Sunday, February 19, 2006

Avoiding the Bigger Issues in Pakistan

Pakistan is a nation upto its eyeballs in crisis. Hundreds of thousands of its people continue to suffer from the aftermath of the devastating earthquake. At least 40% of the population cannot read or write. People with postgraduate qualifications are forced to drive cabs due to the lack of work.

Corruption at all levels of government is rife. The country is effectively ruled by a military dictator. Its currency is in deep trouble. Women, especially in rural areas, are subjected to violence and sexual abuse with little recourse to justice.

With all this happening, you’d think the ulama (religious scholarly class) would be flat out trying to help resolve social and educational problems. You’d think they, like their colleagues in Indonesia, would be busy establishing and improving facilities in their private boarding schools and using their considerable influence to fight corruption and develop a strong sense of civil society.

And no doubt, many Pakistani religious scholars are doing this. Until recently, virtually all emergency vehicles (ambulances etc) were provided by a private foundation established and managed by the religious scholar Maulana Abdus Sattar Edhi.

The Edhi Foundation manages a variety of other charitable and socially useful projects, and provides essential infrastructure that governments were incapable of providing. It performs this role not only in Pakistan but other countries also. During the war in Bosnia, Edhi ambulances were even seen in Sarajevo and other cities transporting the wounded to the relative safety of hospital beds.

Other scholars and religious foundations are doing the same. Many are operating on shoestring budgets and are reliant on volunteers, local and overseas. Yet for at least one Pakistani religious scholar, money is best spent rewarding people for flouting Islamic law.

Maulana Yousef Qureshi is reported to have personally offered the sum of 500,000 rupees to anyone able to successfully murder a Danish cartoonist. Two of his congregation put up additional bounties of $1 million and 1 million rupees plus a car.

The religious scholar leads the congregational prayer services at the Mohabat Mosque in Peshawar, the provincial capital of the North West Frontier Province which borders with Afghanistan. The imam was reported by Reuters to have said:

“If the West can place a bounty on Osama bin Laden and Zawahri we can also announce reward for killing the man who has caused this sacrilege of the holy Prophet.”

Pakistan’s military strongman, General Pervez Musharraf, has the ability to put a stop to such infantile pronouncements. However, his government and the provincial governments appear to be creating an environment which encourages the protesters on to more radical action. Pakistan’s Foreign Ministry announced that it had recalled Pakistan’s Ambassador in Copenhagen “for consultations”. The Ministry has refused to elaborate further on the announcement.

Pakistan is officially an Islamic state. But Islam is not being evidenced in the rhetoric and actions of some mullahs. The pronouncements of Maulana Qureshi are a far cry from the persevering spirit of the early Muslims who withstood a barrage of persecution far more painful than a dozen cartoons to defend their Prophet’s honour and the quiet practice of their faith.

One would expect religious scholars, regarded as the inheritors of Prophetic knowledge, to act in a manner more befitting of their status. Islamic theology elevates religious scholars because of their knowledge, piety and character. However, there is ample material in the sayings of the Prophet which record him warning religious scholars to set a proper example or face the flames of hell.

Murder is a crime punishable by death under Islamic law. Scholars of Islamic law and other religious sciences should be the last people to be encouraging acts of extra-judicial killing. Unless the cartoonists have been tried and convicted in a properly constituted Sharia court in a properly established Islamic state, most Sharia lawyers would regard the shedding of the cartoonists’ blood as unlawful. Maulana Qureshi will know of this. Or at least he should.

Further, bin Ladin and Zawahari are hardly authorities on Sharia and its intricacies. One is a civil engineer, the other a physician. Neither has any expertise or training in Islamic law. Their actions may send shivers down the spines of their victims (most of whom have proven to be Muslims anyway), but they are hardly a precedent for Sharia-compliant action.

Pakistan is not a Sharia state. It may have Islamic courts with jurisdiction in certain “personal law” areas such as family law and deceased estates. However, despite the existence of a criminal offence of blasphemy, thus far no Pakistani courts have placed any Danish cartoonists or European newspaper editors on trial. It is unlikely they ever will, if for no other reason than want of jurisdiction. In terms of the limited Sharia law applied in Pakistan, the pronouncements of Maulana Qureshi are, with respect, fanciful.

Sadly, Maulana Qureshi’s pronouncement is more reflective of an attempt to drum up an increased support base than offering any sensible solution to the crisis. Because the real crisis in Pakistan runs far deeper than the blasphemy of 12 cartoons published thousands of miles away.

The rhetoric and actions of people like Maulana Qureshi provide a useful diversion for Pakistani federal and provincial government ministers and officials busy siphoning away public moneys into their overseas accounts. Similar riots in Egypt, Syria and elsewhere are also orchestrated (or at least encouraged) by governments to divert their peoples’ attention away from the bigger issues.

In all societies, when people begin to think about big issues, they ask big questions of people in high places. In Muslim countries where people have the freedom to ask the big questions, the protests (if any) have been far more peaceful.

In Indonesia, protests over rising fuel prices forced President SBY onto the streets of Jakarta to face angry questions from merchants and ordinary workers. But when a few hundred protestors stormed a building housing the Danish embassy (but couldn’t get past Indonesian police and security to reach the embassy offices on the 29th floor), it hardly registered on the President’s political radar.

(It still didn't stop Denmark from closing its Jakarta embassy. Given the attacks on its embassies in Damascus and Beirut, this is completely understandable.)

If the violent protests sweeping some parts of the Muslim world prove anything, it is that many Muslim communities are still living in ignorance – both of their own religious principles and of the stark social and economic realities facing their communities.

© Irfan Yusuf 2006

Stumble Upon Toolbar