Stop making excuses for the clergy —Aisha Sarwari

Published in The Daily Times on June 5th 2010

Shackled by obscurantism dogging the masses with religious war and decrees, Pakistan is taking a sad turn away from its manifest destiny

Historically, the latter-day self-styled champions of Islamic ideology in our country were almost entirely opposed to the creation of Pakistan. Yet so entrenched is the state indoctrination of the Pakistani mind that it is unable to break free from the idea that Pakistan was created for faith. Shahid Ilyas — who hails from Waziristan — makes a similar mistake in his piece ‘Stop blaming the West’ (Daily Times, June 2, 2010). Indeed it is erroneously titled. It should have been titled, ‘Stop blaming the Islamic parties and Afghan jihad’. That is what the writer is asking us to do. I, for one, did not understand how the title of the article corresponded with its contents.

His claim is that Pakistan took the trajectory it did because it was founded in the name of Islam. The truth is that Muhammad Ali Jinnah was neither the proponent of an exclusivist ideology nor a promoter of any religious cause. His creation, Pakistan, emerged from an epic struggle; a democratic, plural and fair fight for the Muslims of the Indian subcontinent, after a union had been marked out as an option by the majority party.

Jinnah was a proponent of the separation of religion and state, and had a deep sense of fair play for all citizens. Look at his cabinet when his party formed the first government of Pakistan: a Hindu for the post of law minister and an Ahmedi, Sir Zafrullah Khan, at the post of foreign minister.

The essence of the League’s struggle was economic and political. The Muslim League comprised the petit bourgeoisie from Punjab to Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, Sindh and Balochistan, Muslim minority areas in undivided India, and Bengal. In the Muslim League’s camp were Ismailis, Ahmedis, Shias, Sunnis and other heterodox elements of Muslimdom. The Indian Congress Party, on the other hand, consciously promoted an orthodoxy amongst its Muslim members by and large. The maulanas of Deoband and other doctors of religion were firmly in their camp. It goes without saying that every Islamising impulse in Pakistan has come from groups opposed to the creation of Pakistan. This is a fact of history deliberately being swept under the rug.

This divide was a fact greater than the gentlemanly conduct of a seasoned lawyer and politician who was secular to the core. And this divide had less to do with the irreconcilable differences in religion than it had to do with a system of egalitarian division of resources in the region and the deep historical sense of disenfranchisement in both communities.

Jinnah never stated that Pakistan was to be a theocracy; in fact he laid it out in plain words: “Pakistan is not to be a theocracy to be ruled by priests with a divine mission.” Jinnah was a man who parroted no one in the religious frenzy worked up by Gandhi during the Khilafat Movement. Jinnah opposed the Khilafat Movement for fear that such politicisation of Islam would lead to a mob hysteria that would not be contained in the call for independence, shadowing it with violence. Jinnah, after the creation of Pakistan, left no doubt as to the ethos of the state in his address to the Constituent Assembly in 1947 — “You are free, you are free to go to your temples, you are free to go to your mosques or any other places of worship in this state of Pakistan, you may belong to any caste or creed, that has nothing to do with the business of the state.”

Jinnah abhorred prejudice, intolerance or presumptuousness in the company he kept — a friend of Sarojini Naidu, a disciple of Tilak, an admirer of Gokhale, a follower of Ambedkar and a husband to a feisty independent Parsi girl, Ruttie Jinnah. He dined with the British, refused a bribe-coated bone from Gandhi to run the prime ministership of United India and struggled with himself as he returned to England in self-exile in the 1930s in disgust with Indian politics. No matter what page you find yourself reading from his life, Jinnah comes out “incorruptible”, as defined by his political rival Nehru.

The turning point, as historians call it, was when Jinnah hit a wall with the Congress Party leadership, which he broke away from and joined the Muslim League. The conflict was simple: give the minority community safeguards from a tyrannical majority, address their political and economic insecurities and let us work together for a greater India. This demand was rejected by the ever-centralising Congress Party, now aptly drawn out in Jaswant Singh’s new book. Providing a group their rightful safeguards was a just demand, and its rejection clarified to Jinnah the conceited unwillingness on the part of the Hindu leadership riding the high wave of Gandhi’s Hindu revivalism. No principled politician could be expected to stand by and watch. Jinnah’s astute legal brilliance made him take the demand to its logical course, for not a vindication but a fair playing field for a people who were different in that terrain. Jinnah stood for the rights of a minority community.

Had the leadership of Pakistan that followed Jinnah respected his wishes, Pakistan would now be far ahead in world politics and economics. Shackled by obscurantism dogging the masses with religious war and decrees, Pakistan is taking a sad turn away from its manifest destiny. Driving down Jinnah will only strengthen obscurantism and nothing else.

My suggestion to Shahid Ilyas is to stop making excuses for the clergy by trying to create a link between sectarian terror and the principles on which Pakistan was founded. Pakistan was founded on the principle of justice, fair play and equality for all citizens of Pakistan and this is what we need to get back to.

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