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Monday, October 3, 2011

VIEW: Sectarian violence —Anwar Syed

During the first several decades after independence, folks did not carry their religious belief on their sleeves. They took it in stride. A change in the thinking and feelings of many Muslims surfaced during General Ziaul Haq’s 11-year rule

A bus carrying 22 pilgrims destined for holy places in Iran was waylaid some 25 miles down the road from Quetta. The attackers pulled the passengers out, made them stand in a line, and shot them dead. Those killed belonged to the Hazara tribe whose members profess the Shia persuasion. Reports have it that more than 500 of them have been murdered in recent weeks, once again because they were Shia. No sense of outrage at this despicable event has been voiced in this country. It may be that the ordinary citizen has been so preoccupied with the turmoil in Karachi that he has had no emotional energy left to lament the fate of the Hazaras in Balochistan. There is probably more to the public reaction to these events than meets the eye.

Sectarian conflict is not foreign to our historical experience. There was rioting between the more passionate members of the Sunni and Shia communities occasionally even during British rule in India. But for the most part the two communities lived together peacefully in the same neighbourhoods one generation after another. The fact that one person was a Sunni and another a Shia did not stop them from building friendly and cooperative relationships. During the first several decades after independence, folks did not carry their religious belief on their sleeves. They took it in stride.

A change in the thinking and feelings of many Muslims surfaced during General Ziaul Haq’s 11-year rule (1977-88). He may have thought of himself as a pious Muslim and believed that as a ruler it was his duty to Islamise this country’s polity and society. But instead of implementing celebrated Islamic values and principles, he focused on its ritualistic aspects. His Wahabi piety notwithstanding, he went out of his way to use the name of Islam for prolonging and firming up his hold on power. He recruited the ulema (Islamic scholars) and “mashaikh” to support his rule, gave them stipends, invited them to conferences, paid their travel expenses, and placed them in expensive hotels in Islamabad. Under his influence the appearance of piety came to be expedient.

In this process he cultivated absolutism and extremism among those who stood with him. He told them, for instance, that secularists in Pakistan were snakes in the grass who must be located and crushed. This attitude of mind travelled beyond theological interpretations. It endorsed intolerance of the dissident in all areas of social interaction. Ziaul Haq went away to meet his Maker and earn what he deserved 23 years ago. In retrospect he is considered to have been the worst ruler that Pakistan has ever had. His encouragement of extremism and Islamic militancy may be one of the reasons for the poor rating that history allows him. But his legacy does not appear to have been entirely discarded. There are still quite a few people who are ready and willing to honour his creed. The damage that he did to the psyche of these people may have been enduring. When Zulfiqar Mirza says that Altaf Hussain wants to break up Pakistan and the latter’s spokesmen say that Mirza is a drinker of alcoholic beverages and is not to be trusted, when Nawaz Sharif calls Zardari a swindler, and Zardari calls PML-Q a bunch of murderers, they are all being extremists. Regretfully, one must say that absolutism and extremism have made a place for themselves in our political culture.

Sectarian conflict is not unique to our experience in Pakistan. The Catholic Church during the medieval age claimed absolute validity for Papal interpretations of doctrine and permissible practice and regarded any deviation from them as heresy. Certain reformers — notably Thomas of Aquinas, John of Salisbury, William of Ockham and Nicholas of Cusa — challenged the traditional view and asserted that Christian doctrine was open to reinterpretation. In the same vein, Martin Luther’s innovation gave birth to Protestantism, which in time gained many millions of adherents. But the Catholics maintained their original position. In Spain the agents of Queen Isabella and King Ferdinand killed every Protestant they could lay their hands on. Catholics and Protestants in Ireland remained engaged in bloody conflict that went on for more than a hundred years. White Anglo-Saxon Protestant Americans (WASPs) discriminated against Irish and Italian immigrants and their progeny until almost the middle of the 20th century. The fact that folks in Europe and the US have acted from religious prejudice does not mean that it is all right for us to do the same. Sectarian violence has diminished or disappeared in Europe with the spread of education and the coming of modernisation. All of this raises an intriguing question. Is there anything wrong with being certain that one’s own beliefs, to the exclusion of all others, are correct? It depends partly on the faith in question. Take the case of Hinduism. Some observers maintain that it is not a religion in the strict sense of that term. There is no dogma in which a person must believe in order to be a Hindu. A person is a Hindu if he says he is one and has found his place in the caste system. In a Hindu temple there may be many idols. It makes little difference to others if a man salutes this idol instead of the others. All is well so long as it is within the fold of Hinduism. A problem arises when a Hindu has to interact with some one who says he is a Muslim or a Christian. Tolerance and open-mindedness may then depart.

It seems to be the case that certitude is likely to inhibit togetherness among persons of different persuasions. It may give a man peace of mind, but having made peace with himself, he is ready to make war against those who will not agree with him. This inclination diminishes in the case of those whose thinking admits doubt and scepticism.

The writer, professor emeritus at the University of Massachusetts, is a visiting professor at the Lahore School of Economics. He can be reached at anwarsyed@cox.net

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