Letter from Little Pakistan

Print Friendly

Coney Island Avenue felt busy on a recent Saturday afternoon, except in the neighborhood between Avenue H and Beverly Road known as “Little Pakistan.”

Coney Island Avenue  felt busy on a recent Saturday afternoon, except in the neighborhood between Avenue H and Beverly Road known as “Little Pakistan.” Pamphlets were strewn on the pavement. A garbage bin was overturned. Grim looking middle-aged men clad in traditional salwar-kameez were talking in hushed tones.

“Our religion has been insulted again. And I feel insulted if our Prophet is made fun of,” said Shahid Khan, 42, a tall, bespectacled man. The night before, he explained, a crowd of about a thousand braved rains and showed up to protest against the YouTube video that lampooned Islam’s founder Prophet Mohammad as a sexual pervert.

The tension and anger were still simmering, two weeks of the video after was posted online. The situation in Pakistan had been far worse – 20 people killed in protests that spiraled out of control and resulted in widespread rioting.

Both sides of Coney Island Avenue were lined with groceries, bakeries, and restaurants serving sheekh kebabs, naans and biryanis. But barely a soul was to be seen.

“People are going to come out a little late because of the protest,” Khan told me. “To stand for the whole evening in the rain was tiring.” He greeted people with a nod of the head and “Assalam Waleikum” as we made our way towards the Allama Iqbal Community Center. We stepped over pamphlets that read, in Urdu, “This is not acceptable.” Women in traditional attire stood and by chatted.

We entered a drab-looking building that had seen better days. The elevator took us to the sixth floor and we stepped into a hallway painted white with blue doors.  Khan’s office was small. A table tucked between two couches was laden with heaps of paper. On the wall hung a poster of Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari.

Khan placed offered me an assortment of dry fruit. There was a knock on the door and a man, again wearing salwar kameez, entered.

Sheikh Aziz belongs to the Punjabi community, which holds most of the positions of power and prestige in Pakistan. “Its been 32 years since I left my country,” he said. “And even now the people here don’t understand why making fun of the Prophet infuriates us. I feel they should not do so, when we never say anything against their community.”

It was not clear who the “they” were. Aziz told me that making fun of Jesus Christ might be common in America, but the culture embedded in this tightly-knit conservative Pakistani community was not similar. The Prophet remains a much-revered figure, and making fun of him is akin to blasphemy. Most Americans, he explained, don’t understand the Muslim community.

The community office at Coney Island Ave., Brooklyn. Sheikh Aziz (Left), Shahid Khan (Middle) and William Shehzad (far right) react to the YouTube video. Photo Credit: Anirvan Ghosh

The blasphemy law is often used in Pakistan to quell dissent. Khan had protested against the law in Pakistan, and was beaten by his own fellow Muslims for that.  “Religious tolerance is low in our community,” he said softly. Aziz remained silent.

We were joined by William Shehzad, a member of the minority Christian community in Pakistan. Bald, and portly, he had stopped by after a sermon in the local church. He wore a grey jacket and western clothing — the only person I had seen so far not dressed in salwar-kameez. He had faced fundamentalist elements back home, who would like everyone to conform to the Quran. The video, he said, was just stupid.

“You can call me names, or make fun of me, but I won’t become that,” he said, animatedly in a husky voice.

Malik Nasir, who is the police and community liason for Community Board 14, came in huffing. He too was dressed in Western fashion, in a suit and blue tie.  He had just met with a group of police officers.

“Thank God everything was peaceful here,” he said with a sigh, and then gulped down a bottle of water. Nasir said that he had been asked to file a lawsuit against the person who made the video. “But I feel the lawsuit won’t be of much use as the basic understanding of why we are offended is not there. By protesting we communicated how much we dislike such things, and hopefully the message went through.” But more and more people wanted the lawsuit filed.  Nasir asked Khan to look see what American laws might be used to file such a suit.

“I am totally against violence,” Aziz said. “But I am also against people who dare say such things about the Quran.”

Outside, people were milling about, talking with one another when a teenager approached me.

“Do you know what happened here?” I asked.

“Yes,” he said, “we demanded respect.”

