One of the great abominations to come out of Pakistan’s rush to commercialize all things Ramadan has been the rise and rise of the ‘special Ramadan transmission’.
Part talks show, part game show and for want of a better word part disco, these raucous programs are powered by a hysterical superficiality that chafes against Ramadan’s core values of prayer, reflection and charity.
Leading the charge is televangelist, Aamir Liaquat Hussain. Always a contentious figure, his antics are emblematic of the showbiz excesses that have in recent years come to form the backdrop of the holy month. Whether force-feeding mangoes to unsuspecting audience members or giving away babies on live TV, Hussain and his ilk are forever courting controversy in their frenzied quest for higher ratings.
However, while Ramadan broadcasts such as these have come in for their fair share of criticism, none have previously so enraged public sentiment as to trigger death threats.
That is until this week when soap star Hamza Ali Abassi chose to discuss the issue of Ahmadi rights in Pakistan during a talk show he is presenting over the current Ramadan period.
Abbasi’s supposed crime in all of this was to ask whether the state had the right to determine the religion of its citizens with specific reference to Ahmadis.
Looked at in a certain light, it was a reasonable enough question and one which has often been raised since the passing of the 2nd constitutional amendment in 1974 albeit in hushed tones. However, rather than initiate an open and frank exchange of dialogue the actor’s probing put him in the crosshairs of the religious right.
One of his most belligerent critics was cleric Maulana Kokab Noorani who on a rival program openly rallied the public to kill the actor for disrespecting Islam by daring to raise the topic.
He wasn’t alone. Social media sites like Twitter and Facebook were awash with people calling for Abbasi’s death. A number of especially disturbing posts were quick to remind the besieged star of the fate that met former Punjab Governer, Salmaan Taseer, after he called for reforms to the country’s blasphemy laws.
Finally PEMRA decided to enter the fray by issuing a ban on both programs.
Whether this signals an end to the matter or not remains to be seen, what is clear from the fallout of this whole sordid saga, however, is that the religious compact of Pakistan has become so strained under pressure from fundamentalist forces it is impossible to even broach the subject of Ahmadis from fear of extremist retaliation.
As is the way with these things though, the more questions that are deflected, the more points of inquiry that settle on the horizon. And one particularly thorny issue to emerge from all of this is that if any direct or indirect show of support for Ahmadis is enough to have someone murdered then why did no one ever kill the founder of Pakistan, Muhammad Ali Jinnah?
As much as Jinnah is revered now even by religious groups, what many people don’t know or overlook is that throughout his political life, Jinnah shared a close affinity with the Ahmadi community.
It was an Ahmadi missionary, Abdul Rahim Dard, who in 1937 persuaded a disenchanted Jinnah to return to India and lead the cause of the subcontinent’s Muslims.
When Pakistan was created, rather than establishing the principles of Ahmadi exclusionism in the nascent state, the Qaid chose Chaudhry Zafarullah Khan as one of his closest aide-de-camps. Khan, a devout Ahmadi, was appointed at Jinnah’s insistence as the first foreign minister of Pakistan and was once famously referred to by him as his political son. Khan became well known for drafting the 1940 Lahore Resolution and was the chief Muslim league representative in the Boundary Commission. In this way he entered the annals of Pakistani history as one of its founding fathers.
Nor was the Qaid’s association with Ahmadis wasn’t limited to personal and professional relationships.
On several occasions Jinnah was asked to openly state that Ahmadis were non-Muslim including by members of his own party. Not once did he succumb to these demands. In 1944 during a press conference in Kashmir, Jinnah told the assembled audience:
“who am I to call a person non-Muslim who calls himself a Muslim …”
Why then did no one ever kill Jinnah for this affront? Why was he allowed to lead a nation supposedly built in the name of Islam when he was so brazenly aligned with enemies of the faith? And are those who revere him today and place him onF the highest pedestals also guilty by association?
It could be argued that this a moot point given that Jinnah has long since passed away. True enough, however, in view of recent events and the inconvenient truths of history, how are present day Pakistanis meant to be judged within the terms and contexts of the Ahmadi issue?
Is it a crime to discuss Ahmadis or even acknowledge their existence?
If associating, supporting or interacting with Ahmadis is indeed an offense against Islam what is to be done with all those Muslims who at a daily level, live alongside their Ahmadi neighbours, friends and work colleagues without putting them to the sword in order to preserve the honour of their faith?
Why are people content to live under the rule of an administration whose consulate in Canada last year used an Ahmadi mosque to host their 14 August, Independence Day celebrations? Are both they and their rulers worthy of death for confirming the binary links of Ahmadis with Pakistan?
Are other Muslim-majority countries like Indonesia, Saudi Arabia, Iran and so on to be considered outside the pale of Islam for not having officially declared Ahmadis as non-Muslims? And if it is argued that their recognition of the heresy of Ahmadis is enough, then why is it that in Pakistan laws had to be passed against the community? Was the consensus of the Ulema that Ahmadis were non-Muslim not enough? Must Pakistan wage into battle against other Muslim countries for not having disowned Ahmadis in the manner that Islam requires?
Why do those who speak out in support of Christian and Hindu rights not have fatwas issued against them? After all, whatever Ahmadis may be at least they are monotheists.
If all of these questions which now hideously swirl around us are pursued to their logical conclusion through the perspective of the fanatics then it is not just Hamza Abbasi who should be killed, but a vast chunk of the international Muslim ummah.
This is of course absurd, however, so is the notion of wanting to murder people simply for being inquisitive or expressing an opinion contrary to popular perception. How ironic that those who put so much stock in their attachment to Islam are unable to exercise one of its fundamental ideals: patience.
In truth this has never been about religion. No belief system which carries with it such a pungent stench death can be considered representative of one of the world’s great faiths. Instead this was always about power, control, vested interest and a dereliction of duty on the part of those who should have looked out for the rights of vulnerable communities rather than allow them to be trampled over. The real menace facing us is not Hamza Ali Abbasi, but instead those forces that wish to control what the people of Pakistan can and cannot say.