By Yasser Latif Hamdani
I was recently asked for my professional opinion in the case of a Pakistani Christian family-seeking asylum in a western country. Apparently, this family has been accused of blasphemy by a local imam in their village in North Punjab. The questions I was asked were embarrassing to me as a Pakistani, not the least because professional probity required that I answer them accurately. Essentially, I was called to opine on whether such a family be able to continue to live without the threat of violence in Pakistan.
The answer — purely and simply as a matter of fact — is no. The probability of them being burnt alive by enraged mobs would be extremely high if Shama and Shahzad’s case is any indication. Such is the situation that prevails in Pakistan ever since General Zia’s sham Majlis-e-Shura introduced Section 295-C to the Pakistan Penal Code in 1986. On the touchstone of this law the ordinary Muslim today proclaims Gustakh-E-Rasool Ki Eik Hee Saza, Sar Tan Sejuda.
Meanwhile, a video by a local Barelvi cleric is making the rounds on social media in which the said cleric claims that ours is not a religion of peace. He goes on to argue — quite inaccurately that there is no verse in our holy book that speaks of peace. This goes against the very grain of what Muslim activists all around the world have been at pains to establish. We have tried very long and hard to prove to the world that Islam means peace and that the majority of Muslims are peaceful and non-violent people, and that Islamophobia is irrational and illogical. Now here comes a cleric with a huge following telling people that what we have been saying is untrue. That he is from the ‘softer’ version — the Barelvis once touted as a face of traditional and popular Islam — only compounds our problem.
By the time this article gets published, the Pakistan Super League final would have already taken place at Gaddafi Stadium. I hope it has gone peacefully and without any untoward incident. The government is right in claiming events like these enhance our soft power, but what soft power can we speak of when violent mobs continue to attack people and burn them alive on mere allegations of blasphemy?
The concept of soft power embodies a power to attract and persuade rather than coerce. It is the power of culture, progressive political values and human rights, which then reinforces a country’s foreign policy and stature in the world. If there is any country that needs soft power today, it is Pakistan, and if there is any country that is utterly without it, it is Pakistan. Meanwhile, our neighbour and erstwhile rival India is inching closer every year to the elite top 30 on Soft Power Index, ranked 34 on Portland’s Soft Power Index for 2016.
In order to have any semblance of soft power, there has to be a major rethink of our narrative, which was hijacked by General Zia and his foreign backers in the 1980s to turn Pakistan into an instrument of war against Soviet Russia in Afghanistan. General Zia’s crude attempt at Islamisation rested on the a historical presumption that Pakistan’s ideology equals a rigid and straitjacket version of our faith, which in my view is untenable not just with history but the inherently humane and progressive spirit of Islam.
What ought to be our narrative? It should be based on our true history — the history that has been obscured by 30 years of Islamisation project and which now needs to be brought to the forefront. Pakistan is the culmination of the Muslim modernist thought that was born in Aligarh’s hallowed halls in the early 20th century. Muslim nationalism was no old-time religion but a thoroughly modernist idea, ontologically emptied, to operate as a shell for progress and modernity. Our intellectual heritage is contained in the ‘Reconstruction of Religious Thought’, those timeless lectures by Dr. Muhammad Iqbal which contain a blueprint for a modern Muslim society. Jinnah — our founding father — was a renaissance man, a minority within a minority being of Ismaili Shia extraction, a barrister from Lincoln’s Inn, steeped in law and the British liberal traditions with a proclivity for Shakespeare and the English classics. The founders of Pakistan were no medieval figures in flowing robes but men and women of the20th century well versed in the ideas relevant to modern times. Their demand for Pakistan was based on an equally modern concept — the right of self-determination.
What it was not was a cry for a theocratic dystopia that we have become. Those who have led the push for this dystopia in Pakistan are invariably the same people who had in the 1940s called Pakistan Kafiristan (land of infidel) and Jinnah Kafir-e-Azam (the great infidel). Is it any wonder that the latest terrorist organisation targeting Pakistanis is called Jamaat-ul-Ahrar, named so poignantly after Majlis-e-Ahrar, the Islamist party that first opposed the creation of Pakistan at Congress’ behest and then led the efforts to marginalise Shias and Ahmadis in Pakistan? Our soft power is that our forefathers rejected these dime a dozen religious and sectarian groups who had tried so hard to thwart the march of Muslim community towards reason and progress.
This can be one facet of our soft power, and there are many other such facets. Pakistan may be only 70 years old, but ours is an ancient land containing within it diverse cultures and histories. This is the land of the Indus Valley — the cradle of civilisation, the land of Gandhara where ancient Greece met Buddhism, the land of Sufis and the land where Nanak walked. Our soft power is the rugged nobility of the Pushtun, the open-hearted hospitality of the Baloch, the syncretic tolerance of the Sindhi and the frankness of the Punjabi. Our soft power can be our religious minorities, if and when we give them equal rights that we have promised them. There is no room for the surrender of this soft power to self-proclaimed guardians of Islam and Pakistan. These self-proclaimed guardians of Islam and Pakistan are in fact their greatest enemies.
Who then, amongst our leaders, has the ability, the foresight and frankly the courage to harness this soft power? Let us hope that they can, at even this late an hour, do what needs to be done.
Yasser Latif Hamdani is a lawyer based in Lahore and the author of the book Mr Jinnah: Myth and Reality.