Machine Readable Passport – its religion column
Government’s retreat on the issue of religion column in machine-readable passport
‘Enlightened Moderation’ is dumped when challenged by the mullah from anti-Ahmadi platform
Extremist forces were out to take the country back to the dark ages which needed to be checked with the support of all moderate political parties and forces of the country. President Musharraf
The daily Dawn; March 5, 2005
Time and again, Musharraf has shown us that he is more than capable of talking the talk. But when it comes to walking the walk, he is careful where he treads.
‘Winds of Change?’ by Irfan Hussain in the daily Dawn of March 5, 2005
The (anti-Ahmadi) Ordinance promulgated by the president on April 26, 1984 goes a long way in accepting the most extreme anti-Ahmadi demands and transforms much of the daily life of the Community into a criminal offence….
Yahanan Friedmann in his book ‘Prophecy Continuous’
THE CABINET finally approved on March 24, 2005 the restoration of the religion column in Pakistani machine readable passport (MRP). Thus came to an end the controversy that had gone on for months; the government decided to concede victory to the mullah and accept humiliating defeat for itself at an occasion when the tables could be conveniently turned and major gains were within grasp in favour of ‘enlightened moderation’.
The scarlet thread in the whole controversy was the Ahmadiyya issue. The mullah said so openly, but the government was shy to specify it, while everybody knew it. The end result proved once again that Ahmadis’ human rights had no value with the policy-makers, and the state was ever willing to yield to anti-Ahmadi demands of obscurants and extremists, even when these were against the country’s interests and militated against declared and rational policy.
Here, to draw lessons and make comments, it is intended to mention the flow of events as reported in the print media, vernacular as well as English. Detailed references have been avoided in the interest of easy reading. The English and Urdu press covered the entire episode adequately almost daily, and the column-writers wrote their opinions candidly often.
The religion-column in passport was originally a non-issue. There was no religion column in Pakistani passport till the time of General Zia. It was his innovation. Among the much harm that the General did to Pakistan, this also was one. Twenty-five years later, when the poppy crop of his policies matured and the harvest came home in the form of unbridled sectarianism and red-clawed terrorism, saner elements of the society became more aware of the danger of Zia’s islamisation of Pakistan. The present regime openly criticized the prevalent extremism, but took only some guarded and half-hearted measures to curb it. One of these attempted measures was the exclusion of religion column from the new machine readable passports.
The mullah knows that the introduction of this column initially in 1980 was based on anti-Ahmadiyya considerations. In order to implement this discrimination, all the Muslim applicants for passports were made to give the following certificate to substantiate their Islam (the new Pakistani version); it reminds one of 17th century Europe:
- I am Muslim and believe in the absolute and unqualified finality of the prophethood of Muhammad (peace be upon him) the last of the prophets.
- I do not recognize any person who claims to be a prophet in any sense of the word or of any description whatsoever after Muhammad (peace be upon him) or recognize such a claimant as prophet or a religious reformer as a Muslim.
- I consider Mirza Ghulam Ahmad Qadiani to be an imposter Nabi and also consider his followers whether belonging to the Lahori or Qadiani group to be Non-Muslim.
Signature & thumb impression (with name in block letters of applicant in indelible ink)
This certificate had a purpose. It was, and remains, a tool to alienate the entire Muslim population of Pakistan from the Ahmadiyya doctrine. Although the same certificate is required for the national identity card, the mullah does not like even one step back from his over-kill gains on the anti-Ahmadiyya front. The government of Pakistan has always co-operated with the mullah in the past in this sphere; now that it seeks some space to implement even a mild form of ‘enlightened moderation’, the mullah holds the government by the throat and knows that the weak-legged self-serving men of politics will yield readily. Almost always, the mullah’s assessment is right.
