Confused, bewildered, frightened

As a Muslim, Farid Alvie finds himself constantly having to clarify that he is a "moderate", knowing that there is just that hint of disbelief that any of the world's 1.3 billion Muslims can be anything but "fanatic".

Over a decade before the tragedy of 11 September occurred, I first encountered a phenomenon, which, until then, I had only read about in newspapers or heard bandied about by visibly irate members of assorted political, religious or social organisations. For the first time in my life that day, I was slapped, without having done anything, with a "label".

Walking down Main Street (and that is exactly what it was called) in "Ruralville", Pennsylvania, that winter evening, minding my own business, I got called a wide variety of names by a group of half-drunk, halfwitted university students, probably on their way back from a fraternity party. Among the many labels that were generously thrown my way that evening, two still stand out in memory. One was "Commie Cuban ****" (asterisks denote the word that rhymes with duck) and the other was "Stinky Pedro".

There were others as well, but these two epithets confused me more than they angered me. Here I was, a 17-year-old Pakistani Muslim student, who had spent more years living in the Middle East than in my native Pakistan, being told to go back home to Papa Fidel or to my vast ancestral estate spread out all over central and South America. All because of the colour of my skin and the way I looked.

Ever since, I have always marvelled at how casually, intelligent and seemingly well-educated individuals indulge in the practise of labelling other individuals, cultures, religions, nations, concepts and systems. Labels are almost always assigned with nary a thought as to what they might actually infer in relation to the subject in question; they are oftentimes simply a convenient way of hiding the sheer laziness and ineptitude of our own intellect. I am, for example, as Cuban as former New York Mayor Rudy Guiliani is Afghan, but then again, labels are not meant to have any tract with truth or fact, or even with how and what things/peoples/ religions/nations are.

After the tragedy of 11 September, labels, it appears, have become our security blankets. They seem to be the only "real" concepts, which help us deal with the uncertainty and insecurity that surrounds us these days. We cling to them like the desperate (and utterly irritating) Leonardo Di Caprio hung on to jagged wooden planks in the last scenes of that moving cinematic experience, Titanic. Unfortunately, we fail to realise that the incredible power of a label to help us through a crisis (or even a minor unpleasant social or political hiccup), only leads us towards the same fate faced by young Leonardo as he sank, frozen, to the bottom of the ocean.

As I switch from one international news channel to the next, scan one front-page headline and move to another, I am inundated with newsprint and television screens throwing labels my way with a cruelty that leaves my eyes, ears and ego bleeding profusely and begging for mercy. Or at least for a long commercial pause in hostilities on humanitarian grounds.

"Is he/she a 'moderate' Muslim?" the media asks. "Pakistan is a 'moderate' Islamic state," they tell us authoritatively. "Can President Pervez Musharraf guarantee that Pakistan's nuclear arsenal rests within the control of the 'moderates' in his government?" they worry.

That's one of my favourite labels these days: "moderate". As a Muslim, I must walk around with the assumption that all non-Muslims believe that all 1.3 billion Muslims are fanatics (despite the many patronising assurances given us to the contrary by that insufferable member of parliament who lives rent-free at No. 10, Downing Street). Thus, I must always include the word moderate into any business introduction that I might need to make in future. ("Hello, my name is Farid Alvie. I'm a moderate Muslim journalist. I can provide your newspaper with a weekly column on the Pakistani entertainment scene for an incredibly cheap rate, if you're interested?")

No one in the media ever asks what catastrophe Ariel Sharon, the extreme rightwing, "democratically" elected prime minister of the nuclear state of Israel, might wreak on the rest of the world in pursuance of his political goals. Shouldn't the Israeli "moderates" be better suited to keep permanent control of all of that country's strategic military assets? Should the "moderates" in India be similarly sanctioned to wrest control of that state's nuclear arsenal from the Hindu fundamentalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)-led government? But then the BJP and its fundamentalist, saffron-clad political allies might be forgiven their blatant fanaticism because the people of India have "democratically" elected them. Much as the current White House incumbent was democratically elected, despite losing the "popular" vote two years ago. But these, perhaps, are irrelevant, minor details with no bearing on reality. Which brings us to another neat label: democratic.

This bewilders me even more than being called "Stinky Pedro". I sincerely believe in the concept of democracy as a system of governance. I believe in it just as much as the next guy. Unless the next guy is a bigot, in which case I believe in it even more. This sort of "freedom to choose one's government" is an excellent concept, and gives the ordinary Joe Bloggs (or Ali Khan in the "moderate" Pakistani Muslim world) a sense of participation, of controlling one's own destiny. I am just a little confused about its definition.

