By Arshad Alam, New Age Islam
19 November 2018
There comes a time in every nation’s history when it comes face to face with its past. Most crises carry within it the possibilities not just to fight with the situation but also chart new pathways of opportunities. The moment came and perhaps passed in Pakistan recently without of course any possible attempt to rectify the misdeeds of the past or to chart a new and brave political future. That opportunity was provided by the case of Aasia Bibi, the Christian woman wrongly accused of blasphemy. After spending nearly a decade on a false charge, the woman was set free by the Pakistan Supreme Court which in itself was an unprecedented move of courage and sagacity. The judges, unmoved by the threats of narcissistic mullahs hell bent on creating trouble, calmly asserted that the bedrock of any modern state is that the rule of law is equally applicable to all citizens, including religious minorities. Pakistan has come to such a pass that for even this simple pronouncement, the judges had to take extraordinary caution and in fact gave interviews afterwards justifying their decision. They argued clearly that there was no evidence against the accused and under the circumstances, they cannot do anything but set her free. Her decade long incarceration was thus illegal, but then compensation for loss of productive years is too much to ask in many parts of the world. The judges were bold and they must be congratulated for reading the law to the mullahs: Pakistan should be governed by modern law and that law should be equally applicable to everyone irrespective of their religion. A modern nation state cannot be governed by the archaic demands of the mullahs.
While the pronouncement proved beyond doubt that the law of blasphemy is inherently designed to punish religious minorities, what escaped attention was how little Islam has impacted on the caste system despite its supposed egalitarianism. Most Christians in Pakistan are from the ex-untouchable castes, a legacy of the undivided subcontinent. Aasia Bibi suffered not just because she was a Christian but also because she was from an ex-untouchable caste. That Muslims practice untouchability in a land where Islam rules the roost should shame all Muslims. But then, this is hardly an issue for a country obsessed with Islam and its supposed enemy the Hindus.
Partial congratulations are also in order for the new Prime Minister of Pakistan: the way he addressed the nation soon after the verdict while the mullahs were threatening judges and rampaging the streets of Pakistan calls for a different kind of bravery, something which Pakistan has not seen in a long time. But then, I say it is partial because soon he entered into an agreement with the same set of mullahs who were holding Pakistan to ransom. The terms of that agreement will only be counter-productive to establishing a secular Pakistan but then in the short term, it did give relief to the state. However, the cost of this short term relief appears to be too high. First it has brought an equivalence between the mad mullahs who refuse to stand with the highest court of the land and the government which should have ideally upheld that legal pronouncement without coming to any compromise. The agreement between the Pakistani government and the Tahreek Labaik tells us categorically that with the slogan of Islam in danger, the cunning mullahs can get away with almost anything. Secondly, by apparently agreeing that the government will not block a review of Bibi’s case, the government has ceded its fundamental authority to the mullahs: that of being the sole custodian to decide what should be the best interest of the state. In becoming amenable to outside influence and that too of a fundamentalist kind, the present Pakistani government has set a very dangerous precedent.
But then what can be expected from a government whose prime minister actually cut a deal with the same fundamentalist not very long time ago. While in opposition, the same Imran Khan was in alliance with the mullahs who were then baying for the blood of Nawaz Sharif. There are ministers who have paid obeisance at the grave of the killer of Salman Taseer. Also, while in opposition, Imran Khan’s position on the question of blasphemy has been no different from those of the fundamentalists. It is rather rich of Imran Khan that while in power, he now sings a different tune and expects the same mullahs to obey the rule of law. Fundamentalists have never shown any deference to existing rule of law, rather their idea is to change the law according to their radical interpretation of Islam. Appeasing them will not serve any purpose. What is needed is that they be dealt with an iron hand. But this is better said than done. After all what can be expected from a government which unceremoniously removed a brilliant economist from a government position just because he happened be an Ahmadi and somebody from the mullah community made it into an issue.
This is not just an issue for the current establishment of Pakistan. The roots of intolerance towards other religious traditions go very deep in its history and we must start at the time when this ‘nation of the pure’ was supposedly constructed as the new Medina. It was Jinnah and Muslim League’s articulation that they could no longer live with the Hindus which started a seemingly new narrative for the Muslims of the subcontinent. Jinnah’s obstinacy flew in the face of history: India being one of the few places where religious pluralism was a fact of everyday life rather than just a mere academic construct. In making Islam as an exclusivist religion, Jinnah wrenched the Muslims of this country of centuries pluralism and coexistence. Not content with this religious division of hearts and minds, the new state of Pakistan sought to proclaim the Ahmadis as the new enemy now that they could no longer blame the Hindus for everything. It is another matter that the leading stalwarts of the Ahmadi movement were themselves big leaders of the Muslim League and Punjab would not have been delivered to the League without the active support of this community. It is almost as if that Islam needs a perpetual enemy to survive. And that perhaps is the original question which the Pakistanis need to confront. In their attempt to refashion themselves as a more tolerant and diverse country, they must deal and interrogate with their past. Only then perhaps a genuine beginning of a new Pakistan can be made.
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