Friday, March 23, 2012

بسم الله الرحمن الرحيم

The birth of the Prophet (pbuh) and the birth of Pakistan (pbui) are announced with the same call in Lahore: a series of cannon blasts at zero dark thirty. Given the official religion of the country, I suppose you could justify some sort of celebratory equation between the two events. My own skepticism on this point, however, caused me to stir impatiently beneath the bed sheets while waiting for the cannon's boom to subside. It took awhile before the echoes died down and the bulbul resumed their warbling through the window bars.

The separation of Church and State is so basic to the American framework, it's hard for me to sit still when I see it breached -- including in my own country, and including in those off moments when I agree with the religious sentiment being expressed. Mixing religious faith and state endorsement allows the state not to safeguard religion, but to safeguard itself from people's ability to evaluate and decide their own identities and allegiances -- decisions that might lead to replacing the state. It indicates a lack of the state's faith in the strength of its own mandate rather than a commitment to religious tenets. For that reason, state religion is designed to force all sorts of uncomfortable public displays on citizens: prove your religious belief is strong enough and "right" enough for you to be a real patriot. Prove your identity as a citizen by "out-faithing" your colleagues, or risk state censure. How convenient that this public proof of religious commitment also affirms the state's legitimacy. Fine-grained discussion on questions of identity and allegiance are duly subjugated in favor of one-size-fits all public symbols, the meaning of which the state decides. You're either with the state-cum-religion, or you're not.

Now that I represent the American state, these uncomfortable public displays are more and more on my mind. The azan sounds, so I cover my head to be respectful to Islam. But it's not really me being respectful to Islam, right? Because (as I myself am no longer merely a person, but a symbol of the U.S.) the act can no longer be a matter of personal conviction, but of trying to convince others that the U.S. respects the official religion. And when I look around and see that some women have covered and some have not, I worry that my covering is saying more than 'The U.S. respects your officially mandated religion' but maybe instead is saying 'I agree with your approach to religion' or 'Women ought to cover' or 'It's okay to force this public display of belief on people'. But it's really not okay with me, is the thing. If my 8th grade self who refused to recite the Pledge of Allegiance due to its unconstitutional mixing of God and state saw me dutifully covering for Quran readings in public universities, I don't think she'd have anything good to say. How can I explain to her -- to anyone -- that I only mean the first thing when I cover my head and not all the other possible meanings that follow?

Thursday, March 15, 2012

The Asides of March

When I was younger I had this awesome kite designed to resemble a giant bat. The day it got tangled up in a streetlight in our church parking lot, broke loose, and sailed away to some higher calling was awful in the truest sense of the word: watching the string wrap around the lamp post in a death grip was somehow numinous. Mom helped me build a new kite out of two dowel rods and some plastic sheeting, but it never quite filled me with the same sensation of otherworldly transgression as the bat kite did, not even when I took to scaling the two-story tall church building and flying it off the roof. I'm sharing all this so you'll understand why I was so excited to see Basant in Lahore. Everything I read about it poked directly at the youthful, vampire bat-loving part of me that -- half way up the church wall with my kite dangling from one arm -- reveled in the certainty that if the fall didn't kill me, Mom and Dad surely would.

Anyone who follows Pakistan will recognize immediately that my Lonely Planet was woefully outdated and that the Punjab government -- in a show of parental concern -- no longer allows kites or public [read: Hindu-influenced] springtime festivals. This was further underscored for me when I attempted to buy kite string at the local all-purpose store. After explaining in an over-loud voice "We don't sell that kind of illegal material here," the salesman leaned in closer and continued in a conspiratorial whisper, "but if you go down to the Old City, I know some people who could help you." I did not take him up on his offer, although the idea of getting PNG'd for buying a spool of string was strangely appealing. Illegal kite string sales are probably directly funding the Pakistani Taliban (likely also America's fault).

To make up for the lack of kites, Lahoris compensate by redoubling their bird feeding sadaqah efforts. I'm pretty sure that 'gaining goodwill through tossing meat to hawks' is to Islam as 'gaining goodwill by tossing pennies into wells' is to Christianity, but I'm afraid to say this too loudly lest they ban sadaqah, too. I would toss a penny into my own fountain to wish a happy spring for Pakistan had we not filled it in a few months ago to try and slow the spread of dengue.