, , , ,

6 Responses to “Letter from Little Pakistan”

  1. Brad
    October 15, 2012 at 5:02 PM #

    Respect is earned, not given upon demand. If the “Prophet” is so exemplary, criticism, even ridicule, should not matter. Time to grow up and cast off the shackles of ignorance.

  2. Aniruddha
    October 16, 2012 at 10:45 AM #

    Very well written article.Liked the detailing of a volatile and troubling situation.

  3. Satyam
    October 16, 2012 at 10:59 AM #

    A thought provoking piece. Rather than about hate it is about a conflict of cultural perspectives. There is much to redress in most cultures. Of course, blind hate can be much maligned but it seems justifiable to the person who lost someone close. Unfortunately, in this case most sides have lost too many. The maligning of the prophet cannot be justified just as no jihad can be in this day and age. What we need is better understanding of each other’s cultures and some forbearance on all sides. Otherwise the bodies will keep on hitting the floor to the rattle of Kalashnikovs and M4s.

  4. Marina
    October 16, 2012 at 11:56 AM #

    Agreed – this does not really involve with the merit of the attack on the Prophet’s image, but is rather about the inability of the attackers to realize that any doubts of the Prophet will be taken personally. As an ill-placed and insensitive yo momma joke, it will strike a chord even if there is some truth to it. But the variance in the general acceptability of a pass like this and in the depth of the wounded feelings it results in is where the dissonance and misunderstanding lie. Now, is there a way to get this message of cross-cultural understanding across that is effective/prompt and nonviolent simultaneously? Possibly, if the bridge-building effort originates from both sides. If we combined a rather popular view that the West needs to get on the bandwagon of respecting (or at the very least attempting to go along with) some form of unconditional reverence embedded in the Muslim culture (which it undoubtedly does) with even the tiniest flash of the “maybe they didn’t mean it like this” and “maybe they don’t hate us” realization from the other side, it would not yet solve anything, but maybe, just maybe that would put us on the right track?

  5. Brad
    October 16, 2012 at 2:18 PM #

    In the West blindly defending a person or a belief system and claiming that a person or belief system should never be criticized or ridiculed is seen as a sure indication that the person or belief system protected in this way is weak or damaged. In other words, these actions shout out “something very bad is being hidden here”. The West (especially the US) holds free expression in very high esteem, and believes that no person or belief system should be exempt from criticism or ridicule. The Western belief is that if a person, idea or belief system can’t be defended with logic and reason, it is probably not worth defending, or believing in. In large part, this approach, the completely free exchange of ideas, has lead to societal advancement that has not occurred in Muslim majority nations. If Muslims are to be truly integrated into the West, it is critical for them to gain an understanding of what freedom of expression has meant to the West in terms of progress, and what it means in practice. For example, Christians are offended, and often hurt, when Muslims claim that Jesus was merely a Prophet and not the Son of God. That belief is considered a blasphemy by Christians. Yet Christians, especially Western Christians, do not protest (and certainly don’t riot) when Muslims proclaim their belief on this.

  6. Gul Makaai
    October 27, 2012 at 10:34 PM #

    “One Hand washes other Hand”. This is not easy task to write an article, we really need to think and work on this very important topic. We really need to work with seriousness. At present we need Peace, tolerance at everywhere in this world. If we are not a part of solution then why we are become a part of problem.

    Freedom of speech is the political right to communicate one’s opinions and ideas. Freedom of speech is play very important role in human development. Freedom of speech gives dignity respect, open-mindedness, equality, attitude, self-assurance, line of action, nation development, political empowerment, moderate and enlightened society. Bu when you have no freedom of speech then you has conservative society that’s lead towards isolated, violent and extremist society. The same thing happened in Muslim world and as well as some other part of Europe etc. If you see all over the world where freedom of speech is controlled, situation is in worst shape.

    It is therefore requested to all that we need to use this freedom with carefully that create peace instead of violence.
    Brooklyn-Ink should arrange interfaith Dialogue, peace Education conference / forum.

Leave a Reply

Leave your opinion here. Please be nice. Your Email address will be kept private.