A Question of Identity

June 6, 2010

A Question of Identity.

I have often addressed Iranian audiences without fear in several countries- Stockholm, Sweden; Paris, France; London, U.K.; and in Washington, D.C., Chicago, and Los Angeles. The Iranians attending were either atheists, agnostics, secularists, and Zoroastrians. The first language my first book, Why I am not a Muslim, was translated into was Persian, or Farsi by an agnostic Iranian. On one occasion at a lecture that I gave to some Iranians, the Iranian organizer of the event wondered why it was that the first thing that newly arrived Pakistani students looked for was where they could procure halal/ kosher chicken and meat, whereas what the Iranian students celebrated was their newly found freedom.

Most Pakistanis are historically, ethnically, and in fact in many ways culturally, related to Indians. And yet, Pakistanis are taught more about the [mythical] history of Arabs than about the magnificent, and rich history of the Sub-continent of India. Many Pakistanis will even boast of their descent from the "Arabs" who periodically devastated India, and some even of their descent from the family of the Prophet, Muhammad. The Pakistanis are also schooled in contempt for all things Indian- an artificial, fanatical nationalism is whipped up by the politicians and turned against their neighbour, which has led to several wars-three major wars, one minor war, and countless armed skirmishes- since Independence. When will the Pakistanis learn to treat Indians as brothers and sisters? When will they learn that their future lies with a rapprochement with India, and not the Arabian peninsula?

Pakistan was created only sixty three years ago, and the raison d'etre was religion. If you take away religion, Islam, from them, Pakistanis are lost, and hence when they leave Pakistan they have to cling to this religious identity in an environment which they have been taught to despise. Iranians, on the other hand, can boast of one of the oldest civilizations in the World, pre-dating Islam, of course. They do not feel culturally lost without Islam, they even celebrate pre-Islamic Zoroastrian festivals such as Nowruz, the New Day. Iranians are secure in their identity, even without Islam. The greatest number of freethinkers are to be found in Iranian communities outside Iran, hence their frequent invitations to me.