By Kunwar Khuldune Shahid
May 21, 2015
The last time an organised campaign to apostatise a Pakistani politician was launched, the cult of Mumtaz Qadri was born. It is an extension of, among others, the cult of ‘Ghazi’ Ilam Din ‘Shaheed’, which traces its roots to, among others, the Ridda Wars of 632-633 AD and Deuteronomy 13. The accusation of apostasy levelled against Information Minister Pervez Rasheed has been a fatal allegation for millennia, spanning a wide gamut of realms and incorporating many a religion.
Salmaan Taseer ‘blasphemed’ half a decade ago by stating a mere fact, that the blasphemy law was being misused to settle personal scores, usually against non-Muslims. Pervez Rasheed is being ‘apostatised’ for another factual remark, that the Madrasas are ‘universities of ignorance’ and promote a ‘culture of hatred’. The then ruling PPP government’s appeasement of incandescent mullahs, both before and after Taseer’s murder, is being dutifully replicated by the PML-N government, which took over a week to take action against banners in Islamabad accusing Rasheed of being an ‘atheist’ and ‘apostate’, in turn calling for his dismissal and execution.
As is the norm, the leaders of the Wafaq-ul-Madaris – the representatives of the Deobandi madrassas – or the likes of Mufti Munib ur Rehman, the Chief of Ittehad Tanzimat Madaris who ‘refused to accept Pervez Rasheed’s regrets’, will be dubbed as ‘religious extremists’ by those not supporting the mullahs or acquiescing to their claims. The term ‘extremists’ used to describe the radical religionists is quite often a misnomer, for it implies that they are a fringe minority and that the ideals they uphold are not adhered to by the lion’s share of the community.
How exactly has this ‘fringe minority’ of religious fanatics managed to hold a country of 200 million people hostage, with an arsenal comprising unsubstantiated accusations, without any political power? What is it about these ‘radical few’ that prevents the federal government from speaking up for prominent members of the ruling party?
It is the moral superiority and monopoly over truth attached to religion by radicals, apologists and moderates alike, that quite often lulls the conscience into complying with bullying and blatant thuggery. Wherever religious extremism has had prominence, the ideals perpetuated by the radicals has had the backing of a significant chunk of the population, despite the fact that most of them might just be lip-syncing to the chorus of dogmatic bigotry, and might not bellow themselves.
Bangladesh, among the few Muslim countries that have incorporated secularism – albeit understandably oxymoronic – into their Constitution, has witnessed brutal murders of three atheist bloggers this year, with Ananta Bijoy Das the latest to fall prey to radical Islamists last week. The Sheikh Hasina-led Awami League hasn’t taken a stand for the free-thinkers, despite the fact that it has traditionally had a liberal vote bank. A year after the violent and uncertain general election, the Awami League is unsure about the opinion of the moderate Muslims – the fluctuating buffer between the Islamist-secularist divide – and hence sceptical of publicly supporting ‘atheists’ and ‘blasphemers’.
If the radicals are a minority, surely the governments shouldn’t be wary of offending potential voters – and potential murderers – in ‘extremist’ Pakistan and ‘liberal’ Bangladesh alike. It is precisely this conspicuous circumvention, a manoeuvre to shield ‘religious sentiments’ – something both Islamists and the liberal left in the West reverently protect – that provides invaluable fodder to the radicals, forcing the government and the masses to submit to their thuggery.
Even so, to claim that thuggery of religion is an exclusive feature of Islam, or Muslims, would be to draw a sketch from the fantasies of anti-Muslim bigots around the globe.
The Rohingya Muslims of Myanmar are currently at the receiving end of Buddhist thuggery. The self-avowed moral authority that is common to all religious fanatics, and neo-colonialists, is being brutally used by the monks of a religion generally perceived as ‘pacifist’ and ‘tranquil’. The Rakhine attacks of 2012, violence in Central Burma a year later and last year’s Mandalay riots, have rendered over a tenth of the Rohingya population homeless.
Just like democracies in the Muslim countries, the Myanmar government has supported the jingoism of the 969 movement, and removed the ‘Rohingya’ ethnicity from the national census. The anti-Rohingya monks, led by the self-proclaimed “Burmese Bin Laden” Wirathu, vociferously claim that their actions are completely in synchrony with their religion and its scriptures.
Meanwhile, the likes of anti-Balaka and other Christian militants, are busy in ethnic cleansing of Muslims in the Central African Republic (CAR) following Michel Djotodia’s rise to power in 2013. Djotodia, the first Muslim president of a Christian country, was pressurised into resigning in January 2014 resulting in a Christian-Muslim civil war.
Not to mention that the primary reason behind the post-1967 Jewish settlements in the West Bank, one of the major bones of contention in the Israel-Palestinian conflict, is the Israeli right-wing’s infatuation with ‘Judea and Samaria’ where most of the Biblical tales were played out. The Jewish entitlement over the ‘entire land of Israel’, as a ‘God-given’ right is among the many factors culminating in Israeli violence against Palestine.
Saffron terror of the Hindu extremists, of course, is well documented in our neck of the woods as well.
The mention of Buddhist, Christian, Jewish or Hindu extremism, and their vindication being sought from the religious scriptures, is in no way to counterbalance militant Islamism with radical forms of other religion, as many opinion makers seem to do. Terrorist attacks in the name of Islam both outnumber, and are more globally spread over, as compare to incidents of violence in the name of other religions. However, moral authority, which is common – but not limited – to all religions, forms the raison d’etre of religious thuggery, with the non-violent members of the religion being silenced by the commonalities they share with the radicals, the most noteworthy being belief in monopoly over truth and morality.
Religion has never been conducive to pluralistic societies or states. However, there have been countless instances where it has propelled individuals into striving for personal and even common good. Religion’s personal utility notwithstanding, any efforts to incorporate it into policymaking or giving it moral authority, inevitably breeds violence.
While it’s vital to fundamentalism and hence inalienable for religious fanatics, it’s the moderates who need to compromise their belief in the moral superiority attached to the ‘right interpretation’ of a given religion. Claiming any interpretation to be the ultimate truth and hence the perfect guideline for mankind, inadvertently allows the flag-bearers of a radical interpretation, backed by arms and self-motivated murderers, to present theirs as such.
If more moderates spoke up against religion’s self-endowed moral superiority, and denounced the blasphemy law and madrassas in numbers, Salmaan Taseer wouldn’t have been killed and Pervez Rasheed’s life wouldn’t be in danger as things stand. What we’ve been doing instead is indulging in self-defeating and pointless debates over the ‘true’ interpretation of Islam.