outrage at the violation of Pakistan’s sovereignty (rather than wondering what the hell he was doing there).

        When the US killed Hakimullah Masud in 2013 (with a drone strike), Chaudry Nisar Ali gave a lachrymose speech accusing the Americans of “scuttling” the peace process that was taking place between Pakistan and the TTP. Here we are, three years later, and his party is now gearing up for an anti-Taliban offensive that will prove to be far bloodier and more indiscriminate than those hated drone strikes. Why not negotiate? Why strike back at all? Where is the “peace process,” and why aren’t we hearing more speeches about it in the wake of Sunday’s attack? This complete incoherence–this willful refusal to make sense–can’t be blamed on the Saudis. It’s the disease of a country whose elite and its masses insist on living in a fantasy world, as long as the consequences of the fantasy are borne by other people–as they always are.


        • Here’s a comment I wrote in response to an April 2 column by The New York Times’s Public Editor, on coverage of recent terrorist attacks.

          The issue concerns the lopsidedness of the coverage of attacks in places like Paris and Brussels vs. places like the Ivory Coast, Turkey, and Pakistan. The emerging consensus in the comments seems to consist of an unapologetic defense of the claim that since “we” are “like” the people in Paris and Brussels, we feel a stronger sense of kinship with them, and newsworthiness tracks that sense of kinship. “We” have no reason to feel any sense of kinship with people in Africa or Asia, so there’s no reason to report on terrorist attacks there. It’s like Hegel applied to journalism.

          Putting aside the issue of what “we” is supposed to be feeling a kinship with whom, and on what basis, it doesn’t seem to occur to these people that one doesn’t cover terrorist attacks out of a sentimental sense of attachment to the victims. One covers them (and their precursors and aftermath) because they have political importance. An attack in Pakistan has political importance because, like it or not, Pakistan is a front-line ally in the Afghan war in a way that neither Belgium nor France are, whatever their “kinship” to us: Pakistan is on the front line of a an active, literal war zone in which we’ve been invested–since 1979–to the tune of thousands of lives and billions of dollars. Pakistan is at war with the Taliban in a way that neither France nor Belgium were ever at war with Al Qaeda, even when NATO troops were actively occupying Afghanistan. And we are supporting Pakistan in that war, to the tune of $265 million a year, plus drone strikes. So we have a clear epistemic-moral-political stake in knowing how “our” war is going.

          The point is not so much that we need to follow the Lahore terrorist attack as a human interest story, but that we need to follow Pakistani politics for its moral and political importance to our South Asia strategy. It’s testament to the nation’s political illiteracy that the readers of The New York Times think that their fantasized “kinship” with the people of Brussels should trump our strategic stake in South Asia, and excuse their political ignorance of the places that “we” have been bombing for the last sixteen plus years. The tacit supposition seems to be that “our” media should just keep feeding us sentimental stories about the places populated by people “like us,” so as to fuel our ignorant resolve to keep bombing the shit out of the places populated by people “not like us,” i.e., inhabited or infested by terrorists, and therefore fair game for perpetual warfare which “we” support with impunity while claiming to be “innocent civilian non-combatants.”

          I don’t mean that as a critique of drone strikes or of the war against the TTP. I mean it as a critique of the kind of belligerent ethnocentric ignorance that dominates discussions of terrorism in the United States: know nothing; bomb everything. That attitude is clearly abetted by reporting decisions that humanize victims “like us” and ignore the ones who aren’t. I would like to think that a video like this gives people pause about bombing everything and knowing nothing. But we’ll never find out as long as stories like it go systematically unreported.


  3. Pingback: BC’s weekend reads | Notes On Liberty

  4. Pingback: Back to School: Life in Palestine (1) | Policy of Truth

  5. Pingback: Blasphemy and the Polity of Our Prayers | Policy of Truth

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s