Aug 13, 2009

Gojra and Pakistan's identity

Sherry Rehman

Gojra has exposed fundamental fissures in the crafting of a national identity in Pakistan. We all now know that large mobs of ordinary Pakistanis, with police impunity, went on a rampage of communalist frenzy to kill eight people and injure many more. What also died at Gojra was a sense of fundamental entitlement of citizenship in the hearts and minds of the embattled Christian and non-Muslim communities. To many of us incidents such as Gojra and Sangla signal more than a failure of policing or minority protections built into our fragile social contract. All nation-states, to some extent, have contested formulations of what they stand for. That is an integral part of democracy's most famous accommodation of competing interests in the form of pluralism. But at the heart of Pakistan's continuing crisis of trust in democratic politics, its relationship with the military, its foreign policy, its notion of sovereignty, its inability to live by constitutional contract and to apply universal norms of justice, lies a fragmented state identity.

This is no abstract notion. It affects how citizenship has been defined in collusion with Islamists, who in contrast to the average South Asian Muslim, opposed the creation of Pakistan. When a state defines its minorities as a vilified 'other' through the edifice of its laws, it allows more space to the ideologues who have successfully gained space since 1947 as the upholders of a muscular, dogmatic and exclusivist state discourse on religion. Quite apart from challenging the project of a country forged for South Asian Muslims, as distinct from a Sunni-majoritarian theocracy, these Islamists have also chosen to ignore a large body of exegesis, Hadith and Muslim history that is replete with religious direction for respect for another's religion. The politics of this religiosity ignores Islam's core tenet of tolerance. Any government that takes on the project of amending these exploitative laws will have to confront this political Islamist lobby to remind all concerned that in Islam the idea of justice is seen as the highest moral path to practical proximity to God. As for minorities specifically, the government can exhort detractors by iterating the words and deeds of Prophet Mohammad (PBUH) when he says: "Beware! If anyone dare oppress a member of a minority or has usurped his or her rights, or tortured, or tool away something forcibly, I will fight on behalf of the minority against the Muslim on the day of Judgement." (Sunaan–I–Abu Dawood)

The good news is that the Gojra tragedy has forced public attention on the nature of the laws that support such extremists-led witch-hunts. The prime minister has asked for a review of the blasphemy laws, and the president and others have strongly endorsed it. A committee has been formed to examine these laws. So for the first time, at least there is a majority view, that the blasphemy law in its present form has become a source of shameful victimisation of minorities in the country. The first technical clause that the committee must grapple with is the fact that under these changes made by General Ziaul Haq in the Pakistan Penal Code, the definition of the term blasphemy is deliberately left vague, yet its punishment mandates a death sentence. It must also bear in mind that while no person has been executed by the state under any of these provisions, religious extremists have used these laws as a sanction to kill persons accused under the provisions.

Coalition politics can only go so far in achieving purist goals. As it stands, the blasphemy laws refer to Sections 295, 296, 297, and 298 of the Penal Code and address offenses relating to religion. Out of all the laws, if the committee had to negotiate a best option, it must bear in mind that Article 295-C and Article 295-B have been misused the most. Section 295(c), established the death penalty or life imprisonment, but it requires no proof for filing a complaint and triggers mandatory police action. The irony of the situation is that it has been exploited by criminals to safeguard the name of a Prophet (PBUH) who went out of his way to not just protect but make way for non-Muslims. Introduced in 1986 by a dictator seeking legitimacy behind fundamentalist Islam, these laws allow for the incarceration of any alleged transgressor on the basis of a simple oral statement. The denunciation clearly favours the use of the law as a means of personal vengeance. Its formulation and mechanisms of implementation have serious implications for social, constitutional and natural justice in Pakistan.

What adds to the miscarriage of justice that takes place in the name of blasphemy and other religious cases is that when they are brought to court, extremists often pack the courtroom and make public threats against an acquittal. As a result, judges and magistrates, seeking to avoid a confrontation with or violence from extremists, often continue trials indefinitely. Subsequently, those accused of blasphemy often face lengthy periods in jail and are burdened with increased legal costs and repeated court appearances.

Personal rivals and the authorities have used these laws, especially Section 295(c), to threaten, punish, or intimidate Ahmadis, Christians, Hindus, Zikris and even Muslims. It is common knowledge amongst the human rights community that the blasphemy laws also have been used to 'settle scores' unrelated to religious activity, such as intra-family or property disputes. Impunity for those who make false complaints is also a problem. Given the rise in extremist ideologies and terrorist outfits since 2001, the government must also consider introduction of a provision in the law that would make it easier to award punishment to those who file fake cases. Comfort can also be sought in Article 36 of the constitution which provides for adequate provisions to be made for minorities to be protected and represented in the state and provincial legislatures.

Since it is the week of August 14 when we celebrate our independence as much as our nationhood, history is a useful marker for this argument. Quaid-e-Azam Mohammad Ali Jinnah certainly used the binding glue of a Muslim community to carve out a nation-state for the Muslims of South Asia, and to that extent religion was seen as defining a culturally and economically coherent identity for the post-colonial community. Yet his famous speech on August 11, 1947, clearly marked a secular, non-exclusionary view of state-consolidation. So the contest for a Muslim identity in South Asia, as a negotiable, multi-dimensional formulation should have gained ascendancy. What we saw instead, after the Quaid's death, was a serious and long-drawn contest for religious elite-capture of state identity as exclusively theological. The political forces defending this hijack of Pakistan's contingent identity were rarely united, so they increasingly conceded space to the demands of a religious minority that could never reach critical mass in parliaments.

Islam expects a ruler to demonstrate high moral authority, but no ruler has dared to re-examine the blasphemy laws in the light of Islamic law itself. After announcing a revision of the blasphemy law in 2000 and 2004, General Musharraf backed down as he neither had the legitimacy nor the vision to consider the Quranic verse that says, "There is no compulsion in religion" (2; 256). Over the last ten years while churches burned and Christians, Hindus, Ahmadis and even Shias were persecuted, the government failed to intervene. The lack of a clear government response gave offenders and bigots a 'free from jail card' for acts of violence and intimidation against religious minorities.

What we have today is a legitimately elected government which has created an anti-extremist, non-sectarian and anti-terrorist consensus. This is one government that can review the blasphemy laws. It is a moment in history that must be seized. Pakistan's identity may be ambiguous, but it is precisely this space that can be used as an opportunity to steer our fragile nation-hood in another direction.

The writer is a PPP MNA and a former federal minister for information and broadcasting.

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