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COMMENT: Who is a Muslim? — Ishtiaq Ahmed
‘First they came for the Communists but I was not a Communist so I did not speak out. Then they came for the Socialists and the Trade Unionists but I was not one of them, so I did not speak out. Then they came for the Jews but I was not Jewish so I did not speak out. And when they came for me, there was no one left to speak out for me’.
The call given recently by the Difa-e-Islam Mahaz (Front for the Defence of Islam), a 22-party front calling Sunni, Shia and Ahle Hadith ulema to declare the followers of the Aga Khan, the Ismaili Shias, apostates or renegades of Islam is the latest indication that sectarianism continues to push forth fragmentary processes in the Pakistani polity. Interestingly the call has been given by Dr Mufti Sarfaraz Naeemi, principal of Jamia Naemia seminary in Lahore. Dr Naeemi belongs to the Barelvi School which is supposed to be ‘mild’ and accommodating in contrast to Deobandi hardliners. Some time ago mainstream ulema also wanted the Zikri sect of Balochistan to be declared non-Muslim.
Modern social and political science have developed a wide range of terms and concepts to define aggression against different groups of people. Thus genocide means the destruction of a people; ethnocide means the destruction of the culture of a people, and politicide means the destruction of a political group. We might be contributing to such vocabulary with what I would call ‘secticide’ or the destruction of a religious sect. If nothing is done to stem the sectarianisation of the Pakistani polity then Sunni aggression against the Shia minority could follow as the next form of secticide. And it’s not unthinkable that Sunni sub-sects of Barelvis, Deobandis and Ahle Hadith may at some point also be involved in exterminatory activities against each other. What would we call that: sub-secticide? The Munir Report of 1954 concluded that no two scholars of Islam could agree on a definition of a Muslim, and Shias and Sunnis declared each other kafirs. The dangers of secticide are real.
The most ironical part of the Pakistan story is that the sects which played an important role in popularising the idea of Pakistan are being persecuted today. The advent of the Muslim separatist movement begins with the 1906 address by the Aga Khan on behalf of notable Muslims to Viceroy Lord Minto, requesting separate electorates. The Aga Khan enjoyed the patronage of British colonial power that helped him obtain several concessions for the Muslim community including separate electorates. The connection of the Ahmadiyya community with the idea of Pakistan dates from the time of Viceroy Lord Linlithgow, who a few days before the March 23, 1940 Lahore resolution, used the good offices of Sir Zafrulla Khan to inform the Muslim League that the British government would consider it appropriate if it were to demand a separate Muslim state(s).
The Viceroy wanted to pressure the Congress Party which refused to cooperate in the war effort. Thereafter the Ahmadiyya were not involved in Muslim League politics. They became wary of the idea of Pakistan when the Muslim League mobilised mainstream ulema to propagate the idea of an Islamic state during the 1945-46 provincial election campaign. However, Quaid-e-Azam won over Sir Zafrulla to the cause of Pakistan by assuring him that such a state would be non-sectarian. Thenceforth the Ahmadiyya sect invested all its effort in supporting the demand for Pakistan.
Any serious study of the proceedings of the Punjab Boundary Commission would show that of all the briefs presented before the Commission — including those prepared by the Indian National Congress, the All-India Muslim League, the Sikhs, Christians, Ahmadis and others — the one that Sir Zafrulla put forth on behalf of the Muslim League was the most powerful. So much so that the counsel for the Indian National Congress, Mr Setalvad, complimented Sir Zafrulla for preparing such a strong case for Pakistan.
Sectarian strife has always been present in Islamic history. The Sunni and Ismaili sects in the early period of Islam considered each other heretics. So did the Sunnis and the Ithna Ashari Shias. Ismailis and Ithna Asharis denounced each other as heretics. Closer to our own times, soon after Mirza Ghulam Ahmad (died 1908) declared himself a prophet, the Sunni and Shia ulema declared the Ahmadis heretics. In 1912 Mirza Ghulam Ahmad’s son, Mirza Bashiruddin Mahmud Ahmad, who later became the khalifa of the Rabwah branch of the Ahmadiyya, declared that Muslims who did not enter the fold of Ahmadiyat were outside the pale of Islam. Ahmadis were instructed not to take part in the funerals of non-Ahmadis. Critics point out that Sir Zafrulla did not participate in the funeral prayers for Quaid-e-Azam. Persecuted sects are no less rigid and narrow-minded than majority sects. It would be foolish to ignore these ground realities.
Sectarian bickering and violence is not confined to Islamic societies. Until the 1960s the Catholic and Protestant sects of Christianity did not accept each other’s claims to being bona fide Christians. This meant they believed that the followers of the other group would burn in hell as heretics. After World War II Western democracies removed such theological disputes from the affairs of the state and introduced individual and corporate religious freedom as a cornerstone of their public policy.
From a democratic point of view, the state should not have any role in determining who is a Muslim and who is not. On the other hand, the various sects cannot be put under obligation to accept each other’s credentials as Muslims. They can continue to dispute such matters but peacefully. I think the attitude of true democrats against victimisation and persecution of minorities should be the one classically expressed by the German pastor Martin Niemoeller (1892-1984) against Nazi brute power:
“First they came for the Communists but I was not a Communist so I did not speak out. Then they came for the Socialists and the Trade Unionists but I was not one of them, so I did not speak out. Then they came for the Jews but I was not Jewish so I did not speak out. And when they came for me, there was no one left to speak out for me.”
It is therefore important that we demand that the Pakistan government should clearly and categorically declare the Difa-e-Islam Mahaz a criminal organisation. This is also the only way to prevent freethinking Muslims from being terrorised into conforming to outmoded social and cultural mores. It is imperative that Pakistan does not degenerate into full-fledged religious fascism.
The author is an associate professor of political science at Stockholm University. He is the author of two books. His email address is Ishtiaq.Ahmed@statsvet.su.se