Why religious intolerance isn’t surprising

Despite Zia’s draconian role, it would be simplistic to attribute all the rot in Pakistani society to him solely

As if the situation of religious freedom in Pakistan was any good in the previous years, in early January, the US re-designated Pakistan on the watch list of countries where the states have either tolerated or unleashed outright violations of religious freedom. It has been reported that for the last fifteen years, the so-called independent US Commission on International Religious Freedom had been citing Pakistan’s failures but the US presidents kept vetoing against the inclusion of Pakistan in the watch list just because that would have harmed US interests until now. Not surprising that few in the world take this US watch list as credible or objective but a foreign policy tool to coerce nations to fall in line.

As for Pakistan, those aware of the local situation, the re-designation in the watch list hardly had any news value, the convenient reawakening of the US to the appalling situation in Pakistan indeed had some. While over the last seven decades hundreds of thousands of people from religious and sectarian minorities fled Pakistan, just in the previous seven years the country saw two most prominent cold-blooded murders of Governor Salman Taseer, and a Federal Minister, Shahbaz Bhatti for supporting her legal right of defence for a woman, Aasia Noreen, accused of blasphemy. Whereas the murderers of Bhatti belonged to the faceless TTP, the killer of Taseer was prosecuted and executed but only to become a hero for millions of Sunni zealots.

Lest we attribute all this to some fringe elements and naively think about the majority of the population as tolerant of diversity and dissent, we must know that it’s not just those out there who adulate Taseer’s murderer. The Senate of Pakistan had refused to offer a prayer for slain Governor Taseer. In the National Assembly, when the leader of the House, PM Yousuf Raza, led a two-minute silence to pay respects to slain Bhatti, a minister and member of the parliament, many of the MPs had either left the parliament hall just before the motion, and some didn’t participate despite being there. So the level of intolerance for different religious groups isn’t a fringe phenomenon. Instead, it’s very much mainstreamed.

Albeit Zia’s draconian role, it would be simplistic to attribute all this rot to him solely. Where we have ended up today as a society and state has its roots in the way Muslim leaders of India defined the idea of Pakistan following the Lahore Resolution 1940 and then the way leaders of newly created Pakistan fashioned the constitutional foundations of the country. What Zia did was more of logical product from what had already been sown.

Where we have ended up today as a society and state has its roots in the way Muslim leaders of India defined the idea of Pakistan following the Lahore Resolution of 1940

Soon after Lahore Resolution, the Muslim League under Nawab Ismail held a conference at Nadwatul Ulema Lucknow of Muslim Ulema and intellectuals to discuss the contours of Islamic constitution for Pakistan. It was attended by the likes of Syed Sulaiman Nadwi, Abul Ala Mawdudi, Ch Khaliquzzaman and Abdul Majid Daryabadi among other Muslim leaders and intellectuals. Nadwi was appointed to chair the committee on coming up with the blueprint of the constitution. Later, in the first meeting of the committee, Nadwi delegated the task of preparing the first draft to Muhammad Ishaq Sandelvi, who was one of the Alims under him at his seminary. Sandelvi came up with a hefty document titled as ‘Islam ka Siyasi Nizam’, which was to inspire the constitution of the country Muslims of northern India had dreamed of.

The manuscript from Sandelvi virtually proposed a theocratic system for the new country. For instance, not only did his system reject democratic principles but also outrageously recommended the exclusion of non-Muslims, Ahmadis, and Shias from Majlis Shura (parliament). This proposal couldn’t make further headway into some tangible constitutional framework until after the creation of Pakistan when in 1948 the government of Pakistan invited Nadwi to come from India and head the Talimat-i-Islamia, a special committee set up to advice the Constituent Assembly of Pakistan on its first constitution.

The manuscript that Sandelvi drafted under Nadwi’s tutelage became the primary source of recommendations by Talimat-i-Islamia committee to the Constituent Assembly, which adopted the Objective Resolution 1949 as the preamble to constitution making in the country. The resolution, passed with a very thin majority, blatantly ignored the civil and political rights of non-Muslims despite all the hue and cry from non-Muslim members of the Assembly. Acacia of intolerance was sown that day.

If the decades that followed, we have only gone awry of tolerance and democratic attitudes towards religious minorities, it must not be surprising. Unless we courageously reflect, accept where we have erred as a nation and correct our course, we may not hope for any better society and state around us.

The writer is a sociologist with interest in history and politics. He tweets @ZulfiRao1

Published in Daily Times, February 1st 2018.