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DAWN - Opinion; 08 October, 2004

October 08, 2004

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Curse of sectarianism

By Qazi Faez Isa

The former Malaysian prime minister, Dr Mahathir, identifies "sectarianism as ummah's curse". The "fragmentation of a single, simple and forthright religion" resulting in Muslims becoming "backward, weak and unable to deal with the multitude of challenges they now face".

Mohammad Ali Jinnah was born into a Shia Khoja household, but never professed adherence to any divisive sect. When matters of his estate came to be considered before the Sindh High Court, it was declared that our leader was simply a Muslim.

Sectarian violence in the country is rampant; murderers kill those who do not belong to their sect. Seeds of fragmentation and intolerance sprout in the swamp of leaky governmental resolve. Weeds take root, are cultivated and entwine their trunks chokingly around the body politic.

General Ziaul Haq was Pakistan's first ruler to use Islam to perpetuate himself. He categorized citizens into sects. A ruler who divides his people into sects is a mufsidun, that is one who commits great sins and crimes, an oppressor, a tyrant. "Verily, Firaun (Pharaoh) exalted himself in the land and made its people sects ... Verily, he was of the Mufsidun" (28:4).

The Shia and the Sunni came to have different legal obligations. The Hudood and other "Islam"-labelled laws in respect of the crimes of murder, rape and theft were applied on the basis of sectarian interpretation.

General Zia also granted madressahs the power to award BA and MA degrees in Islamic Studies. Each sect and sub-sect (maslak) was permitted to teach its own curriculum.

Degrees were obtained without acquiring knowledge of all aspects of the discipline. The Shias demanded and got exemption from the compulsory deduction of Zakat. Unity with the sect and not the faith, became important.

The question of sect (shiah), division (firqa), dissension (fitnah) and groups (hizb) has been considered in the Holy Quran. "...Do not be divided (tafarraqu) in religion" (42:13). "...And be not of al-mushrikun (hypocrites, dividers, polytheists).

Of those who split up (farqawa) their religion and become sects, each sect rejoicing in that which is with it" (30:31 and 32). "And be not as those who divided (tafraqu) and differed (ikhtalafu) among themselves..." (3:105).

"And verily, this is My Straight Path (serate mustaqeema), so follow it, and follow not other paths (fatafaraqa), for they will separate you away from His path. This He has ordained for you that you may become the pious (al-muttaqun)" (6:153).

The path is clear and the pitfalls identified. As to the consequences of disobedience, "Say: 'He has power to send torment on you from above or from under your feet, or to cover you with confusion in sects (shiaan), and make you to taste the violence of one another'. "See how variously We explain the Ayat [signs] so that they may understand" (6:65)

The gunshot wound, the devastating bomb and the exploding grenade in our sectarian midst, has made us taste blood, as we trudge the sectarian divide. Most men and women blindly following their parents schismatic proclivities. A child in his innocence wants to know, "What a Sunni or a Shia is?"

The difference in fiqh may be unknown to the parents but the prejudice is passed on. Teachings of the faith lie beneath the murky waters of sectarian practices, adherence to which is vigorous and abiding.

The Quran continuously confirms the timeless quality of the Message. "But they (men) have broken their religion among them into sects, each group rejoicing in what is with it" (23:53). The words "what is with it" excludes the sacred whole.

The invader in Iraq knows about the 'Sunni Triangle' and about the Shiah in the south before he has learnt anything about Islam, or maybe he perceives these divisions as Islamic.

The Shiah Northern Alliance fought the Sunni Taliban in Afghanistan, and their neighbours resolutely stood by their favoured sect. Sect precedes faith in these divisive times.

The prescription is provided by The Book: "Verily, those who split up (faraqu) their religion and break up into sects, you have no concern with them in the least. Their affairs is only with Allah, who then will tell them what they used to do" (6:159).

The simple act of prostrating towards the Kaaba in worship of the One Lord made complicated by the array of mutually exclusive venues. Which mosque should one then go to pray in? First, where not to go: "And for those who put up a mosque to harm and cause disbelief and to disunite the believers... Never stand you therein" (9:107/108).

