THE murder of Prof Shabbir Shah is like one of those casualties in an epidemic that offers a measure of the calamity and the scale of devastation caused by it.
One of the friends of the intellectual gunned down some days ago announced the event in these words: “Shabbir Shah, a humanist, academician, historian and a secular democrat, was killed in Gujrat today by terrorists since his last name was Shah.”
True, the gregarious teacher had done enough to invite the fury of hotheads. He broke through the shackles of a humble origin, took up the unrewarding profession of teaching children as far away from home as Murree and Quetta and acquired academic distinction in history and political science, the two disciplines he considered essential for understanding the dynamics of change in his tradition-bound community.
All this might have been forgiven if Shabbir Shah had been driven by considerations of personal advancement and comfort only. But he chose to struggle for social change.
Outspoken and always willing to fight for egalitarian causes, he made a name for himself as a fearless advocate of the rights of the disadvantaged and for denouncing all the forces of darkness that are threatening to smother reason in Pakistan.
But humanists and secular democrats are so far not high on the extremists’ hit list. Their turn may come later and of academicians and historians perhaps after them. Unless the Punjab police can track down the killers and uncover their motive in cutting down a promoter of love and learning the popular verdict will be that he was killed for his name.
There have been instances in the past too when people have been targeted for bearing certain names — for instance, the brutal killing of human rights campaigner Jarar Husain in Peshawar and the murderous attack on Justice Maqbool Baqar in Karachi. One has often wondered as to what kind of pestilence is this that eminent persons are exterminated for their names or physical features.
For obvious reasons, these incidents will be treated as part of the ongoing conflict between the largest and the second largest Muslim sects which has resulted in both massacres and targeted killings in Balochistan, Gilgit-Baltistan and elsewhere in the country. Its latest manifestation was in Rawalpindi.
The people are not unaware of the steady and many-sided escalation of this conflict.
First, the tradition of accepting the various sects as Muslim has been breached; Muslims belonging to the ‘other’ sect are being branded infidels with impunity.
Secondly, under the new canons developed by the militants, members of the ‘other’ sect must be exterminated.
And, thirdly, the fight against the opponents can be extended to foreign countries, such as Syria. (Incidentally, the authorities seem to be unaware of or unconcerned with the freedom to enter and exit from Pakistan enjoyed by the militants.)
Despite the availability of many tomes on the centuries-old conflict within Islam, especially Khaled Ahmed’s exhaustive study (Sectarian War), the government is adamant to treat it purely as a law and order matter. The responses to the Rawalpindi incident amply reveal a pathetic inability to face the reality.
The government is concentrating on rounding up the culprits and hounding the officials who failed to discharge their duty. This may be necessary but it will not meet the need to tackle the disease and not merely its symptoms. Besides, in a highly polarised situation, the punitive action that may be taken against any group could lead to increased inter-sect strife.
However, the authorities deserve credit for realising the urgency of curbing hate speech. Several cases have been registered against persons accused of stoking sectarian fires and one hopes these cases will be pursued with due diligence and efficiency.
The religious elements are as usual diverting the people with their double-speak. Some of them are still looking for scapegoats among the country’s external foes while others continue to deny the sectarian nature of the conflict.
They are right only to the extent that sectarian conflict does not enjoy religious sanction and it cannot further any Islamic cause. But nobody can challenge the sectarian nature of the conflict even though it is all too clearly a political contest for space or dominance in the scheme of governance at home and also in international politics.
No way out can be found without a clear comprehension of the politics of the Shia-Sunni confrontation.
This politics not only affects Pakistan’s relations with Iran and Saudi Arabia but also has a bearing on its approach to Al Qaeda/ Taliban ambitions in Afghanistan and their challenge to Pakistan’s polity. Any deal, or even negotiations, with the hardline militants on their terms will aggravate sectarian tensions.
Islamabad must also realise the contribution its policy of allowing the unhindered inflow of cash and other help to religious seminaries and associations is making to sectarian bloodbaths.
Above all, there is no denying the fact that sectarian violence is unavoidable in a country where politics is subservient to belief. In a theocratic state, not only the religious minorities but minority sects of the state religion also will always be vulnerable.
Even if they do nothing to provoke the largest sect their visibility in the economic field and in services and their assertion (rightfully) of identity through their choice of names will be enough to fuel the fires of envy, hatred and conflict.
There will be no end to the killing of people for their names so long as belief-based politics is not given up. The task is not easy but it will become increasingly harder with the passage of time.