The tragic death of the 15-year-old Pakistani schoolboy Aitzaz Hasan, wrestling a suicide bomber down to save his fellow students in a remote corner of the country, has unexpectedly occasioned a tremendous outpour of grief and calls for introspection in Pakistan. Sectarian violence and ethnic infighting in Pakistan is not new, but the death of the teenager has exposed yet again the suppurating wound that festers in the body politic of the nation.
Aitzaz’s Shia family lived in Hangu, an area abutting into the wild and restive tribal areas that provide shelter and support to violent militant groups. The school he attended has more than 2,200 students, predominantly Shias. Since 2006, as Taliban groups and other militants – primarily Sunni Muslims – have sought to build a secure operational stronghold there, they have run into sharp resistance by Shia tribes. This in turn has spawned sectarian fights that have killed thousands, even as a series of weak, venal provincial governments in the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa frontier province have sought compromises with these feckless elements.
[quote]Jinnah would have found today’s extremism surprising and shocking[/quote]
Aitzaz’s senseless death might produce some good and force Pakistan to recognize that an orgy of violence threatens to tear the nation apart. In fact, the nation’s founding father, Muhammad Ali Jinnah, would have found today’s extremism both surprising and shocking. Although Islam was the foundational ideology of Pakistan, “the land of the pure,” Jinnah did not envision Pakistan as a theocratic state. In his presidential address to the Constituent Assembly of Pakistan on August 11, 1947 – three days before Pakistan’s formal independence – Jinnah was unequivocal about religious tolerance and freedom to practice one’s own faith: “You are free; you are free to go to your temples, you are free to go to your mosques or to any other place or worship in this State of Pakistan. You may belong to any religion or caste or creed that has nothing to do with the business of the State.”
He talked about a future where “there is no discrimination, no distinction between one community and another, no discrimination between one caste or creed and another.” He then went on to make an even more pointed observation: “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.”
But soon after Jinnah’s death in September 1948, these remarks were quietly excised from the official version of his speech as conservative, obscurantist successors adopted Islam – more specifically, Sunni Islam – as the state religion and the national ideology. The first victims of this intolerance were the Ahmadiyya community. As early as February 1953, their adherents suffered from violent riots in Lahore, including murder, looting and arson, that were tacitly supported by Jinnah’s party, the ruling Muslim League. Subsequent Pakistani governments – both civilian and military – cynically exploited the religious divide until the country’s dismemberment in 1971 and restoration of civilian rule in 1973.
Under Pakistan’s 1973 Constitution, the populist Prime Minister Zulfikar Ali Bhutto passed a law that declared the Ahmadis non-Muslims. In 1984, military dictator Gen Muhammad Ziaul Haq embarked upon a more sweeping Islamization policy that barred Ahmadis from using Islamic practices in their religious and social life. To this day, it is an officially persecuted and proscribed community.
In the predominantly feudal province of Sindh, the sizeable urban Hindu population had controlled business and commerce until they fled to India following the Partition in 1947. Barely 500,000 Hindus remained behind. Despite maintaining a low profile to avoid the attention of intolerant Islamists, they have not escaped intimidation, extortion, forcible conversion, abduction, torture, rape, looting and destruction of property, desecration of temples, and widespread killings. All these incidents have been well documented by both domestic and international human rights groups, but successive provincial and federal governments have ignored violence against all other minority communities as well – Christians, Sikhs and Parsees.
Aitzaz’s death underscores the daily threats Shias face across Pakistan, caught in the vise grip of a bloody religious pogrom, orchestrated by fundamentalist extremist factions who ostensibly want to restore the “purity” of Islam to the land of the pure. To be sure, fratricidal religious violence is not the primary cause of Pakistan’s existential problem, but it also reinforces, among other things, the inability or unwillingness of the state to enforce rule of law and promote religious tolerance.
Until Pakistan acknowledges that a yawning fissure separates its people and acts decisively against homegrown enemies, more innocent Aitzaz Hasans will die in the fatal embrace of suicide bombers and leave disconsolate parents behind to bury their offspring.
Debbir Bikram Dasgupta, a New York City-based Communications Consultant to Fortune 200 CEOs, writes about South Asian politics and social issues