In 1906, the bowler-hatted, racehorse-loving Sir Sultan Muhammad Shah, Aga Khan III, leader of the Ismaili Shia, threw his weight behind the movement that would lead to the founding of a homeland for South Asia’s Muslims. “The Muslims of India”, he said, “should not be regarded as a mere minority community but a separate nation”. Forty-three people of his faith were slaughtered on a Karachi street on Wednesday, by jihadists convinced that the Ismailis have no place in the homeland that Shah invented. The jihadist group, Jundallah, which last year proclaimed allegiance to the Islamic State, has claimed responsibility for the massacre, saying that it does not consider Ismailis to be Muslims.
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For over five decades, a certain idea of Pakistan has been devouring its children. In 1951, the clerical alliance Majlis-e-Ahrar-ul-Islam led an agitation calling for the Ahmadiyya sect to be declared non-Muslim, and for the constitution to mandate that the country be ruled by the laws of god, not men. The mainstream political system played along, with then Punjab Chief Minister Mumtaz Muhammad Khan Daultana using the clerics to bolster his own legitimacy. In their judicial investigation of the bloodbath that followed, Justices Muhammad Munir and Rustam Kayani cautioned against religious extremism, warning that, “provided you can persuade the masses to believe that something they are asked to do is religiously right or enjoined by religion, you can set them to any course of action”. But in 1956, Pakistan passed a constitution declaring itself “an Islamic Republic”; in 1961, the self-proclaimed moderniser, General Ayub Khan, set up an Advisory Council on Islamic Ideology, giving clerics an institutional role in the affairs of state. General Yahya Khan delivered slaughter in what is now Bangladesh. Then, in 1974, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, now venerated as a secularising democrat, declared the Ahmadiyyas beyond the pale of Islam. His successor, General Muhammad Zia-ul Haq, raised the edifice of the Islamist state on these foundations.
Each time around, the idea of citizenship has narrowed. Pakistan’s society must now decide if it wishes to inhabit a nation state dedicated to the rights of its citizens, or a millenarian vehicle intended to hasten the rule of god. The choice is irreducible. Even in 1953, the right decision was evident: “as long as we rely upon the hammer when a file is needed and press Islam into service to solve situations it was never intended to solve,” wrote Justices Munir and Kayani, “frustration and disappointment must dog our steps.” There isn’t a great deal of time to take that advice to heart, though, if Pakistan’s determined march into the abyss is to be halted.