By Yasser Latif Hamdani
November 25, 2013
Pakistan is a natural battleground for this sectarian agenda. An investigation will no doubt show that Quari Shakir was a foot soldier in this massive Arab cultural, imperialist invasion with its sectarian paraphernalia
The first amendment to the US constitution establishes the most unfettered free speech regime in the world. Even so, ‘crying fire in a crowded theatre’ is not free speech. Quari Shakir, the Maulana (cleric) who instigated the riots in Rawalpindi did precisely that. Just as the Ashura procession approached, he deliberately created blatant provocation by suggesting — quite erroneously — that Hussain (AS) had decided to bear allegiance to Yazid but was forced into conflict by his son Zain ul Abidin. This has absolutely no basis in history, which makes it all the more disturbing. What happened next was terrible and blame cannot be apportioned to one community alone. The events in Rawalpindi and elsewhere have underscored just how important it is to roll back General Zia’s Islamisation process and perhaps to go even further and separate religion from the state and governance. This is important not just to preserve peace and sanity but also to safeguard religion from controversy.
In 2013’s Pakistan, it is easy to lose sight of the fact that the founding fathers of this country came from diverse sectarian backgrounds. Zafarullah Khan was an Ahmedi (then still considered Muslim), Aga Khan was the foremost Ismaili, Bahaduryar Jang was a Mahdavi, the Raja of Mahmudabad and the Ispahanis were staunch Ithna Ashari Shias, Nazimuddin, Fazl ul Haq and Liaquat Ali Khan were Sunnis and, last but not least, the Quaid-e-Azam, Jinnah himself, was a Khoja Shia Twelver. Within the movement there were all kinds of ‘Muslims’, from secular-minded cultural Muslims only like Daniyal Latifi to the devout Barelvis like Pir Jamaat Ali Shah. It was because the Muslim League adopted a neutral and non-sectarian approach that they managed to bring on one platform a great majority of the Muslim multitudes in the subcontinent. In the final stage, there were many scheduled caste Hindus and Christians who also threw their lot in with them.
There was no single occasion in all seven years of the Pakistan Movement that official public prayers were instituted by the Muslim League or when theology or ‘Islamic ideology’ came under discussion at any of the Muslim League sessions, which were extensively recorded. Religion and theology were just not the point. Communal consciousness or Muslim nationalism may well have been rooted in a common but tenuous religious tradition, but its markers were not religious. It was — as Ian Talbot calls it — a secular Muslim nationalism comprising an argument, rightly or wrongly, based on language, culture and history rather than theology or ideology. The Muslim League model was to unite Muslims by keeping theology out. Perhaps this is the most important legacy that Pakistan today needs to unite its own fractured polity.
The ideological confusion created in the aftermath of partition in 1947, and more so after the breakup of Pakistan in 1971, ensured that this spirit of neutrality and impartiality was sacrificed on the altar of an undefined mouthful, the ‘ideology of Pakistan’. The separation of East Pakistan, which contained a largely secular and highly politicised middle class, was a triple deathblow to progressive politics, an indigenous economy and Pakistan’s founding national theory. After 1971, there were more South Asian Muslims outside Pakistan than inside it, bringing its Muslim homeland status into question. The alternative to Muslim nationalism was sought philosophically in Pan-Islamism and financially in ‘petrodollars’. This was achieved through the Islamic Summit Conference in 1974; the full impact of this much-touted Islamic unity conference on the national psyche of Pakistanis awaits its scholar. Meanwhile, the constitutional excommunication of Ahmedis laid down a dangerous precedent with General Zia taking the religious argument to its most absurd extreme.
The Islamic Revolution in Iran in 1979 was seen with trepidation by the ruling dynasties of the Muslim world at large. Saudi Arabia — a monarchy — was deathly afraid of a revolution in the Kingdom and therefore bolstered Wahabi and Salafi movements as a counterweight to Shia-ism. In other words, the Saudis wished to co-opt their own radicals and extremists by playing up the Shia threat. This is why we see Saudi Arabia standing with Israel against Iran today, a classic case of ‘my enemy’s enemy is my friend’. Pakistan is a natural battleground for this sectarian agenda. An investigation will no doubt show that Qari Shakir, the prime instigator, was a foot soldier in this massive Arab cultural, imperialist invasion with its sectarian paraphernalia.
This cultural invasion is all around us. Speaking at Allahabad in 1930, Allama Muhammad Iqbal listed the liberation of Indian Islam from the stamp of Arab imperialism as one of the reasons for his advocacy of a consolidated Muslim state in the North West of India. It is therefore an irony that the stamp of Arab imperialism has become even more pronounced in that consolidated Muslim state; the new fad of ‘Al-Bakistan’ licence plates is a case in point. After speaking Urdu for almost 800 years, the Muslims of Pakistan have decided to dispense with the letter ‘p’ and adopt ‘Allah Hafiz’ instead of ‘Khuda Hafiz’ (God be with you). That this is an urban ‘Al-Bunjabi’ middle class phenomenon experienced all along the Grand Trunk (GT) Road from Lahore to Rawalpindi correlates with the rise of sectarian and religious extremism in these areas.
One would care less if someone wanted to make a fool of themselves by having Al-Bakistan licence plates had it not been part of a larger, more disturbing trend accompanied with sectarian bigotry. The straitjacket and rigid interpretations of religion are ill suited for a populace that is informed in its religious identity by Indian, Iranian and Afghan influences and whose cultural heritage encompasses two millennia of eastern spiritual traditions. Pakistan is very much a South Asian country and will always remain one. The straitjacket of Arab cultural imperialism will only stifle us.
Yasser Latif Hamdani is a lawyer based in Lahore and the author of the book Mr Jinnah: Myth and Reality.