When we weren’t a land of bigots - S Iftikhar Murshed - Monday, March 07, 2011

Source : http://thenews.com.pk/TodaysPrintDetail.aspx?ID=34834&Cat=9

The writer is the publisher of

Criterion quarterly.

Hope, it is said, is like a rainbow in the eye that colours every cloud with a wealth of colours. But shame and sorrow visited Pakistan yet again with the assassination on Wednesday of Minister for Minorities Affairs Shahbaz Bhatti. This was the second killing of its kind in Islamabad in less than two months, after the gunning down of Punjab governor Salmaan Taseer on Jan 4 by his own bodyguard. The lives of Taseer and Bhatti were brought to an abrupt end because they had opposed the blasphemy laws promulgated by Ziaul Haq.

Taseer’s bodyguard had no remorse for what he had done because he was convinced that he had acted in defence of Islam; that is, his own skewed interpretation of the faith. The murderer has been acclaimed a hero by the religious right. The Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan owned responsibility for Bhatti’s murder and, in the absence of his security detail, nonchalantly left pamphlets at the scene of the crime which read: “Anyone who opposes the blasphemy law has no right to live.”

Despite this, an English newspaper carried an editorial stating that external powers were out to destabilise Pakistan, and insinuated that Bhatti’s assassination could have been the work of RAW, Mossad or CIA agents. Conspiracy theories, about hostile foreign elements whose sole purpose is to destroy Pakistan, have been churned out incessantly.

The proclivity to externalise the country’s internal problems should have ended when Interior Minister Rehman Malik publicly affirmed on Sept 8, 2008, that the Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan and Al Qaeda were hand-in-glove. He also disclosed that all suicide bombers and their handlers were Pakistani nationals and were being financed from within the country. In an emotional outburst at the National Assembly on Friday he reiterated that southern Punjab had become the breeding ground for extremist outfits and that he, along with Sherry Rehman and Fauzia Wahab of the PPP, were on the terrorists’ hit list.

Shahbaz Bhatti had a premonition that his end was near. About four months ago he recorded a video, requesting that it only be released in the event that he was killed. In the recording he said: “I am ready to die for a cause, I am living for my community...and I will die to defend their rights...I would prefer to die for my principles.”

So deep has the canker of religious bigotry eaten into the soul of the nation that in January members of the Senate refused to offer fateha for Salmaan Taseer because of his stance on Ziaul Haq’s blasphemy laws. On Thursday, when the National Assembly rose to observe two minutes’ silence to honour the memory of Shahbaz Bhatti, three of its members, belonging to one of the religious parties, remained seated. They did not want to show any respect to a slain member of parliament because he was a Christian.

Yet there was a time when a Christian, A R Cornelius, was the chief justice of Pakistan.

Like William Pitt, who declared in the House of Commons on Nov 18, 1783: “Necessity is the plea for every infringement of human freedom; it is the argument of tyrants; it is the creed of slaves,” Justice Cornelius was fervently opposed to the doctrine of necessity. His was the lone dissenting voice in the Dosso Case of 1958 when the Supreme Court, under Justice Munir, validated the abrogation of the 1956 Constitution by Iskander Mirza by invoking the doctrine of necessity. Justice Munir justified the decision citing Hans Kelsen’s 1949 enunciation of this concept, that “an abrupt political change” was, in effect, a revolution which created its own legality. Unfortunately, the service rendered to parliamentary democracy by Cornelius is forgotten.

Ayub Khan’s military rule was secular and members of the minority communities were never victimised. Pakistan’s ambassador to Thailand in the early 1960s, P M Choudhry, was a Hindu, who died in Bangkok. Thai newspapers extolled Pakistan as the cradle of Asian civilisations. As a predominantly Muslim country it had sent a Hindu ambassador to Buddhist Thailand.

The seeds of religious intolerance were sown in the early years of the government of Zulfikar Ali Bhutto with the Second Amendment to the 1973 Constitution under which Ahmadis were declared non-Muslims. Subsequently, when the popular agitation against his government intensified, Bhutto sought to appease the religious right. Nevertheless, he was toppled in a military coup and sent to the gallows.

Thus began the darkest era of Pakistan’s short, turbulent history under Gen Ziaul Haq. A reign of terror was unleashed in the name of religion, from which the country never recovered. Even the Islamic world was appalled and the late King Hassan II of Morocco stated publicly that Pakistan was a nation of fanatics. The fire of fanaticism consumed the country, and in time Pakistan became the foremost victim of religion-motivated terrorism.

In his maiden speech at the National Assembly on March 29, 2008, Prime Minster Gilani declared: “The war on terror has become our war, because it has posed serious threats to our own country.” But despite this, extremist violence continues. Since the assassination of Benazir Bhutto on Dec 27, 2007, there have been no less than 24 incidents of terrorism in Rawalpindi and Islamabad alone. A study undertaken by the South Asian Intelligence Review shows that from 2003 to Feb 20, 2011, the total number of fatalities in Pakistan from terrorist violence was 33,213. This included 9,620 civilians, 3,443 security personnel, and 20,150, terrorists. The number of deaths in Fata increased to 5,403 in 2010, against 5,304 in 2009. In the same two-year period the fatalities in Balochistan rose from 277 to 347, while Sindh saw an increase from 66 to 162.

Mahatma Gandhi once said that “intolerance betrays faith in one’s cause,” but what he did not say is that when faith is based on reason, as is true Islam, it is never intolerant. A striking illustration of this is provided by one of the early Muslim biographers, Ibn Sa’d (d. 845). He narrates that when a delegation of Christians from Najran called on Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) in the final months of his life, they were given access to his mosque to perform their religious rites, even though the attribution of divinity to Jesus, or to any person, is anathema to the fundamental tenets of Islam.

In early 2008, Sheykh Waheeduddin Khan, a prominent Indian scholar, stated that Dajjal, a concept that some theologians equate with the Islamic antichrist, is not a person but a manifestation of violence and terrorism. Shortly afterwards, no less than 20,000 Deobandi clerics of India declared terrorism un-Islamic. This demonstrates the vital role that can be played by ulema in countering the scourge of religion-motivated violence. It is for the government to wake up from its slumber and take the initiative to launch a mass movement with the help of learned clerics against the ideology of extremism.

Email: iftimurshed@gmail.com

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