Pakistan’s scary quest for roots

WHY IS PAKISTAN being riven by Sunni-Shia and Sunni-Ahmadi strife?

A scholar at Columbia University shares his thoughts on the question in a New York Times op-ed entitled “Pakistan’s tyrannical majority.”

Manan Ahmed Asif quotes Muhammad Ali Jinnah telling Pakistanis: “[E]very one of you, no matter to what community he belongs, no matter what relations he had with you in the past, no matter what is his color, caste or creed, is first, second and last a citizen of this State with equal rights, privileges and obligations.”  And Asif deplores that the promise of Pakistan’s founding father for “religious equality [has] proved false,” that the country’s Sunni majority has been on a witchhunt of the Shia and Ahmadis.

Sadly, it’s true. I was hoping, however, that the professor would tell us why sectarian hatred among Pakistanis appears to have deepened since their independence from British colonial rule. But  he doesn’t delve into it beyond blaming Pakistani politicians for pandering to the anti-minority Sunni masses. Targets of his criticism include then Prime Minister Zulfikar Ali Bhutto and today’s Movement for Justice party leader Imran Khan, both leftists.

Asif mentions that among the early victims of sectarian intolerance is Pakistan was Sir Zafrullah Khan, an Ahmadi who was “hounded out” of his Cabinet post.  Ahmadis don’t believe that Muhammad was God’s last messenger to mankind, as the Quran says; but that their religious leader, Mirza Ghulam Ahmed was.  Therefore, most Islamic theologians and Muslims in general consider them outside the pale of Islam. The professor scorns Bhutto and Imran Khan for endorsing this theological position on the Ahmadis.

The question here is not whether Ahmadis are true Muslims. It is whether they deserve to be barred from holding jobs or subjected to social discrimination, which Islam itself forbids.

Unfortunately, societies have historically gone through one kind of prejudice or another. In 1954 when Zafrullah Khan was forced out of his foreign minister post in Pakistan, America was convulsing with virulent racism; African-Americans were disenfranchised, segregated and still being lynched.

It doesn’t mean that we should justify or discount social prejudices. But unless we know the sources of  a prejudice, we can’t explore its correctives.  Jinnah and his second in command, Liaqat Ali Khan; Mahatma Gandhi and his top lieutenant, Jawaharlal Nehru, were all  products of a British education, and they shared many Western values.  British India was steeped in widespread illiteracy and despair from nearly two centuries of colonial subjugation and suppression.  The political idiom of the subcontinent’s Western-educated elites was shaped by Western values and standards.

Independence from colonial rule, followed by the spread of democratic values and education in a domestic setting, has engendered self-respect and pride in indigenous cultural heritage among the elites and masses in South Asia and other developing countries. More and more, people in these societies are differentiating  themselves along their indigenous cultural fault lines, rather than the mostly artificial boundaries of their “nation-states,” created by colonialists and their own Westernized elites.

Their affinity with their religious and ethnic communities is often deeper than  with their state institutions. Hence the increased antagonism between many of these communities. Shia-Sunni conflicts rock not only Pakistan, but most of  Muslim west Asia and North Africa.  In India, the phenomenon has triggered the dramatic rise of the anti-Muslim Hindu nationalist movement.  In fact Pakistanis have never given their Islamist parties more than 6% of votes; but in India, the Hindu nationalist Bharatitya Janata Party has twice been voted to power. And the instigator of the harrowing Muslim massacre in Gujarat, Narendra Modi, is one of India’s most popular leaders and is could become its next prime minister.

Today nationalist bigotry and hubris stalk much of the West, while communal prejudice swirls much of the rest of the world. Muslim and other post-colonial societies have to find ways to douse their people’s communal animosity. As military and political hostility between the nation-states of Pakistan and India abates, politicians and civil society groups there should get on with promoting tolerance and resisting violence between their religious and ethnic communities.

◆ Mustafa Malik, an international affairs commentator in Washington, hosts the blog Islam and the West.

Mustafa Malik
Mustafa Malik, the host and editor of the blog Community, worked three decades as an American journalist and as a researcher for U.S. think tanks. He wrote continually for major U.S. and overseas newspapers and journals. He also conducted fieldwork in Western Europe and the Middle East on U.S. foreign policy options, "crisis of liberalism" and Islamic movements.

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