Pakistan’s Ahmadi killings and the conscience of a nation
The fierce debate about the nature of Pakistani society triggered by the killing of more than 80 Ahmadis in two mosques in Lahore last month continues to run and run.
Much of the discussion is about why the government had failed to stop the religious right from preaching hatred against the Ahmadis, who are considered non-Muslims in Pakistan because they revere their 19th century founder Mirza Ghulam Ahmad, breaching – according to Pakistani law – a requirement that Muslims accept the finality of the Prophet Mohammad.
While authorities had been willing to shut down Facebook over a competition to draw the Prophet, it had not dared take action to remove banners preaching hatred against the Ahamdis, fearing a backlash from the religious right, Dawn newspaper complained in an editorial.
In a chronicle of deaths foretold, Professor C.M. Naim tracks the earlier killing of an Ahmadi, a retired teacher, in January in the town of Ferozewal. In an article in India’s Outlook magazine (h/t Chapati Mystery) he notes that not only did the police fail to take adequate action against the man’s killers, but also that the media paid very little attention, barring one persistent reporter. He also reproduces a picture of a huge billboard in Ferozewal preaching hatred against the Ahmadis.
“Judging from the image, the sign must have dominated the roundabout where it was set up to exhort the 97.21 percent of Ferozewala’s population against the unfortunate 0.25. It had stayed up for weeks. Thousands, including any number of men with power and authority, saw it but chose to do nothing. Finally a retired schoolteacher victimized by the sign and fearing worse approached the police for relief. A few days later, he ended up dead,” he writes.
He adds: “The following too went unnoticed:
- On January 14, an Ahmadi mosque built in1982 near Rabwah was taken away from them by court orders and handed to anti-Ahmadis, “in order to pre-empt extreme law and order disturbances”.
- On January 28, a court at Vehari, Punjab, sentenced three Ahmadis to imprisonment and fines on trumped up charges of preaching their religion to “simple Muslims”.
- On February 3, an Ahmadi was similarly killed at Shehdadpur, Sindh.
- On April 1, three Ahmadi traders were ambushed and killed near Faisalabad.
“Then, on May 28, 2010, in well-organized attacks on two Ahmadi mosques in Lahore, just a few miles away from Ferozewala, more than 90 Ahmadis were killed and scores wounded. We can only hope it was the worst such incident, for unfortunately it was not the last. On June 1, just three days later, the Daily Times reported another killing: an Ahmadi man was stabbed to death in his home and his son seriously wounded in Narowal, Punjab. The assailant, who reportedly threatened not to leave any Ahmadi alive, escaped.”
“Here’s a question,” writes Nadeem Paracha at Dawn. “How come whenever there’s a drone attack … or a case of perceived obscenity or blasphemy surfaces, street corners are at once filled with burqa-clad women and bearded men chanting slogans like ‘Death to infidels’? But none of these fine, sensitive Muslims can be seen protesting when there’s an attack on innocent civilians —Ahmadis or others — by the extremists?”
Former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, whose brother Shahbaz Sharif is chief minister of Punjab province where the killings took place, this weekend spoke in defence of the Ahmadis, calling them “our brethren and an asset of the country”, according to The News. The Sharif brothers in the past have been accused of sympathising with the Islamists and were criticised after newspapers published pictures of the law minister in Punjab – who is loyal to the two – campaigning in a by-election in February with leaders of the outlawed sectarian Sipah e Sahaba.
The post-mortem on the Ahmadi mosque killings is now turning into a bigger discussion of whether secular liberals have any real influence on Pakistani society as it grows more religious and conservative.
“The problem is that there aren’t nearly enough of us for this to matter,” complains the blog Five Rupees. “There are a few scattered in the blogosphere and Twitterverse, and a couple of columnists for Dawn, and the Daily Times editorial board, but that’s it. There are, functionally speaking, no liberals in Pakistan. Oh, there’s plenty of scotch-drinking social liberals (think Salman Taseer). But liberalism and progressivism is not about drinking scotch or wearing jeans. Liberalism is about equality and freedom and personal choice and rationality and the privileging of the individual, and no one believes in those things.”
“We’ve been talking about the dangers of militancy for a long, long time — well before 9/11. That no one bothers listening is not an indictment of the “failed politics of Pakistani liberals”. It’s an indictment of everyone else. If mainstream Pakistan wants to ignore us, fine, that’s their prerogative. But don’t blame us when shit goes bad.”
And in Britain’s Guardian newspaper, Mustafa Qadri notes that more and more Pakistanis are turning to prayer given the failure of the state to provide a credible, secular alternative.
“Uncertainty is an inherent part of the human experience, but in Pakistan much of what a reader in Britain might take for granted is far from certain. How long will the electricity last today? Where will the next bomb go off? And, for most who do not inhabit my privileged world, will I be able to afford the right medication if I fall ill? The profound loss of control felt by long-term illness sufferers and their loved ones has become a countrywide phenomenon in Pakistan.
“The situation has exacerbated our cultural tendency to avow causation in favour of fate and the rewards of prayer. Whether looking for a job, waiting anxiously for exam results or willing the national cricket team to victory, prayer has become a kneejerk source of solace and comfort in difficult times. Holy men, or pirs, and local soothsayers have for generations made a career out of selling their prayers to those in need.
“And why not? Doing the right thing, like expecting to get a plum job without working family contacts, rarely seems to lead to results in our country. During my travels I have met several academically bright students from middle-class backgrounds who complain they cannot get into top university courses because wealthier classmates have paid to gain entrance. The experience for the millions below the middle class, who could never dream of a university education, is even more dire.”
At the very least, the killings of the Ahmadis has prompted a real discussion about the direction Pakistan is headed in. And even, some poetry. One day, looking back, it may well be seen as a turning point.