Nawaz Sharif gave a commendable speech today in Chakwal, saying that his government is dedicated to improving the lot and lives of religious minorities and promoting the mindset of ‘for you is your religion and for me is mine’. He told the audience that he is prime minister of all Pakistanis and “not just Muslim Pakistanis”. The Prime Minister should be applauded for giving this important message. Unfortunately, he has a problem.
No, it’s not his past flirtation with becoming ‘Ameer ul Momineen‘. The past can be forgiven if the present proves different. In this case, there is a question mark because while Nawaz is saying the right thing, he is keeping in his government powerful ministers who are saying the opposite. Day before PM Nawaz gave his impressive speech, his own Interior Minister Chaudhry Nisar told a completely different story, declaring that sectarian militants cannot be considered terrorists. Nisar’s remarks sparked a walkout by opposition Senators.
How can anyone take seriously the PM’s words about ending religious intolerance and sectarianism when his own Interior Minister is seen serving tea to the heads of proscribed hate groups and giving his own speeches defending sectarian militants? Nawaz Sharif has a choice. He can keep Chaudhry Nisar and continue to give empty speeches and have no one believe him, or he can sack Chaudhry Nisar and go down in history as a PM who actually put his words into action to improve the country. He can’t do both.
Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif has dealt an important blow to the forces of obscurantism and extremism today by renaming of Quaid-i-Azam University’s (QAU) physics department to the Professor Abdus Salam Center for Physics and creating a new programme named the Professor Abdus Salam Fellowship to grant five annual fellowships for Pakistani PhD students in the field of Physics.
Dr Muhammad Abdus Salam is a national hero, though he has been treated very badly and nearly forgotten only because of his religious sect. By openly recognising Dr Abdus Salam in such a public and lasting way, PM Nawaz has dealt an important blow to extremism in the country. It is a first step only, but it is a crucial one to undoing the normalisation of hate and sectarianism that has taken root in so much of our society.
The scene is a familiar one. Enraged youths take to the streets in response to a brutal attack that leaves over a dozen in their community dead. They are throwing rocks at armed security forces sent to contain them. Media terms the attack as regrettable but reserves harsher condemnation for the protestors whose response they say cannot be justified. Only, this scene is not taking place in Gaza, it is taking place in Lahore.
When my mother heard that three Muslim doctors had been shot in North Carolina, she immediately called me. She was upset and scared for my cousin who is studying in Chicago. Is he safe? Will he be targeted? Why doesn’t he come home? I didn’t know what to say. I wanted to comfort her, to reassure her that nothing like that could ever happen, but I would be lying if I said I didn’t have similar fears for friends and family living overseas. Any time there is a news report about a shooting or a bomb or something I get a familiar feeling of dread. This time, though, there was another feeling that was causing tears to well up in my eyes while talking to my mother. It was due to the last of my mother’s questions: “Why doesnt’ he come home?”
“It is an un-Islamic and condemnable act to declare any Muslim sect a disbeliever and deserving of death.”
There is no question that sectarianism and hate speech are diseases that are crippling this country, but why does the answer to everything have to be to kill someone? Life is already too cheap. Yes, we need to discourage sectarianism and hate speech. We need to discourage violence. And, yes, there are certain crimes for which death is a fitting punishment. But we need to think of a better way of discouraging people from declaring someone as kafir and condemning them to death than declaring them as kafir and condemning them to death.