The whackos in our midst

By Zubeida Mustafa
Source: Dawn

IN Jhootha Sach, Yashpal’s epic novel in Hindi on Partition (now translated elegantly into English as This is not that Dawn by Anand) there is a profound observation.

It is made by the Sikh bus driver who transports a bunch of kidnapped, raped and abused Hindu women from Lahore to Amritsar. On the way he passes a caravan of bedraggled Muslim refugees walking in the opposite direction towards Pakistan. There follows another group that is humiliating and degrading a handful of Muslim women who have likewise been raped.

The driver comments, “Countries of human beings have been turned into nations by religion…Those that God had created as one have been torn apart by the distrust of others, and all in the name of God”.

Isn’t it paradoxical that all faiths teach compassion, humanism and love and yet religion has emerged as the biggest divider of humanity today? This is one area of life where tolerance and coexistence are widely shunned.

In a thought-provoking book, Religions of South Asia, authors Dr Viqar Zaman and Gul Afroz Zaman observe so aptly, “All religions are meant to provide a code of conduct which will ensure safety, security, peace and harmony in their respective societies. History shows that this did not always happen. Conflict within religions, and between religions, [has] occurred on numerous occasions. At present, most conflicts in the world are based on religion”.

How true this is. In the twentieth century the religious conflicts of yesterday largely lost their edge as contest for political and economic control related to colonialism and imperialism emerged as the key determinant of relations between societies and states. Democratic, liberal traditions, the rule of law, political imperatives and globalisation that has created multicultural societies that subscribe to the norms of tolerance, took the focus away from religious polarisation.

But in a few cases religion was factored into politics to give strength to one party vis-à-vis another in the power struggle, the most notable examples of this being the circumstances governing the birth of Israel and Pakistan.

This situation has changed since 9/11 and in many instances religion itself is now at the root of conflict that is devouring nations. True there are obscurantist and dogmatic elements on the fringes of every religion — be it Islam, Christianity, Hinduism, Judaism or any other — who have created a widening rift between faiths that is becoming increasingly difficult to bridge.

Ironically the fringe elements are one another’s bitterest foes yet they feed off each other to bolster their respective causes. As Andrew Coyne observes in Canadian news magazine Maclean’s, an excess of sensitivity leads to deliberate outrage and thus to still further outrage.

Mercifully we still have sane and rational people identifying the malaise. Badri Raina, a retired professor of Delhi University, titled his latest ZNet column ‘We abuse Ram when we spill blood in his name’. In Pakistan blood is being spilled in the name of Allah and there is no dearth of armchair critics who feel revulsion against this horrible phenomenon. In the US “the deranged Florida pastor” Terry Jones, to use Andrew Coyne’s words, invited angry derision from non-Muslim North Americans for threatening to burn the Quran.

The opposition to building a mosque (actually a prayer room) at Ground Zero (actually a few blocks away) was what brought about the angry criticism. Michael Moore, the award-winning film-maker of Fahrenheit 9/11-fame writes on the Huffington Post website, “Blaming a whole group for the actions of just one of that group is anti-American…. Let’s face it, all religions have their whackos…. But we don’t judge whole religions on just the actions of their whackos”.

Yet why are the ‘whackos’ gaining the upper hand? It is simply because on the one hand the liberals who speak in support of tolerance never organise themselves on the ground to network at the grassroots level to draw strength from the people. They fail to make an impact. On the other hand, the media’s role in providing publicity to the ‘whackos’ has helped their cause immensely. By choosing to sensationalise matters relating to religion that encourage religiosity and exclusivity, many TV channels have also promoted religious extremism. Gut issues that really matter never get addressed.

Take just one example, that of the Ahmadi community in Pakistan. The Ahmadis were declared non-Muslim by the Second Amendment to the 1973 Constitution by a supposedly secular, liberal prime minister and a decade later a staunch Islamist military leader banned them from identifying themselves as Muslims or calling their places of worship as mosques.

As though it was not bad enough that the Ahmadis, who produced the only Nobel Prize winner this country has ever had (Prof Abdus Salam), the community has been made the victim of violence and discrimination. In May, 93 worshippers were killed when their houses of worship in Lahore came under attack. No compensation was paid to them. Ahmadi flood victims have reportedly found themselves being denied relief goods. What kind of justice is this?

The channels and print media have left no aspect of the Sialkot incident that led to the brutal lynching and killing of two brothers in August unexplored. But how many have highlighted the exemplary behaviour of the Ahmadi worshippers on May 28, when they managed to capture alive two gunmen? In spite of extreme provocation, the congregation exercised restraint and did not take the law into their hands. The gunmen were given to the police to allow justice to run its course. One doesn’t know if it did.

The media didn’t find this incident exciting enough to pursue. As a result it is still not known what happened to the gunmen and what they had to say.

It appears that when it comes to the Ahmadis, many people in Pakistan become what Michael Moore dubs as ‘whackos’.