Dawn, Pakistan
3 June 2004
By Javed Jabbar

Allegations most unbecoming

At a largely attended public meeting in Karachi on May 25, the acting head of the MMA and the Amir of Jamaat-e-Islami, Qazi Hussain Ahmed is reported to have spoken as follows according to a leading English newspaper (not Dawn). As the version below has not been contradicted it has to be presumed that it is an accurate report of what he said.

"Qazi Hussain said that the rulers had given total authority to the Aga Khan Foundation for establishing a new education system in the country. "The MMA chief said that the same task was assigned to the Qadiani community but the people of Pakistan launched a movement against them and finally they failed in their plans.

He warned the Aga Khan Foundation and Ismaili community that people would also launch a movement against them if they continued to impose a secular education system in Pakistan".

This is not the place for a detailed discussion on a "secular system of education" and an "Islamic system of education". Both systems can have a great deal in common and need not be antithetical to each other.

Aided regrettably by the Urdu press which is so important a part of our media sector because it commands over 90 per cent of all readership, the religious sector has completely distorted the real meaning of the word "secular" which is often translated into Urdu as laadiniat or "without faith" or "atheistic".

Whereas the relevant meaning of "secular" is simply that politics and religion should be treated as separate realms, as in the context defined by Quaid-i-Azam Mohammad Ali Jinnah in his speech to the Constituent Assembly of Pakistan on August 11, 1947, when he said that the religion of citizens should not affect the work of the state.

A secular state can have more truly religious values in its policies than a state that claims to be religious but which applies non-Islamic elements of dictatorship, monarchy, persecution of minorities, and which permits barbaric torture in police stations. So the continuing portrait of an ideal Muslim state or society as being opposite to a "secular" state is misleading, ill-founded and untenable.

The Aga Khan's education services facilitate and assist the government of Pakistan only by invitation, not by imposition, to help improve content, teaching skills and resource development.

The final responsibility for deciding what goes into school textbooks rests jointly with the federal and the provincial governments and not with a non-official body like the Aga Khan Foundation.

The views and threats by the politico-religious leader are offensive for the following reasons: a) violation of the Constitution of Pakistan whose principles of public policy and whose substantive provisions guarantee freedom of religion and security of citizens and which prohibit persecution or harassment of any individual or community on the basis of religion, sect, gender or race; b) such statements are also subject to the enforcement of relevant provisions of the Pakistan Penal Code such as Sections 295-A and 298-A which categorize utterances that outrage anyone's religious sensibilities and use of derogatory words against someone's religious beliefs as being subject to punitive action; c) the said statement violates the values and norms of a civilized society in general and of a Muslim nation in particular; d) the statement injects into the political discourse of the country a new and poisonous virus of mistrust and hate.

Do the facts justify the threats? The Ismaili community is a minority sect within Islam with certain distinct practices and features which certainly set them apart from the mainstream Sunni and Shia sects.

However, the Ismailis accept the finality of the Prophet Muhammad (Peace Be Upon Him). Therefore, the attempt to equate Qadianis with Ismailis, in however indirect a manner, is wholly baseless and unjustified.

The reverence with which the Aga Khan is regarded by the members of the Ismaili community is quite distinct. Yet it is not very different from the blind obedience with which members of other sects in Islam pay tribute to their respective leaders.

The spectacle of virtual tomb worship and self-abnegation which is visible at every major shrine and dargah throughout the country is testimony as to how a showy piety has taken the place of genuinely good actions.

The grandfather of the present Aga Khan had a controversial role with the British as a colonial power before Independence in 1947, even though the same Aga Khan played a crucial role in the founding of the All India Muslim League in Dhaka in 1906.

But controversy of one kind or another is also associated with several other political leaders, including Maulana Abul Ala Maudoodi whose writings are the inspiration for the Jamaat's foundation and who, in the opinion of many, was opposed to the creation of Pakistan and to the Quaid-i-Azam.

The philanthropy of the Aga Khan and the services rendered by the network of the Aga Khan Foundation and by Ismaili-related organizations have benefited our country directly in the fields of education, health, management enterprise, hotels and tourism.

Most recently, through an open and transparent process, the Aga Khan group has secured management control of Habib Bank Limited, one of the premier financial institutions of our country.

In practical terms, the Ismaili community has benefited the lives of millions of Pakistanis, the overwhelming majority of whom are non-Ismailis. In all the work associated with the Aga Khan Foundation, whether it be the hospital and the university in Karachi, whether it be the numerous other health centres and institutions, where educational programmes are developed, standards of excellence have been set and maintained.

It is also true that there is a perception amongst many that in its services and priorities, the network tends to discriminate in favour of Ismailis. There are also frequent complaints about excessive financial charges or of occasional negligence and incompetence in its health services.

However true or false some of these perceptions and some of this information may be, one has never come across a single charge laid against the Aga Khan or against the Ismaili community of trying to convert non-Ismailis to their own sect, or of in any way interfering with the practices of other religions and sects.

The very opposite is true. Ismailis are among the most tolerant, peaceful, law-abiding and disciplined citizens of the country. They are highly productive and industrious, contributing substantially to wealth generation, to income tax and other taxes, to public service and to national development.

It is ironic that the Ismaili community and the Jamaat-i-Islami have much in common. Both are minorities. One as a sect of Islam, the other as a political party. Both are tightly disciplined entities and practice a high work ethic. Both follow a professional approach in their respective areas of interest and both have strong, stable financial resources.

But here the similarities end. Where the head of the Ismaili community is chosen according to the principle of heredity, the head of the Jamaat-i-Islami is elected, albeit by a relatively small number of electors, but through an open and competitive process.

The quoted observations by the head of the MMA are extremely unfair. They have already created unwarranted misperceptions about Ismailis in the minds of thousands of people who attended the public meeting on May 25.

These, in turn, will share these misperceptions with thousands more. The consequences are unpredictable and potentially destructive. A small sign was the fact that in response to the brutal killing of Mufti Shamzai in Karachi on May 30, mobs burnt an Aga Khan Foundation Diagnostic Centre in Gulshan-i-Iqbal and another on Business Recorder Road.

Other targets were also hit by the mobs. But was this also partly due to the wholly false allegations made by the Jamaat-e-Islami leader against the Aga Khan five days earlier, painting him as an "un-Islamic" or a "secular" figure?

It is pertinent to remember that, whereas religious leaders are free and able to make such false utterances to thousands of people and to have them reported widely by the press and media, there is no reciprocal reaction by the Aga Khan and his followers.

This is partly due to perhaps their desire not to fuel a controversy and mainly due to the relatively docile, non-violent and non-intimidatory character of the Ismaili community as a whole which tries to tread very carefully in such situations. Be that as it may, the scope for inflaming passions remains heavily weighted in favour of the religious parties.

The silence of the federal and provincial governments concerning the remarks quoted at the start of this article and the absence of any statement by any political leader refuting the accusations are indicators of how easily official as well as political leadership is intimidated by those who claim to be the sole custodians of Islam and who have, de-facto, become a self-appointed clergy in a faith that does not permit such interlocutors between Allah and His believers.

If we continue to permit inflammatory falsehoods to be spoken in public and be reported in the media, we are worsening conditions for violence at precisely the time when we need to build peace through tolerance and cohesion.

The government should take immediate cognizance of the baseless charges made on May 25 by taking appropriate action and by requesting the courts to hold accountable all those who make such statements.

The writer is a former senator and information minister.