Last week, my mom found a long-lost childhood memento and sent me a copy: It was an autograph of the late Nobel laureate Dr Abdus Salam, who had run into my aunt in Brunei and was very kind to scribble out a note for her nephew who admired that phenomenal icon of theoretical physics.
Tonight as I write this, a Mymensingh imam by the name of Mostafizur Rahman was hacked near close to death by radical terrorists.
Sadly, there is a string which ties Professor Abdus Salam and Imam Mostafizur Rahman together: Their shared affiliation with the Ahmadiyya Muslim sect that is hated with a murderous zeal by radical Islamists of all stripes.
This hatred, written into the Constitution of Pakistan in 1973, resulted in the “civil death” of Pakistan’s first Nobel Laureate long before his natural death. Today, despite occasional paeans to the father of modern theoretical physics by some Pakistani leaders, his very tombstone dare not mention his deep faith under the pain of criminal prosecution.
Ahmaddiyyas and apostasy
Long before he died in 1996, Pakistan’s lawmakers -- at the behest of radical Islamist parties -- had declared Ahmadiyyas “non-Muslim” and proscribed them, under the penalty of imprisonment, from publicly reciting the kalma, using Assalamualaikum as greetings, or calling their mosques anything but “worship centres.”
Much worse was to follow.
The irony, of course, is that Ahmadiyya Muslims were in the vanguard of the Pakistan movement of the 1940s while Islamist parties like Jamaat were rabidly opposed to it; Pakistan’s first foreign minister and her foremost champion in the international forums of the early days was none other than Sir Zafaraullah Khan, an Ahmadiyya Muslim himself.
Today, in technical terms of the law, were this column to be published in Pakistan, I and the editor would be subject to blasphemy charges for the grave offense of using the term “Ahmadiyya Muslim”.
Agitation in Bangladesh
Unfortunately, that is what many Islamist parties have been agitating in Bangladesh for, as well.
Their agitation, highlighted by the Hefazat-e-Islam movement’s 10 point charter a few years ago, has expressly demanded that “Qadiyanis” (a derogatory term for Ahmadiyya Muslims) be declared non-Muslim and purged from their jobs and businesses. The attack on Imam Mostafizur Rahman seems just another effort to underline, in a gruesome fashion, that demand.
In mature pluralist societies, the religious affiliation of an individual matters very little in terms of social hierarchies, career opportunities, and personal safety.
In countries where religion is imprinted into the DNA of social life, it becomes -- literally sometimes -- a matter of life and death. Juxtapose Muslim societies into the scene, and the concept of blasphemy and apostasy becomes an additional factor of fear for those who are considered cast out from the folds of Islam.
The fundamentalist ire at Ahmadiyya Muslims is almost as old as the sect’s history itself. Partially driven by theological differences and partially by the envy of their disproportionate success in several fields in life, the Ahmadiyyas have been at the receiving end of several bloody pogroms in Pakistan starting with the infamous 1953 Lahore riots that brought down the government of Khwaja Nazimuddin.
I hope Bangladesh doesn’t give further ammunition to such mobs by commingling further the public business of governance with the private business of one’s faith
Small-scale incidents have happened in India and Bangladesh too. Pakistan has, of course, used its considerable influence in the Gulf to have Saudi Arabia and her neighbours declare Ahmadiyyas “non-Muslim” with all the attendant discrimination and persecution.
I am afraid that that Pakistani-Arab trend is heading to Bangladesh now.
Though the Ahmadiyya Muslim community is considerably smaller in Bangladesh and stands out less obviously than in Pakistan, it is worrisome that too many politicians are giving a wink and a nudge to the radicals of Hefazat and its fellow travellers of hate.
At what point will there be nefarious compromises whereby the safety and security of this small but patriotic sect be bargained away for a few more days in power or a few votes?
The idea that some parliament or cabinet decides who is a Muslim or Christian or Hindu is a laughable one to me, because I sit in a country where the church or temple I go to has nothing to do with the business of governance.
But for most Muslim-majority countries, that luxury of laughter at such a preposterous thought is simply not an option: People get hurt, killed, and reduced to destitution for offending sensibilities of religious mobs.
I hope Bangladesh doesn’t give further ammunition to such mobs by commingling further the public business of governance with the private business of one’s faith. Mixing religion with government rarely ends well for either.
Esam Sohail is an educational research analyst and college lecturer of social sciences. He writes from Kansas, USA.