Dr. Haider Shah

Opinion is the medium between knowledge and ignorance (Plato).

Mayhem in Rawalpindi: Who did it?, Viewpoint, 29 November, 2013

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Mayhem in Rawalpindi: Who did it?

Our successive governments that customarily turned a blind eye to the activities of preachers of hatred belonging to various faith communities also share the blame

The fact finding commission has fixed responsibility of criminal negligence upon a few police officers. Like many other countless tragic events this one will also soon be swept under the carpet and overtaken by some new cataclysmic incident. ‘ye kaam kis ne kia hey, ya kaam kis ka tha’ (who did this, whose act of commission this was). Perhaps we need to have a dispassionate analysis to answer this question.

Who fired the first shot or who started the trouble is less important to me. As a rationalist I view any ritual in its entirety in terms of its social costs. Various faith communities celebrate rituals and festivals as a manifestation of social bonding. These rituals bring moments of happiness and social cohesion and hence play an important part in promoting stability and order. The rituals associated with Muharram unfortunately don’t play this role. On the contrary they reignite the bloody schisms of a bygone era whose historical accounts are uncertain for want of credible evidence. What happened in that part of the world more than a thousand years ago is reliant more upon our beliefs and communal identities, rather than on any scientifically proven evidences. Recently I watched a religious procession of Catholics in Barcelona. Similarly Hindu ritual of Diwali is celebrated all over the U.K. In all these cases beliefs relating to the past bring moments of joy not only to the faith community but to the society in general as well. But the rituals of Muharram institutionalise melancholy and promote social discord by revisiting religious rivalries of the past.

All religious groups tend to live in the past and bring feuds of those times to the present day. Irony is that little credible history relating to that period is available to us as writing was not a passion of Arabs. Only when Arabs conquered advanced civilizations they were exposed to various disciplines of scholarship. Consequently the history of Arabs from 8th century onwards is built mostly on hearsay and oral traditions. Consequently all sects interpret events of the past in the light of their socially constructed belief systems. The desert dwelling Arabs were in a primitive stage of civilization to produce historians like Plutarch or Herodotus. If we, therefore, wish to see events like Rawalpindi massacre not happen again we need to take accounts of unascertainable past less seriously. If we follow them too passionately we are soon exposed to the power related disputes among major personalities of that era. As per our beliefs the first generation of Arab Muslims was the most righteous. If these questions resulted in civil commotion leading to the killing of third caliph of Islam and later more than 10000 common Muslims killing each other in the battlefield, how can we be so naive to believe that these questions will result differently today? Therefore once we take unverifiable beliefs based history very seriously we lay the foundation of sectarian discord. As the state takes a backseat and allows itself to be blackmailed by the leadership of these sectarian outfits the stage is set for events that we then try to prevent from happening after spending billions of rupees of hard-earned taxpayers’ money.

Every communal group has a right to enjoy its religious beliefs. It has full freedom to swing its fist of rituals but this freedom ends where nose of other communities begins. There were good old days when as a child I would go to 23rd March parade of our armed forces. Due to security concerns these are held no more. Our national leaders have stopped mingling with common people or holding public meetings due to security concerns. In the extraordinary situation that we are in today, holding of religious processions creates an environment which is potentially explosive. Every single group in the country wants security and protection. What we don’t realise is that security means costs. All these security personnel and their expensive equipment and vehicles are financed by tax-payers’ money. Doctors want security, bankers want security, judges want security, lawyers want security, religious minorities want security, shrines want security; the list is endless. Can we afford this much extravagant expenditure on providing security? All religious groups should therefore take responsibility for their own security and conduct their business in such a way so that security situation is not further weakened.

Portion of the blame should also go to the honourable members of judiciary. In order to prove their populist and divine credentials, their excessive exuberance in Lal Masjid case did not augur well for enforcing writ of the state. Law of the land had been wilfully challenged by the clerics of Lal Masjid and the state had no other option but to enforce its writ by use of force. The judicial inquiries that later followed would have made all law enforcement officials jittery about using force in future. In situations like Rawalpindi the state was required to show zero tolerance. But police officers feel insecure as they face the worrying prospects of facing inquiries and investigations later on. No doubt the Supreme Court deserves appreciation for its role in highlighting the need for rule of law in Karachi and Baluchistan. But in the case of Lal Masjid it did not help the cause of rule of law as without a strong state there can hardly be any rule of law.

Our successive governments that customarily turned a blind eye to the activities of preachers of hatred belonging to various faith communities also share the blame. Laws relating to religious mischief and glorification of terrorism have rarely been used against those who openly flout them. Day and night we see religious sermonisers using mike, loudspeaker, pen, and social media to spread their venomous propaganda. Acts of violence are mere culmination of the mischievous discourse unleashed by these clerics.

Some police officials have been held responsible for the Rawalpindi mayhem. They will be taken to the altar and the cycle of violence will, unfortunately, raise its head again somewhere else.

Dr. Haider Shah teaches public policy in the UK and is the founding member of the Rationalist Society of Pakistan. He can be reached at hashah9@yahoo.com

Author: Dr. Haider Shah

Academic, Researcher and Writer

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