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Culture of bigotry
By Huma Yusuf
Sunday, 13 Jun, 2010
The day someone like Sharif is awaiting an ulema board’s verdict on whether or not he committed blasphemy is the day that the government should brainstorm and implement non-military means to curb bigotry. The calls for a thorough reform of the education system and curriculum and the repeal of Article 2 are endless, but they continue to fall on deaf ears. — File Photo.
What kind of sick democracy do we live in, where the declaration of equality of all citizens of the state can be deemed unconstitutional? This twisted logic was deployed by the JUI-F in its criticism of Nawaz Sharif’s comments describing Ahmadis as ‘brothers and sisters’ who are an ‘asset to the country’.
Among several other absurd reactions to Sharif’s statement, the JUI-F’s reasoning should serve as yet another wake-up call to the government that urgent social, political and legal measures must be put in place to fight the culture of bigotry and discrimination that is flourishing in Pakistan.
The JUI-F argued that Sharif was violating the constitution, which identifies Ahmadis as a minority community (never mind the fact that in a democracy, minorities enjoy an equal citizenship status and can be equal assets to the state).
This, however, was not the worst critique Sharif had to endure: the Wafaqul Madaris al Arabia accused Nawaz Sharif of defying religion and siding with ‘traitors’; ulema gathered at a seminar accused Nawaz Sharif of kowtowing to the US with his conciliatory remarks about Ahmadis; the ulema board of the Jamia Naeemia Madressah was convened to deliberate whether or not Sharif committed blasphemy by referring to non-Muslims as our ‘brethren’; and across the Pakistani blogosphere, which is supposedly populated by the nation’s educated elite and middle-class progressives, the question of whether Sharif is a kafir continues to be debated.
The irony of the backlash against Sharif cannot be lost on anyone. Since the Taliban launched an onslaught against the Pakistani state, the PML-N has refrained from condemning terrorism and extremist ideology in a forthright manner. Rather than explicitly blame the Taliban for the suicide bombings that have rocked the country, PML-N stalwarts have consistently pinned responsibility on a ‘foreign hand’.
Infamously, in February, the PML-N’s Rana Sanaullah consorted with leaders of the banned Sipah-i-Sahaba during the Jhang by-elections. And in March, Chief Minister Shahbaz Sharif caused a firestorm by suggesting that the Taliban ought to have spared Punjab on the premise that the provincial government and the militants enjoyed an ideological affinity.
In other words, the PML-N has made every effort not to enter into a confrontation with the forces of extremism. In fact, in the wake of the May 28 attacks on the Ahmadis in Lahore, Shahbaz Sharif’s adviser, Zaeem Qadri, conceded that the provincial government had not made an effort to clamp down on bigoted and anti-Ahmadi posturing for fear of an ‘adverse reaction’.
Qadri’s defensive position is a throwback to Mian Muhammad Khan Daultana, the chief minister of the Punjab in 1953 who refused to take on the religious parties as they waged an anti-Ahmadi campaign, fearing a ‘head-on clash’. Daultana’s inaction became the subject of the now iconic judicial inquiry headed by Justices Muhammad Munir and M.R. Kiyani.
As Sharif makes every effort to clarify and retract his statements, he should probably re-read the Munir Report, the most eloquent defence of secularism which cautioned against trying to define what a Muslim is — thereby bringing a religious matter into the realm of the state — over 50 years ago.
After asking a gathering of ulema to offer their definitions of a Muslim, and finding that consensus was impossible, the justices wrote, “If we attempt our own definition as each learned divine has done and that definition differs from that given by all others, we unanimously go out of the fold of Islam. And if we adopt the definition given by any one of the ulema, we remain Muslims according to the view of that alim but kafirs according to the definition of everyone else.”
This is exactly the lesson that Sharif learned in the past few days. Despite all his party’s attempts to curry favour with rightwing and extremist forces, he ‘went out of the fold’ by making even the most insipid remarks in support of the Ahmadi community. By refusing to learn from history, the PML-N has repeated it. The tigers of Punjab are now cowering in a corner, licking their wounds, while talk of a military operation in their home province circulates on the international stage. It seems the monster of militancy and bigotry has grown so wild that it has come to threaten its benefactors.
But those who have been critical of the PML-N’s apathy towards extremism should not feel smug. The backlash against Sharif — a powerful politician with Saudi backing and rightwing credentials — underscores just how cheaply accusations of blasphemy (and, by extension, incitements to violence) can be come by in Pakistan.
In our newly established culture of 24/7 news reporting, people accuse and abuse with impunity — a fact that is increasingly exploited by the religious right. And any society in which an accusation that is not backed by evidence can carry so much weight if dressed in the trimmings of religious purity is doomed to endless cycles of violence, hate and regression.
The day someone like Sharif is awaiting an ulema board’s verdict on whether or not he committed blasphemy is the day that the government should brainstorm and implement non-military means to curb bigotry. The calls for a thorough reform of the education system and curriculum and the repeal of Article 2 are endless, but they continue to fall on deaf ears.
Perhaps, then, as a stop-gap measure, the government should try a different tack, one that is less daunting than education and constitutional reform.
Last year, after dismissing the human rights implications of the legislation, the government passed the Anti-Terrorism Amendment Ordinance (2009), which significantly shifted the burden of proof onto those accused of being involved in terrorist activities. In a similar vein, the government should consider legislation that shifts the burden of proof of blasphemy onto the accuser, and doles out strict penalties against those who make false accusations.