The new hub of bigotry

March 5, 2012

Hearing the news about the closure of an Ahmadi worship place in Satellite Town Rawalpindi was a shocking experience. Born and brought up in Rawalpindi in 70s and 80s I can say with certainty that the city has never been the focus of intolerant religious movements in fact it has been at the centre of many political movements in the country’s history. Every religious group has a presence here, but the level of tolerance can be judged from the fact that no major incident of sectarian conflict has been reported in the city, at least not in my lifetime. And so, last week, a combination of religious-extremist groups, business community, police and local administration all came together and closed down the Ahmadi place of worship in Satellite town. Not a single secular political party bothered to play its role and come forward to stop this blatant violation of religious freedom that forms the intrinsic part of our Constitution.

Therefore, it now seems that the intolerant and insecure brand of religion that revivalist group and their offshoots want to enforce have started to get a toehold in the city. Unfortunately Rawalpindi doesn’t have a very rich intellectual tradition that could counter narrowly defined juristic religion with the narrative that in history there had been a time when Islam laid the foundation of a world civilisation that was multicultural in both its essence and form.

Without going into the details of all the mayhem that has become a regular feature of our life in the name of Shia-Sunni conflict, let us consider how we transformed a minor religious conflict that originated in East Punjab, into something of a monster that has deprived our society of every semblance of religious tolerance that has remained the hallmark of social life of this region for centuries. Historically, it has remained impossible for multi-religious societies, to remain peaceful in the absence of religious tolerance.

The fact that our society is multi-religious is often ignored in our national discourse. And the people who have had the chance to roam around in the remote parts of the country will not be surprised by the statement that Ahmadis are not the only heterodox sect that exists in the country. The question that boggles one’s mind is how an unimportant religious conflict (unimportant because none of the contemporary central leaders of Muslims in Indian subcontinent had taken time to comment on it) was transformed into the most negative feature of our national life with all the associated incidents of curbing religious freedom, torture, killings and involvement of the state in instituting legal instruments of discrimination against the Ahmadi community.

We arrived at this situation when the Parliament declared Ahmadi non-Muslims and later the government of military dictator, Zia-ul-Haq promulgated another law, the Anti-Qadiani Ordinance 1984, that forced the Ahmadis to remove the word masjid from their worship places and replace it by Baitul Hamd or Baitul Zikr. Moreover, call to prayers from loud speakers was stopped. I recall covering the supreme court for a local newspaper when the petitions challenging the Anti-Qadiani Ordinance 1984 came up for hearing in the 1990s.  Ahmadi community’s lawyer and renowned legal expert, Fakhruddin G Ibrahim quite convincingly argued that Ahmadis as citizens are entitled to all the fundamental human rights enshrined in the Constitution. Ahmadi’s case was even more persuasively put forward by an elderly man from Sialkot who told the court that for the sake of argument he was ready to admit that he belonged to a community which is outside the pale of Islam and hence that makes this community a religious minority which is entitled to all the fundamental rights enshrined in the Constitution such as the right to profess and practice one’s religion.

It was around the same time I got the opportunity to meet a senior Pakistani security establishment official and his views on the issue were quite revealing as to how this early 20th century religious conflict was seeping into the foundation of Pakistani state and society. He told me that the alienation of the Ahmadis from both state and society was now complete and potentially this could pose a serious security concern for the managers of Pakistani security apparatus.

It has been downhill since then. Legal instruments of discrimination were instituted against them first on the demands of powerful religious lobby and popular secular parties were instrumental in making it part of statute books (in case of constitutional amendment that declared Ahmadi’s Non-Muslims). The wrath of state machinery was unleashed in its wake and ever since police and local administration have never dared to side with the Ahmadis due to pressure from religious groups, demanding religious uniformity —  an unnatural state that has never existed in human history.

Why should Ahmadis now trust the state when even the most basic requirements of a decent life are being denied to them? Majority of Pakistanis belonging to Sunni sect take their religious freedom for granted. However it is horrible even to imagine for a moment that this intrusive state can intrude into my religious beliefs and my religious life. May be compassion can show us the way out of this quagmire. By putting ourselves in the place of Ahmadi community, we can better understand the ordeal that they are going through.

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