Purifying the pure; Farahnaz Ispahani’ book review by Muhammad Taqi

Pakistan may have been created in the name of Islam but roughly one-fourth of its population on the eve of Partition from India was non-Muslim. That number stands at an alarmingly paltry 3% now. Pakistan has come perilously close to becoming a confessional state with the tetrad – Sunni, Muslim, Punjabi and male- increasingly becoming the defining characteristics of its national identity. Despite being a culmination of rancorous communal politics leading up to its independence, Pakistan held out a promise of progress and preservation for its quite diverse population, with its founder Mr. Muhammad Ali Jinnah pledging on August 11, 1947 to its non-Muslim citizenry that they were free to go to their temples, mosques and places of worship; and that faith would have nothing to do with the business of the state.
What went so drastically wrong, then? How did Pakistan embark on a disastrous course of hounding dissenters and purging itself of all diversity? A new book by the scholar, journalist and former member of the Pakistani parliament, Farahnaz Ispahani, tracks the markedly rightward trajectory of the Pakistani polity from its inception to such disastrous endpoints where a powerful sitting governor of the Punjab province, Salmaan Taseer, could be assassinated in cold blood by his official guard in broad daylight merely for standing up for the legal defense of a poor Christian woman. The book Purifying the Land of the Pure: Pakistan’s religious minorities is an apolitical, scholarly account of the political machinations of Pakistan’s military and civil bureaucracy and its religious and political leaders who have put Pakistan in its current predicament. They proclaimed to have done it in the name of safeguarding Islam and Pakistan but under that thin veneer was the usual hunger for power and political expediency.

Purifying the Land of the Pure: Pakistan’s Religious Minorities

Author: Farahnaz Ispahani

Hardcover: 264 pages

Publisher: Harper Collins India (January 10, 2016)

Language: English

Farahnaz Ispahani notes that the first shot fired against the minorities and non-Muslims was actually during Mr. Jinnah’s lifetime when high-ranking bureaucrats Ghulam Muhammad and Chaudhry Muhammad Ali orchestrated the suppression of the founding father’s August 11, 1947 speech to the first Constituent Assembly. For Ispahani, this address was Mr. Jinnah’s “clearest possible pronouncement of his conception of a secular and religiously inclusive Pakistan”. Ispahani notes that Mr. Jinnah’s speech was seen by an influential faction of his Muslim League, led by Liaquat Ali Khan, as “an abandonment of the Two-nation theory on which the Partition was based’. Mr. Jinnah was a frail and ill man by then, unable to quell this quasi-rebellion by his associates. He died thirteen months later without actually being able to put in practice the ideals he envisaged in his landmark speech. What Mr. Jinnah – a Shia Muslim himself – did do was to have a diverse cabinet in his lifetime where the law minister was a Hindu (Jogindarnath Mandal) and the foreign minister an Ahmadi (Sir Zafrulla Khan), which according to Ispahani is a testimony to how Mr. Jinnah wanted to implement his August 11 manifesto. Ispahani also notes that Mr. Jinnah steadfastly resisted calls to excommunicate the Ahmadis and fire his foreign minister. But it was downhill from that point on. Within months of Mr. Jinnah’s demise, the Prime Minister Liaquat Ali Khan – assisted by Mr. Jinnah’s handpicked Maulana Shabbir Ahmed Usmani – tabled and got approved the 1949 Objectives Resolution, which was effectively an Islamist Manifesto and the exact antithesis of the August 11 speech. The stage was thus set for an ideological state.

Farahnaz Ispahani notes that the first shot fired against the minorities was actually during Mr. Jinnah’s lifetime

The writer accurately notes that there were ample warnings from Muslim leaders within and outside the Muslim League, as well as from the non-Muslim parliamentarians such as the great Bhupendra Kumar Dutta who prophetically foretold what an absolutely poisonous cocktail the mixing of the divine and the temporal would yield. Farahnaz Ispahani’s book actually opens with a prescient quote from the unsung hero of Pakistan’s secular movement, Huseyn Shaheed Suhrawardy: “Now you are raising the cry of Pakistan in danger for the purpose of arousing Muslim sentiments and binding them together in order to maintain you in power. This must go. Be fair not merely to your own people whom you will destroy but be fair to the minorities”. Suhrawardy, an ethnic Bengali himself, had countered the increasing militarisation and Islamisation of the Pakistani polity by a Punjab-dominant army, which by then had formally grabbed power. Suhrawardy had advocated a secular, democratic nation-state against the Field Marshal Ayub Khan’s Islamised national-security state.