If a polity has a frequently-held exercise that allows its citizenry to stuff ballot boxes with names of political organisations printed on it, it is entitled to being called "democratic". So when someone like Jorge Haider wins in a "democratic" election in Austria, why must Israel and the United States threaten to withdraw their ambassadors from that democratic country? Jorge Haider is an odious choice no doubt, but did he not come in through the ballot box fair and square?

So perhaps the etiquettes of this enterprise called democracy need to be enunciated more clearly. Voters must be clearly instructed to make acceptable choices, and not unacceptable ones. Participants must never show favour towards an anti-Semitic candidate, but give benefit of the doubt to an Islamophobe hankering for their vote. Presidential candidates in northern Africa must always win 90 percent of the vote in every election if they live along the Nile, and command the region as a pharaoh-democrat. And any candidate sporting a beard in neighbouring Algeria must not be allowed to assume power, even if the ballot box gives them the legitimate right to do so.

Lest you think I get confused only when the strong and the powerful seem baffled by the complexity of labels, let me assure you that that is certainly not the case. Even the weak and the poor are label-conscious. Sample the following, from an email I received regarding the Taliban: "Please note, that the following is NOT a defence of the Taliban government in Afghanistan, nor are we supporters of the regime, due to them being shadeed Hanafees, and mu'tassib, and having incorrect Aqeedah about Allah and Islam (they follow the ways of the Sufiyah and the Deobandiyah, and not that of the Ahlus Sunnah)."

Since I am an ordinary, "moderate" Muslim, and not well-versed with the multi-faceted schismatic complexities of the Islamic faith, with which an infinitesimally tiny, email-sending variety is concerned, I confess that I cannot be of much help in deciphering the many "labels" contained within the lines quoted above. Suffice it to say that my Label Lexicon is greatly enriched by the following: "shadeed Hanafees", "mu'tassib", "Deobandiyah", "Ahlus Sunnah", "Sufiyah". Some of these labels are used to denounce the Taliban.

However, what I find absolutely incredible is the primary rationale used to criticise the Taliban. They are denounced, not because of their appalling violation and utter disregard for human rights and human life, but because they allegedly follow the Deobandiyah and the ways of the Sufiyah and are shadeed Hanafees, and possess incorrect Aqeedah! They are condemned not for the brutal treatment of human beings (and women are human beings first, no matter what other labels men might ascribe to them) within their care, but first and foremost for belonging to the wrong sect!

And this from the followers of a religion that says "to save the life of one human being is comparable to saving all of humanity". And this from the followers of a faith whose holy book begins with the words: "In the name of Allah, the most merciful and the most compassionate". And this from the followers of a God who told His Prophet that He was merely a messenger of the Divine Message, and not a warden over the people to whom this message was given.

Of course there are innumerable other all-encompassing labels. Some of them are constantly being used by "civilised", "good" people to describe "psychotic" "cave dwellers" in remote parts of the world. As a moderate Muslim human being, I am bewildered by the rhetoric I hear emanating from a big white house with huge pillars, as well as that being emitted from outside a crumbling cave. Labels galore yet again. "Crusade" is matched by "holy war" or "jehad", "infidels" is countered with "evildoers", and both sides order us to declare our allegiance: we must decide if we are with them or with the "evildoers/infidels".

Labels: evildoers, terrorists, freedom fighters, good guys, bad guys, fundamentalist, extremist, moderate, infidels, democrats, Blacks, Orientals, natives, Arabs, Jews, gays, liberals, pinkos, militants, commies, gentiles, hawks, radicals.

Plain, simple, multi-ethnic, multi-religious, multicultural, multi-purpose nametags. Bred in insecurity, narrow-mindedness, bias, just as much, perhaps, as our own anxiety and the uncertainty of the world around us. Not only are they useless, but dangerous as well. Is it easier for us, as ordinary people, to defer to the comfort zone of a pre-determined, pre-judged idea of someone else's second-hand experience? Perhaps.

Meanwhile, I remain a moderate Muslim, 30-something, Pakistani journalist who lives in West Asia, has a whole host of Arab, black, white, infidel friends, loves Afghan cuisine, Woody Allen and Cohen Brothers movies, the music of Echo and the Bunnymen, Dido, Pathan-e- Khan and Vivaldi, the words of Maulana Rumi, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Arundhati Roy, Chinua Achebe, Ernest Hemingway and Faiz Ahmed Faiz, and utterly fail to comprehend prejudice, war, self-righteous cultural, racial, religious arrogance, and the appeal of country western music.

I wonder if old Fidel's still got a place for a much-labelled soul like me in his backyard?

(Originally carried by

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