Originally published in Daily Times
One of Pakistan’s organisations of the clergy, the Pakistan Ulema Council (PUC), held a national conference titled, ‘Why dialogue between various sects and religions is essential.’ The PUC’s central chairman, Maulana Tahir Mahmood Ashrafi, presided over this well-attended conference in Islamabad. The conference was reported widely in the media. And why wouldn’t it be? The PUC appeared to make sense. Six decades too late, the ulema (clerics) finally agreed to condemn sectarian violence and promote interfaith harmony — or so it seemed. Pakistan’s history is soaked in the blood of those who have suffered agonising pains — and continue to — on the basis of their faith. Right at the start, a newborn Pakistan was hit with sectarian violence, when Mullahs belonging to the Jamaat-e-Islami and Ahrar groups led nation-wide riots against the Ahmediyya Muslim community. In 1954, Maulana Maududi was handed the death penalty for his role in initiating this unrest. Later forgiven, he — and clerics from other religious parties — continued to espouse bigotry, spread hatred and incite violence against the Ahmedis. These clerics considered the Islamic sect kafir (heretic) and often declared its adherents wajibul-qatal or ‘worthy of death’. In 1974, the clerics succeeded in inscribing this sectarian bigotry into the constitution of the country. In 1984, General Zia outlawed free profession of religion for the Ahmedis altogether. Many clerics, including Dr Israr, were still not happy. They demanded death for all Ahmedis. Pakistan’s Ahmediyya community — victim of one of the most atrocious examples of religious fanaticism in modern history — was reduced to an ostracised Qadiani (pejorative for Ahmedi) community.
As anticipated, the anti-Ahmedi hysteria spilled over and then Shia Muslims found themselves next in line. Today, Pakistan is one of the worst nightmares for an adherent of any minority sect, let alone a different religion. There is no doubt, therefore, that the country is in bad need of interfaith harmony and dialogue to reverse the wrongs of our ulema. The PUC’s conference was intended to be such a dialogue. However, the fact that no Ahmedi was invited to represent the five million Pakistanis who have suffered the most — and the longest — at the hands of religious bigotry, put the very aim of the conference in jeopardy. Imagine a women’s rights conference without women? Or an anti-racism rally that forbids blacks from joining? Nevertheless, I followed the proceedings with an open mind. The PUC issued a seven-point ‘code of conduct’ at the end of the conference. In this code, attitudes that lead to sectarian violence were identified and condemned: The PUC condemned takfeer (declaration of heresy) and warned that no Islamic sect be declared kafir, as God was the ultimate judge of man’s faith. Pakistan’s own constitution declared an Islamic sect kafir in 1974. Was the PUC suggesting an amendment to the constitution? I inquisitively put this question to Tahir Ashrafi, to which he ‘Takfeered’ me back saying: “Ahmedis are kafir and outside the pale of Islam.”
The PUC concluded that clerics’ abuse of the religious leaders and holy figures of other faiths and sects contributed to religious fanaticism in the country. Pakistan’s legal code endorses such abuse of the Ahmedi leadership. I turned to the chairman of the PUC for clarification once again. Was PUC condemning those imams who insult the founder of the Ahmediyya community tirelessly in their sermons? He replied in his usual tone: “Mirza Ghulam Ahmad is the greatest kafir and an apostate. Those who consider him Muslim are also kafirs.” Ulema at the conference also agreed that no cleric should be allowed to declare anyone worthy of death. By this time, I had figured out that this ‘sectarian code’ did not apply to Pakistan’s Ahmedis. Those who declare Ahmedis worthy of death would be free to use the pulpit to incite anti-Ahmedi violence. This was not against the code set by the ulema, but in line with their policies. The PUC also concluded that discriminating against a Pakistani on the basis of their religious beliefs was a violation of the constitution and of Islam that required legal action. Sadly, the PUC, and its Chairman in particular, endorse such religious discrimination and persecution signed into Pakistan’s constitution and legal code. The PUC not only endorses the existing legal restrictions and consequent apartheid of Ahmedis, but suggests stricter rulings against the community. The PUC asserted that publication and distribution of offensive and hateful books, literature, websites, etc, should be banned. Did the PUC condemn the mammoth hate propaganda against Ahmedis and call for its containment, I wondered? This time, I got no response from Ashrafi. The PUC’s conference has highlighted the fact that the ability to identify the causes of religious violence exists — it is the will to apply it that is lacking in our ulema. Until the PUC extends their ‘code’ to include Pakistan’s most victimised religious community — the Ahmedis — any move to usher in sectarian harmony will only be seen by the world as hypocritical and counter-intuitive. If the PUC is serious at all in condemning religious violence and fanaticism in Pakistan, it should apply its seven-point code on itself.