Sunday, 8 July 2012

Pakistan's fundamentalism and a Gujarati man's quashed dream

Many of my generation may not know that Pakistan's founding father, Muhammad Ali Jinnah, was born of a Gujarati father and was fluent in his pitrubhasha ("father-tongue"), Gujarati. The page below from the iconic Gujarati monthly "Vismi Sadi" (meaning the "20th Century") in May 1916 depicts the answers given by Jinnah to some simple questions in his own handwriting.  How poignant that Jinnah signed off here as માહમદ અલી ઝીણા (Maahmad Ali Zina) in Gujarati.

The column is entitled "Dil No Ekraar" (Confessions of the Heart).  The page roughly translates as:

Admirable virtue of a man : Independence
Admirable virtue of a woman : Loyalty
Success in life, according to you : Securing love from people
Favourite recreation : Horse-riding
Favourite flower : Lily
Favourite writer: Shakespeare
Favourite book: The Count of Monte Cristo
Motto: Never get disappointed

At Jinnah's tomb in Karachi, every evening a crowd of a few hundred gather to witness the changing of the guard and pay their respects to the father of the nation.  The pristine green and white Pakistani flag, centred with a moon and star flies high above.  For a moment all those gathered must undoubtedly feel a sense of pride. 

When Pakistan's flag was first raised at the birth of the nation 65 years ago, the white stripe was meant to symbolise liberty for the nation's diverse religions, with the green segment (along with the moon) representing the Islamic section of society. But as Pakistanis prepare for their next election in the 21st century, Jinnah's white stripe on the flag is stained not only with the blood of religious minorities but also with the blood of politicians who dare to champion their cause - all contrary to Jinnah's vision of secular, democratic state.  Jinnah must be turning in his grave.

In January 2011 the treatment of religious minorities became the single most polarising issue in this already intensely divided nation.  The then Governor of the state of Punjab, Salman Taseer was shot at point-blank range 27 times by his own body guard, Mumtaz Qadri.  Why? Controversially, Taseer had taken up the case of Asia Bibi, a Christian mother, who had been convicted of blasphemy after being accused of abusing Islam's holy prophet, a charge that Bibi still denies. 

No one, but Taseer, was willing to listen to Bibi's defence in which she claimed she was marginalised by local villagers who prevented her from sharing communal water supplies simply because she was not a Muslim. Bibi's troubles began in June 2009 in her village, Ittan Wali, a patchwork of lush fields and dusty streets. Hers was the only Christian household. She was picking berries alongside local Muslim women, when the row developed over sharing water. Days later, the women claimed she had insulted Islam's holy prophet. Soon, Asia Bibi was being pursued by a mob. In reality, as is often the case in Pakistan, the blasphemy law was being used to settle an old score with Bibi.

Salman Taseer's daughter, Sanam, lives in Lahore and now faces a life full of insecurity and uncertainty. Sanam has spoken at great length of the superb work that her father did, particularly in relation to countering the oppression of women and religious minorities in Pakistan.  When Sanam's father chose to get involved in fighting for justice for these oppressed communities, the family, rather naively, thought that everyone in their elite circles of power would support him.  How wrong they were.  In fighting for Asia Bibi's cause, Salman Taseer inadvertently distanced himself from the general mood of the nation and rapidly became a subject of intense controversy and condemnation, simply for choosing to exercise his democratic right to fight for Bibi, who had been vilified by local Islamic clerics and the general Pakistani establishment for allegedly violating Pakistan's Islamophilic blasphemy laws. 

Salman Taseer's killer, Mumtaz Qadri, was not a rogue militant on the fringes of society.  He was a state employee entrusted with the role of protecting the State Governor.  After barbarically shooting Taseer, he calmly handed himself over to the police.  What was particularly horrifying in the events that ensued, was that Qadri, a murderer, was perceived to be a national hero.  

All hopes of repealing Pakistan's blasphemy laws receded in the weeks following Taseer's murder.  As expected, many Pakistanis condemned Qadri as a religious fundamentalist.  More surprisingly, though, is his status as a national hero.  His home in Rawalpindi has become a magnet for Qadri supporters. Awash with politically-sponsored slogans such as "Qadri, teri jurrat ko salaam" (We salute your bravery, Qadri).  The area has become a national site of pilgrimage for the majority, who believe that all "good Muslims" should support Qadri for his efforts in inhumanely killing someone who, according to them, was successful in protecting the religion's honour at any cost.  

Qadri has been found guilty of murder in the Pakistani courts, but an appeal is pending and his lawyer is confident that Qadri will soon be a free man on the back of growing pro-Qadri national sentiment in a country where the judicial system is plagued by deep-rooted corruption. The crux of the matter is that Salman Taseer became a "legitimate target" by "crossing his limits" in challenging the country's blasphemy laws that, on paper, purport to protect the "religious feelings of any class of the citizens of Pakistan" (Section 295A of the Pakistan Penal Code (Act XLV of 1860)), but in reality, are applied by national authorities exclusively in favour of Islam and therefore in direct contradiction with the concept of rule of law. The facts speak for themselves. The minority population of Pakistan has dwindled from constituting 57% of the country's population in the 1950s to now just 3%. Rather unsurprisingly, Pakistan's government refuses to look at the facts and continues to claim that the persecution of religious minorities in Pakistan is something that does not exist.