A mosque where another is invoked along with Allah, has become the practice in certain sects, and must also be avoided. "The mosques are for Allah: so invoke not anyone along with Allah" (72:18). And then, the mosque in which we should bow our heads in surrender to the Creator: "the mosque whose foundation was laid from the first day on piety" (9:108).

To abide by the Quran, habits need to be broken and prejudices abandoned by stepping out of our trenched beliefs (mazhab and maslak) and abandoning the practice of hurling abuse.

To save our selves from violence at each other's hands in this world and from the pit of the fire in the hereafter. "...And be not divided among yourselves, and remember Allah's Favour on you, for you were enemies one to another but He joined your hearts together, so that, by His Grace, you became brethren, and you were on the brink of a pit of fire, and He saved you from it. Thus Allah makes His Ayat clear to you, that you may be guided" (3:103)

We are "a single community (ummah)" (21:92) and must not "dispute (tanazalu) with one another" (8:46). But the study of differences amongst various schools of thought (mazahib; singular mazhab) has become a specialty. Abu al Darda, a companion of the Prophet, is reported to have said, "[To say] 'I do not know' is half of knowledge".

Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) repeatedly warned: "Do not engage in disagreement thereby causing discord among your hearts". When two Muslims were loudly arguing in disagreement about the meaning of a Quranic verse he said: "People before you perished only because of their disagreement about the Scripture".

In his famous sermon delivered at Arafat he said that "every Muslim is a Muslim's brother, and that Muslims are brethren". He abhorred fitnah (dissension). Shortly before his death he said, "O people the fire has been kindled, and dissension has been set in like segments of a dark night".

Hatred is generated in the names of the early Caliphs, but their conduct was exemplary. Abu Sufyan came to Hazrat Ali, after Hazrat Abu Bakar became Caliph, saying; "O Abu [father of] Hasan, stretch out your hand so that I may give you the oath of allegiance".

Hazrat Ali rebuked him: "By God, you do not intend anything but [to stir up] dissension (fitnah). We do not need your advice". Hazrat Umar during his Caliphate summoned a lady who was reported to be of ill repute. His summons scared her and she miscarried.

Hazrat Umar consulted the companions of the Prophet on whether he was responsible and had to pay diyah (compensation) to the mother. Some of the companions exonerated him of all blame.

He then asked Hazrat Ali, who replied: "If what these companions said is what they really think, then their opinion is wrong. But if they said that in order to please you, they have not given you proper advice. I believe that you have to pay compensation for the child."

The Khalifa accepted Hazrat Ali's opinion and acted upon it. Al Gazzali noted that amongst certain religious scholars there were "devalued seekers of patronage from rulers" and also those "who busied themselves in passing fatwas".

The condition afflicting the Ummah (Muslim community) noted by him, about nine hundred years ago, is similar today. "The floodgates of disputation gave rise to terrible fanaticisms and animosities which, in turn, led to bloodshed and destruction of Muslim lands" - consequence of the perversion of simple truths.

Changing the mindset

By M. H. Askari

Responding to a question in his recent interview to the American journal Newsweek, the president of Pakistan pointedly said: "We are changing the entire psyche of our society which has been held hostage to extremist ideas. The entire mindset needs to be changed which we are doing."

He was expressing his view on the problems facing Pakistan in the context of the Kashmir dispute and the international environment. He could not have been more precise. The tension between Pakistan and India to a large extent appears formidable because of the people's fixed mindset.

Since the interview took place against the background of President Musharraf's meeting with Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly session, what was apparently uppermost in the general's mind was the Kashmir dispute which has defied resolution for nearly 57 years.

Unfortunately, for the long period of time that the dispute has remained unresolved, the mindset of the people has become increasingly inflexible. Gen Pervez Musharraf has spoken of the need for a change in this respect more than once.

