Let’s not create a Frankenstein
Air Cdre Ishfaq Ilahi Choudhury (Retd)
The campaign to declare Ahmadiyya community as “non-Muslims” is going on unabated in various parts of the country. Despite feeble voices of protest from some quarters of the civil society, the religious bigots are virtually having a free run. The general feeling is that as long as one is not an Ahmadi why bother? In the recent conference held in Dhaka, the International Khatme Nabuwat Committee showed off their international support by bringing in like-minded religious leaders from Pakistan and some ME countries. Their threat to the Government and the High Court of Bangladesh was unequivocal and unambiguous, “Declare the Ahmadis as non-Muslims or face a blood bath“. In Bogra, a group of stick-wielding religious fanatics forced the authority to cave in to their pressure. The signboard of Ahmadiyya mosque was pulled down and a banner brought by the fanatics was hung instead. This was a repeat show of what happened earlier in Dhaka, Chittagong or Khulna. In all cases, the law enforcers were either silent spectators or actively collaborated with the fanatics.
Beyond the constitutional and legal question of whether the state has any business to declare a group of people as ‘Muslims’ or ‘non-Muslims’, there is the important question of long-term implication of such a decision on the character of state itself. Pakistan, where the Ahmadiyya conflict originated, can be taken as a case study. Although Mirza Ghulam Ahmed, the Messiah of the Ahmadiyya, was born in Qadian, now in Indian Punjab and hundreds of thousands of his followers are living as Muslims throughout the world, it was in Pakistan that a call was made in 1953 by Maulana Abul Ala Maududi, the founder President of Jamaat-e-Islami, to declare them as non-Muslims. The call emanated more from political expediency than religious fervour. The Ahmadis, although small in number, had a strong position in Pakistan; Lahore had been their stronghold. The foreign minister of Pakistan at the time was Sir Zafarullah Khan, an Ahmadi. So were many top brasses in the bureaucracy and military. Although they were 5% of the population, 20% of the total literate persons were Ahmadi. Maulana Maududi, a refugee from India, had no constituency in Pakistan so he had to create one. The campaign to declare the Ahmadis as ‘non-Muslim’ gave him his chance. Anti-Ahmadiyya riot swept across Pakistani Punjab. Pakistan, created in the name of Islam, was besmirched within six years of its creation with Muslim blood shed by fellow Muslims. Rioting was particularly severe in Lahore that resulted in the imposition of Martial Law in the city. That was also the beginning of the inroad of military in Pakistan politics. Maududi was arrested, tried in a special military tribunal and sentenced to death in March 1953. The sentence was revoked later only under pressure from countries such as Saudi Arabia. The Anti-Ahmadiyya frenzy soon cooled down and there was no trouble till 1974. Then a westernised, left-leaning Prime Minister with dubious past, Mr. Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto, passed a law declaring the Ahmadis as non-Muslims. Remember the timing 1974. This was a period of deep despair and despondency in Pakistan. The country had recently lost a war, was reduced by half, economy was in shambles and the Pakistani statehood was in question. How do you divert the attention of the masses from the vital issues facing the nation? Blame the minority Ahmadis for all the failures and pitfalls, declare them non-Muslims and throw them out of all public offices was the prescription. Many Ahmedis lost their jobs and business only because of their faith. I remember Air Chief Marshal Zafar Choudhury, then the Chief of Pakistan Air Force, was removed from the office just because of he was an Ahmadi. Dr. Abdus Salam, an Ahmadiyya Muslim and the only Muslim Nobel prizewinner physicist had no place in his own country; he had to die and lay buried in Italy. The Ahmadiyya community fought back with legal suits that went on till 1984 when under the dictatorial regime of General Zia-ul-Haque, the Supreme Court in Pakistan upheld the government order of declaring the Ahmadis as non-Muslims. Soon Ahmadis ceased to exist as a cognisable factor in Pakistan. Did it silence the religious fanatics? The answer is a loud and clear, ‘No’. More the government of Pakistan appeased the religious fanatics, the more strident became their demands. Once the Ahmadis were cornered and virtually eliminated from public life, the attention shifted to the Shias that constitute about 13% of the population of Pakistan. Extremist Sunni clerics declared the Shias as ‘Kaffirs’ and formed ‘Jehadi’ groups to wage attacks on them. The Shias retaliated with ‘Fatwa’ from their clerics. The Shia- Sunni clash, unheard of in the early years of Pakistan, soon became regular affairs. The country was thrust into an endless cycle of violence between the two sects. Because the Shias are minority and are economically and politically marginalised, they are mostly at the receiving end. From isolated incidents of violence, the communal clash turned into full-blown urban warfare. Now the suicide bombers have entered the scene. Imagine the hatred generated in the minds of impressionable young men when they think that it is worth blowing themselves up if they could take a number of ‘Kaffir’ to hell while they enter instantly to the Garden of Eden. Thus we hear frequently of suicide bombers blowing themselves up inside the crowded mosques and shrines. From Gilgit to Karachi, from Quetta to Lahore, the Shia-Sunni clash is ripping Pakistan apart.
