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The State Cannot Settle Theological Debates; It Does Not Have the Mandate or the Authority to Do So Because It Is Not God



By Yasser Latif Hamdani

January 22, 2018

Religion has always been a factor in South Asian politics no matter which country you are in. Our collective problem has been the angle of vision, which places community interests and rights over individual interests and rights.

Even our historical debates have been around definitions of the collective community. In the heyday of Indian Nationalism and the independence movement, all major nationalists including Gandhi, Jinnah, Nehru, Azad and others spoke of Hindu-Muslim Unity in their own way. Even the composite Indian Nationalism, against which Muslim Nationalism was a rebellion, was premised on the idea of a federation of communities.

Thus it was the community and not the individual whose assent was sought. This was because religion is the one thing that is omnipresent no matter where you go in the subcontinent. Being a part of the religious community defines an individual in our parts more than other things because religion in the subcontinent means something quite different from what it has come to mean in the West.

 While religion has always played a role in defining lifestyle everywhere, the rise of the notion of individual rights in the West has helped relegate religion to the personal sphere. Meanwhile in our part of the world, Jinnah’s sanguine hope that in due course of time Hindus will cease to be Hindus and Muslims will cease to be Muslims, not in a religious sense for that is the personal faith of an individual, but in a political sense as citizens of the state has not materialized anymore in Pakistan than it has in India. If anything myriad of new formulations around sectarian lines have emerged. The founder of the nation had presciently warned the Muslims that there were many sects within their community and persistence with any course other than complete impartiality of the state would mean endless division. On another occasion, he had warned that this might even lead to the dissolution of the state. We see much of that coming to fruition in front for our eyes.

It is time the Election Commission of Pakistan and the Supreme Court of Pakistan take notice of the hate speech that has become rampant against the Ahmediyya community and will no doubt be a factor in the coming elections

The question one may pose as to why this should even matter. So we have a different way of looking at things, how bad can it be? Let us take India for example which is a self avowedly secular state. There are endless communal and caste conflicts as well as periodic riots that break out just between Muslims and Hindus but other communities and castes as well. The state plays an active part in mediating between contending communities as a peacemaker, sometimes successfully, sometimes not. Now with the rise of right wing Hindutva in India, which was always a prospect despite the aforesaid secular nature of the state, we see an aggressive tendency of protectionism accorded to the majority community and its real and imagined interests.

 In Pakistan since 1974 we have taken the logic of community interests and rights to a whole new level by deciding for the individual his or her right to self identify in deference to the wishes of the community. Since 1984 unconscionable restrictions have been placed on individual citizens of Pakistan who profess the Ahmadi creed. This has not satiated the bloodlust of the majority community however. The Ahmadi issue is still alive in 2018 and no it is not because the government was trying to undo the 2nd Amendment to the Constitution in stealth mode. The opposition narrative on this count has not been anything less than disingenuous. Here I must make it clear that in my opinion it is not the job of the state to determine what faith an individual professes to have. Therefore from my standpoint any change to the status quo i.e. 2nd Amendment would be a step in the right direction but the fact is that the government made no such move at all.

What this means essentially is that a purely theological issue of great spiritual significance for all Muslims has been instrumentalised yet again and will be used for political purposes in Pakistan. Captain Safdar ignited this debate with his ill-advised speech in the National Assembly. Now even Imran Khan is attending cleric conferences trying to appear to be pious. Bhutto, our most popular Prime Minister, made this mistake in the 1970s and ironically Imran Khan calls it just that in his book “Pakistan a Personal History”. Now Imran Khan is treading the same disastrous course.

The theological issue in question is the doctrine of Khatm-e-Nabuwwat, which is an article of faith for all Muslims undoubtedly. The doctrine states that Islam is the final Deen and Holy Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) is absolutely the last Prophet and recipient of divine revelation. Interestingly Ahmadis too claim to adhere to the doctrine but define the Arabic word Khatm as perfection of the faith which they claim was reached with the Holy Prophet (PBUH). In this – clearly the minority view- Islam is the last Deen but reformers and subservient prophets, such as the founder of the Ahmadi community, may come to rejuvenate the religious community. Ultimately this is a theological debate and simply stating that Ahmadis should have the right to self identify does not at all mean an endorsement of their interpretation of the doctrine but simply a deference to the authority of the heavenly creator above in judging who is right and who is wrong.

The modern constitutional state cannot settle theological debates. It does not have the mandate or the authority to do so because it is not God. It must leave religion to the people and respect the individual’s right to believe in accordance with his or her conscience. Meanwhile making this an election issue will only further exacerbate what is essentially a human rights issue. The Ahmadis in Pakistan live in fear and are often under siege. With this becoming an election issue, various parties will compete in spewing hatred against them and yet again the ugly spectre of genocide looms large. No one is asking anyone to agree with their beliefs but recognize that they are citizens of Pakistan who in theory have the same equal rights granted to other citizens of the country. It is time that the powers that be and by that I mean the Election Commission of Pakistan and the Supreme Court of Pakistan take notice of the hate speech that has become rampant against them and will no doubt be a factor in the coming elections.

Yasser Latif Hamdani is a practising lawyer and a Visiting Fellow at Harvard Law School in Cambridge MA, USA