This is not to suggest that India has an open mind on the subject. For instance, to this day India continues to believe that the insurgency in Indian-occupied Kashmir is Pakistan inspired and Pakistan sponsored. On the contrary, it is now fully established that the insurgency is indigenous. A number of seasoned Kashmir-watchers have also expressed the same view.

Despite the significantly diminished scale of cross-border infiltration of the so-called terrorists into Kashmir, the insurgency has not proportionately lost its intensity.

On the Pakistani side the religious or ethnic factor in the insurgency is often over-stated. At the root is the Kashmiri people's will not to surrender their independence and lose their identity as Kashmiris.

The dominant factor in the Kashmiri demand for self-determination has been the people's will to retain their Kashmiri identity or 'Kashmiriyat' as they call it.

An American specialist on the Kashmir question, Robert G. Wirsing, of the University of South Carolina, has quoted "a Hindu official with lengthy service in Indian Kashmir (without naming him)" as saying that ethnicity is a major problem because Kashmiris are "unusually insular; they have a feeling of uniqueness, indeed of cultural superiority.

The long struggle for self-determination establishes that they wish to preserve their identity at all costs. Unfortunately, the severe military action by the Indian authorities has given rise to an anti-Hindu feeling among the Kashmiri freedom fighters." However, Wirsing maintains that ethnicity is not an absolute barrier to cooperation against Indian rule among Muslims of differing ethnic backgrounds.

It is surprising that the Musharraf-Manmohan Singh meeting in New York has not prompted much follow-up in the Indian media. The fact the meeting was held on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly may have given the impression that it was really a casual affair not meant to be taken too seriously.

In fact the meeting was something of a breakthrough. Its outcome has been received with a degree of enthusiasm (and hope) on both sides of the divide. The official Pakistani spokesman even hinted at the possibility of the two sides going beyond their 'stated positions' in their search for a resolution of the Kashmir question.

He said: "The two leaders have crossed one barrier and they talked about possible options on Kashmir, which underlined the political will of the two governments to resolve the lingering dispute." Off-the-record talks between India and Pakistan have also begun, with close aides of the leaders participating in them.

British Defence Secretary Geoffrey Hoon, the precise purpose of whose shuttle diplomacy between India and Pakistan is not quite clear, has also expressed his appreciation of the India-Pakistan peace talks and enigmatically disclosed that his country was keeping an eye on the peace process.

He has also said that Britain was prepared to play a role for resolving issues between India and Pakistan. The timely sponsorship of a Pakistani journalists' group's visit to Indian occupied Kashmir by the South Asia Free Media Association has given additional momentum to the peace efforts. Nothing like this has happened before.

During the various attempts at breaking the deadlock over Kashmir, India and Pakistan have had a large number of meetings over the past half a century at various levels and in different forums.

The prime ministers of the two countries held their first meeting to break the logjam as early as July-August 1953. They met again in May 1955. However, the bilateral talks which were most promising were those which were held in 1962-63 following an outbreak of war between India and China.

The western powers at no cost wanted China to gain an upper hand and despatched their respective emissaries with the objective of keeping the situation under vigilance and control.

The delegations of Pakistan and India, led by Zulfikar Ali Bhutto and Sardar Swaran Singh, held six meetings. Y.D. Gundevia, a secretary in the Indian ministry of external affairs, who was the principal aide to the Indian delegation during the talks, has given a blow-by-blow account of the meetings in his book Outside the Archives.

From his account, it appears that the two sides came closer than ever to a possible settlement which was broadly to consist of converting the Line of Control (LoC) with some adjustments into a permanent border.

Retired Major-General D.K. Palit of the Indian army apparently had even prepared a map showing the proposed modifications in the LoC for Mr Swaran Singh's use during his private sessions with Mr Bhutto. However, at the last minute the talks broke down and there was no agreement.

The Kashmiri leader Shaikh Abdullah came to Pakistan reportedly with a mandate given by Pandit Nehru to negotiate a settlement with President Ayub Khan. It was then believed that the outlook for peace was very promising, but then Pandit Nehru suddenly died of a heart attack and Shaikh Abdullah returned to New Delhi forthwith.

