Citizenship is meant to convey an acceptance of the inherent worth of individuals. Pakistan has the unenviable position of being a country that remorselessly betrays this promise. Apparently now soft drinks belong to a religious sect too. The Lahore Bar Association has reportedly banned Shezan, a beverage owned by members of the Ahmadi community, from court premises.
Last week, I spent hours in my law school’s library going through the debates of the first Constituent Assembly that passed the Objectives Resolution — an event described by the late Liaquat Ali Khan as one second in significance only to achieving independence. The Objectives Resolution was arguably the first official pronouncement in the then newly independent Pakistan that sounded alarm bells for the non-Muslim minorities of Pakistan. Members of non-Muslim minorities, quite poignantly, voiced concerns that members of the later generation might use religion as a basis of discrimination against those belonging to a different faith. If you ever get the chance to read these debates, you should expect yourself to be lost to anyone around you for the next few hours. Words from those pages will keep leaping at your conscience and will raise the question: how and why did we allow this to happen?
Pakistan’s history has all the makings of a great tragedy. Sir Zafarullah Khan, a member of the Ahmadi community, supported the Objectives Resolution. Ahmadis till then had not been declared non-Muslims. Ironically enough, during the drafting of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948, Pakistan had adopted a liberal position on free exercise of religion and had openly countered Saudi Arabia’s rigid views at the United Nations. By 1949, the same country was adopting a resolution carrying the aims and objectives of its future constitution that clearly laid the roadmap for discrimination on the basis of religion. The ones most vulnerable were told to trust Islam the religion; this was in deliberate ignorance of the fact that interpretation of a religion is always a human exercise and injustices perpetrated in the name of religions often have little to do with teachings of those religions.
Laws may not always reflect the realities of a society but enacting them perpetuates a different kind of reality. The state did not stop at defining who a Muslim was, it went on to ask Muslims to prove their faith by signing a declaration of hatred towards Ahmadis if you are to obtain a passport or a CNIC. The insecurities represented by this practice are reflected in laws penalising Ahmadis if they use ‘our’ greeting or refer to their place of worship as a mosque. In one way, the Ahmadi community has it the worst in Pakistan since other non-Muslim minorities do not suffer because of the essentials of their faith.
The state continues to look away as vigilantes target Ahmadis, whether it’s attacking their mosques or defacing the tombstones in their graveyards. Even death cannot protect this community from the bigotry that we have long accepted and perpetuated.
The decision by the Lahore Bar Association to ban Shezan because it is owned by members of the Ahmadi community is shameful and an insult to legal training. Then again, bigotry does not spread because uneducated masses spread an argument but because educated individuals adopt dangerously flawed arguments and further them. There is no rational explanation for the acts of the LBA except hatred based on religious beliefs. I am deeply ashamed to be a lawyer from Pakistan even though I do not and will never subscribe to such views.
Such decisions represent the hard reality that if our lives are to mean anything for posterity then we must take on the most difficult and dangerous battles; both in the realm of ideas and in the courtroom. Unless a critical mass of lawyers takes it upon itself to counter such bigoted narratives things will not improve. Of course, passage of time and developments in discourse (caused by other factors) will have their place in history too. But the fact remains that if we want to prevent a bigoted segment of the legal community from facilitating persecution of our minorities, then we, the lawyers, have to take on the bigoted among us.
Whether it takes court cases or bar room discussions we must be prepared to make difficult arguments regardless of their popularity. The threat to life and limb in this context will exist. But if we can convince a critical mass that this is a fight for the soul of all that we stand for, then it may allow us to look past the dangers.
The refusal of lawyers in a country to engage with an argument is an enormous tragedy. If the bigoted are set in their ways, then let us also resolve that is no question of us ever giving up our argument; one that strives for a more inclusive Pakistan.
We must condemn such actions of bar associations in the strongest terms. Islam is not safer in Pakistan today because of our persecution of minorities. Pakistan is not safer because of our insecurities. If anything, we as a people have become helpless victims of our own hatred and have been consumed by our own failures to envisage a pluralistic polity.
The writer is a Barrister and an Advocate of the High Courts. He is currently pursuing an LLM in the US and can be reached at [email protected]