When the mullahs of the anti-Ahmadiyya Khatme Nabuwwat (the end of prophethood) breed came to know of the government’s intention to do away with the religion column, they protested. A Khatme Nabuwwat Conference at Quaidabad, Karachi declared that they will not allow the country to become a secular state. The World Pasban Khatme Nabuwwat issued a program at Lahore to agitate the people on the issue of the religion column. The Alami Majlis Tahaffuz Khatme Nabuwwat declared at Qasur that they ‘will hold a demonstration outside the Parliament House at Islamabad on March 9…. Qadianis are being given key positions according to a plan’. The erstwhile discredited Ahrare-Islam also threw in their support to the agitation and declared protest demonstrations against alleged support to ‘Qadianis’. All Parties Khatme Nabuwwat declared at Kassowal: ‘Exclusion of the religion column was a conspiracy of Qadianis that would be foiled’. The Khatme Nabuwwat organization at Chiniot (adjacent to Rabwah) called the passport move a ruse of the President and declared that they will chop the hands of those who would dare remove the religion column; these mullahs also alleged that the General was making all efforts to water the plant of Qadianism planted by the Jews and Christians. The mullah is rarely bothered about the veracity of his allegations; he has a tunnel vision, and is strictly goal-oriented. The MMA opposition, comprising the Jamaat Islami and the JUI etc, welcomed this development and adopted it as a part of their agenda in their drive to remove the President and install themselves at the capital. The Qazi told the JI’s youth wing, Shabab Milli, at Islamabad on March 4, “The American president Bush is an enemy of mankind; the entire Pakistani nation will stand united against American invasion of Iran; it is essential to remove General Pervez Musharraf from power; religion column has been erased in support of secularism…..” The daily Pakistan, Lahore; March 5, 2005. At the time, the MMA’s train marches were undertaken and a program of so-called ‘million marches’ was announced. At Islamabad, leaders of the Alami Majlis Khatme Nabuwwat held a press conference on March 8, and declared to hold a demonstration at the Parliament House.
So these men of fake piety decided to arouse confessional passions to achieve their political goals. Majlis Tahaffuz Khatme Nabuwwat (Organization for safeguarding the End of Prophethood) ostensibly operates as a religious body, and the authorities grant it the license to go about its anti-Ahmadiyya business freely, but only a half-wit will not notice their intimate collaboration with national and international extremist elements. This time also, the MMA and the Majlis Khatme Nabuwwat, bullies and bigots, joined hands in mutual support. The demand for restoration of religion column in passport was included in the long list of demands on which the clerics of the MMA started arousing public sentiment against the government.
As planned, the MMA and the mullahs held a protest rally on March 9 in Islamabad against exclusion of religion column from passports. The rally was professedly organized by the anti-Ahmadiyya Alami Majlis Tahaffuz Khatme Nabuwwat, but was attended by the MMA President Qazi Hussain Ahmad, Liaquat Baloch of JI, Hafiz Hussain Ahmad of JUI and Allama Naqvi of a Shia faction etc. Maulana Fazlaur Rahman, the MMA Secretary General spoke to the rally on phone and alleged that the military leadership was working for the fulfillment of the US, West and Qadiani (Ahmadi) lobby’s designs “as Jihad was being termed terrorism as part of the American agenda”. The Dawn, Lahore; March 10, 2005.
The government’s reaction to the occasion was strange. The next day Sheikh Rashid Ahmad, the Federal Minister of Information declared on behalf of the federal cabinet, “There will be no amendment to the law on End of Prophethood(referring to Ahmadi-specific laws)… Religion column will be included subsequent to the Committee’s report.” Once again, the politicians at the apex were trying to avoid the major issues and were offering Ahmadis as sacrificial offering to save their political careers. Throughout the history of Pakistan politicians have attempted that gimmick, and have always failed, eventually.