Since then from time to time there have been various proposals to divide the disputed state into two separate entities, one with a pro-Pakistan complexion and the other under the influence of India.

A widely respected Indian editor, B.G. Verghese, presented a formula labelled 'Confederalism'. As described by Robert Wirsing in his detailed study of India, Pakistan and the Kashmir dispute (first published in the US in 1994), the Verghese plan called for conversion of the LoC following "suitable adjustments" in order to "secure a rational border, permanently demilitarized."

Verghese's plan also called for "some kind of overarching structure, maybe an informal council meeting periodically on either side to consider matters of common concern..." The plan also visualized full revitalization of the autonomy provision under the Indian Constitution Article 370.

Wirsing regards this plan as too complicated and "not too certain a route to a settlement of the Kashmir dispute." At Shimla in 1972, according to Indian experts, Mrs Indira Gandhi virtually prevailed upon Mr Bhutto to freeze the dispute and maintain a sort of permanent status quo on the basis of the LoC.

Even if there was some such understanding between the two leaders, it was never formally presented in Pakistan nor became the basis of an agreement between India and Pakistan.

A great deal of hope has therefore now been placed in the efforts of President Musharraf to arrive at an agreement with India. The first step to any settlement would be demilitarization of sensitive points such as Siachen and Kargil.

Nothing has yet surfaced very clearly about the possible options mentioned by officials of both countries. Yet, a positive development is the large number of confidence-building measures (CBMs) which have been accepted by both sides. The tension between Pakistan and India appears to be slowly easing.

Ms Mehbooba Mufti, chairperson of the People's Democratic Party in the occupied state, who met Pakistani journalists in Srinagar on Tuesday, was asked what she thought could be a solution to the Kashmir problem.

She said: "Both India and Pakistan should forget their ego and think of Kashmiris on both sides..." She also said the economy was the main thing which would give power; even armies do not count when it comes to strong economies.

She also laid great stress on the opening of bus routes between the divided parts of the state. She has also said: "We will not allow anything to disrupt this dialogue." Whatever is the implication of her remarks is anybody's guess.

Terrorism and freedom of information

By Azmat Rasul

September 11, 2001, was a defining moment for the entire world. The horrific events that shook New York and Washington on that fateful day started a chain reaction that still reverberates.

Believing that publicity could encourage terrorism, different governments across the globe introduced new laws in their drive to minimize media coverage of terrorist acts. This has generated a heated debate in media circles about whether or not such laws infringe on the peoples' right to information.

The US media has complained about the draconian laws under which hundreds of people, whose names have not been announced, have been detained. But there has been less reporting of this in the press than people would have expected in the days before the events of September 11. The British parliament had also enacted laws limiting the freedom of information.

On November 1, 2002, the Russian Duma approved new legislation that gave the authorities greater control over media coverage of crises, in particular of anti-terrorist operations.

The new rules prohibit the dissemination of information seen as hampering anti-terrorist operations, endangering lives, and statements perceived as justifying resistance to state anti-terrorist action, as well as information about arms and technology used in anti-terrorist operations.

Full freedom of information and security are, of course, contradictory. In the UK, America and most European countries there is reasonable freedom of information and one can argue it does not jeopardize security.

But the public is demanding more information. They want to know if they are safe. What are the names of the people arrested in the streets on which they live and who have been linked to terror? One has to strike a balance between legitimate journalism and responsible citizenship.

Can rules and standards be set that could work as a guide for media coverage of terrorism wherever and whenever they occur? The word "terrorism" is a very controversial one and can mean different things to different people, depending on context and circumstances.

Many individuals who were branded as terrorists in their early days are today heads of state or hold other important public positions. Some have even been awarded positive international recognition, including a former chief of staff of the militant IRA who received the Nobel Peace Prize. It is significant that social scientists and the international community have yet to come up with a comprehensive definition of terrorism.

The media is grappling with a difficult situation. It would be wrong to see the media as a main actor capable of changing the course of events in any substantial way.

