Following the events of September 11, 2001, Islam became the centre of media attacks in many parts of the world. Persistent charges and accusations were levelled against its followers. The spurt in Islamophobia has given rise to a breed of apologists who can go to any extremes to placate fear and suspicion among others.
One instance that comes to mind is the case of a Pakistani human rights activist, Ansar Burney, who, a few years back, had travelled to Amritsar, in India, to perform the Kumari Puja. Burney, who was Pakistan’s former federal minister for human rights, is generally credited with being among the first to introduce the concept of human rights in his country. Among his many noteable achievements has been the establishment of the Ansar Burney Trust, which he heads and is considered to be ‘a network of human rights organisations and volunteers working for the deliverance of justice, better treatment of human beings and for civil liberties. It works to raise awareness, provide free legal advice and services and humanitarian assistance where needed’. He has also championed steps towards prison reforms and prisoners’ rights in his country.
Coming from a country whose founding father had declared at the time of earning statehood to his people that “You are free. You are free to go to your temples, you are free to go to your mosques or any other places of worship ... You may belong to any religion or caste or creed. That has nothing to do with the business of the state”, Burney took matters a step further ahead.
The Kumari Puja rituals are best described as a ceremony that once included the ritual defloration of selected virgins. This ideology promotes the ritual of glorifying and idolising ‘young prepubescent girls as manifestations of the divine female energy’. These girls represent deities. Virgins who have not yet hit puberty are selected and worshipped on one day of the nine-day long Navratri — a festival dedicated to the Hindu deity Durga.
After Burney, a Sunni Muslim, performed Hindu religious rituals praising the Hindu deity, he began a discourse on the importance of girls within a society, and how the world would be an empty place without them. “I think the universe is incomplete without the existence of daughters; for me, the whole universe is a girl child. If we don’t evaluate the importance of a daughter then we cannot value anything in life. A girl is very important in every role, be it a mother, daughter, wife or a sister. A girl or a woman in every role is beautiful and important in its own way,” he said.
“The Kanjak ceremony for me is very important and pious. This teaches us that we must realise the importance of the girl child, we must love them and nurture them in a way they deserve. Like what happened with Malala Yousufzai is very disheartening and unfortunate, which shook the whole world,” he continued.
While I appreciate his sense of justice and his efforts towards human rights, I have some difficulty reconciling his actions of performing religious rituals that include glorifying other forms of deities. This wasn’t about respecting people of other faiths, which he could have done by simply being in respectful attendance at the ceremony, but by actually going through the physical steps of devotion to deities, he went a bit overboard in my opinion.
Islam is very clear on the oneness of God. Burney could have promoted his message without the condescending actions of performing religious rituals that highly contradict those of his own faith. I could go to a church and revere Jesus Christ as one of our prophets, but I would not cross the limit.
Such is the case of some defenders, I fear. In a bid to promote acceptance by people of other faiths, they go to the extreme of performing rituals simply to placate the fears or suspicions of others. Fearing that Islam somehow stigmatises them, they feel that there is need to be extra nice and amiable.
They seem to forget that Islam does tell us to be congenial and tolerant towards people of other faiths, but we don’t necessarily have to go overboard to prove ourselves.
Tariq A. Al Maeena is a Saudi socio-political commentator. He lives in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia. Twitter: @talmaeena.