Lost in Translation

Dr Ajmal NiaziThe absurdity of the bitter fight over secularism is on full display in the blasphemy charges filed against columnist Dr Ajmal Niazi.

In a column published by Nawa-i-Waqt, the author allegedly stated that Allah and his Prophet were both ‘secular’. According to a news report, the complainant advocate Mazhar Khan Ashraf consulted a dictionary and read that ‘secular’ means ‘non-believer’.

Now, while this is not spelled out in the article, it appears that the situation is that Dr Ajmal Niazi used the English term ‘secular’ in his article, which the complainant then researched in an English-Urdu dictionary and likely discovered to his astonishment that ‘secular’ was translated as ‘la deeni’.

This shows just how ridiculous the debate over secularism has become. First of all, if the author had intended to write ‘la deeni’ in an Urdu column, why wouldn’t he just write it? Obviously, by inserting a foreign term into an Urdu column he was doing so because he believed that there was not an adequate term in Urdu to make his point.

The debate about secularism in society often comes back to this issue of definitions. By translating ‘secular’ as ‘la deeni’, the discussion is over before it even begins. Never mind that ‘secular’ does not actually mean ‘irreligious’, which is a much closer translation for ‘la deeni’. In English, ‘secularism’ is closer in meaning to not requiring compulsion in religion.

Now think about how absurd this question of translation has become in Dr Ajmal Niazi’s case. Are we to believe that in writing his column the author intended to say that Allah does not believe in himself? Or that Allah’s Prophet was ‘irreligious’? It simply doesn’t make any sense. What makes more sense is that the author was suggesting that Allah and His Messenger do not condone compulsion in religion and therefore the state should not pass laws that require compulsory religious practices.

Instead of giving Dr Ajmal the benefit of doubt, however, Mazhar Khan Ashraf immediately assumed the worst and accused the journalist of nothing short of blasphemy. Why do we do this, always assuming the worst of each other? In the end, it only makes everyone’s life worse off. Mazhar looks like a fool in front of anyone with half an ounce of sense, and regardless the outcome of the case Dr Ajmal will be convicted without trial in the minds of the senseless.

We must stop being our own worst enemy. Let us always remember that sometimes people are actually just trying to peacefully engage in civilised discussion about the issues that face society. That should not be too much to ask.

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