By Mohammad Amir Rana
After the despicable Gojra riots in Punjab’s Faisalabad district that targeted Christians living in the area, a few Muslim scholars attempted to grapple with the issue of constitutionalism in Pakistan. The disturbances had badly damaged the country’s image. It was 2009 when Pakistan faced the maximum number of attacks for any year. The scholars were trying to understand how a country with such an inclusive Constitution could suffer some of the worst forms of religious bigotry.
The debates put forth many explanations, from how the state’s strategic priorities had backfired to how a hostile regional environment was fuelling bigotry. Some weighed in on the ideological aspect of extremism, and others on how it goes unchecked amid the civil-military divide. However, the debates failed to fully present the reasons behind the exclusive nature of Pakistani society.
In totality, nevertheless, the discussion exposed the dichotomies and paradoxes in our social milieu. The state and society are largely caught between modernisation and conservatism: an average Pakistani wants to be progressive but within a conservative framework. The state desires to stand tall in the international community, but without reforming its institutions.
This paradox produces dichotomous behaviour. One can take complete U-turns without compromising on one’s previous position. This is the syndrome the new government is manifesting: after taking a firm position on a particular economist’s appointment as a member of the Economic Advisory Council, the government reversed the decision after his Ahmadi background became an issue. The reversal has exposed the government’s fear of religious hardliners. While such decisions are often depicted as political pragmatism, they weaken the state and society in the long run.
To satisfy its own conscience, the state sometimes takes initiatives that give an impression as if it has decided to break with the past and move towards an inclusive society. A similar attempt was made early this year in the shape of the Paigham-i-Pakistan (message of Pakistan), a counter-narrative declaration or fatwa against increasing religious intolerance and violence.
A unanimous declaration by 1,800 religious scholars across the country, the Paigham-i- Pakistan was projected as a reflection of the Pakistani state and society’s collective thinking, and prepared in accordance with the injunctions of the Holy Quran, the Sunnah and the Constitution. Following this, the security institutions launched a countrywide awareness campaign in educational institutions about Paigham, which was presented as a blueprint of an inclusive Pakistan.
Interestingly, a few banned organisations tried to hijack the declaration. Their leadership was not only present at the launch of the declaration held at President House, but even at organised seminars to spread the ‘message’.
It might seem a positive development that banned sectarian and militant organisations became the Paigham-i-Pakistan’s custodians. However, it proved counterproductive, as opponent sectarian groups outright rejected the document, labelling it an attempt to provide safe passage to those banned organisations, which were under severe pressure at the time. The Tehreek-i-Labbaik Pakistan (TLP) is among those which have not endorsed the Paigham-i-Pakistan. Many believed that banned groups like Ahle Sunnat Wal Jamaat and Jamaatud Dawa were using it to acquire legitimacy in the public domain.
So far, the Paigham-i- Pakistan has failed to create any significant impact.
As far as the contents of the declaration are concerned, it seems very comprehensive and well argued. For example, it talks about the reconstruction of Pakistani society and says: “Pakistanis neither demean other religions nor humiliate the founders of other religions. It is imperative for Muslims to bring others towards Islam only through convincing argumentation while practising their own religion independently and freely.” The Paigham also endorses the constitutional clauses on religious freedom and declares them as being in accordance with the basic principles of Islam. It says: “All citizens are guaranteed fundamental rights within the parameters of law and ethics. These rights include equality in status and opportunities, equality before the law, socioeconomic and political justice, the rights of expression, belief, worship and freedom of assembly.”
Similarly, the declaration condemns sectarian hatred, armed sectarian conflict and the imposition of one’s ideology on others by force. The religious scholars who signed the declaration pledged they would work for a society based on the principles of democracy, liberty, equality, tolerance, harmony, mutual respect and justice to achieve a congenial atmosphere for peaceful coexistence.
Describing the context of the declaration, the Paigham-i-Pakistan claims that maximum legislation according to Islamic teachings and principles has taken place in this country. However, the religious clergy is still reluctant to adopt the document as a manual for their mosques and madressahs. As mentioned earlier, controversies created by a few religious groups have also compromised Paigham-i-Pakistan, reflecting the religious clergy’s narrow vision.
Pakistan has fought a successful war against terrorism, but it is unfortunate that many religious leaders and groups have given a sectarian colour to the war, saying it was against particular sects. This narrative has provided political and social space to new radical forces in the country. It has also empowered new hate narratives against minority sects, communities, and religions. These leaders and groups have nurtured a new blend of extremism, while state institutions remain in tactical denial where it comes to countering the terrorists’ anti-Pakistan arguments.
Pakistan is caught in a vicious cycle of extremism, where state institutions and leaderships have become hostage to hate narratives. Certain religious leaders and groups are pushing society towards chaos. The state wants to both maintain the status quo and control the chaos, but its strategies have not proved effective yet.
On the societal level, the situation is even worse and often takes the form of discrimination against weak religious communities. While militant violence is condemned, the underlying mindset, especially where it pertains to people of different faiths, is rarely addressed. This makes faith-based discrimination seem like a pervasive phenomenon, not restricted to any one class, ethnicity, educational background, or group; so much so that even the solutions to such issues are deemed controversial in nature.
The state is hesitant to control religious hatred. Deep-rooted hate narratives have developed a majoritarian mindset, which creates insecurity among the very tiny religious minorities. Even ‘naya Pakistan’ has not yet shown the courage to break the vicious cycle of this hatred.
Published in Dawn, September 9th, 2018