The handling of this issue in those few months by various luminaries is an interesting study in Pakistan’s politics. The mullah took the line, and the MMA in opposition parroted it that if there is no religion column Qadianis will get access to the Islamic holy sites in Saudi Arabia. They were told by the liberals that Qadianis already were free to visit the sites from 177 other countries of the world, and the Saudi government was not objecting to that, and no harm had been done to Islam. But the mullah does not like to listen to a conflicting opinion, and remained stuck to his position. Ms Benazir Bhutto stated that‘religion column is a non-issue and one should not mix religion and nationality’. But in her own two terms as prime minister, she had retained the column and mixed religion with nationality. Mr Kabir Wasti, a senior Muslim Leaguer denounced the column as against the vision of the Founder of Pakistan who had stated in unambiguous words that Pakistan would not be a theocratic state and “you may belong to any religion or caste or creed, that has nothing to do with the business of the State.” Ch Shujaat Hussain, the president of PML (Q), however, disowned his own political ancestor and declared on February 18, 2005 that ‘Religion column will soon be restored in passport’. Indeed, he is the leader of a majority with a minority’s mind set. Mr. Ijazul Haq, an erstwhile head of his own little Muslim League, and son of General Zia, declared without proof or authority, ‘99% of the people are in favor of restoration of the religion column in the passport’. This political light-weight failed to realize that more than 50% of Pakistani people have never even seen a passport. Mr. Nawaz Sharif, the author of the still-born Shariat Bill, spoke in favour of the restoration of the column; he thought his statement will help in his own restoration. A few ministers like Sherpao, Khurshid Qasuri, Liaquat Jatoi and others saw no reason for Pakistan to be the only Muslim country in the world to have the religion column, and opposed its inclusion. The president predictably kept quiet, but did make again wishful statements like: Mullahs will have to be rejected to save the country; we shall not yield to the demands of a few ignorant who have hijacked Islam. Less than two weeks later, he readily yielded to them on the issue of religion column. As for the Prime Minister, in a calculated move, he formed a ministerial committee to examine and make recommendations. It is a one-legged democracy in Pakistan; institutions and committees are supposed to deliver what is expected of them. As for the liberal and educated class, most of them are like salon socialists. The entire exercise was leading to an outcome that could be foretold. An Ahmadi Community official at Rabwah predicted unequivocally: they will restore the column, surely. Mr Irfan Husain, a columnist of the prestigious daily DAWN wrote a forceful column suggesting how to deal with the mullah. It is available here.
Before the final decision came through, there were news that deserve a mention here. Mr Rafiq Tarar, ex-President urged the people to rise against the rulers. He urged the Muslims to launch (anti-Ahmadiyya) movement like those of 1953, 1974 and 1984. On March 22, 2005, the five-member Ministerial Committee of the federal cabinet unanimously recommended that, i) The religion of the passport-holder may be stamped at a suitable place in the new passport, and ii) the words ‘Islamic Republic of Pakistan’ should be inscribed on the cover of the passport. Sheikh Rashid Ahmad, a member of the Committee said on the same day that NADRA had already been given instructions to make arrangements to implement the Committee’s recommendations. The Prime Minister Shaukat Aziz at the occasion expressed his appreciation of the Committee’s work and stated, ‘If the majority of the Pakistani people want the religion column, the government will go by their wish’. Two days later the cabinet approved the Committee’s recommendations despite the fact that nine ministers and ministers of state reportedly opposed the recommendations. Ms Shirin Rehman of PPP stated that they had supported the government in removing the religion column. From these developments, a few observations can be made without risk of being off the mark. The Committee’s unanimity, despite the fact that ministers like Lt Gen (Retd) Javed Ashraf and Rao Iqbal of PPP were its members, shows that its recommendations were directed from above. The fact that Sheikh Rashid Ahmad issued instructions to NADRA for implementing the details of the recommendations before their approval by the cabinet supports the theory of directed recommendations. The Prime Minister, in his remarks about yielding to the majority, unwittingly and incorrectly endorsed the claim of the MMA that they, and not the government, were representing the majority opinion. Contrary to the expectations of these decision-makers, as per press, apart from a little-known mullah Abdul Ghafoor Zahid of Chiniot, a Syed Bokhari of the discredited Ahrar, and a passing mention of thanks in a seminar at a Republic Day seminar organized by Muslim League minions at Lahore, nobody else gave unconditional applause to the government on its decision. The Minorities Alliance demanded that the decision should not be implemented, and threatened that religious minorities will launch a country-wide movement if their demand was not met. This threat was flimsy, but the reaction of the mullah and the MMA to the government’s effort for appeasement was most interesting and deserves to be mentioned below from the print media.
