Charity begins at home

By Zubeida Mustafa
Source: Dawn

MERCIFULLY, the voices of sanity are now being raised in support of moderation and religious tolerance. Many high profile figures have vociferously expressed their views on the need for the renunciation of extremism and militancy in religion.

We have had the outgoing Malaysian prime minister, Mahathir Mohammad, the Saudi crown prince Abdullah bin Abdul Aziz and president Pervez Musharraf speak out against extremism and militancy. This must have been reassuring for many — especially those who have fallen victim to the mindless obscurantism of the fanatics.

At the OIC summit at Putrajaya President Musharraf rightly pointed out that it was in the interest of the Muslims and the global society to avert the clash of civilizations that the extremists were trying to provoke. The fact is that the militancy of a tiny minority is tarnishing the image of Islam.

His words expressed the feelings of most Pakistanis — a revulsion for violence and a desire to be left in peace in a society which believes in the axiom of live and let live. But one can well ask: has the president been translating these principles into action at home?

Three issues come to mind which are a direct consequence of the extremism practised by this minority which was condemned by the president without mincing words at Putrajaya.

One is the blasphemy law which was inserted in its present form in the penal code in 1986 and has been abused many times to victimize people on personal and ideological grounds. We seem to forget the victims of the injustice inflicted under laws which leave loopholes for the unscrupulous to exploit. Given the corruption, avarice and brutality of our police, innocent people are ending up in prison because the blasphemy law provides an opening to the police functionaries to arrest people on flimsy grounds. In many cases the motive of the person bringing the charges of blasphemy is malice or vengeance.

We tend to forget how these laws are being exploited to ruin so many lives. I was reminded of this when in response to an earlier column I received a letter from the death cell of the Rawalpindi Central Jail. The writer, Dr A.M. Younus Shaikh, lives under the shadow of a death sentence ever since a sessions judge declared him guilty of blasphemy in a trial held in camera in April 2001. An appeal has been filed in the Punjab High Court. Dr Shaikh, who has been languishing in jail since October 2000, describes himself as “a loyal and law-abiding Pakistani citizen and Muslim by birth, a medical doctor and college teacher, and an innocent death penalty victim on false and fabricated charges under the iniquitous blasphemy law on mere suspicion and trumped up allegations of utterances in a lecture that did not take place.”

A year after he assumed power, President Musharraf tried to introduce some amendments to the law which would have changed the procedure of registering a blasphemy case. The police would have been required to investigate a complaint before registering an FIR. But under pressure from those he is now criticizing the president backtracked.

The second issue which props up again and again is that of the Hudood Ordinances. These have landed hundreds of women in prison on fabricated charges. The dogmatic mindset of the extremists is betrayed by their reaction to the demand for the repeal of the Hudood laws. These were promulgated by a military dictator and have been used to ruin the lives of innocent women.

After the National Commission on the Status of Women demanded the repeal of these laws, moderate opinion has been mobilized and voices are being raised in favour of a change. In the forefront is the chairperson of the commission, Justice (retired) Majida Rizvi, who has been campaigning fearlessly and relentlessly against these laws.

Justice Rizvi has won supporters and a People’s Party MNA, Sherry Rahman, has proposed a bill which would do away with the Hudood laws apart from safeguarding the rights of women. But the religious parties are fighting tooth and nail to stonewall the moves against the Hudood Ordinances as though the core issues of Islam were these laws while many major concerns which have grave implications for the lives of Muslims go by default.

The third problem created by extremism is that of sectarian violence. A report prepared by the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan and released recently identifies 293 sectarian killings in Karachi in 1994-2002 — significantly 40 per cent of these took place in the three years under the military government and the remainder were recorded in the preceding six years. What emerges clearly from the interviews of the families of the victims is the lack of support and protection from the state. The report also speaks of the extreme hatred felt by some of the sectarian groups and how this hatred was fanned in the madressahs.

It is intriguing that all this is happening under the nose of the government when the head of that government speaks of ending extremism and fanaticism. It is good for the president’s image when he expresses before an international audience his profound concern over extremism. But his failure to act on the home front distorts his image. The political rhetorics notwithstanding, what carry weight are the quiet voices of rationality from academics and intellectuals. For instance, Dr Riffat Hassan, professor of religious studies at Louisville University, USA, who was in Karachi recently on a visit, expresses profound concern at the polarization in our society between the Islamic extremists and the secular forces who champion the cause of human rights. She believes that the majority of the people do not back either of these two opinions. They are looking for a middle of the road approach and are in quest of a rational and moderate interpretation of Islam.

Dr Hassan spoke of the need for creating space in the middle for the moderate forces whose strength will inevitably grow. She wants to start a movement to mobilize these forces in the centre who would then squeeze out the extremists. It is plain now that action at the grassroots level is needed to neutralize the extremism and militancy of the minority.

Another instance is that of Dr Viqar Zaman, a physician who opted for research and teaching in microbiology rather than clinical medicine, is a staunch supporter of science. He believes that societies where science education has been disseminated with concerted commitment people tend to be rational and logical in their approach and behaviour. He has written a book called Life Sciences for the Non-Scientist with the idea of getting the lay person interested in science. Dr Zaman plans to distribute this book free to school libraries so that the students have an opportunity to read it. With the cooperation of the Theosophical Society he plans to set up a science library in Karachi.

The time has now come to mobilize the silent majority which is neither militant, nor irrational, nor bigoted but is frightened because it is unarmed and not organized. Ultimately, it is the state that will have to provide the protection the silent majority needs from the militant minority.