Friday 29 December 2017

The Golden Legend by Nadeem Islam: Book Note

The Golden Legend by Nadeem Aslam: Book Note
A couple of weeks ago (mid-Dec 2017) I read The Golden Legend, a novel by the British-Pakistani writer Nadeem Aslam. According to his Wikipedia biography, Aslam has lived in the UK since he was 14, when his father, a communist, fled the regime of President Zia. 

Nadeem Aslam
This is a good novel for anyone not familiar with life in Pakistan in the era of militant Islamists, US drone strikes, and police and military corruption. The main interest of the novel, though, is the difficulty of being Christian in Pakistan. The story recounts the trials of three Christian Pakistanis. Christians are a minority in Pakistan, about 1 per cent of the population.

The central figure in the novel, Nargis, is a Christian masquerading as a Muslim. Raised in the relative security of the home of her uncle, a Christian bishop, she decides at college to pretend she is a Muslim. It seems much easier than constantly enduring ostracism and persecution because she is Christian. She marries Massud, a Muslim man, without telling him the truth. They both become architects, living a tranquil life until Massud is killed in a shoot-out between a couple of Islamists and an American diplomat/CIA agent. At the same time, she and Massud have been acting as patrons of a young woman named Helen, the daughter of the Christian couple who are their servants. Helen’s father, a rickshaw driver, is in love with a Muslim widow whose husband was killed and son severely injured by an American attack. Without giving away the story, a military official pressures Nargis to forgive the American in return for a million dollars in blood money. Meantime, Helen is endangered as well. They both flee the city with the help of a young Muslim man who is in love with Helen.

Aslam's depiction of his fictional Christians is not an exaggeration, according to an article in Foreign Policy (May 16, 2016) by Usman Ahmad entitled “Is Pakistan Safe for Christians?”  Ahmad explains that many Christians are converts from lower-caste Hindus and are commonly known as “sweepers” (a low-caste occupation). This term is used in Aslam’s novel. Sometimes Pakistani employers looking for sanitation workers deliberately advertise for non-Muslims; that is, Christians. In recent years there have been several attacks on Christian churches and schools in Pakistan, in part because Christians are identified with the West: that is, with the United States and its campaign of bombing and drone attacks against perceived Islamist militants in Afghanistan and parts of Pakistan. At Easter 2016 more than 70 Christians were killed by a Taliban bombing in Lahore. Forced marriages and conversions of Christian girls to Muslim men are common, and the girls are afraid to testify in court because they are in the custody of the families that kidnapped them.

Blasphemy against Islam is a crime in Pakistan, and Christians have been severely punished for it. Somewhere in the novel a character mentions that it’s easy to accuse a Christian neighbor of blasphemy. The payoff is high; if your neighbor is jailed for blasphemy, you may be able to acquire his house or property. This kind of thing also goes on in Iran, when people denounce members of the Baha’i faith, just as it did in Germany and Eastern Europe under the Nazis, when you could acquire really good houses and apartments by denouncing Jews. 

At the moment, Christians are under attack in several countries in the Middle East and Asia.  Coptic Christians, about 10 per cent of the Egyptian population, have endured several violent attacks on their churches. Coptic Christianity predates Islam; Copts are among the very earliest converts to Christianity.

One can assume that since his father was a communist, secularism was not a dirty word in Nadeem Aslam’s household when he was growing up.  Now secularism appears to be something that is considered dangerous even in the West. I have written about this before in an entry to this blog called “I Am an Atheist Blogger” , where I mentioned that many Americans consider atheists to be worse than Muslims. It is important that we should protect everyone who is persecutes for their faith, wherever the country.  But we should also be protecting the principle of secularism, the rights of individuals to marry whomever they want regardless of their religion, and the rights of individuals to be non-believers.