Dr Kausar of the MMA said, “The restoration of the religion column is a great success of the MMA”. Liaquat Baloch, the Deputy Secretary General of the MMA remarked that its Karachi gathering had got the Musharraf regime in a state of hysteria (totai ur gae). He also forecast that: “General Musharraf will retreat on all fronts, as on the religion-column issue”.The daily Nawa-i-Waqt, the leader of the right-wing press demanded that the government should apologize to the people for the delay in its decision. The Majlis Khatme Nabuwwat declared that the government decision to stamp the (already issued) MRPs with religion was dubious, and ‘the agitation will continue until all the 250,000 passports already issued are cancelled.’ The Jang, Lahore; March 24, 2005. According to a headline in the daily Jang, Lahore of March 26, 2005, the clerics declared: ‘Restoration of religion column is a victory for the Muslims of Pakistan; the religion column should now be introduced in the national identity cards also’. Abdul Qadir Hasan, a senior columnist of the daily Jang wrote: ‘Immediate reaction of the Ulema is that they are not impressed by such petty decisions (of the government); their demands now exceed well beyond that’. So this was the response of the religious lobby to the government’s plea made by its spokes minister Sheikh Rashid Ahmad, “Restoration of the religion column is the enlightened reaction of the government; now the Ulema should also respond positively.” The daily DIN, March 26, 2005. While the government decision to yield to the mediocrity of an intimidating minority, the mullah, brought it no acclaim, there were plenty of voices that strongly criticized it. Mr Iqbal Haider, a former attorney general wrote: “It appears that enlightened moderation is nothing more than a hollow slogan. In practice the ruling junta is only serving the agenda of reaction and conveying the image of Pakistan as a country of bigots, ruled by and for bigots”. The Daily Times wrote an editorial on the decision and titled it: A ‘small’ retreat for Shaukat or a ‘great’ leap for Qazi? It wrote: ‘They (the top leaders) are still being guided by the PML-Q wallahs and intelligence advisors with beards in their stomachs instead of on their faces. This is another sad day for Musharraf’s Pakistan’. The daily DAWN of March 24, editorialized the decision as ‘Retreat again’ and its opening sentence was: “It was a sad day for ‘enlightened moderation’ on Wednesday. It came up against conservative reaction and beat a retreat….If the idea is to remove a minor prop for agitation from the MMA hands, and pursue other major social reforms, then we have seen over and over again how giving away on religious issues that are raised for political mileage only strengthens retrogressive trends in society.” Nazir Naji, the renowned columnist of the daily Jang opined, “…At such time, accepting the basic demand of the agitators is an open defeat of the government. As a result, the political clerics will get encouraged, and the common man will get impressed by their achievement and might support them…. Political parties that are genuinely moderate and liberal will find it (now) difficult to have faith in Pervez Musharraf’s callings…. What will be the state of the American administration that is banking upon President Musharraf in its fight against terrorism, after this decision? ….How will the liberal section of the society, who initially supported the government, have faith in the government after its manifest retreat? This is no longer the issue of the religion column; it is the issue of the clash of enlightened moderation and religious extremism.” The daily Jang, Lahore; March 25, 2005.
In short, the Mullah Military Alliance has made Pakistan ‘a Sahara of the spirit’ as assessed by Ayaz Amir. Riddance from the clutches of obscurants has become a pipe dream. ‘Enlightened moderation’ is just hot air, so long as it flirts with fundamentalists and serves mainly personal ends. Nothing substantial will be achieved so long as the establishment within and the international community without tolerates blatant discrimination and persecution of Ahmadis in Pakistan. The Quran mentions a great principle that: Whoever killed a person wrongfully shall be as if he had killed all mankind; and whoso saved a life, it shall be as if he had saved the life of all mankind. 5:33. Pakistani leadership, by allowing itself wrongdoing against the Ahmadiyya Community, commits wrong against the entire people of Pakistan. A timid and self-serving administration that cannot see far beyond its nose cannot deliver on major issues and rid Pakistan of the evils of extremism and obscurantism. As and when this government or the next takes a principled stand on the human rights of Ahmadis and corrects the wrongs of the past, this country will stand poised to jump into the 21stcentury from its medieval age disposition.
If by retreating on an Ahmadi-related issue the government aimed at sparing itself the inconvenience of confronting political clerics, it was in for major disappointment. Within 10 days it was frontally challenged by the encouraged mullah, this time on the issue of ‘Women participation in marathon race’, and blood was spilled on both sides, at Gujranwala. Four months later, a reporter of the weekly The Friday Times, visited the Passport Office and wrote an interesting article.
There was also an interesting proposal regarding the issue of machine-readable passport from Mr Ardshir Cowasjee who wrote a well-worded balanced column on the subject in the daily DAWN of January 16, 2005. Its last para provides a solution to the big issue that political clerics have made it. Mr Cowasjee suggests:
President General Pervez Musharraf, whose watchwords are now enlightenment and moderation, should explain to his contentious hirsute comrades in parliament that those who wish to be identified as Muslim may be so identified by stamping the words “Religion: Muslim” on one page or on all pages, in his passport. The majority who do not wish to be identified as Muslims when they travel may stick to the international norm and not disclose their religion, a persona matter, which should be of no concern to anyone else. The option should be given. Most of us wish to travel without let or hindrance.