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COMMENT: Religion column and enlightened moderation — Ishtiaq Ahmed
When and how the Muslim world in general and Pakistan in particular will free itself from the medieval mindset that interprets Islam only as a discriminatory and repressive political ideology is difficult to guess. It will undoubtedly necessitate a confrontation between the forces of reaction and the forces of progress.
Prime Minister Shaukat Aziz’s decision to restore the religion column in the Pakistani passport comes as a great disappointment to many liberal people who believed that while the conventional political parties had failed to present a democratic alternative he, as General Pervez Musharraf’s hand-picked prime minister who had been conferred ‘democratic legitimacy’ through the ritual of an election, would play a positive role in enhancing ‘enlightened moderation’. When governments at the beginning of the 21st century include a religion column in their passports and claim that they stand for enlightened moderation they are obviously being highly facetious. Still, they expect to be taken seriously!
It is now clear that Pakistan will have to wait for a long time before historical necessity forces it to change course. After all, nationalism and totalitarianism afflicted European societies for the first half of the 20th century and drove them into two world wars. The works of Hobbes, Locke, Rousseau, Kant and other great writers in favour of peace did not suffice. Only through war and mass slaughter did the Europeans realise the wisdom of open and tolerant democracies. It seems that certain pathological trends are contagion that infect the attitude and behaviour of societies so that no remedial input can help. Only a terrible surgical intervention can provide succour. That is how Europe rid itself of the twin diseases of nationalism and totalitarianism.
Muslim countries, with the exception of Turkey and Malaysia, are not stable democracies though they are not anti-modern polities either. Most of them are ruled by authoritarian regimes which often times are corrupt. Their virtue is that they keep fundamentalist Muslims at bay, preventing them from coming into power and imposing their obscurantist agendas on the rest of society.
In Pakistan, we might not be able to play even that role because we have a long history, predating the country’s emergence, of exploiting religion to achieve quick political results — when we outmanoeuvred the 50-year long freedom struggle of the Indian National Congress by dubbing it as Hindu nationalist and a cover for Hindu Raj. The Muslim League deployed the most reactionary ulema, the Barelvis, to address public meetings. These ulema let loose a battery of religious slogans, even captivating the imagination of Muslim intelligentsia which joined the fray enthusiastically. Brilliant strategy. We attained Pakistan without any of our leaders ever having to spend a single day in a prison for opposing British colonial rule.
From the wisdom of hindsight, one can say that whereas for Pakistan it was bad luck that the Quaid died so soon after independence, it was good for him personally to have left without being reminded that he was an Ismaili Shia — a sect we now want to declare non-Muslim. A mythology has indeed been woven around the personality of Jinnah. Some say he quietly dissociated himself from Ismailism and became a nominal Ithna Ashari (Twelver) Shia. I was told by a very learned Shia gentleman that when Jinnah died two funerals were held: a private family funeral according to Ithna Ashari Shia rites led by Mufti Jaffar Hussain and a public funeral according to Sunni rites led by Shaikh ul Islam Maulana Shabbir Ahmed Usmani. Other stories, most certainly wholly apocryphal, suggest that Jinnah converted to Sunni Islam and was initiated into the Qadriyya Sufi order and was often seen offering Tahajud prayers late at night. Among all these stories the only unquestionable fact is that he was born a follower of the Aga Khan.
However, what Quaid-e-Azam Mohammad Ali Jinnah demonstrated as the most effective specific strategy to outmanoeuvre the Congress became a general tool that his successors began to apply without let or hindrance to outwit one another. Thus the anti-Ahmadiyya disturbances in the Punjab were exploited by a former Communist-sympathiser, Mian Mumtaz Daultana, to bring down the government of Khwaja Nazimuddin and become prime minister. The bureaucrats that ruled Pakistan after the assassination of Liaqat Ali Khan in 1951 raised the bogey of ‘Islam in danger’ and ‘Pakistan in danger’ each time the people demanded provincial autonomy and an end to feudalism and un-elected government. In the process we lost East Pakistan.
Zulfikar Ali Bhutto did not hesitate to play the populist Islamist card in the hope of outwitting the ulema in Punjab when he had the Ahmadiyya declared non-Muslims in 1974. Rather than being crowned the great defender of the faith, the ulema launched a movement to oust Bhutto in the name of true Islam.
That brought General Muhammad Ziaul Haq into power. He realised he lacked political legitimacy but that the wide gap could be filled with a heavy load of reactionary Islamic laws because no one would have the courage to question whether he had the right to make such laws or not or whether such laws were fit for a civilised society or not. His obscurantist laws remained unquestioned and unchallenged under Benazir Bhutto and Nawaz Sharif.
General Pervez Musharraf captured power on October 12, 1999 and initially praised the great Turkish reformer Mustafa Kemal Atatürk. For a moment I believed that Pakistan had a chance finally to change course. That illusion must now be discarded. General Musharraf and Shaukat Aziz have done what is in their best interest, but they need to ponder if their compromises are in the best interest of Pakistan.
When and how the Muslim world in general and Pakistan in particular will free itself from the medieval mindset that interprets Islam only as a discriminatory and repressive political ideology is difficult to guess. It will undoubtedly necessitate a confrontation between the forces of reaction and the forces of progress; the latter probably exist at present only in the minds of frustrated intellectuals but at some point society must react against populism and obscurantism or accept the consequences of religious fascism. We can only pray that when it happens, the price would not be paid in blood as the Europeans had to pay when they let nationalism and totalitarianism cloud their better judgment for almost half a century.
The author is an associate professor of political science at Stockholm University. He is the author of two books. His email address is Ishtiaq.Ahmed @ statsvet.su.se