Pakistan: Surrender to fanaticism

– Surrender to fanaticism

Today the orthodox clerics are supporting their quaint theory of private justice and denying a person’s accountability under the law on the ground that his action is not an offence under the Islamic code. How has this about-turn taken place?

By I.A. Rehman

Nobody should be surprised at the wave of protest unleashed by religio-political groups against the award of death sentence to the self-confessed assassin of Salmaan Taseer.

A number of factors have contributed to the rise of the theory that acts committed while complying with Islamic commandments are not punishable under the Penal Code. At the same time the state’s consistent policy of appeasing obscurantists has robbed it of the will as well as the capacity to deal with criminal elements that take shelter under their interpretation of the shariah.

Looking back at the Muslim mindset in British India we find that Muslim associations, by and large, had a pacifist orientation. The Khaksars, a military-like organisation, had a labourer’s tool (shovel) as their weapon. The Ahrars used violent language against Ahmadis but calls to kill them were quite rarely heard. The Jamiatul-Ulemai Islam had a youth wing, Khuddam-uddin, devoted to peaceful service of the faithful. The Red Shirts, who followed an ideological mix of politics and religion, called themselves Khudai Khidmatgars and not only preached non-violence but also practised it. Almost all parties eschewed the politics of violence, except for what happened in response to the Muslim League’s call for direct action.

Instances of violent crime committed and justified in the name of belief were not unknown but freedom from the legal consequences was generally not claimed. When Swami Shardhanand; an aggressive advocate of Shuddhi, was killed by a Muslim zealot, the latter’s exemption from legal proceedings was not claimed. Indeed, the All-India Muslim League, at its annual session, condemned the Swami’s murder. When Ghazi Ilmuddin killed Singh for blasphemy nobody said he was not liable to be tried under the law. Allama Iqbal only tried to find a good defence lawyer and neither Mr Jinnah’s non-availability nor his realistic advice on the line of defence made him angry. (Incidentally, the defence for this much-acclaimed aashiq-i-Rasool (PBUH) was planned by a well-known Ahmadi, Chaudhry Zafarullah Khan.) In most cases those who killed in the name of Islam accepted the consequences, welcomed shahadat, and kissed the gallows.

Today the situation is radically different. The orthodox clerics are supporting their quaint theory of private justice and denying a person’s accountability under the law on the ground that his action is not an offence under the Islamic code. How has this about-turn taken place?

The rot began in a systemic way with the Objectives Resolution of 1949. Contemporary critics of the measure had warned against the possibility that someday an adventurer in authority could justify his rule by whim and caprice on the ground of his having been ordained by God. That dark prophecy was fulfilled when Ziaul Haq imposed his personal and theologically untenable version of Islam on a defenceless population. Worse, the Resolution gave rise to the concept of two sovereignties and a Muslim’s right to defy/violate the man-made laws by invoking the superior commandment of Allah.

The concept of dual sovereignty embedded in the Objectives Resolution was reinforced in a big way with the creation of the shariat courts by Ziaul Haq. The message was clear: the sharia as interpreted by the Shariat Courts over-rode parliament-made laws. Ziaul Haq also empowered Salat Committees to enforce righteous ways (amr bil maroof) and suppress objectionable practices (munkir). The scheme did not have a long life but it did legitimise the use of force/violence by non-state actors.

After Zia, the implementation of his theories has been taken up by a faction of religious militants who have revived the vigilante practices first seen in the Arabian desert in the 18th century. Through its large seminaries and militant forces, this faction has introduced the system of beheading (often without any trial) of people in the tribal belt, destruction of schools and excesses against women and minority communities—all in the name of a religion whose followers once took pride in their pursuit of reason and peace.

The worst form of vigilante ‘justice’ is the theory that every Muslim has a right and a duty to arbitrarily kill a blasphemy suspect. Despite the fact that the plea of death penalty for blasphemy does not enjoy unanimous support among jurisconsults, and this fact was brought out in the Federal Shariat Court during the hearing of the plea for prescribing mandatory death penalty under section 295-C of the Penal Code, conservative clerics have been promoting vigilante killing of anyone accused of blasphemy. As if that was not enough, some legal authorities, including judges, came out in support of such killings.

