Dr Charles Amjad-Ali is the Martin Luther King Jr Professor for Justice and Christian Community and the director of Islamic studies programme at the Luther Seminary in St Paul, the United States.
Ordained as a presbyter of the Church of Pakistan in 1987, he worked as the director of the Christian Study Center in Rawalpindi between 1985 and 1995 before joining the Aurat Foundation for a year. He is also one of the founders of many civil society organisations in Pakistan. These include the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP), the Pakistan Institute of Labor Education and Research, Patan Foundation, and Sungi Rural Development Foundation.
Dr Charles Amjad-Ali has studied Islamic Law and History from Columbia University at the post-doctoral level after having done his PhD in contemporary philosophy at Frederich Wilhelm University in Bonn, Germany. His books include Islamophobia (2006), Liberation Ethics (1985) and Passion for Change (1989).
Dawn.com exchanged e-mails with him a few weeks after the recent deadly anti-Christian violence in Gojra, a town in central Punjab. In the wake of Friday's attack on another church, the following is a question and answer session with Dr Charles.
Q- How do you contextualise the anti-minority violence in Pakistan? How and why in socio-political and historical terms have religious minorities come to be so flagrantly victimised, so obviously marginslised and so openly discriminated against?
A- One has to contextualise the continuing violence, flagrant victimisation, marginalisation and discrimination against the minorities in Pakistan, through a critical look at its history. This is best expressed in the debate on the reasons for founding Pakistan. The gist of the conservative stance is that Pakistan was made for Islam. This resurfaced belligerently and with vehemence during the Zia period, ending up in the slogan Pakistan ka matlab kya? La illa ha illalah! This of course excluded the minorities completely. The ‘liberal’ side of Pakistan, or should I say the relatively more authentic side of the debate, argued that Pakistan was made for Muslims, not for Islam. The problem with this position is the high level of subtlety and differentiation which escapes the majority. Thus the sloganeers, playing on a common sentiment and simple clichés, are able to control the discourse.
I want to add a little more nuance to this debate by arguing that Pakistan was a nation exclusively created by and for a minority of India. For some 700 years the Muslims ruled large parts of the Indian subcontinent, which always had a Hindu majority. This rule ranged from being highly accepting of the plurality of religious communities (c.f. Akbar and the Din-e-Elahi) to being repressive (c.f. Aurangzeb and his ‘Islamisation’ policies). As the independence of India became certain, with its clear democratic ideals, the minorities were afraid that the guarantees provided by the British Empire, no matter how skewed, would not be upheld in the independent India. They had grounds for their apprehensions, and part of their fear was that the tyranny of the sheer majority of around 80 per cent Hindus would not allow any other group to have a place on a level playing field. These fears were accentuated by the Government of India Act of 1935, and the subsequent provincial elections held in the winter of 1936/37.
It is interesting to note that on October 15, 1946, in the political jockeying for power, the All India Muslim League nominated a Scheduled Caste Hindu (a Dalit), Jogindar Nath Mandal, to Lord Wavell’s Interim Government of India. He was among such Muslim League luminaries as Liaquat Ali Khan, I I Chundrigar, Abdur Rab Nishtar, Ghazanfar Ali Khan. This same Jogindar Nath was the chairman of the Constituent Assembly of Pakistan on August 11, 1947, when Jinnah was elected the Governor General of Pakistan and gave his oft quoted famous speech about the democratic, egalitarian and fully participatory nature and future of Pakistan. Mandal was also later the highest ranking minority member of the Cabinet that the Quaid put together; ironically he was the Minister of Law and Labour.
Furthermore, in 1947 three Christian members of the Punjab Assembly, S P Singha, C E Gibbon and Joshua Fazal Din, voted with the Muslim League and thus in favour of Pakistan, which is a clear indication of what they saw Pakistan to be. They were taking the words of the Quaid seriously. We all know about Jinnah’s speech of August 11, 1947, but what we forget is that on August 12, the Constituent Assembly appointed a special ‘Committee on Fundamental Rights of Citizens and Minorities of Pakistan,’ to look into and advise it on matters relating to the fundamental rights of the citizens, particularly the minorities.
One can expand these early democratic and rights oriented understandings of Pakistan. The first real undoing of all this early promise was the adoption of the Objectives Resolution on March 12, 1949, which played immediately into the hands of the more conservative Muslim leadership.
The pre-Independence orthodox, conservative, and newly emerging fundamentalist Islamic movements were all against the formation of Pakistan. For them, if a state was created in the name of Islam for the Muslim population of India, then Islam was being reduced to a nation-state rather than a pan-ethnic, pan-national ummah with Khilafat as its political order. This was seen fundamentally as a product of a western nationalism. Also, this nationalism, and its concurrent democratic ideals, was seen primarily as products of liberal bourgeois democratic republicanism with no basis in Islam. (It is no wonder that the Khilafat movement and the Independence movement had two distinct groups of Muslims supporting them). While it was perhaps a doctrinally accurate perception, it was based on an ossified understanding of Islam.
Contrary to these groups, the people who struggled for the foundation of Pakistan were much more familiar with western political and philosophical ideas and ideals than with the Islamic sources on these issues. These men were what has come to be called ‘Islamic modernists,’ who never envisioned, even when they gave lip service to Islam for the sake of republican democratisation policies, the kind of Islam that is dominant in Pakistan today.