Latest in the line of fire in Pakistan is the tiny Ismaili sect. Twenty-two Sunni religious organisations in Pakistan have joined together in their campaign to declare the Ismailis as non-Muslims. Interestingly, some of the ‘Berlavi’ Muslim organisations that were so long considered moderate have joined ranks with the Deobandis in the campaign against the Ismailis. Ismailis are an offshoot of Shia sect, a few million of whom are scattered across the globe. Two further offshoots of the Ismailis, known as the Agha Khanis and the Bohras, are especially concentrated in urban centres of the sub-continent. The communities are small but well knit, educated, urbane and westernised in their outlook. They concentrate on business and industries rather than on politics, bureaucracy or military. Some of the biggest financial institutions in Pakistan are owned by the Ismailis. Because they maintain low profile in politics, they had for so long missed the attention of the religious fanatics. But now it is their turn to face the wrath. The Government in Pakistan is now faced with a new problem that would have enormous economic implications, if not political fallout.
We in Bangladesh should not ignore the hard lessons learnt in Pakistan; similar act is being played out here. By banning Ahmadiyya publications, the government has already acknowledged the fact that there exists a prima facie case for intervention by the state. Thankfully, the High Court nullified that order. Let us assume that the government succumb to the pressure and declare the Ahmadis as non-Muslims. What will be the implications? It will open up the “Pandora’s Box” as in Pakistan. Tomorrow another group might come out to declare the Shias as non-Muslims. They might seize Shia mosques and ‘Imambaras’ and put up signboards warning Muslims not to enter those places. This year, for the first time in Bangladesh, we had a grenade attack on a Muharram programme. Thankfully, no one was hurt. The Shias are too few in numbers in Bangladesh to react violently as they do in Pakistan, but our relations with countries such as Iran will be strained no doubt. We have small numbers of Ismailis in Bangladesh, mostly engaged in business, trade and industries. They would be scared at the recent turn of events. There are different sects even among Sunni Muslims that widely differ in theological beliefs and practices. Deobandis and Berlavis have serious differences between them and often call each other ‘deviants’ or even ‘Kaffirs’. Deobandi extremists are suspected of attacks in ‘Mazars’ and ‘Dargahs’, which are venerated by the Berlavi devotees. There has been many such bombings in Pakistan and Bangladesh in recent days. If the state joins in the fray and starts labelling different sects as ‘non-Muslims’, soon there will not be many Muslims left. Can we imagine what era of darkness we are heading into?
We cannot allow Bangladesh to turn into a religious battleground. Both the major political parties, which are essentially modern and progressive in their outlook, have played or are playing religious cards to secure short-term political gains. They must realise that in the end they themselves will be devoured by their protégé.
In an article in the Daily Star on 7 February, I pointed out that unless we put our house in order, there would be external interference much to our disliking. Discrimination or violence against ethnic, linguistic or religious minority are no longer treated as the internal affairs of a state; these become matters of international concern. I quoted the Darfur affairs in Sudan as an example. Now look what US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said in Delhi on 19 Mar during her visit there. She said, “There is more that we (USA and India) probably need to do on Bangladesh which is, I think, a place that is becoming quite troubling. So in the region, there is a great deal that we can do.” According to the Daily Star report, when asked as to what role she thought India should be playing in the region in dealing with failing states such as Bangladesh, Nepal or Sri Lanka, and of course Pakistan, Ms Rice replied that there were several ways in which India, and then India and the United States together, can help in this region. This is a strong and clear warning to our policy makers, “Get your house in order, or else ………”
No self-respecting citizen would like to hear this kind of comments coming out of the US Secretary of State at a time when the nation is celebrating its Independence Day. There is no doubt that since independence in 1971, this country has made significant progress in many socio-economic sectors. Our life expectancy is up, population growth rate is down, calorie intake is up and child mortality is down. People are better educated, better housed and better clothed today than anytime in the past. Very few countries in the world can boast a constant double-digit export growth for a decade Bangladesh is one. Our Human Development Index (HDI) is climbing every year, not a mean feat for a country with huge population and with limited natural resources. It would be most unfortunate if we allow these hard-earned gains to be destroyed by few self-motivated fanatics. On the eve of our Independence Day, may we all resolve to concentrate our energy on constructing this nation, rather than deconstructing it.
The author is a contributor to The Daily Star
copyright © thedailystar.net