Rear-view Mirror

Salman Tarik Kureshi looks back at the roots of religious intolerance in Pakistani society

Rear-view Mirror
“In my beginning is my end’”

(From East Coker by T.S.Eliot)

At Abdul Wali Khan University, Charsadda, on the 13th of April 2017, an inflamed mob brutally assaulted 23-year-old Mashal Khan with bludgeons and brickbats, beat him to a literal pulp, and then shot dead. Many of these young men filmed the lynching on their cell phones as it took place, presumably to be viewed later for sadistic delectation. 58 individuals were arrested for the murder and presented before an Anti-Terrorist Court. After the passage of almost a year, a verdict was announced, sentencing the prime accused to death, jailing 5 others for 25 years each and a further 26 for 4 years each. 26 of those who were tried, most of whom had been seen gleefully filming the grisly act, were acquitted.

The crime, by its very nature, was disturbing enough, almost inconceivable in a presumably civilised country with a functioning government and a modern Constitution. More disturbing still was the irrationality of so-called Islamic parties in hailing those released as some kind of returning heroes and lionising those convicted as martyrs.

Ignoring points of view and moral niceties for a moment, such life-denying and death-applauding attitudes are at least profoundly irrational, defying, as they do, the most fundamental instincts of species-survival and group-survival and the ordinary humanity that comes naturally to every person. And yet, as we know, the attitudes displayed – beyond even the crime itself – were by no means unique to this event. When and where, we must ask, did such abnormal social attitudes begin to be considered normal amongst us?

Mashal Khan, a bright, well-informed and articulate student, joined the long list of those whose lives were taken by extremist mobs

The 1953 movement was led by 14 eminent religious scholars, among whom was Maulana Abdus Sattar Niazi, who declared himself 'King' and set up his 'court' in the Badshahi Masjid

It is our rear-view mirrors into which we must look, long and deep, to see where the image began to become warped and twisted. Because, as we know, those who are (or choose to be) ignorant of history, are condemned to repeat it.

Look back far enough, to the times of, say, Shah Waliullah. This worthy invited the foreign marauder Ahmed Shah Abdali – who brutally ravaged the lands that are now Pakistan, inter alia sacking the city of Lahore and burning it to the ground – in order to quell the Maratha attempt at dominance. This paved the way for conquest of Delhi by the British East India Company. Or consider Syed Ahmed Barelvi, whose mujahideen valiantly fought the then Sikh rulers of Punjab, thereby paving the way for the British annexation of Punjab. Or in more modern times, the founders of Hamas in Palestine, who, not so secretly encouraged by the Israeli Mossad, successfully divided the Palestinian resistance organisations led by Yasser Arafat.

As the poet Auden wrote, in another context:

Accurate scholarship can
Unearth the whole offence...
That has driven a culture mad.

History, I would suggest, seen straight on and without ideological blinkers, has much to show us. But why look back that far? Let us look back to only the closer horizon of our last seven decades.

Almost immediately after the massive bloodletting and anarchy that consecrated our independence and that of India, a Basic Principles Committee was appointed by the first Constituent Assembly of Pakistan for making recommendations for framing a constitution. On the advice of this Committee, the Constituent Assembly passed the Objectives Resolution in March 1949 defining the aims and objects of the new Constitution (which failed to be framed in the seven-year life of that Constituent Assembly).

Under heavy pressure from religio-political elements (which, unsurprisingly, had actually failed to get elected to the Assemblies), the then Prime Minister Nawabzada Liaquat Ali Khan included certain provisions in that Resolution that would in the years to come provide the loopholes through which extremist ideologies would gain acceptance in the political system of Pakistan.

Sardar Nishtar and General Azam Khan - the latter had to be called in to quell agitation by religious forces in Lahore, 1953

Innocent as they may have seemed at the time, these particular provisions were expanded and extended in meaning by our successive rulers and by the religio-political parties until the country eventually reached the crippling ideological sickness from which we are suffering today. Liaquat Ali was assassinated two-and-a-half years after the Objectives Resolution. Over the years, there have been numerous key events down this deadly path. These began with the Basic Principles Committee setting up a special committee known as Talimaat-e Islamia, consisting of scholars well versed in Islamic jurisprudence to advise on matters relating to the Objectives Resolution.

Since under the Objectives Resolution a Muslim citizen clearly held a superior civic status to a member of the ‘minorities’, it became significant to determine who was or was not a Muslim. This set of ideas led to the agitations that broke out in the city of Lahore in 1953. The movement was led by 14 eminent religious scholars, among whom was Maulana Abdus Sattar Niazi, who declared himself ‘King’ and set up his ‘court’ in the Badshahi Masjid.

Quashed at the time by General Azam Khan and nullified legally by Justice Rustam Kayani (who drafted the Munir Commission Report), this issue was to surface again. In 1974, Prime Minister Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, seeking to appease radical Islamists and himself having lost his left-wing democratic moorings, enacted a constitutional amendment that greatly strengthened the hands of the religio-political elements.

In 1977, Bhutto was faced with major urban agitations relating to allegations of rigging elections. Thinking to throw a sop to the Islamist elements, he declared Prohibition on alcohol and changed the weekly holiday to Friday. These actions did not save his government, his Constitution or his life. Bhutto was assassinated on the gallows at the behest of the fanatical General Zia-ul-Haq.

1977 brought the nightmare years of this Lord of Darkness, General Zia, which left our society abysmally degraded and brutalised, our Constitution mangled and our legal and ethical standards transmuted to gross bigotry. The country became awash with guns, drugs, dacoits and sectarian and ethnic violence. The regime’s violent revenge on Sindhis for supporting the MRD movement left homes and villages destroyed and an entire population embittered against the state of which they were part.

The concept that Pakistan is an ‘ideological state’, a well-worn justification for dictatorship, was used to full effect to keep General Zia in power. The Zia years brought the hypocritical and ill-advised Afghanistan ‘jihad’ and all that has followed, including the later emergence of the Taliban, Al Qaeda, and Daesh.

More directly relevant to the poisoned socio-cultural environment in which the attitudes exhibited in the Mashal murder and other related incidents have sprouted, Zia’s government undertook the wholesale rewriting of our educational syllabi. Of course, this deadliest of dictators did not lack for US support for his endeavours, notoriously toxic textbooks being developed and published at the University of Nebraska.

Zia was himself assassinated, by unknown killers who may (it has been suggested by some) have been members of a heterodox religious sect. A post-Zia generation of youth and adults who have suffered severe ideological mangling and reactionary indoctrination are in place today. They…we…are the ones who now determine the attitudinal, cultural, and ethical norms of Pakistani society.