Nadeem F. Paracha Published August 6, 2023

 Illustration by Abro
Illustration by Abro

In 2018, I undertook a research project to study the nature of coverage that Pakistan’s leading Urdu and English newspapers gave to the Second Amendment in the 1973 Constitution. The amendment was an act of parliament in 1974. It ousted the Ahmadiyya community from the fold of Islam.

Interestingly, even though the perception of Pakistan being a more tolerant country during that period is not misplaced as such, not a single newspaper editorial seemed concerned by the controversial amendment, which gave the parliament the power to define who is or isn’t a Muslim.

Instead, all the major newspapers actually welcomed the amendment. What’s more, despite the fact that the bill that led to the amendment was tabled by parliamentarians belonging to Islamist outfits, it was also allowed to go through by left and liberal parliamentarians, whose size in the National Assembly was greater than those belonging to the Islamist parties.

Newspaper headlines and editorials hailed the amendment as a historic moment that had resolved a major theological issue. The country was then facing a host of economic problems after it lost its eastern wing in 1971 in a vicious civil war and because of the 1973 international oil price shocks. But from the media, it almost seemed as if this was the issue that had been the root of all problems.

Why did so many moderate, liberal and progressive Pakistani Muslims remain silent in 1974, 1984 and 1986 as the Ahmaddiya were ostracised by the state?

It is quite remarkable to discover that, at least till the mid-1980s, there is precious little in the shape of articles and editorials shedding any light on the inherent dangers present in the amendment. It is only after the mid-1980s that one begins to find articles (mostly in English language dailies) alluding to these dangers. The amendment always had the potential to encourage violence against the Ahmadiyya. There was also the likelihood of this violence turning against the Shia community.

It eventually did.Even when the Ziaul Haq dictatorship (1977-88) promulgated Ordinance XX in 1984, it too was not discussed in any detail in newspapers. The ordinance forbade the Ahmadiyya from calling their places of worship as ‘masjid/mosques’, or their call to prayer as ‘azaan’. Any Ahmadiyya who claims to be a Muslim or refers to his faith as Islam, can be imprisoned. The Ordinance is still in effect.

My research shows that newspaper articles exploring the impact of 1974’s Second Amendment and 1984’s Ordinance XX only begin to emerge more frequently from 1987 onwards, or a year after the death penalty was introduced to the country’s blasphemy laws (Section 295A of the penal code).In 1986, a book called The Battle of Ideas in Pakistan, by the progressive intellectual Sibte Hassan, was published. The book’s tone was alarmist. The most interesting takeout for me in this context is that it wasn’t until the mid-1980s that liberals, or those on the left, became fully conscious of the dangers of the amendment, the ordinance and the blasphemy laws — dangers that eventually began to strain the country’s social and political fabric.

Today, the state of Pakistan has no clue how to roll back the fallout of these. Muslim or otherwise, no one is safe from these dangers in a society that is not normal anymore in so many ways. My research, which is still ongoing, is to figure out why so many moderate, liberal and progressive Pakistani Muslims remained suspiciously silent in 1974, 1984 and then in 1986.

But in this column, I will explore a slightly different, but related curiosity. Ever since 2007, the so-called ‘civil society’ and ‘social activists’ in the country have been quite vocal about things such as constitutional violations, the military’s role in politics, and violence against women and children.

Whereas many of them are ever-willing to bring up the Constitution and laws in TV talk shows, in courts and on social media during discussions on contemporary politics, they never go beyond simply condemning violence and discrimination in the name of religion.

For example, when cops remove minarets and Islamic verses from Ahmadiyya places of worship or from gravestones in Ahmadiyya graveyards, or arrest the Ahmadiyya for practicing certain Islamic rituals, social media gets flooded by videos of such incidents, and with angry laments against bigotry. Yet, no virtue-signalling ‘constitutionalist’, judicial expert or progressive ever mentions the fact that the cops are not doing anything unlawful. What they are doing is the law.

Even civilians who use violence against the Ahmadiyya or against those they accuse of committing blasphemy, believe they are behaving according to laws enshrined in the Constitution and in penal codes. But most moderates and progressives simply refuse to discuss this.

Indeed, it is not safe for Pakistanis to even discuss in public reforming the problematic amendment, ordinance and 295A. But those who do bring up the Constitution and laws at the drop of a hat while discussing ‘safer’ matters, do not do the same when discussing thornier facts.There is more glamour in constantly signalling one’s democratic and constitutional credentials when it comes to discussing certain issues related to, for instance, the military’s controversial role in politics. But it seems there is no such glamour in doing the same when it comes to issues such as the fallouts of the mentioned amendment, ordinance and Section 295A.

Mere laments and angry posts against bigotry won’t cut it, because the problem is stemming from the Constitution and certain established laws. These need to be discussed in this context by those who are always doing it but only while discussing ‘safer’ matters.

The bigotry that they rage against is enshrined in certain laws and constitutional amendments which they refuse to discuss. But they are quick to eulogise constitutional clauses and laws which support just those aspects of democracy that they feel safe to discuss or identify with.In 1993, with no non-Ahmadiyya ‘constitutionalist’ willing to discuss at least Ordinance XX, an Ahmadiyya citizen petitioned the Supreme Court to strike down the ordinance, because it violated the constitutional rights of religious minorities. The apex court dismissed the appeal and awarded legitimacy to Ordinance XX by holding that there was a constitutional mandate behind it.

One of the arguments given by the court was this: “Like the Coca Cola Company will never permit just anyone to sell their product in bottles labelled Coca Cola, the Ahmadiyya will not be permitted to use the Islamic epithets, belonging exclusively to the Muslims.”

What a brilliant judicial insight to justify exclusion, no? A consti­tutional exclusion.Published in Dawn, EOS, August 6th, 2023


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