Today, we are all Farkhunda.
You know her by now – a 27 year old woman accused by a mullah of being an “infidel” who burnt verses of the Koran. She was attacked by a mob in Kabul, lynched, stoned, run over, burnt and her body thrown in a river whilst onlookers and police stood by. (See full report here.)
Immediately after her brutal murder, some Afghan officials like Senator Zulmai Zabuli and deputy minister of information and culture Simin Hasanzada sought to justify her killing. A mullah of Wazir Akbar Khan Mosque, Ayaz Niazi also justified it and said: “At such a situation, there is no need to go and check the girl whether she is sick or okay,” he warned following reports that she had mental health problems. He added: “Be careful O people! It will be a big mistake if they [perpetrators] were sent to the jail. The people will stand against this and then they cannot be controlled” – the usual threats – by religious gatekeepers of power – in support of the perpetrators on behalf of “the people”.
Of course we heard justifications here in the west too. Someone Tweeted: “what does she expect if she burns the Koran” as if a book is worth more than a human life. Back in Kabul, her family was advised to leave their home for safety reasons; it was in fact they who had said she had mental health problems in order to safeguard their lives…
So far, this is a story we have heard many times over many years. A woman accused of a crime against religion or religious morality – real or imagined – who is tried and executed either by mob (or Islamist) violence or by the state’s violence in the form of Sharia law on behalf of “the offended sensibilities of the people”.
But “the people” as Mullah Ayaz Niazi learnt well includes many – led by women – who were outraged by Farkhunda’s brutal murder and would not justify it.
The ensuing protests meant that her family did not have to flee their home but could stand their ground. Her mother was able to say “I am proud of my daughter” and her brother, Najibullah, was able to announce that he is changing his second name to Farkhunda in memory of his sister. It showed that people would respect her and not “the people’s offended sensibilities”. A group of young people renamed the street leading to the area of her attack as Farkhunda’s Street and a tree was planted on the spot where her body was thrown. Also 28 men have been arrested with 13 policemen suspended following the attack. And all because of protests – most important of which included that women carried Farkhunda’s body– going against Islamic customs – to her gravesite and with her family’s permission. They surrounded her coffin right until the end, gave her the respect she deserved, and chanted: “we are all Farkhunda”.
And when Ayaz Niazi, the mullah who had justified Farkhunda’s killing, tried to join them, they refused, created a circle around her gravesite, and forced him to leave.
Azaryun, a youth activist says, “That is what Farkhunda teaches me: together we can change the narrative that others write about women. We stood up against the most respected mullah. We carried the coffin and buried her.”
Neayish, a medical student, said: “I was just crying.” “It was a long trek… but all my energy was focused on giving Farkhunda a respectable burial. It was the first time I realized my real power and told myself that I’m breaking the boundaries of tradition.”
What the protests around Farkhunda’s murder show are that “the people” of Afghanistan do not all agree. That “Muslims” are not all the same. Just like “Christians”, Italians and the Church and pope and Northern League are not one and the same.
In Afghanistan, too, there are women and youth who break taboos and change narratives and there are many men who stand with them against religion’s encroachment in people’s lives and against Islamism – the religious-Right.
This type of defiance can be seen in many places if one wants to see it. In Algeria in the 1990s, women buried their dead though they were not normally allowed at burials in defiance of the Islamists.
In Iran, mass protests against acid attacks on women who were “improperly veiled” following crackdowns by the regime on “improper veiling” or unveiling saw the regime “condemn” the attacks.
You can see this too in the slaughter of Charlie Hebdo’s cartoonists by Islamists for caricaturing Mohammad, Islam’s prophet. There, too, there were many including “Muslims” who sided with Charlie.
The point I am trying to make here is that dissent exists even if it is not acknowledged and is crucial in changing the narrative in favour of other Farkhundas, Charlies, and Rahmans against the Islamists. Including your protest and mine – rather than silence or more justifications on behalf of the perpetrators such as ones we have heard often. “It’s their culture, ‘respect’ it’” or “Don’t ‘antagonise’ Muslims by criticising ‘their’ practices and beliefs”. A talk on “apostasy and the rise of Islamism”, which I was to give at Trinity College Dublin this past week was cancelled after I refused to accept restrictions out of concern by the security there that I would “antagonise Muslim students” as if all Muslim students think apostates must die. There is a racism in this perspective that sees Muslim students as one and the same with the religious-Right.
Clearly this is not the case, nor is it everyone’s belief that Farkhunda or Charlie’s cartoonists or Bangladeshi bloggers must be murdered – nor must it be ‘respected’ even if it were. It is Islamism’s culture – that of a far-Right movement which suppresses, controls and targets women in particular. It is a movement that despises women. Women under its rule should be considered like the “disappeared” of Argentina – erased from the public space and terrorised via burqas, gender segregation and Sharia law.
When we remain silent out of “respect” for “Muslim sensibilities” and to prevent “offence” and when we homogenise societies and communities and conflate people with the religious-Right, we limit the space for resistance, turn our backs on dissenters and inadvertently or deliberately side with the Islamists and the religious-Right.
There is a clash in all societies not of civilisations but between rights defenders and secularists – from Iran, Afghanistan to France, UK and Italy – versus the religious Right and fascists across the globe.
Only when we begin to see the dissent, acknowledge that it is intrinsically linked to our own, and defend universal values and freedoms, including secularism, will we be able to honour our dissenters, stand with them, and push back the religious-Right.