The story of the rise of the orthodoxy’s power has been matched by the state institutions’ resolve to keep retreating under its pressure.

The adoption of the Objectives Resolution itself amounted to appeasement of the orthodoxy for illegitimate political relief. The same can be said about the constitution-makers’ concessions (in 1956 and 1973) to conservative clerics. Ayub Khan’s casual expedition against them was short-lived; he surrendered within a year of his constitution’s enforcement. Mr Bhutto gravely undermined the future of Pakistan by foisting upon the state a totally indefensible amendment of 1974. All governments during the past 37 years have tried to stay in power not on the basis of their ability to stand up to obscurantist forces but on the strength of their closeness to them.

Besides, the state has taken no notice of the transformation of religious parties’ youth wings from agents of social service into armed militants with a licence to kill. Nobody stopped militants from replacing district administration in places where they had training camps. The religious bands have been helped by civic authorities to hang their unlawful banners in major cities. The Punjab government, for instance, has banned civil society protests on the Lahore Mall but no finger is raised when the ban is defied by mobs incited by all sorts of unholy mendicants.

The accumulated result of the obscurantists’ triumphant march and the state’s suicidal policy of retreat before them is that anyone can get away with criminal acts by invoking divine sanction. Islam does not approve of building mosques on illegally occupied land, yet this injunction is flouted with impunity. It was this practice that eventually led to the Red Mosque showdown.

This is the reason that Salmaan Taseer has been condemned twice: once by his guard who claims to have killed him because, in his opinion, the governor had committed blasphemy; and again by the government, the ruling parties and the people who have proved themselves to be pathetic wrecks that lack the courage to call murder by its only possible description. The assassin has been lionised by lawyers and jail authorities. And there have been elements in the media that have helped glorification of the killer without bothering to probe the story of Salmaan Taseer’s alleged act of blasphemy. A leading newspaper took pride in the fact that the pro-Qadri demonstrators had thanked it for adequately covering their protest.

Strangely enough, the conservative clerics are using both the man-made law (the Penal Code) and what they describe as divine law in discovering blasphemy in actions, often involuntary, that do not attract this dreaded label. Quite a few professionals spend their time filing complaints about offences against religion. The objective is to secure prosecution, conviction and punishment under the Penal Code. At the same time, they reserve the right for every believer to administer extra-legal punishment. Finally, they deny the vigilante killers’ liability to face trial and suffer punishment under the country’s penal laws. Such examples of having the best of both the worlds (virtuous and profane) can rarely be found outside Pakistan.

Considerable confusion is being caused by some people who equate the orthodoxy’s demand for reprieve for Salmaan Taseer’s murderer with human rights activists’ demand for abolition of death penalty. Such efforts seriously militate against commonsense. Those pleading for abolition of death penalty do not deny the society’s right to punish violators of the law; they only wish punishment to conform to the civilized concept of reformative justice. The religious orthodoxy on the other hand does not repudiate death penalty, it does not accept as crimes criminal actions supposedly done as part of one’s religious duty. They cannot avail of the principle upheld by abolitionists.

The central issue is what can be done to extricate Pakistan from the crises the wave of disorder in the name of religion (Iqbal’s expression) has created. Unfortunately, mischief takes root easily and quickly and its eradication needs a long period and often demands heavy sacrifice. The fight against religious intolerance will be long and hazardous. The first task is to realise the gravity of the challenge. The people of Pakistan must know they will have no future if the monster of bigotry and obscurantism cannot be laid to rest. What they face is not merely a law and order problem and therefore they will get nowhere by addressing symptoms alone. The mindset that has developed over six decades will have to be purged of all traces of abuse of religion.

What Pakistan needs is both reformation and renaissance. Nothing less can save it. And that is going to be a back-breaking process of learning and unlearning and redefining the role of religion in private life and in politics and excluding it from the affairs of the state.


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