Religious politics

By Rifaat Hamid Ghani

 Of course Muslims feel that Islam is one as conveyed by its Holy Prophet (PBUH) in Quranic revelation, and concretized by his exemplary life. But apart from podium oratory, reality demands the qualification that, as apparent in contemporary practice, this singleness emerges in the fact of variously distinct manifold ‘ones’: individual understanding and schools of interpretation are separate and differ.

           Thus in the earliest decades the major Shia-Sunni intra-faith differentiation began crystallizing with a historical basis in power conflicts as well as a tradition of preferential political and emotional reverence for the Holy Prophet (PBUH) of Islam’s family and descendants. There have long been numerous schools, Fiqh, with variations in interpretation and prescriptive practice. Each one’s adherents are naturally convinced of its specific rectitude. Some are tolerant and some more aggressively focused on the ‘wrongness’ of and in others. There is no official priesthood in original Islam; nonetheless the mufti, the peshimam, the maulvi have assumed a specialized status and role. For some within the community this is merely social, to others it may appear unthinkable to challenge edicts emanating from these podiums.

Fitzgerald’s translation of Omar Khayyam’s Rubaiyat made a popular English language cliché of ‘the seventy-two warring sects’. Yet, what actually alarms and baffles the non-Muslim is that mysteriously vibrant pan-Islamic unity which intra-squabbling Muslims spasmodically and, from the western crusading point of view, regrettably, fall into utterly unpredictably. For hegemons, colonizers and neo-cons alike, that dynamic gives Muslims anywhere – practicing or somnolent — a potential force. Islam and Muslim nation states happen to be extensively pan-geographic. Militant Hinduism poses no ‘organizational’ threat at all to the west’s democratic liberal crusaders, even if former CM now PM Modi may have been on an international terrorist listing. The West can afford to rest easy about his aberrations old and new in a way that it could not for instance with Osama bin Laden; of Saudi origin, operative internationally and finding safe haven in mobility from points in Africa and Afghanistan until declared dead by finders and captors in Abbotabad: Contemporary Islamophobia has justifiable origins — As have Muslim states’ apprehensions of western conspiracies against their sovereignty and indigenous democratic/egalitarian aspirations: The CIA didn’t let Mosaddegh be; though ultimately it couldn’t help the Shah stay. That is just one example; and any Muslim could cite several more.

The embarrassingly manifest western propensity to manipulate sectarian schism in targeted countries/areas energizes conspiracy theorizing in Muslim countries. The post 9/11 doctrine of pre-emptive strikes against perceived terrorist threat has provided the USA, with or without its NATO allies, a camouflage to intervene, violating a state’s sovereignty, at will. Western advocacy of regime change, devastating economic sanctions, may appear justifiable, aiming to protect and uphold universal human rights. But that argument evaporates when the application itself becomes inhumane. Economic sanctions foster failed states. And that can suit the neocon. The inconsistencies and exploitative intent of western policy and action in the context of the Middle East and the Gulf are rudely visible. Developing countries, rich in natural resources, in Africa and Asia have much experience of interventionism, overt and covert, that turns out more often than not, to the longer-term disadvantage of the natives (whether or not that term is deemed politically correct). The despoiling expropriations of western meddling with a view to help or hinder proxies; and mischievously propagandist media focus in the context of the Middle East and the Gulf, AfPak and India, are a sad old continuing story.

However, this international meddling and exploitation of religious factors should not be a pretext for overlooking — speaking of my own nation state of the Islamic Republic of Pakistan – the willfully toxic use that has been and continues to be made of religion in power politics by our own leaders and followers. When Muslim citizens and politicians themselves misuse religion and misapply religious argument and doctrine the effect transcends the merely political: It imprints the national psyche and hystericizes social responses and attitudes, tearing at the cultural fabric. The populist demagogic religious slogans used at different times by different leaders and ideologues are emblematic of the cumulative buildup of fanatical zeal and bigotry. Nizam-i-Mustafa to Islamization to Riyasat-i-Madina .  .  . Some of the major clerical parties did not even subscribe to the concept of a Pakistan initially. But adherents now loudly assert “Pakistan ka matlab kya” and label the secularist an outlaw in patriotic terms. The charge of treason or heresy may be but a step away. Mere suspicion or allegation of charges of blasphemy of sacrilege have incited mobs to arson and deathly violence. The frequency is increasing rather than diminishing.  It makes no sense at all that an avowedly Muslim majority state should be so insecure of the others in their faith or fear the minority outside it.

Currently Maulana Fazlur Rahman of the JUI-F is being chided for religious incendiarism in organizing his Azadi march. There is no evidence of this yet, but accusatory anticipation can help trigger undesired eventualities or conjure up unconceived ones. Civil democrats fear the overturning of the civil political applecart — the Zia-Bhutto paradigm resonates. Nawaz Sharif’s aborted 15th Amendment and the Amir-ul-Momineem vs Musharraf’s Enlightened Moderation is another paradigm we have known. Saving our Kashmiri brethren is, however, indisputably the regime’s current cri-de-coeur. Even corruption and accountability recede before that clarion call. But before we talk of Jihad for Indian Occupied Kashmir’s right to self-determination let us pause to recall what Mujahideen-ism did to us and for us in Afghanistan not that many decades ago. Religious politics are at their most treacherous when national and international usage fleetingly coincide.