Originally published in Huffington Post
“You are free; you are free to go to your temples, you are free to go to your mosques or to any other place of worship. That has nothing to do with business of state.” Muhammad Ali Jinnah, founder of Pakistan, spoke these words on the eve of the end of British rule over India. Despite these words, his country has fell to painful depths at the hands of local religious extremists. This fall should give a sobering lesson to those American political and media circles engaged in hate-mongering against minorities in America.
The current Republican presidential hopefuls’ inflammatory rhetoric on issues ranging from immigration, to Muslims, to gun violence is reminiscent of later Pakistani leaders who drove Pakistan into ground. Perhaps these American presidential hopefuls believe their success requires riding the tiger of populist right-wing sentiments and promoting an “us versus them” mindset. But history shows that inflaming the political base may also lead to unintended consequences.
In the 1970s, Pakistani Prime Minister Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto appeased the country’s right-wing extremists by demonizing the minority Ahmadiyya Muslim Community. Ahmadiyya beliefs undermined the regressive religious parties, so Bhutto excommunicated Ahmadi Muslims from the mainstream Muslim community through constitutional amendment.
Bhutto’s “achievement” eventually backfired as appeased extremists realized how much influence they wielded in subverting fundamental human rights. Through street agitation, they precipitated a crisis that led to the end of Bhutto’s government. Over time these extremists turned the guns towards Pakistan’s other minorities – Christians, Hindus and Shia Muslims.
One can be forgiven for thinking that America’s white supremacists, such as Dylan Roof, are not interested in doing the exact same thing. One may also ignore Jon Ritzheimer bringing a heavily armed group near an Arizona mosque to exercise his First Amendment rights. After all, the right-leaning news media seems heavily invested in denying the threat to society from Islamophobia, institutional racism and gun violence. Yet this denial camouflages the likes of Roof and Ritzheimer who pose a real danger to America itself.
When Pakistani sectarianism and unbounded access to firearms splintered the country in the 1980s, the common refrain in mainstream media was to blame foreign conspiracies with domestic collusion by the “un-patriotic” Ahmadi minority. That these elements were singularly responsible for instability, while Pakistan’s own right-wing religious parties were being unfairly maligned, and their seminaries were not radicalizing the youth. While the media engaged in denial, the very same extremist seminaries kept receiving patronage and funds – eventually giving way to the rise of the Taliban in Pakistan.
Currently, no equivalent monster exists in America despite fear-mongering to arouse suspicion of American Muslims who are (familiarly) cast as villains engaged in subversive activities. However, as the Southern Poverty Law Center estimates there has been a steady rise in the number of hate groups in America – with many yearning for the days of Confederacy and white racial supremacy.
Religious exhibitionism is a political strategy that seems common across cultures. In Pakistan’s democracy today, politicians often have to display their so-called “Muslim” credentials to prove their patriotism. While the practice has no basis in Islam itself, it gratifies the sensibilities of Pakistan’s right-wing extremists. American politicians who suddenly discover God on the campaign trail are not any different. Jinnah had strong words on the matter – that a country should not be, “run by priests with a divine mission.”
Extremists are not created in isolation, but are by-products of a political environment. To a great extent, Pakistan’s right-wing Muslims and the America’s right-wing Christians mirror each other. What sets America poles apart from Pakistan is strong rule of law, protection of religious freedoms and civil rights.
In a Muslim-majority Pakistan that had separated from a Hindu-majority India, Jinnah’s words that, “Hindus would cease to be Hindus and Muslims would cease to be Muslims, not in the religious sense..but in the political sense as citizens of the state,” ought be the guiding principle for any relationship between the mainstream society and minorities.
Unless sane minds prevail in the Republican party, it seems to be headed Pakistan’s way.