Ulema Council’s Qualified Condemnation of Militancy Highlights Double Standards

Pakistan Ulema Council

Pakistan Ulema Council issued a condemnation of IS militants on Friday as reports of infiltration by the jihadi terrorist group across the country. This condemnation of IS militants by the respected clerics is welcomed, but the qualified statement highlights dangerous double standards toward extremism and militancy that must be addressed.

The PUC statement only addresses one group (IS) and includes the following qualification:

“The PUC appeals to people and youth in Islamic countries to not cooperate with any violent group whose teachings or actions are against the teachings of Islam and Prophet Mohammad (PBUH).”

The problem with this statement is that it gives a free pass to violent groups who do believe their teachings and actions are in line with Islam and Prophet Mohammad (PBUH). In other words...all of them.

Freeing Pakistan of the scourge of extremist violence requires a comprehensive, unqualified condemnation of militancy. No exceptions. Until then, qualified condemnations will not only be fruitless, they will continue to provide an ideological justification for terrorists of all stripes.

Foreign Agents Spreading Fitnah

shariah4Pakistan poster

Before I saw the headlines, someone had emailed me the poster. I wish I could honestly say that I was shocked, but it’s hard to shock me these days. Certainly ‘Shariah4Pakistan’ is not a shocking conference name. We hear this regularly implied if not expressed openly on talk shows. Terming Qaid-e-Azam as a ‘Traitor of Islam’ is stupid, but even that is sadly not surprising as religious extremism has become more and more mainstream. No, the one thing I found interesting about the poster were the names of the self-appointed Sheikhs who are invited to speak.

Omar Bakri Mohammed, aka ‘Sheikh Omar’ as he likes to call himself, is a British extremist who helped start the Hizb-ut-Tahrir, which is banned in Pakistan, in the UK. Omar has praised terrorism and has even been convicted of terrorism in absentia by a court in Lebanon.

Another speaker is the Londoner student of Omar, Anjem Choudary, a takfiri who condemns moderate religious groups as kufr. In 2008, Anjem declared that the Muslim Council of Britain were ‘selling their souls to the devil’ after they condemned the September 11 and July 7 terrorist attacks.

This is the group that is holding a conference in Islamabad. They are, by definition, foreign agents. And according to their own words they plan to declare Qaid-e-Azam as ‘Traitor of Islam’, the Constitution as ‘Kufr’, and they plan to issue a fatwa against Malala Yousafzai for wanting an education. And they plan to do this at Lal Masjid, an obvious scheme to open old wounds in society and incite more violence in our country.

They are, by definition, foreign agents who are planning on sowing fitnah in Pakistan. Question is, who gave them their visa? Why are these anti-Pakistan foreign agents being allowed to come into our country and incite hatred and violence?

This is more than a mere academic question. Last month, Pakistan Ulema Council (PUC) Chairman Maulana Tahir Mahmood Ashrafi condemned the attack on Malala Yousafzai.

“Islam is the only religion which strictly prohibits violence of any sort in the name of religion. Our Prophet Mohammad (peace be upon him) has strictly directed not to harm women, children and elderly and so much so has even directed not to damage trees and crops even during the ‘ghazwat’ that he fought against the infidels. How a person calling himself to be a Muslim can resort to such acts of violence and especially against an innocent minor girl of only 14 years? The perpetrators can not call themselves Muslims and this action of theirs has nothing to do with the teachings and preaching of Islam,” Maulana Tahir Ashrafi said.

He also urged the government to take every possible step to save the life of young Malala Yousafzai and at the same time take meaningful measures to promote the true teachings of Islam which preaches love, affection, tolerance, co-existence and abhor violence.

Will Maulana Ashrafi be made a fool of by these British Osama wannabes? Will the military stand by silently while foreign agents incite attacks and undermine our national security? Why are none of the self-appointed ‘defenders of Pakistan’ asking who issued these foreign agents their visas? How can we expect America to respect our sovereignty when we allow these militant ‘drones’ to threaten innocent girls?

These are not academic questions. They are questions of survival.

Why I Criticised Tahir Ashrafi

I have taken a lot of criticism for my last piece about Tahir Ashrafi. I expected the abuse from intolerant fanatics who subscribe to an extremist ideology. What I did not expect was the criticism from respected intellectuals who understand the problems inherent to the blasphemy laws as they exist. After re-reading my original piece, I realised that this should have been expected. In making one point clearly, I failed to address clearly the broader reason why we should not take comfort in the statements of people like Tahir Ashrafi. Please allow me to explain.

The problem I have with guys like Tahir Ashrafi is that they are playing us for fools. The case against Rimsha was so obscene that it threatened to expose the blasphemy laws as they exist for what they are – a tool of intimidation and persecution that serves to perpetuate the power of the right-wing Mullahstocracy.

When Tahir Ashrafi came out in defence of Rimsha, many took this as a sign of progress. I understand how natural it is to respond to a piece like Tahir Ashrafi’s by saying that such words should be encouraged. But, because of his (recent) past, it would be irresponsible to accept Ashrafi’s words without some scepticism. Nadir Hassan explains why:

Let us not delude ourselves into believing that the PUC can be even a temporary ally. Sure, when arguing the case for Rimsha’s release we can use the “even the PUC agrees with us” line as a debating point. But the focus should remain on the injustice of the blasphemy laws themselves, not the abuse of the laws.

Focusing on the way the laws are supposedly misused is being used as a utilitarian tactic to slowly change minds. What this approach ignores is that abuse is inherent to any law that criminalises speech and conduct. As long as we buy into the logic that the majority group deserves to be protected from any offense or criticism, we will continue to see minority groups be repressed for their beliefs. And when cases aren’t as clear-cut as that of Rimsha’s, we will be left speechless because there will be no obvious ‘abuse’ of these laws.

