The horrific attacks on the Ahmadi community on May 28 exacted nearly 100 lives. These are not random terrorist attacks. They are the outcroppings of Pakistan’s intolerant political structures and they morally implicate all of us. The attacks go back to so-called ‘disturbances’ in 1953 when violent mobs organised by a number of Islamic political groups went on a pillaging spree. The riots resulted in a Court of Inquiry under Justices Muhammad Munir and Muhammad Rustam Kayani. Their report provided a detailed analysis of the predicament of turning a pluralistic and multi-denominational country like Pakistan into a confessional state. It noted that no two alims could agree upon the exact definition of a Muslim, rendering impossible the task of deciding who falls within, much less outside, the definition. The implication was that the government must remain aloof in matters of freedom of conscience. These belong to the realm of theological debate, not of law and the state.
But the report’s wisdom has been set aside to leverage reactionary elements for political advantage. Pakistan’s constitutional direction papered over the country’s vast religious diversity to privilege one reading of Islam over others. It declared Ahmadis non-Muslims. To Pakistan’s shame, few voices opposed this trend. Each Pakistani is made complicit in this legalised bigotry; an application for an identity card requires an oath that the applicant is not an Ahmadi. Such measures have ostracised them from the mainstream of public life.
It is against this backdrop of systematic disenfranchisement that we find the present massacre in Lahore. The Tehreek-i-Taliban Pakistan Punjab and a previously unknown organisation, al Qaeda al Jihad, Punjab Wing, have claimed responsibility. As fanatical as they are, the Taliban are rational political actors, sophisticated both militarily and politically. There is a method to their madness, with elements of a broader political strategy often encoded into acts of immense violence. An appropriate political response makes it vital to decipher such acts rationally rather than writing them off as the products of miscreant minds.
As the Taliban take a drubbing militarily, expending scarce resources on a attack on the Ahmadi community is designed to retake the political initiative. If the government responds with the provision of extra security for the Ahmadi community the Taliban will take advantage of the backlash by anti-Ahmadi sections of the religious establishment and the population and there could be a return of violence against the Ahmadis. The government may gamble that it can simply weather the political storm without making any concessions to the community. This would be a mistake. It will not only highlight the government’s disinterest in protecting its citizens, handing the Taliban a propaganda victory, and paving the road to further violence against Ahmadis and other vulnerable minorities. Both government action and inaction contains seeds of a political crisis, with resultant turmoil benefiting the Taliban. The Taliban are on the cusp of engineering a win-win situation. To change the Taliban’s political calculus all decent Pakistanis must strongly condemn the attacks on Ahmadis and insist whatever protections are necessary be provided to the community and other minorities. Anything else concedes this battle to the Taliban.
Published in the Express Tribune, June 1st, 2010.