Sectarianism & civil society – Muhammad Amir Rana

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NOTHING is more challenging for a state than maintaining social harmony during times of religious discord and hatred. The challenge becomes more uncertain when civil society and other stakeholders become indifferent or are left out, and the matter is left to state institutions alone. This is exactly what is happening in Pakistan.

During the recent upsurge in sectarian protests and hatred in the country, civil society largely failed to respond proactively; it could not go beyond issuing mere condemnations. While state authorities have taken a few initiatives, these also did not get the attention of opinion-makers in the media.

The Council of Islamic Ideology (CII) recently developed a Code of Conduct (CoC) for ending sectarian violence and communal hatred in the country. Endorsed by religious scholars of all schools of thought, the 20-point CoC is being termed as a major development in addressing sectarianism. It is also one of the major achievements of the CII under the chairmanship of Dr Qibla Ayaz, who will soon complete his first tenure without having created any controversy.

The CoC is not the first initiative taken by the state or religious scholars to reduce sectarian tensions. Apart from several other state-sponsored religious decrees and declarations, a somewhat similar document was also developed by the Milli Yakjehti Council, an alliance of religious parties formed to address sectarianism in the mid-1990s. The CII’s CoC echoes similar clauses espoused in the MYC draft, but can be termed different in terms of authority and source. This is based on the Paigham-i-Pakistan, a comprehensive state-sponsored declaration against extremism endorsed by hundreds of religious scholars of all schools of thought.

The CoC can be divided into three parts. The first in particular refers to protecting the rights of women and non-Muslim citizens. The second discusses legal issues, including related to blasphemy, and declares that only courts of law are authorised to decide on such cases. The third and integral part of the CoC concerns sectarian harmony. It declares all kinds of violence in the name of religion as revolt against the state and denounces the deliverance of hate speech and excommunication of other sects, including at mosques, imambargahs and mass gatherings.

One must appreciate the CII’s CoC. But will it be enough to address the violent manifestation of the existing sectarian divide? What miracle can this CoC achieve that previous similar declarations failed to?

Traditionally, such fatwas and declarations have wielded little to no influence on most radical elements and extremist groups in Pakistan. Even in the presence of such drafts and decrees, extremist elements and groups would continue to spread hatred as per their convictions or other internal and external compulsions. For state institutions, however, creating and adopting such resolutions is an official obligation and means that the ‘job is done’. But the issue is deep-rooted and linked to our society’s religious, identity-related and sociopolitical ethos.

Civil society — especially segments that operate on a non-religious basis, ie media, professional bodies, and even political parties — does not intervene in such issues proactively due to a few obvious reasons. For one, a sense of religious sensitivity and sanctity, in which the clergy does not allow anyone else the authority to take up religious matters, keeps diverse societal segments out and renders the entire discourse their exclusive domain.

Second, state institutions also discourage the involvement of civil society. They have made it an exclusive turf for themselves (in which they engage with the clergy alone) and try to conceal prevalent sectarian fault lines from popping up and tarnishing the country’s image abroad. The media blackout of recent incidents related to sectarian hatred is an example of that attitude. Perhaps they believe that such blackouts can prevent the fire from spreading. But the overall environment that it creates discourages not only civil society but also media and even parliamentarians from speaking on the issue.

National cohesion cannot be created without developing sectarian harmony, and both require managing and celebrating diversity. Fear of diversity is rooted in mistrust of the social contract, in which coercive uniformity is seen as the only option. But uniformity cannot be an alternative to diversity. Usually, state and societies have multiple social contracts to conduct day-to-day business with each other, but two are considered especially important. One between the state and society, ie the Constitution, and the second among diverse segments of society to manage their religious, racial, ethnic and cultural differences, which is part of our collective memories. In Pakistan, the constitutional crisis has deep roots and reflects state institutions’ weaknesses in honouring and abiding by constitutional principles, whereas the sectarian divide has badly affected the social contract within society.

On one side, state institutions are not providing the way for civil society to participate in restructuring the social contract. On the other, the clergy has developed a stake in the economy that thrives on hate and conflict. The institution of the madressah has further deepened the intellectual and social stakes in sectarianism on which radical groups thrive. Civil society has itself failed to build pressure on the state and clergy to course correct. For civil society, rights issues are more important than a cohesive and inclusive social contract that accommodates all religious, sectarian, ethnic, racial and cultural differences and provides better mutual understanding. A functional social contract can help to develop a better citizenry and ensure social cohesion.

It is also important that all state institutions and pillars act within the constitutional framework and contribute to strengthening constitutional values. Both the state and civil society have to collaborate to break the intellectual and economic stakes linked with sectarian hatred. It would be a great service to the nation if the CII took up the task and provided some useful recommendations in this regard.