By: Usman Asif
As long as they do not curse those who we deem sacred, we do not have any problem with them. This statement was given by late Israr Ahmed, a senior Salafi scholar in Pakistan. He was referring to Shia Muslims practice of tabarra, in where certain companions of the Prophet are criticised and even cursed due to events during the civil war following Prophet’s death.
This statement could not gather enough attention, but it tells of a certain mind-set, which is the crux of majority and minority rights in several Muslim majority countries. Israr Ahmed was not the only one to ever have suggested this trade-off between granting safety in return of letting go of what a believer considers a religious obligation or practice.
What gives, a focus on dialogue, when the emphasis is on a notion of respect, rather than tolerance? Muslim intellectuals and clerics have occasionally called out for dialogue following acts of hatred, persecution and violence. Yet a strong commitment to tolerate is not present, especially when it comes to an internal sectarian strife.
The trend is among scholars and priests to promote religious harmony, while in the same turn, it tells of an internal struggle to define, own and thereby steer the mere definition of the religion in question. The internal dialogue thereby becomes a fight, and the opposite of the external talks of peace. Does this promote a sub-class of an obedient silent minority, and a rightly guided majority that can by any chance incite persecution at the slightest hint of opposition?
Truth of others
Faith is the result of a leap – the leap has for most religious people already been taken pre-birth, but in meeting with modern science and its method for proof it is a leap, rather than something which can be proven scientifically. What is an absurd belief for some is for others more sacred than their own offspring. And no-one can change such if the believer himself is not willing to do so.
Or so we like to think, for you can silence a public expression of faith, by banning its practice as did many a communist regimes, or persecute, threat and kill those who do not subordinate the majoritarian wishes. Examples for these are plenty.
Ones act of faith can in some cases be for others an act of blasphemy. If blasphemy is not to be tolerated, then there is a fertile ground for resentment. In such a case, demographics, instability, religious nationalism and violence is a dangerous combination. A minority sect is at the mercy of the majority for not being persecuted if fringe movements among majority finds the minority intolerable.
British tried to end communal violence among sects, castes and religions in Subcontinent by introducing blasphemy laws. They only managed to ensure its implementation with brute force and in areas they controlled the most.
In post-colonial times, in many a Muslim (and non-muslim) countries, the likes with weak democratic structures, lack of rule of law or where there is a state sanctioned version of faith, the society or state regulates acts of so-called blasphemy by demanding silence or obedience.
In some societies, one is safeguarded as long as ones faith is not expressed in public – but what if ones faith requires a public display at certain events? What should a believer do, if his community traditionally marks a day in public, while the majoritarian society considers such as disturbance or in worst-case blasphemy?
Clashes and communal violence occurs under such circumstances. These are effective weapons – and when such occurs, certain clerics and men of faith start the speech of dialogue, respect and reconciliation.
Dialogue and respect
In aftermath of a conflict, it is important to defuse resentment and therefore reconcile. Such was the nature of tribes and nomads, and such is the wisdom in modern diplomacy. But in this process, to demand from a victim, to pay respect, and to engage dialogue, for in the end to make a compromise is not to defuse tension – it is power play, a showcase of who is in charge.
Such a dialogue is not dialogue in its essence, it’s a trade-off or rather a sign on the deal which was wished for before an act of hate. Such a dialogue creates second-grade citizens, those who in places that lack rule of law, or in societies that guard a majoritarian interest, are bound to be careful with their dealings. This was normal before civil right became the norm, and it is criminal and unjust because these rights are a norm today.
In modern Islamic history, approach for dialogue has not lacked. In fact, the different initiatives has tried to reconcile with a balance between respect and tolerance. The book Al-Murajaat by Sharaf al-Din, a respected Shia scholar depicts a dialogue between him and the then head of Al-Azhar Salim al-Bishri. The debate has since led to other initiatives between the two schools of law and traditions, most famous is the friendship between Imam Mahmud Shaltut and Ayatollah Borujerdi.
These and many more scholars did disagree, and to some extent demanded that they met in the middle ground, where they shed some doctrines considered offensive to the counterpart. But as time went it was clear, differences will not cease to exist. They will only solidify.
What is appalling is the recent rejection of Imam Shaltuts fatwa in where he declared the Shia school of thought to be within the fold of mainstream Islam. Clearly, it was a reaction to the current conflicts that are tried being framed across sectarian lines. Among celebrity scholars as Yusuf Al-Qaradawi the integrity too lost its ground, he regretted his own words of reconciliation for then to be extremely sectarian and encourage actual persecution.
There are plenty of examples from the Shia camp too of where words have been switched with swords. Still, in the midst of battle, there are those who still say that rapprochement is possible. Grand old man of Najaf is still bound on a common future, but so is the common man and woman in the region.
What progress was achieved during debates in previous century is not lost, they are temporary frozen. Once parties are done with fighting they will quickly adopt the same thoughts of coexistence, but they will have a new task to take on too. If one is to tolerate difference in belief, then the next step will be to tolerate that one’s belief is also publicly criticised.
Truth is not one – not in the world of faith and doubt. It will bend only when the believer so wills it. If there is a lesson to take from centuries of human infighting, then it is to tolerate the differences – because assimilation will only happen by force and that requires war.
Usman Asif is a member of minaretens assembly and writes at Baghi