By Saad Hafiz
Political leaders invoking meaningless clichés and delivering empty sound bites all in a bid to bamboozle the masses is hardly a case of breaking news. Demagoguery, historically speaking, has served as a useful tool to suppress dissent as well as to target minorities, arguably the most vulnerable group in any society.
Aristophanes, a Greek poet and playwright who is best known for the comic drama genre, Old Comedy, was ahead of his time. “You possess all the attributes of a demagogue; a screeching, horrible voice, a perverse, cross-grained nature and the language of the market-place. In you all is united which is needful for governing.” He could have been talking about modern times.
The fallout of demagoguery becomes ominous, indeed, deadly, when religion and national security are added to the mix. Here in Pakistan we only have to look at Captain Safdar to see how true this is. An elected Member of Parliament, no less, this gentleman recently launched a virulent tirade against this country’s persecuted Ahmadiya community. While addressing the National Assembly, the good Captain termed Ahmadis’ ‘infidels’ who were guilty of practising a false religion. Not content with just that – he went on to call them a threat to the country, its Constitution and its Islamic ideology. And even then, he wasn’t done. Safdar slammed the renaming of a university physics centre after Dr Abdus Salam, Pakistan’s first Nobel Laureate, on account of the latter’s faith. Being a former military serviceman – he also called for a ban on Ahmadis within the armed forces.
The captain’s main claim to fame is that he is the son-in-law of deposed Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif. He and his wife are currently before the Accountability Court on corruption charges. Yet if Safdar was targeting the Ahmadiya community in a bid to deflect attention from his legal troubles – he would not be the first Pakistani politician to do so. In 1974, buckling under severe pressure from the country’s religious right, former socialist Prime Minister Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto oversaw the constitutional redefinition of the status of Pakistan’s Ahmadis. This saw the latter go almost overnight from being recognised as a Muslim sect to having no such legal safeguards. In sacrificing them, Bhutto was perhaps playing a tactical political game. Or else he found himself unable to swim against the extremist tide. But General Zia-ul-Haq, the military ruler succeeded him, didn’t have much time for such pussyfooting around. In 1984, as part of his regime’s Islamisation drive he sought to consolidate further the Pakistani state’s contempt its Ahmadi population. And so it was that he issued Ordinance XX, which barred this group from either preaching or even professing religious beliefs.
Ever since, the Ahmadiya community has faced systematic exclusion and violence. The Ordinance was enacted to suppress ‘anti-Islamic activities’. It thus forbids Ahmadis to call themselves Muslim or to pose as Muslims. Thus their places of worship cannot be referred to as mosques and they are barred from performing the Muslim call to prayer; from using the traditional Islamic greeting in public; from quoting the Quran in public; from preaching in public; from seeking converts; and from producing, publishing or disseminating any religious material.
It would be far too easy to dismiss Captain Safdar’s rant about Ahmadis as simply insensitive, boorish and ignorant. For the latter knew what he was doing: he was wooing his powerful religious constituency with the poisonous flattery of the demagogue. Bluntly put, he was trying his best to achieve personal and political goals by pandering to the forces of bigotry, hatred and extremism. All of which malign the name of the country, society and Islam. The Qur’an censures religious hypocrites thus: “Among the people there is he whose discourse on the life of the world pleases you, and he calls on God as witness to what is in his heart, yet he is an unyielding and antagonistic adversary. When he turns and leaves, he walks about corrupting the earth, destroying crops and livestock – God loves not corruption (Q2:204-205).”
Moreover, Safdar’s claims that Ahmadis are a threat to national security are disingenuous, not to mention utterly ridiculous. Before their marginalisation, this community were known to hold key posts in the country’s armed forces; and many served with distinction. Yet today, it is nigh on impossible for an Ahmadi to secure senior ranking. Moreover, the Captain’s remarks, which encourage communal or sectarian fissures within our armed forces, pose more damage than the so-called security threats from having members of the Ahmadiya community serving in its rank and file.
Since the 1970s, Pakistan has been blighted by violence, mostly perpetrated by Sunni extremist groups against the Shia minority. However, the latter is not the only sect being targeted by such forces in Pakistan. Ahmadis, Hindus, Christians and even Barelvi Sunnis are all on the receiving end of this Sunni brutality; which simply adds to the image (and reality) of Pakistan as a hotbed of extremist violence. Religion has been weaponised in the service of majoritarian political objectives; while ordinary people are marked for extermination based on their sectarian affiliations or sympathies. Within this context, Captain Safdar’s comments, which serve to further inflame communal divisions, deserve nothing less than the very strongest condemnation. Ultimately, the best way out of the extremist morass that the country finds itself stuck in – rests in a secular government guaranteeing equal rights for religious minorities.
(The writer can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org)