May 17, 2016

Pakistan: ‘With no space for pluralism, religious intolerance thrived’ - report by Zoya Anwer on a teachers workshop held in Karachi

The News International, April 28, 2016
‘With no space for pluralism, religious intolerance thrived’
By Zoya Anwer


A two-day workshop titled ‘Role of teachers in social harmony and religious tolerance’ held at a local hotel saw scholars address the role of religious intolerance in disrupting the social fabric of the present society.

Moderated by columnist Khursheed Nadeem, the speakers, Dr Abdul Hameed Nayyer and Dr Jaffer Ahmed, spoke about the sectarian divide and the socio-political scenario in the country with respect to educational institutions and religion.

Starting with the plight of minorities, Dr Nayyer, a former faculty of the Quaid-e-Azam University, said they were the ones who faced the brunt of intolerance: “Minorities are the most affected and it depends on just one signal to make their lives a living hell and usually this signal is given from mosques when people take laws in their hands over blasphemy. We should be thankful that they haven’t alienated themselves because we have crossed all limits in this regard rather they continue to remain loyal to the state.”

He also pointed out that the culture of asking questions from teachers was not practiced and questions could help students in thinking broadly. “Students should be urged to ask questions because arguments are necessary to expand knowledge. Teachers should also be patient enough to bear through the queries and if the answer is not known to them then instead of rebuking, they should find out the answer themselves.”

He added that dialogue was extremely important and the teachers needed to be objective while teaching and not let bias cloud their judgement.

Tracing back the origins of sectarian and religious violence, Dr Nayyer said before the 80s, skirmishes were a rarity and both Shias and Sunni participated actively in each other’s religious gatherings. Things took an ugly turn when different laws pertaining to Shariah were imposed and clerics belonging to both schools of thought targeted for their beliefs. He said such incidents should have been foreseen because that was what the imposition would have done.

“If the state is set to impose Shariah then the schism will widen hence in the past parties like Sipah-e-Sahaba and Sipah-e-Muhammad came into being as the individuals hailing from these organisations believed killing to be their religious obligation,” he noted.

Dr Nayyer explained there was no one Shariah in the country because if the presence of various schools of thought and that was why its introduction was not a wise idea.

“Whose Shariah would be followed? This pursuit led us to the takfeeri mindset which has no room for plurality; rather anyone who doesn’t agree with their beliefs is wajibul qatl,” he pointed out.

“Minorities are marginalised and their alienation in modern society is shocking as to how you give someone citizenship yet takeaway their rights and still expect them to be loyal to the state?” he asked.

Referring to the previous session, he pointed out how most people agreed on the idea that all four schools of thought within fiqh (Islamic jurisprudence) should be taught in schools but when the question of including the fifth fiqh - Fiqa-e-Jafaria - was posed, there was silence. “We can’t have religious and sectarian tolerance till we focus on the Islamisation of textbooks. There is apparent hate speech against some religious groups and when a believer of that group comes across such texts then one can wonder about their sentiments.”

He added that given Sunni Hanafi were in majority, they needed to look into their privilege.

“They need to be aware about their majoritarianism that imposing their beliefs is wrong and unity would remain a distant dream if this is followed. All sects and religions should be free to practice their faith. We needn’t put non-Muslims in a position that they get fed up with us.”

Addressing religious intolerance and putting it at par with society and politics, Dr Jaffer Ahmed, the director of the Pakistan Studies Research Centre at the University of Karachi, said that religion was a mainstream topic whose implications could not be avoided in textbooks.

Observing the scenario through a political paradigm he referred to a magazine, “Tarjumanul Quran”, and said that the questions asked by people and the answers given by the clerics told a lot about religion and politics.

Speaking about the conflict in building a state versus society, he asked as to why was the rejection of ethnic identity needed to proclaim oneself as a Pakistani.

Referring to political history, he said that after inheriting the colonial law, Pakistan had followed the Government of India Act for nine years and later on the state had failed to form federalism as well as a democracy.

“We always had a ‘seen’ and ‘unseen’ government with names like Liaquat Ali Khan, Muhammad Ali Bogra and Hussain Suhrawardy representing the ‘seen’ and people like Iskander Mirza and Ayub Khan representing the other. However given that it was difficult to legitimise this system, Islam was used to justify it. When the question for provincial autonomy came and individuals like GM Syed, Achakzai and Bizenjo rose against the One-Unit system, Ayub Khan used Islam to curb the issue,” he explained.

He also spoke about Muhammad Ali Jinnah’s role in leading the nation to this point as the slogan “Muslim hai tou Muslim League me aa (If you’re a Muslim, join Muslim League)” was used to invite all to the political party.

“The Two-Nation Theory was just a political device used by Jinnah which later led to separatism. In United India, he demanded 33 percent seats when Muslims were just 24 percent. This affirmative action by him was taken to get a nation-state for Muslims, although his August 11, 1947 speech about secularism said otherwise.”

Dr Ahmed also spoke about Karachi’s transformation as a city which saw mass migration and settlers from provinces like Khyber Pakhtunkhwa were not given proper settlements hence they could never assimilate into the societies.

“Madrasas became a safe haven for many people as they started doing the job of the state. A welfare state is supposed to provide food, shelter and education to those who can’t afford the means and this is exactly what these madrasas do. Had the state been successful in providing such people with necessities, the dynamics would be different but in this context the people are helpless.”

Pointing to the Pukhtun population in the city, he said if a group contributed economically then it would demand a political space. He said that the population of approximately 2.5 million could not integrate hence they started to live in enclaves and in such a case pluralism is another option.

“The state doesn’t have the ability or sense to create space for pluralism or else Pukhtuns would have representation in the assembly. The current picture looks like Karachi is an extension of rural culture and has failed to become a cosmopolitan city with no frame of its own.”

Stressing on the need to separate religion and state, he said there were many countries following secularism where all religions have the freedom to practice their beliefs freely: “It is not the job of the religion to build a state and if a society is deeply religious then the politics do get coloured by it, so religion should be propagated by improving the society as a whole.”

He said this was not a war between religious and non-religious rather it had many socio-political layers to it as the state is losing its writ through various mafia, gang wars and influx of arms.

“Resurrection of the state is needed which should be done solely by the society and not by the likes of Ghulam Muhammad and Ayub Khan,” he added.

When one of the clerics said that secularism meant creating impediments for the Shariah law, Nayyer reinstated that the consequences of having that Shariah were evident and due to many interpretations, high stakes get involved.

“With no action taken against rampant hate speech and people declaring infidels via wall chalking, it appears that the state isn’t bothered by such incidents.”