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Islam and Politics ( 28 Apr 2020, NewAgeIslam.Com)

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Why Do South Asia’s Influential Majorities Act Like Persecuted Minorities?

By Nadeem Paracha 

 27 April 2020 

A mob of namazis, knowingly breaking the law, attacks a policewoman trying to enforce the Sindh Government’s directive against congregating for Friday prayers in mosques. Why do South Asia’s influential majorities act like persecuted minorities? 

On April 10, a woman police officer was attacked by a mob in Karachi’s Orangi Town area. The incident took place when the officer was admonishing a group of people for breaching the Sindh Government’s directive against congregating for Friday prayers in mosques, fearing that large gatherings at mosques could hasten the spread of Covid-19. 

The order was issued on March 26, after a number of Muslim-majority countries, including Saudi Arabia, closed down mosques when the dreaded Coronavirus reached alarming proportions. The Sindh Government’s lead was soon followed by other provincial set-ups and the federal Government. However, so far only the Sindh Government has exhibited any seriousness in enforcing this decree. 

There have been other similar incidents in Karachi in which police officers have come under attack by enraged mobs trying to enter mosques. Even though there are some religious parties and clerics who have supported the Sindh Government’s intentions in this regard, Sindh Chief Minister Murad Ali Shah more than alluded that the decision to restrict people from going to mosques, especially on Fridays, was one of the toughest that his Government has had to take and implement.

The stated pluralistic and “Left-liberal” ideological disposition of Sindh’s ruling party, the PPP, can be the reason why the Sindh Government was able to take the lead in this context. But, ironically, this is exactly the reason why it was tougher for Shah to sign such a decree. Let me explain. 

Despite the fact that it was the same “Left-liberal” PPP whose first Government at the Centre — in the 1970s — found itself continuously conceding ground to religious forces, those same forces led to the Government’s downfall after accusing it of being “atheistic” and “anti-Islam.” This downfall, in 1977 and then the unprecedented manner in which religious outfits were provided political and social influence during the reactionary General Zia-ul-Haq dictatorship in the 1980s, set a precedent in which non-religious parties, even when in power, were obliged to involve religious figures in various religion-related policy matters. 

This may seem the “natural” thing to do. But Princeton University’s Professor Muhammad Qasim Zaman writes in his 2018 book Islam in Pakistan that, till the early 1970s, the State and governments in the country did not find it necessary to include religious groups in matters of policy; though they were not entirely ignored either. Zaman adds that the narrative behind this was that the “ulema were deadening the true spirit of Islam and impeding progress.” 

This narrative came into full fruition during the first half of the Ayub Khan dictatorship in the 1960s, when religious groups were consciously kept from exercising any political or social influence on the polity. Things changed when religious parties managed to make their way into the Parliament after 1971 and then went on to describe the separation of East Pakistan as the result of the State’s “misguided modernist policies” and “undermining of Islam.” Even though the ever-changing nature of the 1973 Constitution and the many ordinances issued during the Zia dictatorship, strengthened a particular Muslim majority sect in the country, why do we often see members of the same majority sect attacking police personnel, as they did in Orangi Town earlier this month? What is it that they find more threatening than the spread of a virus that has so far killed 1,97,412 people around the world? 

Is this a case of a majority behaving like a besieged minority? According to an April 14, 2018 article in The Economist, over the decades, “South Asia’s majorities have often acted like persecuted minorities.” It gives the examples of Pakistan’s Sunni Muslim majority, Sri Lanka’s Sinhalese Buddhist majority, India’s Hindu majority and also how Muslim-majority Bangladesh has behaved towards the tiny non-Muslim minority of tribal people in the country’s hills. 

The article quotes the Indian historian Mukul Kesavan as saying that “every post-colonial State in South Asia paid lip-service to pluralistic principles in the first decade of its existence before reconstituting itself as a kind of soleproprietorship run by its dominant community.” 

Kesavan is of the view that, after the first or second decades of their post-colonial existence, there has been a constant tension in South Asian countries between a constitutionally-bound State founded on equal citizenship and pluralism and a nationalist narrative informed by the logic of an ethnic or religious nationalism. But how does this tension contribute to making sections of a dominant community behave like a persecuted minority? In India, such sections within the country’s Hindu majority see the Muslim minority as a threat that was given undue relevance by Indian secularism at the expense of Hinduism. In Sri Lanka, the Sinhalese Buddhists thought the same about the country’s Hindu Tamil minority. In Pakistan, “Sunni fundamentalists” complained that they were treated as outcasts by the country’s founders, whereas minority and “heretical” Muslim sects were provided plum positions of power. 

The State and governments in South Asia, instead of addressing such misgivings from within the parameters of their original pluralistic and inclusive foundational precepts, decided to exploit these sentiments to meet some rather cynical political ends. Thus was born, what Kesavan calls, “second-hand nationalism”, based on ethnic and/or religious majoritarianism. 

Such majorities or sections often react violently when they sense the State or the Government is trying to even slightly shift from the aforementioned faith-based majoritarian nationalist narrative. We saw how documents such as the National Action Plan in Pakistan, which advocates religious reform, received threatening responses by religious lobbies. Defying the Government’s ban on visiting mosques, too, is part of the same sentiment. It is understood as a sly move to undermine faith by forces of secularism and modernism, no matter how many ulema the Government gets on board to endorse the decree. 

This is about an influential majority developing the persecution complex that is often found in historically- oppressed minorities. But this actually stretches beyond South Asia. In her book The Myth of Christian Persecution, British scholar Camdita Moss, writes that a large section of America’s Christian majoritybehaves like a persecuted community.  She writes that this mindset was developed by “a false memory” hardwired into American Christians about the historical persecution of their faith in Ancient Rome.  Moss writes that this persecution was largely due to political reasons, more than religious. 

She says that the act of a religious majority behaving like a persecuted minority is mostly about a powerful community casting itself as victims and justifying its polemical and vitriolic attacks on others. So it can be concluded that, whenever clerics in Pakistan throw up their hands claiming Islam is under attack, they are doing nothing more than safeguarding their own power and their tendency to denounce others as anti-religion — a powerful perpetrator of influence playing the wounded victim. 

Original Headline: A major persecution complex 

Source: The Pioneer