The seeds of intolerance

Published March 28, 2019
I.A. Rehman
I.A. Rehman

THE wave of intolerance sweeping across Pakistan is posing a more serious threat to the country’s most vital interests and the people’s mental equilibrium than any other problem, including the threat of external aggression.

Let us take a look at some recent incidents of intolerance.

A student killed Prof Khalid Hameed, head of the English department at a Bahawalpur college, because he thought that a mixed gathering of male and female students that was planned to welcome newly enrolled students was un-Islamic. This is a new excuse for taking the life of a fellow Muslim, and a teacher at that.

Two Ahmadi doctors were abducted and murdered and their bodies stuffed inside a canal head. The level of brutality against Ahmadi doctors even in personal quarrels has risen considerably.

The campaign of vilification launched by the pious and patriotic men of the country against the audacity of the women who joined the Aurat March on International Women’s Day continues to become more and more vicious. The prominent targets of male venom include some of the organisers of the event in different cities.

From where does the vigilante brigade derive its sanction to enforce its morality code?

Two minor girls belonging to the Hindu community of Ghotki in Sindh were apparently abducted, converted to Islam and married off to Muslim men.

What makes these manifestations of intolerance more ominous than they are generally believed to be is that the objects of unmitigated violence are women and minority communities that deserve extra protection in view of their known vulnerability. Besides, the government has not taken due notice of the threats to the lives and peace of mind of innocent citizens. It has not bothered to denounce the foul murders nor has it shown concern at vigilante violence except for the last-mentioned incident, which has propelled the prime minister into action against the culprits.

It would be idle and dangerous to pretend that the latest surge in intolerance is the work of some overexcited individuals or groups whereas it is rooted in the state’s failure to precisely define the place of belief in politics and governance. The problem has confronted successive governments and none has attempted a complete or long-term remedy.

Take the case of the alleged forced conversion of two minor Hindu girls — a horrible crime that is un-Islamic too. One should like to see how far the government will go. The existence of centres in certain parts of Sindh that specialise in abduction-conversion-marriage procedures is no secret. These centres have flourished under the patronage of feudal politicians who have been courted and pampered by the country’s major political parties. If the government does not proceed against these conversion centres, it will be guilty of abetment.

Quite a few issues relating to forced conversion need to be earnestly examined and resolved. The women in our subcontinent have been led to believe that victims of forced marriages won’t be accepted by their parents/siblings and they must resign themselves to their fate. Some of them are afraid of being killed if restored to parental custody. The courts usually do not allow the victims to meet their parents/siblings. Being sent to a shelter for some days to enable them to make up their minds does not seem to have worked.

The questions regarding the marriage of underage girls and the age at which a girl’s conversion can be deemed valid need to be settled beyond any doubt. The government should support the new bills on child marriage and forced conversions, especially the former that should be easy to enforce. Measures to prevent forced conversions also demand properly thought-out policies and guidelines for the law-enforcing and judicial authorities.

The murder of Prof Khalid Hameed, the abduction and killing of the Ahmadi doctors, and the frenzy of attacks on women activists denote a new high in vigilante activity, an assertion of the self-acquired right by any Muslim to question a fellow Muslim about his performance of religious rituals.

C.M. Naeem, who has been a distinguished teacher at the Chicago University for over four decades, could not believe his ears when for the first time in his long career he was queried by two of his students about missing his prayers. The killer of the Bahawalpur teacher and the instigators of violence against the organisers of the Aurat March are the advanced models of the Chicago vigilantes.

But from where does the vigilante brigade derive its sanction to enforce its morality code? For an answer, one has to go far back in the past to the point when Pakistan decided to become an Islamic state without working out a mechanism for interpreting Islam and left the various schools of thought free to interpret the state religion in different ways. Ijtehad was sacrificed at the altar of traditionalism. Came Gen Zia and overruled Allama Iqbal’s 1930 call to defreeze Islamic fiqh that had been frozen for 500 years and to free it of the stamp of Arab imperialism.

Pakistan is now governed under the Zia constitution of 1985. The conservative traditionalists are determined to defend Zia’s version of state-enforced belief as the original and real Islam. Further, some people seem to have joined the hisba force Gen Zia had proposed for enforcing moral discipline, a move that was foiled by the judiciary.

The members of the private hisba force derive strength from the interpretation of religion by militant extremists, especially their view that jihad can be carried out by individual Muslims, and their complete reliance on the theory of takfir, which means that a good Muslim has a right and a duty to behead a person who claims to be a Muslim but does not qualify as such by the former’s standard.

Hitherto the state has gone along with the interpretation of Islam by traditionalists and militants. If it wishes to break out of its self-acquired shackles it must encourage intra-religion discourse and define the role of belief in matters that are apparently outside its jurisdiction.

Published in Dawn, March 28th, 2019


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