By Ayaz Amir
August 01, 2014
Pakistani democracy has done things to itself which it now finds impossible to get rid of. We can take it as an axiom of ‘modern’ civilisation that the state has no business to legislate about religion. It is not for the state to say who is an infidel, who a pagan or who a righteous Muslim. And please let us not take Saudi Arabia as a model. The Saudi kingdom is unique unto itself. We can take its money and say thanks but it is not a model that any other country, while remaining sane, should care to emulate.
Having fixed this cardinal principle, let us see what has happened here. As if our fixation with religious rhetoric – the lip-service to the faith – was not enough, in 1974 the Islamic Republic took upon itself the task of religious definitionism – who stood within the circle of the faith and who outside the pale of Islam.
It was under no dictator that Pakistan went down this path. This happened under the umbrella of democracy and under the freshly-passed 1973 constitution no less. Thus where Pakistan in a supposedly democratic era should have moved towards greater social freedom, towards a clearer demarcation between the kingdom of the temporal and the realm of the spiritual, it went down the path of reaction – hallooing and cheering that a great blow had been struck for Islam.
And the great leader of the time, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, felt that by so doing he had secured for himself political immortality. Barely three years later, he was overthrown in Pakistan’s most reactionary and backward-looking coup – a watershed event which ultimately flung wide open the doors to bigotry and fanaticism, the hallmarks of today’s Pakistan – and two years after that he was carried on a stretcher to the gallows. So much for immortality.
On the foundations thus dug by Bhutto, his successor, Gen Ziaul Haq, erected a veritable temple of religious particularism (I am being careful with my words), decreeing through an ordinance issued in 1984 that it was a criminal offence for members of the Qadiani community to proclaim themselves Muslims or call their places of worship mosques.
The 1974 constitutional amendment passed under Bhutto, the 1984 ordinance decreed by Zia, allied to changes in the blasphemy law sanctified by the 1985 parliament have together created a peculiar climate of fear for Pakistan’s minorities. The application of the blasphemy law has hit the Christian community the hardest. The application of the three laws together has affected the Qadiani community the most.
It is not a question of doctrine – whether the doctrinal matters these laws touch are right or wrong. Of practical importance is the larger principle – whether it is any business of the state to legislate on religious matters. For when the state sets out on this path it leads, as history amply shows, to the Spanish Inquisition, the burning of witches and supposed heretics at the stake or the head of Mansur on a pike displayed on the city walls.
By passing such laws in Pakistan our legislators or self-serving dictators were supposedly holding aloft the banner of the faith and, in their own estimation, striking blows for the eternal glory of Islam. The reality is somewhat different. Over the years the winds of intolerance have been fanned, bigotry and fanaticism have flourished and what we call the minorities have had a rough deal, the application of the law – and we are talking of well-documented cases – discriminating against them.
The latest in this steady march of outrages is the shocking incident in Gujranwala where an allegation of blasphemy – and so far it is just a one-sided allegation with no supporting evidence or witnesses whatsoever – leading to attacks on Qadiani families, culminating in the suffocation to death of an elderly lady and two of her minor granddaughters. The house in which they were hiding along with others was set on fire.
Things have reached such a pass and religious feelings so easily inflamed that anyone can make an untested allegation of sacrilege or blasphemy and if the accused is from the lower classes and is either a Christian or a Qadiani it takes little time for a mob to gather and go on the rampage – society leaders either watching the spectacle in silence, too afraid to intervene, or, as so often happens, pouring oil over the flames. There is also evidence to indicate that in many instances a blasphemy charge becomes a handy excuse for someone out to settle a score or achieve a mercenary purpose.
The police usually cut a sorry figure, arriving too late or standing by proclaiming their ineffectiveness and helplessness. So it has been in Gujranwala. In the video pictures of the incident to be seen on YouTube the police were on the scene but for all the difference they made they might as well not have bothered.
How do we roll back the tide? How do we make Pakistan a more tolerant society? Democracy may have a hundred achievements to its credit but Pakistani democracy has proven itself a frightened animal when it comes to social evils. It will not touch them, afraid as it is of its own shadow. If the 1984 ordinance was the brainchild of a dictator, six democratic governments – 1988, 1990, 1993, 1997, 2008 and 2013 – have had the chance to remove it from the books and roll back the wheels of state interference in religious matters. They have done nothing of the kind. Six more democratic governments may come and this state of affairs will remain unchanged.
Two democratic governments have found the YouTube ban too hot an issue to handle. How does anyone expect these souls of chivalry and emblems of knighthoods to touch anything hotter?
So who can take up the challenge? Who can set the historical record right? In Pakistan’s particular milieu only a Kemalist figure can, someone invested with legitimacy not by the constitution – we have seen enough of that – but by military performance, and then taking the tough decisions that Pakistan’s elected politicians in a hundred years will shy away from.
Take also the Hudood Ordinance, passed again by Gen Zia as a sop to Saudi vanity, because he was just about to hang Bhutto and his treasury was empty. He wanted both Saudi money and Saudi silence over Bhutto’s end. For Zia and his regime it may have been a useful thing at the time but we are stuck with it. Has Pakistan become a purer place because of this law? Is there less boozing and less homage to the oldest profession because of the Hudood Ordinance? Has vice been eliminated from our hallowed spaces? Are we better Muslims? Police bribery rates have gone up – the only useful outcome of this law.
The Ottoman Caliphate, kicked into history’s dustbin by Kemal Ataturk, for all its decrepitude was tolerant of other faiths. It passed no laws such as we have passed. What caliphate are we constructing? Our founding fathers played the religious card in the run-up to the creation of Pakistan. Otherwise they were enlightened figures, schooled for the most part in western liberal thought and with little tolerance for the ingrained social prejudices of the traditional theocracy. The country’s founder, the great Jinnah, would not have understood much of the nonsense at which we have come to specialise.
Four items of social backwardness lend a mediaeval cast to our society: the discriminatory laws touching religious belief, the Hudood Ordinance, Pakistan’s apartheid system of education – one for the lower orders, something else for those who can afford it – and, last but not least, the peculiar caste system which prevails with us – Ashrafs and Kammis. Ataturk abolished all titles. A Pakistani Kemal should do the same – Chaudhris, rajas, Maliks, Makhdooms and what have you…what age are we living in?
These tasks fulfilled, the Kemalist figure can step back into the shadows and the democrats can return. And we can mount the walls of the Fortress of Islam and midst a flourish of trumpets and the beating of drums celebrate the restoration of democracy.