Sanam Taseer is not optimistic about her future in Pakistan.  She fears for her family and the safety of her children in a country where the dark force of Islamic fundamentalism grows increasingly dominant.  This threatens to shadow Jinnah's vision of a secular society founded on the principles of democracy, much in line with the values of Islam's holy prophet, who, in his time, was a beacon of democracy and justice.  The problem is that today's Pakistan is seized by a wave of religious fundamentalism and dogmatism which creates an environment in which the true spirit of the ways of Islam's holy prophet have been much distorted to suit the political and economic greed for power.  Many in the pro-Qadri camp, rather conveniently, forget that the Prophet stood for democracy and the rule of law, and that their own support for Qadri's despicable actions are, as a matter of fact, a direct contravention of Islamic traditions of the Prophet (hadiths) upholding democracy and freedom of choice. 

Take, for example, the first thing that the Prophet did when his army of Muslims conquered the city of Mecca in January A.D. 630 - he declared a general amnesty. The people of Mecca were free to choose or reject Islam. Among the pardoned were the powerful leaders of the Quraysh tribe who were guilty of unspeakable atrocities against Muslims. For years they had harassed and hounded the Prophet and organised more than one attempt on his life. This first act as ruler attests to the spirit of the man entitled the Messenger of Compassion and Emancipation. The life of the Prophet of Islam glows with examples of forgiveness and mercy and with a love for the lofty ideals of the human race.

There were instances, even during the Prophet's lifetime, when some of his followers - and occasionally even his close companions - were at a loss to understand the noble spirit of his actions and decisions, and protested to him. Such encounters have been recorded, for example, when the Prophet signed the Al-Hudaybiyah peace pact with the Meccan leaders one year before the conquest of Mecca, and when he pardoned a Muslim who had fled Medina to join the Prophet's enemies, but was captured en route to Mecca. That some early Muslims argued against such decisions by the Prophet emanated from their inability to grasp the profoundly humanitarian essence of the message of Islam and its rejection of the notion that human character is immutable.

But trying to educate the pro-Qadri fanatics about such Islamic spirit of democracy, rule of law and humanitarianism is akin to casting pearls before swines.  What is required is a radical change in Pakistan's leadership so that religious freedom and the status of religious minorities are upheld in accordance with the rule of law.  What is required is, quite simply, another Muhammad Ali Jinnah.

"Learn from thy neighbour"

But perhaps short of finding Pakistan's next Jinnah, the country might do well to look to present day Bangladesh, another Muslim majority country in the South Asian region.

The country was born from the ruins of East Pakistan in 1971 after a war of independence in which India-backed nationalists - unhappy at being ruled from what was then West Pakistan - fought Islamists loyal to Islamabad. Three million people were slaughtered in eight months before the Pakistanis conceded. Those were the days before international criminal tribunals, and the world left Bangladesh largely alone to heal and rebuild.

It is now undergoing a kind of post-independence therapy, as Sheikh Hasina Wajed, Bangladesh’s Prime Minister (and daughter of the country’s first PM, Sheikh Mujibur Rahman - a secularist himself), launches the first set of war crimes trials in the Muslim world, to address the atrocities committed by Islamists during Bangladesh's struggle for independence. The decision has been hailed by international jurists, for good reason.

Unlike Pakistan, language and not religion is the organising principle of Bangladesh, but Islamists have, sadly, hijacked much of its history. Led by Ziaur Rahman, in 1979, the same year as the Iranian revolution, they took control of the state, amended the constitution, and created an Islamic republic.

Now, Hasina's government (rooted in the centre-left Awami League Party) has spared almost no expense to wipe out the traces of hard line Islam since its election in 2008. It has spent millions to rename public buildings that once honoured hard line Islamists, and rewritten laws to protect women from any form of compulsion to wear Islamic head coverings. The government has granted itself the means to dismantle Islamist militant networks. Through the Supreme Court, Hasina nullified Ziaur Rahman's 1979 amendment to Bangladesh's constitution, thereby restoring the concept of dhormo niropekhota (secularism, in Bangla) in the world's third-largest Muslim nation.

Unlike Pakistan's flag,  the green in Bangladesh's Bānlādēśēra jātīẏa patākā (national flag) represents the country's landscape and not the traditional colour of Islam.

I contend that a more secular, humanist Bangladesh emboldened by its culture has potential to empower the Pakistani intelligentsia against religious fundamentalists as well as being an inspiration for other countries with Muslim majorities around the world.  Of course, it will be interesting to see how India flexes its muscles in respect of all of this space!


  1. Paras - this is thoroughly researched and very well-written! Well done for producing such an illuminating article. Things in Pakistan must change...

  2. Great arguments presented here. Not so sure of Bangladesh's relevance here, though. Hasina's government's agenda is not mainly secularism, but more a desire to appeal to the masses by prioritising Bengali culture over Islam. Still, I am pleased that you have raised some worthy issues.


Enter your email address to receive alerts when I write something new