Pakistan’s original sin

It is its treatment of Ahmadis. It needs to overcome that anxiety to liberate itself on several fronts

Written by Pratap Bhanu Mehta | Published: December 1, 2017 12:15 am
Supporters of the radical religious party Tehreek-i-Labaik Ya Rasool Allah chant religious slogans at a sit-in protest in Islamabad, Pakistan (AP Photo/File)

Most nations often labour under the shadow of an original sin. This is a form of injustice that inflects the nation’s identity. It often acquires a power of its own such that it rears its head even in attempts to overcome it. Its shadow continues to govern and distort politics in deep ways. Race and the legacy of slavery are such issues for the United States; arguably caste and communalism arising from the shadow of Partition for India. In both these cases, the state and political culture have tried to overcome them, with some success. But the afterlife of these original sins still matters, subtly distorting our politics. In countries where the state itself perpetuates its original sin, however, there is likely to be chaos. A good example of this is Pakistan.

Arguably, Pakistan’s original sin is its construction and treatment of Ahmadis. The treatment of this small community has, in many ways, defined the nature of the Pakistani state more profoundly than anything else. Anti-Indianism is a strong undercurrent in Pakistan. But anti-Ahmadism, arguably, cuts even deeper than anti-Indianism in more intimate and existential ways. It has become more central to Pakistan’s identity as a state. It is almost as if peace with India is at least theoretically possible; peace with Ahmadism, under the current structure, is not. In fact, it could be argued that anxiety over Ahmadism is the core original sin Pakistan needs to overcome. If it can overcome that anxiety, it will liberate itself on so many other fronts.

The current crisis in Pakistan is not simply another instance of the military caving in to assorted radical groups and mobs as helpless politicians watch on. The ostensible issue that triggered the current round of protests was an apparent change in an oath Pakistanis are required to swear if they are running for office or getting passports. The oath requires declaring that Ghulam Ahmed Qadiani (the founder of the Ahmadi sect) is a pretender and his followers are non-Muslims. The protest was triggered by the fact that changes in the election law modified the oath. Instead of saying “I solemnly declare,” the oath now said “I believe”. The change from objective declaration of fact to subjective affirmation of belief, ostensibly due to a clerical error, sparked the current protests.

But more than protests, the fundamental question should be, what does the existence of such an oath signify? It highlights a powerful structure of discrimination. It emphasises the peculiar nature of the Pakistani state whose identity depends upon the denial to others of a right to their self-identification and beliefs. It makes the state, and loyalty to the state, depend upon deep theological adjudication. It makes the state, not the protector of freedom, but the custodian of belief — to furnish its Islamic credentials. And it is on the backs of Ahmadis that the Islamic identity of Pakistan is affirmed. To see the current crisis simply in political terms of alliances between different groups is to miss the centrality of the Ahmadi paradigm to the governance of Pakistan.

There is a sense of déjà vu in this debate. In the 1930s Jawaharlal Nehru and Iqbal had a debate on this question. Iqbal, who had a complicated relationship with Ahmadis in his early life, finally began to argue that Ahmadis were both a threat to the unity of Islam, and he argued, to India as well. By denying the finality of the Prophet and the oneness of god, they were denying the essence of Muslimhood. He advocated a peculiar toleration for them as a separate community. But they could not identify as Muslims. Nehru in 1935 published articles on “Solidarity of Islam — Comment on Iqbal’s article”. Nehru was essentially calling for openness, toleration and pointing to traditions of diversity within Islam to make space for self-definition of identities. Iqbal dismissed Nehru’s knowledge of Islam as superficial, a point Nehru conceded. But, in turn, history showed that Iqbal’s understanding of state and freedom turned out to be superficial.

In a way, the echoes of this debate have played in Pakistan since. There were riots on this issue as early as 1953, and in 1974, amendments to the constitution declared Ahmadis non-Muslim. The ups and downs of theological and political disputes on this issue would require a longer column. But some issues became clear: The Ahmadiyya case makes theological disputation over the nature of prophethood central to Pakistan’s identity; it is hard to take this position and then be surprised that all kinds of radical and orthodox groups intervene. It also makes self-definition in religion impossible. And it marks out the Ahmadis as the group whose very presence is a threat to the Islamic identity of the Pakistani state. Imagine what it does to a state to require a negative oath against the founder of another religion or sect. It is more like medieval Europe than a modern country.

But there are larger lessons as well. In another letter that arose over the exchange with Iqbal, Nehru presciently asked: “There is another matter which is worth noting. Why is it that whenever so-called cultural and similar questions are pushed to the front, political reactionaries take the lead in them. Is that not a significant thing which ought to make us think hard?” Nehru’s knowledge of Islam may have been superficial, but he grasped that if politics becomes about the policing of cultural and religious boundaries it will inevitably lead to a reactionary politics. By tying the state to the finality of prophethood, by making the state the custodian of what is true Islam, Pakistan has tied itself into knots. A politics centred around anti-blasphemy, religious reaction, and the religious beliefs of office-holders, will turn ugly. The Ahmadiyya case is not just that of a small minority that has second-class status; it has become the paradigm of governance, and the original sin of the state.

But the final lesson is this. The founders and prophets of many religions were extraordinary spiritual and historical forces. But if any community decides that it is the job of the community or the nation to protect its prophets, rather than the prophet’s job to protect them, it will inevitably come to ruin. After all, that is the original sin of hubris: Thinking that we can interpret our prophet’s ways so clearly, so as to deny fellow citizens equality and freedom.

The writer is vice-chancellor, Ashoka University. Views are personal

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