New Internationalist

Five steps to sanity

In the last two decades, thousands are estimated to have died in sectarian fighting in Pakistan. But I am disappointed that the centre and the Punjab government are engaged in wars of words, this time on the issue of 'Punjabi Taliban', while they should be busy cracking down on these militants instead.

Two weeks ago, more than 80 people were killed in simultaneous raids on two mosques of the minority Ahmadi Islamic sect in Lehore. Ahmadis were declared non-Muslim by Pakistan in 1973 and have suffered persecution since.
After mourning the death of one of my media colleagues, who was covering these attacks, I took a break to read the 'Five steps to sanity' from leading human rights advocate I A Rehman, in which he stresses that today Pakistan's supreme need is the adoption of a rational response to the menace of extremist elements operating, without due sanction, under the banner of belief. 

Rehman writes that Ahmadis are citizens of Pakistan entitled to the protection of their right to life. The assault on their prayer houses is not wholly unexpected: the authorities had been aware of the activities of the professional Ahmadi-bashers and their threats for months.

'The first step towards reasonable and rational behaviour is that the state must fulfil all three of its legal obligations, namely, a thorough investigation into the obvious failure to ensure security of the prayer houses, a relentless prosecution of the culprits, especially those that are routinely described by the police and the media as 'masterminds', and adoption of effective strategies for the protection of communities that are vulnerable because of their belief.'

He explains that the extirpation of the deep-rooted bias against holders of beliefs different from that of the majority's orthodoxy is the second essential step towards sanity.

'The moment the custodians of state power start treating some of the people as second-class citizens they push the latter into a high-risk alley. The official explanation for not taking action against hate-preachers, some of whom are allowed privileges as rewards for spewing calls to murder and worse, is the fear of breach of peace. The same excuse is touted to explain failure to remove banners and posters that explicitly call for violence against the Ahmadis or other vulnerable groups.'

One of the main reasons that the masses in Pakistan can freely raise anti-Ahmadi slogans is that Ahmedi are classified as non-Muslims under Pakistani law, for believing that Muhammad was not the final prophet. Over the last year the affluent Ahmedi community in Pakistan has been rocked by a campaign of violence and intimidation, which intensified in recent weeks. 

'Tolerance of criminal mischief so as to avoid breach of peace has been formalized into a theory that is used to justify the Ahmadi-specific provisions of the penal code arbitrarily inserted into it by Gen Zia. The denial of Ahmadis' right to hold meetings, especially their annual congregation, also is premised on this theory. 

A critical review of this excuse has long been overdue. No such effort has been made because the victims, Ahmadis especially, are not considered entitled to enjoy their basic rights. But the consequences of overlooking mischief by some elements out of fear for their potential to cause disorder are now evident even to the purblind. Will no action be taken against gangsters who establish a state within the state because they might disrupt peace?

Most criminal acts fall within the definition of breach of peace. Must they go unchallenged? A state loses its title to wield authority if it blinks at criminal acts out of fear of repercussions of its intervention. The demolition of the theory of appeasing disrupters of peace is the third important step towards sanity.

The next step necessary for evolving reasonable and rational behaviour is elimination of discrimination on the basis of belief in practically all walks of life. This is going to be a long haul even after the state has acquired the will and the capacity required for the task, because this will involve not only a review of the 1974 amendment. What should receive immediate attention is the need to end the Ahmadis' exclusion from political life.'

Ahmadis have been out of the political mainstream. The 2002 election law abolished separate electorates but under a totally illegal and anti-democratic decision the Ahmadis are still denied inclusion in joint/common electoral rolls. This discrimination must end as, among other things, it strengthens discrimination in services, in educational institutions, and even in housing.

'Finally, the fifth step to sanity demands a critical appraisal of the theoretical foundations of religious extremism. Tomes have been written on tolerance in general, and often perfunctory, terms. Many have devoted time and resources to talks on inter-faith harmony. But very little has been done to protect Islam against its manifestly wrong interpretation by the high priests of militancy.'

I agree with Rehman, that largely tepid plans to regulate the working of madrassas must be tightened up and a commission set up to probe the contents of so-called religious publications, which are believed to account for three-quarters of all publications in Pakistan each year.

The objective should be the confiscation of material used to brainwash young boys and convince them of the urgency of not only killing Ahmadis, Shias, and even Sunnis, for sectarian or political differences, but also of treating attacks on hospitals as a holy mission on the route to paradise.

For a people who have allowed raw emotions to rule their minds for decades the trek back to sanity will be neither easy nor painless. If the government doesn't work now, the future could be worst than Iraq or Afghanistan, where sectarian wars and divisions are already hitting hard.

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