The Islamic influence, however, begins primarily as a way for the conservative elements to try to influence and control the destiny of Pakistan, first by adopting the Objectives Resolution, then creating the Ahmedi Crisis of the early 1950s and then by naming the country the ‘Islamic Republic of Pakistan’ for the first time in the Constitution of 1956. This was a utilitarian and cynical shift in the position of the conservative Islamic groups. They were first against the formation of Pakistan on Islamic grounds, but once Pakistan came into existence, without any input from them and even after their active resistance, they decided to make Pakistan an ideal Muslim state on the basis of an ossified interpretation of the early Islamic state without seeing the sheer religious paradox of this position. The irony is that their kind of Islam now provides the grammar, and is stated as the raison d’etre of Pakistan. So the Islamic influence has progressively grown. Pakistan today sits in the international arena as the hotbed for the generation of Islamic fundamentalism, Jihadists, ‘terrorists,’ such as al-Qaeda, Taliban or whatever new nomenclature is given to them or a small group takes for itself.
Q- What role have religious laws such as those against blasphemy played in perpetuating these trends?
A- The Hudood Ordinance and the blasphemy laws, especially those covering blasphemy against the Quran and the Prophet of Islam, while playing on the emotions of these issues, were slid through as draconian laws to be used cynically against those groups which stood for democracy and rights, and were to be victimised by the state. That was the intention of a repressive state. Now, however, after the events of 9/11 where the same fundamentalist Muslims who were once an ally to the United States and Saudi Arabia and are now clearly the Frankenstein enemies, are either using these laws or aiding and abetting their use both to victimise the vulnerable minorities as well as to destabilise the progress in good governance and in the growth of participatory and just democracy.
So the state, which has been historically the producer of these draconian laws, now finds itself the victim of these laws, because of the regular events taking place at the grassroots levels. The state is clearly not strong enough to meet both the external threat of the Islamic forces in Afghanistan and the Tribal Area (and parts of NWFP) and the internal threat of the Islamic sentiments that keep erupting regularly to eat at the sinews of the current democratic dispensation.
Q- Do you believe the current global strategic situation charactrised by 9/11 and perceived by many as a clash between Islam and Christian West has something to do with the rising tide of violence against Christians in Pakistan?
A- It must be remembered that the Islamisation of the society, culture, polity and economics grew in fits and starts between 1956-1977. However, in 1977 things changed radically with the martial law of General Zia-ul-Haq and at this point Islam begins to dominate the state. Here the need for Zia to justify his regime on other than democratic grounds, coincided with the needs of the US and Saudi Arabia to refute the Iranian revolution and the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, both in 1979. There was already a precursor of this confluence in the refutation of socialism, and even of Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto. So the Islamisation process was not just an endogenously produced element but was fully aided, abetted, and even engendered exogenously by the US and Saudi Arabia as well.
It is apparent that each time the Islamic identity is emphasized in the larger political and policy discourse, it threatens the minorities’ existence deeply; the more Islamic Pakistan becomes the less secure is the status of the minorities in it. Therefore the Christians remain under the closest scrutiny of these fundamentalist groups. The state is either not powerful enough or unwilling to protect these minorities in general and the Christian minority in particular, against these conservative elements. Any protection provided to these Christians is immediately classified as being based on the dictates of the West, and particularly at the behest of the hateful United States.
However, despite this picture, there still lies a deep-seated condescension towards the Pakistani Christians because a large majority of them comes from what the Hindus classified as the unclean and untouchable classes (dalit). The prejudice of untouchability of the caste-based Hindu ethos remains a very strong operational residue in Indian and Pakistani Islam. It is applied particularly towards Christians, not only because of their origins, but rather because quite a large number among them are in the cleaning industry, and belong to this untouchable class even today. The very conservative Muslims who want to follow the puritanical rules of Islam and want to live out their lives in imitation of the Prophet at this point become quite Hindu in their caste-based attitude towards the Christians.
So there is a fundamental paradox in Pakistani society vis-à-vis Christian-Muslim relations. One the one hand, the Christians are all seen as being dalits, and therefore totally irrelevant and of no consequence whatsoever. On the other hand, whenever something goes wrong between Islam and the West, the first people to feel the full brunt of reactions are the Christians who face the threat of mob violence against which the state is either unwilling or unable to protect them. What happens as an intermittent reality becomes an ever-present sword of Damocles and makes the Christians of Pakistan extremely insecure.
Q- What do you think should change to guarantee the security, religious freedom and protection of the religious minorities' rights in Pakistan?
A- The biggest problem is that the state does not show the spine or the willingness to fight for a full blown democracy and extension of rights which will be the only way to secure religious freedoms as well as protection for religious minorities and their rights. The state should go all out for educational policies from grassroots to undergraduate levels, including teachers training, to extend the concepts of democracy and rights into the very core of the society. It should ensure the madrassas have a curriculum which reflects the virtue of good citizenship and the virtue of being a good Muslim as a way to opening the society for the full participation of all. All the major institutions of the state such as the army, the bureaucracy, the civil servants, the police, etc., must undergo continuing education and formation with democracy and rights as the core value. The more this takes place and the more these issues become the soul of the society and the grammar of Pakistan, the more the most vulnerable elements of the society will be protected and secured. For, if everyone’s rights are central and protected, the minorities’ rights will also be automatically protected.
The intermittent lip service for the rights of the minorities, especially Christian minorities, acts only as a makeup to cover the huge non-democratic, non-participatory warts of Pakistan. Thus whenever this makeup begins to wear off, the warts manifest themselves in ever new pathologies, repressions and tyranny. The minorities, being the most vulnerable, are therefore also the most victimised under these circumstances.
Q- What do you think the minorities should do to get their rightful place as equal citizens of Pakistan?
A- It must be remembered that where there is true respect for democracy and rights, the minorities get a special privileged status and privileged protections as a continuing affirmative action. Therefore all the minorities should struggle, and continue to struggle very hard, for democracy and rights for all Pakistanis, rather than seeming or appearing to do it in a solipsistic manner only for themselves with every new discrimination, victimisation, and repression.