Saturday, 15 January 2011

Not just the clerics

Not just the clerics

Sunday, January 16, 2011

S Iftikhar Murshed

Jinnah was wrong when, in a rare outburst of emotion, he triumphantly boasted before students at Aligarh in 1938 that the Muslim League had liberated them from the clutches of the mullahs. He was similarly mistaken nine years later when he declared at the Constituent Assembly on Aug 11, 1947, that the citizens of Pakistan were free to subscribe to any faith they wished, as religion had nothing to do with affairs of state.

He could not have foreseen that the political pygmies who would succeed him would not be able to withstand the relentless onslaught of the religious right. Within six months of his death, the Constituent Assembly adopted the Objectives Resolution, thereby administering a crippling blow to his concept of Pakistan as a modern and progressive state. In one sweep non-Muslims became second-class citizens of a country they loved and did not forsake at the time of Partition. The worst was still to come.

With the introduction of Ziaul Haq’s blasphemy laws in the 1980s, the senseless slaughter of ordinary citizens, vandalism, arson and the destruction of places of worship – all brewed from an alarmingly fascist-religious narrative – have kept occurring with startling frequency. Successive governments, all supposedly secular at heart, have been equally culpable of appeasing, either out of fear or for reasons of political expediency, those who perpetrate such crimes. What is new is that sixty-three years after the emergence of Pakistan, murderers are being extolled for their “valour,” not merely by clerics but also by their brainwashed followers.

Thus Malik Mumtaz Hussain Qadri has been conferred the title of “ghazi” (holy warrior) for shooting an unarmed man. His victim, Governor Salmaan Taseer, was killed because he had committed the “crime” of opposing the blasphemy laws and had earlier visited and promised help to a poor Christian woman who had been condemned to death by a lower court on flimsy allegations of blasphemy. As a consequence, on Nov 24, 2010, the Aalami Jamaat-e-Ahl-e-Sunnat declared him an apostate and therefore “wajib-ul-qatl” (deserving of murder). During an address at a rally organised by the Sunni Tehreek that day, Pir Muhammad Afzal Qadri said: “If Arif Iqbal Bhatti, a judge of the Lahore High Court, could be assassinated for acquitting two Christians, government functionaries should not expect to be spared.” Two days later, Law Minister Babar Awan held out the assurance that “no one can change the blasphemy laws.” It was obvious that the government had no intention of standing by Salmaan Taseer.

Within hours of this murder most foul, the Jamaat-e-Ahl-e-Sunnat Pakistan warned: “No Muslim should attend the funeral or even try to pray for Salmaan Taseer or express any kind of regret or sympathy over the incident.” There was no need for such a warning because those who had drunk from the poisoned chalice of distorted Islamic tenets were already distributing sweets and acclaiming the killer a hero.

On Jan 9, an estimated 50,000 demonstrators in Karachi yelled hysterically that those who criticised the blasphemy laws would meet the same fate as Salmaan Taseer, while the leader of the Jamaat-e-Islami, Syed Munawar Hasan, brazenly declared: “The whole country, all the inhabitants of Pakistan, back Qadri because he has done what people wanted to do regarding a person like Salmaan Taseer.” The JUI chief, Maulana Fazlur Rehman, who the Wikileaks disclosures had solicited US support for his prime ministerial ambitions, told the frenzied mob that Salmaan Taseer “was responsible for his own murder.”

But the religious parties cannot be blamed for strongly condemning blasphemy against Islam, which no Muslim can tolerate, and neither can they be faulted for exercising their right of expressing their views through rallies and demonstrations. What cannot be accepted is murder and violence in any form in the name of religion. Like ink spilt on blotting paper, the stain of extremist ideology has spread rapidly in Pakistan and the clerical community is not exclusively responsible for this. Though the nexus between religion-motivated violence and terrorism is obvious, mainstream political parties have sought the cooperation of banned extremist outfits of southern Punjab to win elections, notably the Sipah-e-Sahaba, which was responsible for the Gojra carnage of July 30, 2009.

In March 2010, the print and electronic media reported that the Punjab law minister, Rana Sanaullah, was seen with the Sipah-e-Sahaba leader, Maulana Ahmad Ludhianvi, for the purpose of soliciting Ludhianvi’s support for the PML-N candidate in by-elections in southern Punjab. Ludhianvi claimed that all politicians, including those from the PPP, had sought the Sipah’s help in the 2008 elections. He also said that the PPP candidate for the Haroonabad by-election was backed by his outfit and this support had been announced by a Sipah member in the presence of Salmaan Taseer.

Even worse, politicians from supposedly secular parties cannot absolve themselves from the blame of stoking extremist violence. How else can one construe the recent outburst of Interior Minister Rehman Malik that he would personally shoot anyone guilty of blasphemy. This is reminiscent of the police constable who on May 24, 2004, bludgeoned Samuel Masih to death for allegedly spitting on a mosque wall. Barely four years earlier, Justice Nazir Akhtar of the Lahore High Court had issued a statement that blasphemers should be killed on the spot.

It is therefore not surprising that Rehman Malik’s response to the fatwa (decree) by cleric Munir Ahmed Shakir of the Sultan Mosque in Karachi against former PPP information minister Sherry Rehman was to advise her to leave the country. Her “sin,” for which she is under a death threat, was the tabling of a bill in the National Assembly aimed at amending the blasphemy laws.

What has emerged from the recent events is that Ziaul Haq’s blasphemy laws can no longer be amended. After the countrywide strike called by the Tehrik-e-Tahaffuz-e-Namoos-e-Risalat (TTNR) on Dec 31, against any such move, the PPP religious affairs minister, Syed Khurshid Shah, declared in the National Assembly that the government has no intention to change the laws. In the Punjab Assembly the PML-N’s Rana Sanaullah described the blasphemy laws as perfect, while the opposition parties staged a token walkout in solidarity with the TTNR. Subsequent to Salmaan Taseer’s assassination, the Khyber-Paktunkhwa Assembly passed a unanimous resolution calling on the government to abort any plans to amend the blasphemy laws, while Prime Minister Yusuf Raza Gilani gave a categorical assurance on Jan 10 that this was not contemplated.

What must be attempted is a return to sanity. There is need to pause and reflect on the actual teachings of Islam. Young Bilawal Bhutto struck the right note when, during a memorial service organised by the Pakistan High Commission in London in honour of Salmaan Taseer, he quoted a saying of the Holy Prophet (PBUH): “Beware! If anyone dare oppress a member of a minority or has usurped his or her rights, or tortured, or took away something forcibly, I will fight on behalf of the minority against the Muslim on the Day of Judgement.”

The writer is the publisher of Criterion quarterly. Email: iftimurshed

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