As Pakistanis, we have resigned ourselves to living with a truly infuriating level of governmental incompetence. What would cause heads to explode in other countries, is simply met with a shrug of the shoulders here. But even so, there are times when the immensity of the stupidity involved produces a situation where words — at least polite words — are completely useless.
Last week, a gentleman by the name of Malik Ishaq was released from jail. Malik Ishaq was accused not only of being the chief of the banned sectarian organisation, Lashkar-e-Jhangvi, but of killing 70 people (almost all Shias) in 44 separate instances of culpable homicide. Most recently, he was alleged to have been involved in the attack on the Sri Lankan cricket team.
Despite what it may seem, I do not have a problem per se, with the release of Malik Ishaq. This is because he was only released after either being acquitted or being granted bail in each of those many cases. Malik Ishaq may well have acquired his acquittals through the murder of witnesses and the intimidation of judges (as alleged in some reports), but those are the facts of life in Pakistan’s criminal justice system, as it stands today.
What blows my mind instead is, the revelation that Malik Ishaq’s family received a stipend from Punjab government while he was in jail. According to Rana Sanaullah, the learned law minister for the Punjab government, the stipend was paid on court orders. This newspaper, however, reports that “it was revealed that nor was there any such disbursements during former president Pervez Musharraf’s tenure, nor was there any court order pertaining to the matter”.
Let us recap then. Malik Ishaq is alleged to be the leader of a banned sectarian organisation. He is alleged to have killed 70 people. He is alleged to have had eight witnesses murdered so as to avoid conviction. He is alleged to have masterminded the attack on the Sri Lankan cricket team, an attack which perhaps more than any other instance is responsible for Pakistan’s status as a pariah state. And the popularly elected government of the largest province in Pakistan — the one also responsible for the criminal prosecution of Malik Ishaq — not only paid a monthly stipend to the family of this alleged mass murderer while he was in jail but then lied about the reasons for doing so. For shame, Sir. For shame.
I don’t want to bang the outrage drum too much on this because it tends to be a waste of time. Either the sequence of facts narrated above has made you terribly angry or it has not: My frothing at the mouth is not going to help either way. Instead, what I want to ask is this: Why are more of us not outraged? How have we reached a point where public support by an elected government to a man widely believed, and expressly accused, of being a sectarian killer causes no ripples? Even if it is assumed that Malik Ishaq is not a mass murderer, he certainly appears to think that 25 per cent of this country (i.e., all Shias) should be put to death. How have we reached a stage where major political parties have no problems being associated with such a vision?
The short answer is that if you tie religion to political power you create a natural incentive for abuse. Let me explain.
People are always going to fight over political power. And when people fight, they are always going to use every weapon at their disposal. If political power is tied to religious credibility, then the candidates for political power are always going to try and define religious identity in such a way that it excludes other candidates. Given Pakistan’s history and origin, being able to define yourself as more ‘Muslim’ than the other is always going to be useful in political terms. And one way to define yourself as ‘more’ Muslim than the other, is to define the other as ‘less’ Muslim.
This is not an exclusively ‘Muslim’ problem. Instead, the same dynamic exists whenever religion and politics intersect. Henry VIII (1491-1547) set up his own version of Christianity essentially for political reasons and the entire development of Protestantism has as much to do with the political ambitions of the electors of Saxony as it does with the supposed excesses of the Catholic Church. Similarly, the expulsion of non-Christians (e.g., the Jews from 15th century Spain, the Huguenots from 17th century France) remains a standard feature in European history of kings trying to improve their Christian credentials.
At the same time, there is only so much comfort one can draw from the history of other religions. This is because we kill fellow Muslims in the name of religion today: It has been several centuries since Christians killed other Christians (at least in significant numbers) for being heretics.
Unfortunately, there is no easy answer to be gleaned from European history either. What one learns there is that the only way people stop killing in the name of religion is when they get tired of it. The rise of Protestantism was thus followed by a century of religious wars, culminating with the excesses and atrocities of the Thirty Years’ War (1618-1648). During that conflict, millions of people died and thousands of towns were devastated. In Germany, the male population was reduced by more than half. It was only with the Treaty of Westphalia in 1648 (a watershed in the development of the modern international political system) that the combatants agreed to respect each other’s differences.
Pakistan was born in the middle of terrible violence. Even those who know nothing else of history know about the terrible atrocities of Partition — the massacre of villages, the rapes, the forcible conversions, the trains pulling into stations with only dead passengers on board. We should have learnt then that hate begets hate. But it looks like more killing will be required for us to learn this lesson.
Published in The Express Tribune, July 19th, 2011.
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