Last week I had the opportunity to speak with Umar Cheema. He is a Pakistani journalist who has suffered for his outspoken views against corruption and Islamic extremism. In 2004 a car ran over him leaving him bed-ridden for six months. In 2010 he was abducted and driven a hundred miles away from his home. He was left naked with his hair, mustache and eyebrows shaved off as an act of intimidation and shame. As he lay on the ground, not knowing where he was, he remembers an internal conversation. He considered leaving Pakistan. He considered changing his journalistic pursuits, but either option would give a victory to the intimidators. Some of his friends have warned him that he needs to stop speaking out, but Cheema sees this as a fight for the future of Pakistan. His silence would only empower those who oppress and hate. People must speak out.
He spoke of Malala Yousafzai (Malala Update) the young lady who was recently shot by the Taliban for demanding the right to attend school. At age 11 she started a blog that angered those who want to keep women subservient. At age 14 the fundamentalists found her on a bus and shot her in the head. As she fights for her life in Britain, protests against the Taliban’s brutality are erupting in Pakistan. Who says one young Muslim girl can’t make a difference? The price was very high, but the future depends on people overcoming their fears and speaking for freedom and justice. Cheema asked for prayers for her to recover and not to be intimidated into silence.
Roadblocks to Peace
As I spoke with Cheema, I sensed in him a similar spirit to my own. I told him about the work of Peace Catalyst and our attempt to get Christians and Muslims to genuinely hear one another. He asked, “How do you get the religious people to get beyond their…. ” His voice trailed off. This journalist was searching for the words to describe the roadblocks he had faced in his own country. Was it hatred? Was it convictions? Was it stubbornness? Whatever it was, it was preventing peace, and a lot of people are getting hurt by these roadblocks. We talked about the dynamics of being a minority population. Here in the USA, Muslims are a minority. Our Muslim friends are highly motivated to get along. Sometimes here, Christians, as the majority, do little to accommodate the opinions of the minority. The roles are reversed in Muslim majority countries where Christians struggle to be heard. I thought of Jesus’ words, “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” I think things might improve substantially if we would live out that golden advice.
Modernists and Fundamentalists
Cheema is a “modernist.” He is a devout Muslim who looks to the Qur’an for principles to live by. This is different from the “fundamentalists” who interpret the Qur’an literally and want to see patterns of life restored to the way things were in 7th century Saudi Arabia. A simple way to think of the differences can be found in the application “cut off the hand of a thief” found in Sura 5:38 of the Qur’an. Fundamentalists advocate cutting off hands of thieves because that is what the Qur’an literally says. The modernist would say that thieves need to be held accountable, but amputations are outdated. Amputation was simply the method of the Arabic culture at the time of Muhammad, to mark and shame a thief. If a man with one hand walked in a shop, the workers would know to watch the remaining hand carefully. Today, we have police and justice systems that deal with such things in more culturally appropriate ways. It is my opinion that the world would be a saner place if the modernists won these arguments.
Quotes of Cheema
Here are some observations(opinions) of Cheema:
As a result of the effectiveness of modern technology he said, “People used to go to the police with their problems, now they go to the media.”
“The British tried to subdue militant resistance with six failed expeditions into the region. We will not win the battle against extremists with the military. We must invest in economic development and education.”
“Ignorance breeds suspicion. Suspicion breeds hatred.”
On freedom of speech, he choked just a little saying “Americans don’t realize how blessed they are to be able to say what they think.” He said, “Offensive ideas [ones that challenge the status quo] are the ones that need this protection. These ideas are what bring needed change.”
On the future of Pakistan Cheema was optimistic, “The people sitting in government are being convicted while they still serve. We have an active judicial. This never happened in the past.”
On the future of Pakistan and terrorism, Cheema was concerned. “The United States has no plan for Pakistan beyond pulling out [of Afghanistan] in 2014.”
In 2008, Cheema won the Daniel Pearl Journalism Fellowship from the New York Times. In 2011, he won the International Press Freedom Award and the Tully Center Free Speech Award from Syracuse University. After he left us, I think he was off to get another award.
His father wants him to stop speaking out, but Cheema is fighting for the future of Pakistan and the hearts of Muslims everywhere, so he endures the threatening phones calls, being followed in his car, and the threat of death in an area not known for freedom of speech. We frequently hear, “Why don’t Muslims speak out?” Would you in an environment like this? We are indeed blessed to live in a land where we can speak freely. We can “repay” part of our debt to society by standing with people like Umar Cheema and his young counterpart Malala Yousafzai, who are trying to gain these freedoms for their people. Keep them in your prayers. Together, we can make a difference.
Cheema came to Louisville to update and challenge the Pakistani community. Click here for stories by Umar Cheema.