Fighting bigotry

September 08,2018

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The fear was that the PTI government might buckle under the pressure of bigots and obscurantists over the appointment of Atif Mian to the Economic Advisory Council, (like Imran Khan did during the dharna days after being told about Mian’s faith). Such U-turns do more harm than good by showing bigots the red rag only to capitulate under intimidation emboldening them further. IK’s government (especially Information Minister Fawad Chaudhry) stood tall and took the bull by the horns. For this, they deserved commendation and unqualified support.

In a country like ours, people get killed for speaking their minds. Salmaan Taseer was killed for advocating the fundamental rights (to justice and due process) of a Christian woman. Those who stick their heads up to articulate viewpoints challenging the fountains of hate that our bigoted brigade drinks from do so at significant risk to their lives, security and liberty. That Fawad Chaudhry has done so with courage, conviction and reasoning makes him a rock star. One hopes he will not be thrown under the bus at a weak moment like Zahid Hamid was by the PML-N.

The debate over whether Pakistan is to be a Muslim country or an Islamic state is as old as the country itself. To state the obvious, the state as a juristic entity can’t have a belief system. Those who live in it can and do. But a state that seeks to profess a faith will naturally struggle to uphold principles that form the foundation of the contract between the citizen and state, such as the right to equality, dignity, to freely profess and propagate one’s religion, and the right to freedom of speech and profession. Our constitution guarantees these to every citizen – including Ahmadis.

But our state declares Islam to be the state religion and hence the contradiction of professing allegiance to one religion while also promising not to discriminate between citizens on the basis of faith. The inclusion of Article 2 was due to parliament succumbing to bigots when our constitution was being written. Notwithstanding the many questionable laws we have continued to enact to appease bigots, they refuse to relent or stop producing new crazier versions. The latest exhibit is the ruckus over Atif Mian’s appointment to the EAC.

What did Jinnah mean when he said: “you may belong to any religion or cast or creed; that has nothing to do with the business of the state”? He explained it: “We are starting in the days where there is no discrimination, no distinction between one community and another…Now I think we should keep that in front of us as our ideal and you will find that in course of time Hindus would cease to be Hindus and Muslims would cease to be Muslims, not in the religious sense, because that is the personal faith of each individual, but in the political sense as citizens of the state.”

The operative part is that religion has nothing to do with the “business of [the] state”. Simply put, the state’s treatment of citizens must never be informed by who they worship and how. This has to be a bright line rule. Without it, the constitution’s promise of affording legal equality to all citizens is poppycock. Those who are seeking to have Atif Mian removed from the EAC are essentially calling for a breach of the rights guaranteed by Articles 9, 14, 18, 20 and 25 of our constitution. Such people wish to impose their prejudices upon the state so it acts against citizens who don’t share their beliefs.

Even those opposed to the persecution of fellow citizens on the basis of beliefs tolerate and appease bigots to prevent the monsters from turning on them. Instead of censuring bigotry, we have legitimised it and granted it privileged space in our political and social ethos. One of the dirtiest tricks in bar elections is to spread the rumour that the competitor is an Ahmadi. Why is it so effective? Because it works like a charm. For example, there are competent lawyers who can’t be elevated to the bench because they belong to the Ahmadi community. So entrenched is this form of bigotry that it doesn’t even seem wrong to most.

We understand racism to be a bad thing. Anyone in the West judging another on the basis of race or religion is a racist. Notwithstanding the expansion of intolerance post-9/11, that remains the principle. If we recognise and call out racism when practised against Muslims, why are we oblivious to it in our midst? We judge Israel for being an oppressor and lacking empathy even though Jews were the most oppressed community till the emergence of Israel. Are we unconscious of our transformation from being an oppressed minority in undivided India to the oppressor of minorities in an independent state?

There are two aspects to the Atif Mian debate: one, the state’s role in creating a level-playing field for all citizens and its obligation to protect vulnerable segments of society including religious minorities; and two, the state adopting a worldview where its citizens don’t see themselves as being at constant war with themselves and the rest of the world, but wish to form an inclusive society that is focused primarily on the wellbeing of those who live within by seeking help from all those who can contribute. Atif Mian’s case highlights our suicidal tendencies regarding the second aspect.

With a Phd from MIT and a teaching career that took him from Berkley and Chicago to being a distinguished professor at Princeton, Atif Mian doesn’t need any validation from Pakistan. He has risen and shone despite our prejudices. Identified as one of the top 25 young economists likely to shape our understanding of macro economy in the coming decades, and having written a widely acclaimed book explaining how growing household debt precipitated the US depression of 2008, Atif Mian has broken free from a place where his religious beliefs would hold him down.

Why would he agree to help the government by devoting his time and serving on an advisory council other than to pay back a country he believes he owes a debt of love to? And how do we respond? We want to cut our nose to spite the face. And we have some practice with this. Remember Dr Abdul Salaam? We have allowed prophets of hate to continue to nurture a culture of exclusion, derision, hypocrisy and paranoia within our polity. At risk here are not just the minorities, but our own sense of right and wrong and the ability to protect our own humanity.

In his first speech, IK spoke about empathy and about looking out for and picking up those who are weak or vulnerable. He spoke about our need to be at peace with our neighbours in order to be at peace with ourselves. He spoke about the need to look within and focus on what makes the lives of citizens meaningful and happy, by providing our children an education, decent healthcare to everyone and affording dignity to senior citizens. Within such a Pakistan, an Atif Mian serving on a council or in the cabinet, if he is the best person for the job, would be hardly remarkable.

We are far away from such Pakistan for now. But to move in that direction, IK doesn’t have the option to cower before hatemongers. Our realist friends tell us that this isn’t the time to pick a fight with bigots. Is there ever a good time? In the movie ‘American President’ there was a great response to such counsel: “You fight the fights you can win? You fight the fights that need fighting”. Fighting bigotry being peddled by the Khadim Rizvis on the streets, the Orya Maqbool Jans on TV and our school buddies on WhatsApp groups is the fight that needs fighting.

[Editor’s note: this article was written on Thursday, before Atif Mian was asked to step down from the EAC, and needs to be read with that in mind].

The writer is a lawyer based in Islamabad.



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