Pakistan’s Islamist extremism: Ahmadiyya perspective

COFFEE WITH WARREN, with Warren Harbeck
Cochrane Eagle, January 19, 2011

In last week’s column I highlighted the bizarre, joyous response of Pakistani Islamists to the impending execution of Christian farm-worker Aasia Bibi under that country’s discriminatory blasphemy law, and to the Jan. 4 assassination of Punjab governor Salman Taseer, who not only dared to come to Bibi’s defense but challenged the blasphemy law itself.

This week I’d like to share a few comments by members of the Ahmadiyya Muslim community, which held its Western Canada annual convention in Cochrane last July. (See my column of July 28, 2010.)

Ahmadiyya Muslims, much like Aasia Bibi’s Christian community, are among the persecuted religious minorities in Pakistan. Not only have they had their mosques destroyed and their people murdered, but by law they’re not even allowed to self-identify as Muslims there.

In one incident last May, 86 were killed and more than 125 injured in attacks on two of their mosques in Lahore.

Dr. Mohyuddin Mirza, Ahmadiyya panelist on last November’s freedom-of-expression forum in which I also participated (see my column of Nov. 17, 2010), has strong feelings about Pakistan’s blasphemy law. While denouncing blasphemy, Dr. Mirza said there is no authority extended from the Qur’an, Islam’s holy book, for anyone to exact punishment on blasphemers.

“Blasphemy is condemned on moral and ethical grounds,” he said, “but no physical punishment is prescribed for this in Islam despite the commonly held view in the contemporary world.”

Sultan Mahmood, of Calgary, is one of my longtime coffee companions and a gentleman who has helped me understand much about his Ahmadiyya reformist way. I wrote him about recent events in Pakistan, his country of birth. In part, here is his response:

It is said, "You reap what you sow." It was the PPP (Pakistan Peoples Party) Government led by late Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto who took the lead in involving the state in peoples' faith/religion and declared Ahmadis "Not Muslims" through a constitutional amendment, merely to achieve his political goals by appeasing (other) religious groups.

He had no foresight to visualize that he was opening a Pandora’s box in a country filled with religious extremists . . . . Mr. Bhutto met his fate through the hands of the religious fanatics whom he wanted to appease by declaring Ahmadis as "Not Muslims" and he was hanged to death . . . .

The Supreme Heads of Ahmadiyya Muslim Community . . . continued to advise all the rulers in Pakistan to get rid of the parasites, the fundamentalist religious leaders/groups and forewarned them that if these forces were not checked, no government would be able to control them in the future.

However, no one was ready to listen to this advice and now we are harvesting the bitter fruit of fundamentalism and terrorism.

In addition to his own comments, Sultan forwarded to me a letter by Mansura Bashir Minhas, of Miami, Florida:

Salmaan Taseer dared to challenge the injustice in Pakistan that ensued from the blasphemy laws. His crusade to repeal these horrendous laws cost him his life. He was well aware that the mere mention of repealing this flawed legislation could have devastating consequences, and that in the process, he was inciting the wrath of radicals.

However, that did not deter him from personally visiting a hapless, poor woman belonging to a persecuted minority. This requires immense courage in a society that has become insensitive and muted to the grave violation of justice. When scores of Ahmadis were martyred in May 2010, he was the only government official who cared to personally offer his condolences.

Governor Taseer was a lone crusader in the political realm, who fearlessly fought for the oppressed and persecuted. For a high profile politician to rise above cowardice, which is typical of Pakistani politicians, is no small feat. Where politicians are running pillar to post to save their coalitions, here was a man who rose above his peers and fought for a cause that appeared frivolous from a politician’s standpoint and was somehow tantamount to political suicide.

When all hope for Pakistan seems to be waning, I consider this death to be a smack in the face of hypocritical leaders in the light of his quote, “You live life once, you live it by your principles and you live it courageously – that is what it is about . . . .”

Thank you, Sultan, for this helpful background. Meanwhile in Pakistan, 45-year-old Aasia Bibi, a mother of five, remains on death row simply because she is accused of committing blasphemy. Our hearts continue to go out to her and her family.

© 2011 Warren Harbeck

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