Riding the tiger

Published November 25, 2000

IN a recent newspaper article, Farhatullah Babar reminded us that November 21 marked Professor Abdus Salam's sixth death anniversary. Apart from this article, I do not recall a single recent mention of this great scientist's contribution in the media.

Had he been alive today, he would have been greatly pained by the recent wave of attacks on his fellow Ahmadis in Punjab. Indeed, as Kuldip Nayar reminded us in his latest column on these pages, there has been remarkably little condemnation of these barbaric incidents in the Pakistani press. I have received a number of e-mails from readers abroad expressing their horror and revulsion over these incidents.

By sheer coincidence, I received a phone call last week from Kamal Afsar (not to be confused with the politician), a very dear friend, asking me to lunch as a common friend of ours, Hanif Bajwa, who was in town very briefly from the States. Not having met Hanif in over twenty years, I dropped everything and went across.

He had changed remarkably little, his gentle humour intact and his intellect as honed as ever. He moved to the States in the mid-seventies with his family, and has lived there ever since. As an Ahmadi, he saw very little future for his two daughters in an increasingly hostile and intolerant Pakistan. Like thousands of other Ahmadis, they have made their lives abroad.

I do not feel defensive about repeating myself on the subject of our treatment of Ahmadis as I think it deserves to be hammered home time and again. The fact is that ever since they were arbitrarily and whimsically declared non-Muslim, they have been increasingly marginalized. As they do not consider themselves to be a minority community, they do not participate in the elections that are based on the shameful separate electorate system. And yet, despite all the grievous provocation they are constantly subjected to, they are among the most hard working, honest and productive of Pakistanis, model citizens in every sense.

In spite of their forbearance, they have been victimized to an unacceptable extent by a brutalized majority. For years, they have been arrested on the flimsiest grounds: reciting the kalma renders them liable to prosecution and imprisonment. I wrote recently about an Ahmadi who was convicted for praying in police custody. How can we claim to be civilized when we treat peaceful, decent human beings in this fashion?

The late Professor Salam, Pakistan's only Nobel laureate, is more respected abroad than he is here. When he was alive, he tried to further the cause of science in Pakistan, but was largely ignored. When he was invited to campuses here, he was often not allowed to speak by Jamiat hoodlums. As Farhatullah Babar reminds us, "...in his home country, he was shunned, ignored and cold-shouldered... many in Zia's government also were opposed to honouring him..."

And yet, the Institute of Theoretical Physics in Trieste, Italy, is named after him. He spent some of the most productive years of his life here. On the occasion of his first death anniversary, his successor said: "...let us celebrate the accomplishments of this extraordinary man and let us honour his memory by renaming this institution to which he devoted so much of his energy and intelligence, the Abdus Salam International Centre for Theoretical Physics. It's the right thing to do for the man and the institution." In Pakistan, not a single road or institution has been named after him. In his own country, he is unhonoured and unsung.

Despite their many contributions to Pakistan, Ahmadis remain the targets of bigots and fanatics. On October 30, five Ahmadis were shot dead, and ten were wounded in a murderous attack in a village near Sialkot. Barely ten days later, another five were killed as they prayed together in Takht-Hazari, a village 30 miles away from Sargodha. Their mosque was burned down, and another dozen people were injured. No arrests have been made despite police assurances that they are investigating these brutal killings. Considering that our intelligence agencies have the time and resources to vet civil servants before they are promoted, you would think they would have penetrated armed gangs of militants, and made some arrests by now. Their failure to do so reflects equally on their incompetence as well as on how vulnerable our minorities are in an increasingly lawless state.

The animosity shown by bigots towards Ahmadis has always amazed me. A difference of opinion is one matter, but to express such hatred for another community betrays a level of intolerance that is incompatible with the dictates of civilized behaviour. Whenever incidents of violence against them are reported, there is hardly a ripple. But this is at par with our treatment of other minorities. And yet we are forever ready to champion the cause of human rights from Palestine to Chechnya.

There is growing concern in the outside world as well as among the dwindling numbers of thinking Pakistanis that we are drifting into a very dangerous zone of anarchy and lawlessness. As the effects of our involvement in Afghanistan and Kashmir spill back into Pakistan, and as armed militants are politically strengthened by state support for their questionable activities, all of us are at risk. What is happening to one community today may well begin happening to another tomorrow.

In the ways that truly count, Ahmadis are far more religious than most of the rest of us. Professor Salam was a devout man right till the end, and Farhatullah Babar has quoted a marvellous phrase in his article: "Whenever faced with two competing theories for the same set of observations, I have always found that the theory that was more aesthetically satisfying is also the correct one." How can anybody who lives his life by this maxim not be wholly spiritual?

At the outset of the army's takeover last year, we had hoped that General Musharraf would have the will to take on the obscurantists and rid us of militant sectarianism. We little realized that the government was using these same zealots to further its policies in Afghanistan and Kashmir, and would therefore be unwilling to rein them in. Another contradiction stems from the fact that fundamentalists consider themselves to be the ideologues of Pakistan, and so far, no government has contradicted them.

Until these contradictions can be resolved, Ahmadis and many of the rest of us will continue to be at risk.

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