Killings of Ahmadis unleashes fresh soul-searching over Pakistan’s identity

June 2, 2010

ahmadiIn a country which has suffered many bombings, the killing of more than 80 people in two Ahmadi mosques in Lahore last week has unleashed a particularly anguished bout of soul-searching in Pakistan, going right to the heart of its identity as an Islamic nation.

When he heard the news, wrote Kamran Shafi in Dawn, “I ran home and put on the TV and burst into tears, first of rage and a seething anger; and then of complete and utter helplessness and sadness. Shame on us.”

“Tell me – is this a country that we can be proud of?,”  wrote Kalsoom on the blog Changing up Pakistan. ”Pakistan was supposedly established as a homeland for Muslims, to free them of discrimination. This same country now allows persecution to continue not just unabated but often by the writ of the state.”

“I am ashamed and disgusted.”

As always happens at times of crisis, commentators called on the spirit of Pakistan’s founder, Mohammad Ali Jinnah, who in his first address to parliament in 1947 appealed for religious tolerance. “You are free; you are free to go to your temples, you are free to go to your mosques or to any other place or worship in this state of Pakistan,” he said. ”You may belong to any religion or caste or creed. That has nothing to do with the business of the state.”

“Is this Jinnah’s Pakistan? No,” wrote Raza Rumi on his blog. “We have gone too far and pessimists are now saying that the process of destroying Pakistani society is irreversible. There is still hope that we shall overcome this menace if Pakistani public opinion is fashioned to look a little deeper inside and not find all sources of evil in Washington or Delhi. The electronic media has a critical role to play but lack of self-regulation and introspection is missing. If anything, we find more and more analysts and commentators siding with the militants.”

“The battle for Pakistan’s survival cannot be lost,” he said. ”This is the only country we have.”

The soul-searching is particularly acute given that the suppression of the Ahmadis is officially endorsed by the state. The Ahmadis follow the teachings of its 19th century founder Mirza Ghulam Ahmad, a man they see as a prophet.  Regarded by orthodox Muslims as heretical because they do not believe that Mohammed was the final prophet,  Ahmadis are not allowed by the state to describe themselves as Muslims.

Intolerance towards the Ahmadis is in some ways comparable to violence towards other religious minorities, including Christians - and both allow Punjab-based sectarian groups like the Sipah-e-Sabah and the Lashkar-e-Jhanghvi to demonstrate their power by picking on the weak.  But at another level it is quite different, since it involves a dispute about the nature of Islam - itself a subject for intense debate in a country where so many - from Muslim secularists to al-Qaeda inspired militants – claim to have a ”true” understanding of the faith.

In his excellent summary of the persecution of the Ahmadis at the blog Chapati Mystery (and do please read the whole series on this starting here), historian Manan Ahmed noted that even Allama Mohammad Iqbal, Pakistan’s national poet and ideological father of Pakistan, had taken issue with the Ahmadis and, writing in pre-partition India, insisted Muslims must acknowledge Mohammad as the final Prophet.

Over the years, the treatment of the Ahmadis has become politicised in ways that have played a disproportionately significant role in Pakistan’s history. Many date the army’s first intervention in politics to 1953, when the military was called in to quell anti-Ahmadi riots and declared martial law in Lahore. The army launched its first military coup in 1958 and has dominated Pakistan ever since.

Under the leadership of the late  Zulfikar Ali Bhutto – who wanted to win the support of the religious parties - Pakistan in 1973 adopted a clause in its constitution requiring faith in the finality of the Prophet as a central tenet. General Zia ul-Haq, who overthrew Bhutto in 1977 and had him hanged two years later, was so determined to Islamicise Pakistan that he passed an ordinance in 1984 forbidding the Ahmadis from calling themselves Muslims, or describing their place of worship as mosques.

By 2010, according to Sana Saleem at Dawn, many in the Pakistani media were tying themselves up in knots trying to avoid calling the place where the Ahmadis were killed last week as “mosques” – usually known as masjid in South Asia – instead talking about “places of worship”.

For what it’s worth, her comments had me reaching for my Arabic dictionary (Hans Wehr) to check the etymology of the word “masjid”.  “Ma” is a prefix denoting noun of place; the word “masjid” comes from the verb ”sajada”, defined by Wehr as “to bow down, bow in worship, to throw oneself down, prostrate oneself; to worship.”  Unless someone can correct my admittedly rusty Arabic, or come up with a theological nuance of which I am unaware, the substantive debate about the finality of the Prophet does not exist in that word “masjid”.

Saleem continues, “Meanwhile, the social networks have also been abuzz with outrage. Twitter, in particular, was flooded with messages of condemnation, shock, and horror. Many were disgusted by the way in which media outlets were describing the sites that were attacked as ‘worship places’ instead of ‘mosques.’”

“There is no justification for killing unarmed civilians – no religion or legal system allows a bunch of people to take the law in their hands and carry out barbaric acts of terror. Today, I must confess that I am scared of the uncertainties the future holds,” she writes.

“I feel that in our attempts to prove ourselves so-called pious Muslims and patriotic Pakistanis we have left humanity far behind. Our sympathies have become political, and our humanity has been compromised. Somewhere in our tussle to become pioneers of Islam and the darling of the West, we have stopped being human. For every atrocity that unfolds around us, we have a home-made conspiracy theory, a religious justification, or a history lesson with which to identify the culprits. But amid this information overload, the atrocities go ignored, priorities remain distorted, and the massacre continues.”

Pakistan has long been struggling to find an identity — torn between its South Asian roots, the lure of the West, and its commitment to Islam. If the killings of the Ahmadis have caused particular pain — more even than the anguish of seeing yet more civilians killed in yet another attack – it is because it strikes at the heart of how Pakistan defines itself.

U.S. blogger Juan Cole argues at Informed Comment that it shows the need for a separation between church and state (he also invokes Jinnah to back up his argument):

“The problem with using Islam as the state ideology (as the country’s founder, Muhammad Ali Jinnah clearly foresaw) is that there is no generic Islam,” he writes. “If a strict Sunnism of a revivalist or Salafi sort is the orthodoxy, then Twelver Shiites, Ismailis, Ahmadis and Sufis will be disadvantaged. I would argue that these latter groups taken together constitute a majority of the country (most Pakistanis are Sufis, and most Sufis are Sunni, but fundamentalist Sunnism despises mystical Sufism, which strives for spiritual union of the believer with the divine beloved).

Yet to remove Islam as the state ideology is to take away one — but not the only reason — why Pakistan was created in 1947.

Again at Dawn, Nadeem Paracha calls for an open debate both on Pakistan and on Islam:

“So much has become taboo in this country — so much so that the question now arises, can we ever become a truly free, enlightened and intellectually robust nation? Or will we keep hiding behind our fragile masks of religiosity and ‘patriotism,’ a mask that goes up in front of our faces every time we are confronted by a situation in which our views and actions (especially in the name of faith) are questioned.

“We do not debate. We react and then huddle up behind our flimsy and lopsided historical and national narratives for reassurance, cursing the world for our ills, looking out for ‘infidels’ and ‘heretics’ among us, or for scapegoats in the shape of media-constructed punching bags.

“The nightmare we are living today has a lot to do with all this. We remain in a slumber, carving out an isolated ideological comfort zone for ourselves, while obnoxious, sectarian and so-called puritanical keepers of the faith attack and kill in the name of God whenever and however they please. We claim to be treading a middle-path between liberalism and fanaticism, when the truth is, it is exactly the middle-path that has gone entirely missing in how we think, behave, act and react.”


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