Field Marshal Ayub Khan prevailed through brute force and the muzzling of dissent, in the process marginalising and alienating the East Pakistanis and non-Muslim minorities. Farahnaz Ispahani notes that many non-Muslims had already started leaving Pakistan after the Objectives Resolution and no less a person than the country’s first law minister Jogindarnath Mandal had to depart for India. According to Ispahani the “anti-Hindu sentiment espoused in the name of Pakistan’s Islamic ideology contributed substantially to the periodic emigration of Bengali Hindus to India. The proportion of Hindus in East Pakistan society, which stood at 20% of the province’s population in the 1951 census had fallen to just 12% by the time of the 1961 census”. The ostracising and “othering”, however, was not limited to the new country’s Hindus only. The smaller Muslim sects like the Ahmadiyyah came under fire from a clergy that was ascendant after the Objectives Resolution and was abetted by Muslim League politicians like Mian Mumtaz Daultana out of sheer political opportunism. The 1953 riots in Punjab in which hundreds of Ahmadis were killed marked a watershed event where, according to Ispahani, “Pakistan had moved from purging non-Muslims to an extended period of bitter fighting over who may be deemed Muslim, which has lasted to the present day.” A judicial inquiry by Justices Muhammad Munir and Muhammad Rustam Kiyani into the Ahmadi persecution and purges noted “no two ulema have agreed before us as to the definition of a Muslim” and tried to dissuade the state from taking an overtly confessional position”. The stage was however, set for exclusion of Ahmadis from key public positions and ultimately getting declared “non-Muslim and apostates” by an act of parliament in 1974.

Farahnaz Ispahani makes a critical observation that contrary to the common perception the ostensibly secular military dictators Field Marshal Ayub Khan and General Yahya Khan carried out clearly bigoted policies promoting religious intolerance where they “characterised Hindus as “the other” and emphasized Islam as Pakistan’s raison d’etre”, which “legitimised the view that the religious minorities lived in the country only at the sufferance of the Muslim majority”. The most maligned military dictator General Zia-ul-Haq merely picked up from where his civil and military predecessors had left. Ispahani is on the dot to say that the Islamisation of Pakistan – and the marginalisation of the minorities – has thus been incremental. The net outcome of using the state as a crucible for Islamisation, according to Ispahani, has been that “instead of the modern conception of inalienable human rights, the minorities’ survival and religious freedom was made dependent on various interpretations of traditional Islamic law”.

The book, divided in seven chapters, also highlights the domestic blowback of the exponential radicalisation as well as its regional and transnational fallout. The decades of state-sponsored indoctrination through state-owned media and state-controlled curriculum has produced not only crop after crop of jihadists but also at least two generations of common Pakistanis, who, irrespective of their class background, have no problem with the use of jihadism as a tool of foreign policy. The problem is that the jihadists who kill and maim across borders are exactly the same ones who target Hindus, Christians, Ahmadis and now ever-increasingly the Shia, at home. A radicalised society, which grew up on steady diet of a maliciously prejudiced curricula, has unfortunately not just tolerated the jihadists in its midst but has afforded them virtual impunity.

The recent spat of attacks in Pakistan suggests that the country’s fight against jihadist terrorism is far from over. There is also little doubt that the perpetrators and their accomplices are homegrown and have drunk deep at the fountain of jihadism that has been flowing without interruption for 67 years now. Understanding the political milieu that has enabled the evolution of the fundamentalists from mere zealots to rioters to jihadists to terrorists and suicide bombers is imperative if the tide is to be turned against terrorism. Farahnaz Ispahani recommends starting the course correction with “dismantling the constitutional, legal and institutional mechanisms that have gradually excluded minorities from the mainstream of Pakistani life”. She correctly states, “The pursuit of religious purity is not an attainable goal. It has hindered Pakistan’s progress and rendered it insecure … Instead of allowing bigotry to cloak itself in the garb of a state religion, Pakistan would advance better as a non-confessional state.” 

Purifying the Land of the Pure: Pakistan’s Religious Minorities is both timely and eminently readable for Pakistan-watchers, the country’s decision-makers and most importantly, the ordinary people who have borne the brunt of it all.

Purifying the Pure, Farahnaz Ispahani book’s review by Muhammad Taqi

Dr. Mohammad Taqi is a former columnist for the Daily Times, Pakistan. Follow him on Twitter @mazdaki

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