Letter from Little Pakistan

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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.”

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