The Crisis in Pakistan Continues
Yet another manufactured crisis in Pakistan with a hard-line religious group at its core; the country’s political capital, Islamabad, cut off for over a fortnight from its twin military capital, Rawalpindi. The people laying siege are not too far from military GHQ. A whiff of grapeshot and they would have dispersed like rabbits. But the demonstrators were confident. The leaders were actually hoping for a few martyrs. The government did not oblige. Yesterday it capitulated in toto to the demands of the TLY, the Tehreek-i-Labaik Ya Rasool Allah (Movement to Obey the Prophet), a group set up two years ago in Karachi.
They wanted the immediate resignation of the law minister, Zahid Hamid, accusing him of ‘weakening’ the oath taken by Muslim members of parliament (virtually all of them) whereby each swears that the Prophet Muhammad is the last prophet and no Muslim can say otherwise. Hamid had pushed through an amendment changing the word ‘oath’ to ‘declaration’. This semantic shift was the supposed cause of the crisis, even though the government had unilaterally restored the word ‘oath’. This did not stop TLY militants from attacking the police and government ministers’ homes, and threatening Hamid with death unless he resigned.
Ever since Pakistan was formed in 1947, religious parties have tried to deny the Ahmadiyya sect the right to call themselves Muslims because one faction claimed that the sect’s founder, Mirza Ghulam Ahmad, was the last prophet. This was denounced as heresy, which it was in a literal sense, though some of the finest Islamic scholars, diplomats, teachers were members of the sect, and fellow-travellers included the poet Iqbal. A few years after the country was founded, the Jamaat-i-Islami organised a campaign to have the Ahmadiyyas declared non-Muslims. Their shops and houses were burnt (I witnessed one such attack in Lahore) and the army declared martial law in a few cities. The riots ceased. The leader of the Jamaat, Maulana Maududi, was sentenced to death by a military court, but later released. The issue appeared to have died.
In 1977, under siege by a united opposition that included the Jamaat and other religious parties, the Pakistan People’s Party government led by Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto tried to outflank the religious right by accepting all their demands. It was a secular government that declared the Ahmadiyyas to be non-Muslims, banned alcohol, and made Sunday a working day and Friday the day of rest and prayer. All these measures were passed unanimously by parliament. Bhutto was soon replaced by a military dictator and hanged. That was the thanks he got from the right. One bizarre result of all this involves the country’s only Nobel Prize Winner (in Physics), the late Professor Abdus Salam, who was an Ahmadiyya. In most parts of the world you can say that a Muslim won a Nobel for science. In Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states, Abdus Salam is not a Muslim.
The law minister resigned and in return the TLY promised that no fatwa would be issued against him. An agreement was signed between the interior minister and the TLY leader, Khadim Hussain Rizvi, thanking the chief of army staff for ‘saving the nation from a catastrophe’. The agreement was mediated by Major General Faiz Hameed, an ISI functionary. His presence appeared to confirm a widespread suspicion that the intelligence agency was involved in greenlighting the episode to further weaken a beleaguered government.
When the agreement came before the Islamabad High Court for approval on Monday, Justice Shaukat Aziz Siddiqui raised a serious objection regarding the ‘role of the armed forces as an arbitrator’. He considers the military presence unconstitutional and demeaning, and is insisting that he will not accept such a document even if ‘they threaten to and do kill me.’ And so the show goes on.
The only power capable of bringing the curtain down on the military-linked fundamentalism is China, but a behind-the-scenes threat by Beijing to withdraw is unlikely unless some group targets Chinese workers and technicians. If that happens, the military will step in to safeguard its ‘all-weather friend’.
One more thing. Liberal Pakistanis sometimes describe modern day atrocities by small groups of Muslims as ‘medieval’. This is a slander. Medieval Islam produced a civilisation that flowed into the European Renaissance; the quality of its philosophical debates was unrivalled. And a number of early caliphs in Baghdad, belonging to the Mutazalite sect, openly questioned the Koran’s status as a divine document. They insisted it was ‘man-made’. Islam survived all that and to suggest it’s threatened by the Ahmadiyyas is grotesque. Its so-called defenders seem to suggest that were it not for their efforts the religion would crumble. The opposite is more likely.