It can contribute positively to the fight against terrorism, or, on the hand, can lend terrorist act further impetus. Modern terrorism needs the media as it cannot promote its cause without having access to radio, television and the Internet. But this can hardly be blamed on individuals running newspapers or broadcasting stations.

There are two reasons for this. One, because no editor in his right mind would decide against covering events related to terrorism. Two, because the roots of and motivation for terrorism are political - terrorism is a political manifesto, and as such represents a threat to the stability of the countries involved.

There are a number of conflicts going on across the globe on account of unsettled political issues. The IRA's struggle is a political one. In Spain, the ETA is fighting for an independent Basque country.

All liberation wars fought in the past against mostly colonial powers in Africa and Asia, were driven by political motivation. These included the FLN in Algeria, the Frelimo in Mozambique, Eoka, Volkan and other groups in Cyprus, the Tupamaros and Monteneros in Latin America, and the Kashmiris and the Palestinians.

The roots of Italian terrorism, of both the extreme left and extreme right, are to be found in the political developments that occurred in Italy from 1964 when, for the first time, the Socialist party entered a government coalition.

Media coverage of terrorism is necessarily influenced by and reflects national and international politics. But, as a rule, the media has played a passive role, mirroring events often in an uncritical fashion.

Indeed, it can be argued that the position of the media, in a terrorist emergency, can be very uncomfortable, being caught as it is between a government that may curb freedom of information and the danger of being used by terrorist groups for the dissemination of propaganda.

There are exceptions of course. On more than one occasion, certain segments of the media have taken positions that had little to do with objective information. Today, media coverage is an essential, perhaps the most important component of most terrorist strategies and liberation wars.

It has been so ever since the Second World War. Abane Ramdame, one of the leaders of the FLN, Algeria's National Liberation Front, reportedly once said: "Is it better for our cause to kill 10 of the enemy in the countryside, where no one will speak of it, or just one in Algiers that will be mentioned the next day in the American press?"

If terrorists need the media, then conversely terrorism is the kind of event that attracts the media for obvious reasons. Both need as wide an audience as possible. One may call it an obnoxious symbiosis, yet it is a fact of life.

An example of this can be found in the coverage of the Munich Olympic Games in 1972. At one point, the live television broadcast came to an abrupt halt in the United States and did not resume for some time.

The reason was the competition between CBS and NBC, and specifically a dispute over satellite rights. CBS forced NBC to stop its coverage. According to Newsweek, the explanation offered by a CBS spokesman was: "You are in this business to win". The same words, although of course with quite a different meaning in mind, could have been spoken by the leaders of Black September.

Governments have often spoken of the "responsibility of the media" and the need for "self-censorship" to prevent terrorism from harvesting undue benefits as a result of an uncritical or lengthy coverage of terrorist actions.

But normally such appeals get little or no response. Government censorship is the alternative. It has been widely practised in some Latin American countries and in other countries as well; for example, in recent years, in Kashmir with respect to the uprising there.

In Russia, the government has passed new laws to curb media coverage of terrorist and counter-terrorist activities. In the West, however, governments are normally reluctant to limit the freedom of the press, although they can be tempted to do so informally.

However, there are factors that can influence editorial policies; factors which are unpredictable and can force editors to lose sight of the long term perspective, therefore, making it difficult for them, in spite of their best intentions, to make a positive contribution, in guiding public opinion, with a constructive, non-hysterical approach to the problems. The danger of schizophrenia in both news reporting and comments is real.

One such factor, the main one, is represented by new, sensational terrorist actions which result in public outrage, create panic and make people utterly hostile to the very idea of dialogue.

Episodes like the recent one where the British government announced that an education campaign would be launched to advise the public on how to respond in the event of a biological or chemical attack, followed by media reports about the inadequacy of British hospitals to deal with such an emergency, are bound to limit space for dispassionate analyses.

These are highly complex issues that interact amongst themselves and make the present situation an unprecedented challenge for the media. The media should adopt a balanced, pluralist and responsible approach while addressing this grave challenge.

The writer is an assistant professor in the department of mass communication, University of Punjab, Lahore.