Let us for a moment consider how this whole drama could play out. For Ashrafi and the right-wing Mullahstocracy, the case against Rimsha was a PR disaster. The entire world was focused on the story of a mentally-disabled 11-year-old girl who was being threatened with death for a crime she could not possibly comprehend. The case reignited questions about how the blasphemy laws are used to intimidate, threaten, and persecute people for personal and political ends. In order to protect this tool of power, the Mullahs had to change the subject. So they started talking about how ‘abuse’ of the law should be stopped. This sounds reasonable, but only if it is considered outside the reality of history.

What Ashrafi and the rest of the Mullahstocracy realise is that, in the grander scheme, Rimsha and Imam Khalid Jadoon are mere pawns who can be sacrificed. By letting her go scot free and punishing the Imam, they will have set a precedent that strengthens their weapons against future criticism. After all, if Rimsha is set free and the Imam is punished, does this not prove that the laws are not being abused, and therefore any conviction must be legitimate?

This will be their argument the next time there is an Asia Bibi, or an Ranjah Masih or a Naushad Valiyani. Mohammad Hanif provides a sad and disturbing list of the victims of the Mullahstocracy’s weapon. Where was Tahir Ashrafi when these cases were taking place? He sat silently on the sidelines. The next time this weapon is used, however, he and the rest of the right-wing Mullahs will not have to sit silent. Their defence will be an 11-year-old girl named Rimsha. “See, we saved her from stoning. This proves that our decisions are just. Today we demand death.” Anyone defending the accused will be met with quick retorts of, “If he is innocent, why doesn’t even Tahir Ashrafi defend him?” And the persecution will go on as it has been.

Farahnaz Ispahani explained this, too, in a recent piece for Daily Times:

Mr Ashrafi and his colleagues want this case to be used to end discussion about the need to reform the Blasphemy Laws. They want Rimsha Masih’s case to be investigated and decided under a law that has been so massively abused that it needs fundamental review. But they would rather get mercy for Rimsha without challenging the structure and process that makes oppression of religious minorities possible.

This is why I do not greet these newly found words of Maulana Ashrafi with joy. Not because I resent his previous silence, or his speeches inciting hatred and violence against Pakistanis who do not subscribe to his personal ideology. It is because underneath the honey in his recent words is a razor dripping with the blood of innocents. And that, I cannot ignore.

Tahir Ashrafi’s Clever Defence of Blasphemy Law

Right-wing groups have taken a turn in defence of Rimsha in what appears to be little more than a desperate attempt to defend the blasphemy law in the face of public outcry. Realising that the Rimsha case has exposed the blasphemy law for what it is – a colonial-era law used as a weapon against personal or political enemies – these groups have crafted a careful response that calls for ‘fairness’ for Rimsha, but ultimately keeping the status quo.

PTI central spokesman issued a statement terming the man-made law as ‘necessary’, “adding that if someone indeed commits blasphemy he or she should be proceeded against under the law”. Naturally, Ansar Abbasi claims that the public outcry is part of a conspiracy, writing that the Rimsha case can help “pave the way to devise a foolproof procedure for registration of FIR under this law” and saying:

There is no reason to support the west-led campaign to quash the blasphemy law. Certain NGOs and some voices in the media, it is expected, would try to fuel the Rimsha case to target the blasphemy law as per the western agenda.

The heaviest defender of the blasphemy law, though, has been Maulana Tahir Ashrafi who has been making a weighty media push in defence of the law, telling reporters that “Strict action should be taken against all those accusing the girl if she is found innocent”. According to Ashrafi, “It is just like the law of jungle that 500 people approached a police station and got a report forcibly lodged with the police.” This has been widely reported in the foreign media.

Make no mistake, Tahir Ashrafi is no liberal preacher of peace and tolerance. He is not even a moderate like Javed Ghamidi. Tahir Ashrafi’s only purpose in the Rimsha case is to defend the blasphemy law. Remember the warning of Javed Ghamidi after Mumtaz Qadri murdered Salmaan Taseer:

“The blasphemy laws have no justification in Islam. These ulema [council of clerics] are just telling lies to the people,” said Javed Ahmad Ghamidi, a reformist scholar and popular television preacher.

“But they have become stronger, because they have street power behind them, and the liberal forces are weak and divided. If it continues like this it could result in the destruction of Pakistan.”

Compare this to the argument of Tahir Ashrafi:

Blasphemy laws are often used to settle personal vendettas. And so, we demand a thorough and fair probe into the case involving Rimsha.

Tahir Ashrafi is careful to repeat in his English columns and statements to the foreign media lines like, “Pakistan belongs as much to the non-Muslims as to the Muslims,” but let’s take his newfound tolerance with a pinch of reality. Here’s how Tahir Ashraf spends his time when he’s not playing the part of tolerant cleric for the foreigners.

Tahir Ashrafi with Malik Ishaq and Ahmed Ludhianvi


Tahir Ashrafi with DPC

This raises serious questions. Does Tahir Ashrafi agree with his good friend Malik Ishaq and Ahmed Ludhianvi that Shia are blasphemers and should be murdered in cold blood?

Does he agree with his good friend Hafiz Saeed that Sufism is conspiracy of Hindus and Christians against jihad?

Maybe we should just consider Tahir Ashrafi’s own words warning violence against minorities:

I have heard people calling Tahir Ashrafi’s piece in Express Tribune as bravery. I might be more willing to believe that if Ashrafi didn’t have such a long record of supporting hate and intolerance. Don’t be fooled by this campaign of deception. They are not defending Rimsha because of a sudden change of heart. They are scared that Rimsha’s case has exposed the truth.