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The broken bow

August 25, 2013

So often one hears a fellow Pakistani bemoaning how polarised a nation we are.

But sometimes I feel that what they mean by polarisation in this context is the presence of the rich ethnic, religious and sectarian diversity that this country is actually blessed with.

This diversity on most occasions has simply refused to come under the all-encompassing umbrella of ideological unity that the country’s establishment, its religious allies and the urban bourgeoisie have been shoving down our throats for the last six decades. They refuse to realise that organic diversity (and not synthetic homogeneity) is what drives democracy and best utilises the inherent economic, cultural and sporting genius of a nation.

But no doubt there is also polarisation of a more disturbing kind in the Pakistani society.

On occasions it’s been like a black comedy that can generate sheer bafflement.

Every Friday at my office during the second half of the morning session, I notice guys who regularly go for Friday prayers at the mosque break up into little groups. One day I decided to figure out why this happens or why they are all not going to the same mosque (or to the one nearest to the office).

It is easy to understand that the Shia among them would visit the Shia mosques.

But one Friday I was rather amused when I overheard a group of Sunni colleagues discussing why they would not go to a particular (Sunni) mosque because the mullah’s sermons there offended them.

It turned out that the lads were Deobandi Sunnis, who, due to lack of time, had had to visit a nearby mosque whose mullah belonged to another Sunni sub-sect, the Barelvi — which, nevertheless, is the majority Sunni sub-sect in Pakistan. So the discussion was to locate a Deobandi mosque nearest to the office.

A senior colleague, who’d seen me talking to these guys, approached me in the evening, smiling: “Did you see how they were whining?” I smiled back: “I’m not very good at understanding these things.”

He shook his head and then said something that took me by surprise. He said: “I was the one who introduced them to the mosque they are now whining about. I’m sure in their hearts they now believe I am a heretic.”

This colleague is a very religious man, with a beard and all, so his claim did baffle me but not for long.

I soon realised what he was suggesting. He belonged to the Barelvi sect. It was a strange experience because on various occasions I’ve seen him agreeing with his Deobandi counterparts on so many issues, especially on things like the blasphemy law, the need to enforce the Sharia, etc. But here they were all, refusing to go to each other’s preferred mosques.

This actually shouldn’t come as a surprise in a country where the state has for long been active in defining what or who a ‘Muslim’ is in a society brimming with various Islamic sects and sub-sects. This has left the sects judging one another, sometimes overtly and sometimes discreetly.

The state did not learn anything from the findings of the famous Justice Munir Report in which — after the 1953 anti-Ahmadi riots instigated by the Jamaat-i-Islami and the Majlis-i-Ahrar Party — Justice Munir noted that according to his interviews with a number of ulema on the matter, he found that no two ulema agreed on a uniformed definition of a good Muslim.

Later on history recorded another rather amusing episode. During the movement against the Z A. Bhutto government in 1977, led by an alliance of various anti-PPP parties (the PNA), the alliance leaders met at the Karachi Press Club to brief the press about their plan of action.

Demanding the imposition of Sharia laws and the ouster of the ‘secular- socialist’ Bhutto regime, the alliance’s top three parties were representing the country’s main Sunni sub-sects.

The Jamiat Ulema-i-Islam (JUI) followed the Deobandi school while the Jamiat Ulema-i-Pakistan (JUP) was Barelvi in orientation. PNA’s third main party, Jamaat-i-Islami, had a following among middle-class urban Sunni conservatives and pro-Saudi elements.

Newspapers reported that after outlining their plan of action and professing their unity of purpose (i.e. the downfall of Bhutto and the imposition of Sharia), the PNA leaders broke for the evening prayers.

In those days there were no prayer rooms or mosques at places of work, and certainly none at the Karachi Press Club (though there is one now).

So some journalists cleared a room for the PNA leaders to say their prayers in.

Urdu dailies, Imroze, Jang and Musawat, then went on to report how a commotion of sorts broke out amongst the PNA leaders when they couldn’t agree on who would lead the prayers as all three followed their own respective schools of Islam.

The issue was not political but sub-sectarian. Some newspapers reported that JUI’s Maulana Mufti Mehmood refused to offer prayers behind JUP’s Shah Ahmed Noorani (and vice versa).

Syed A. Peerzada in his book Politics of JUI quotes a JUI leader who alleged that the reporting of this discord was the doing of the PPP’s Kausar Niazi whose job it was to exploit the sectarian differences between the PNA’s religious parties.

This might be true, but then this was perhaps the easiest thing to do: i.e. to disturb the make-up of what Bhutto might have (correctly) thought was, at best, a cosmetic face of unity among the political-religious figures of Pakistan.

The fact still holds true, and like it or not, perhaps it always will.