Related articles: LUBP Archive on Javed Ghamidi
Javaid Ahmed Ghamidi does not breathe fire and brimstone. As someone who preaches tolerance and reason, he is not your typical Pakistani religious scholar. And he has had to pay a price for it. For speaking out against those who murder and maim in the name of Islam, Ghamidi is in the crosshairs of the jihadists, who bristle when their narrative of fear is challenged. NEWSWEEK Pakistan’s Shehrbano Taseer spoke with Ghamidi on phone recently. Excerpts
Are Islam and democracy compatible?
Yes, of course. Islam favors democratic societies. In the West, they have created democracies, which may have their shortcomings, but where people listen to one another, tolerate each other’s opinions, and engage in dialogue. The majority opinion is made into law, and these laws can be criticized, debated freely, and amended based on people’s beliefs.
There is furor in Pakistan over the blasphemy laws. What does the Quran say about punishing those who are proven to have committed blasphemy?
There is no punishment prescribed for blasphemy in the Quran or in the sayings of the Holy Prophet (peace be upon him). Some clerics cite the case of Ibn Akhtar, but they misinterpret that incident and make it about blasphemy. Man can make laws, and these should not be misused to unfairly target or victimize anyone. Islam specifically says that taking the life of an individual is tantamount to taking the life of all humanity. It is a crime. It is wrong. Allah says true Muslims are those in whose hands others are safe.
Are you hopeful some of the space that has been ceded to the militants can be recovered?
It is very difficult. We will need a movement. There are lots of people who want to hear and do the right thing, but they must first understand the problem and then unite for a solution. This is a jihad. Currently, we have radicals on one side and secularists on the other, there is no middle ground. In a Muslim society like ours, there is no future for the secular and there is either going to be the radical Islam we see now or the correct, tolerant Islam. If the youth and intelligentsia understand Allah’s message and the true concept of Islam for themselves, they can then go to war against the evils of society and give success to Islam. You cannot win this war on the basis of secularism. You must win it on the basis of the true and correct Islam. Allama Iqbal said the same thing, but we failed to carry his message forward. Right now, people are not ready to take up this cause, they are not pushed.
Do you feel Pakistan can contain the extremist threat?
Let’s start by not losing hope. We can contain it if we unite. There needs to be a new movement, by educated people, who can put pressure on the government so that, for one, education returns to being the responsibility of the state. Otherwise, this cancer of extremism will continue to spread. Pakistan has over 12,000 madrassahs with more than 2 million students. The countless clerics at these schools have immense sway, they have formed communities around themselves and they have weapons. And when power comes into the hands of such people—when we give them that power—you get what we have happening right now. There is nothing in the Quran or the Prophet’s (peace be upon him) sayings to justify what the extremists are doing. We need to enter the playing field and correct this, and turn their arguments on their head. I have challenged them on every occasion for the past five years or so, and told them what they are saying is incorrect. They can only stay silent in return. Even in the matter of blasphemy they could not refute me, but I feel I am alone in this.
Do you buy into the notion that there are good extremists versus bad ones?
Some of them are fighting against America, some are fighting our military, and some are fighting among themselves. These people do not think of others as Muslims and so they think they have power over them and can level all kinds of accusations against them. The newspapers elevate these people and don’t play a positive role. We have children as young as 7 years of age being bundled off to madrassahs, which our establishment and America facilitated. These people are trained to kill, they will kill anyone, and now they’ve turned their guns on us. There is no such thing as a good killer. This has nothing to do with religion, this is about something else.
So how do we change things?
People need to understand Islam themselves, there is no other way. We need to understand the religion and launch a movement to reform society. In the West, there was a reformation movement which needs to be replicated in the East. There is strength in our arguments. You can reason with these people if you reason strongly and with facts. Islam was initially spread by a handful of people. This is how you will get success and nobody will be able to refute it. The media has a lot of power and must use this power positively, spreading the message from house to house. But the reality is that we are not ready to take up this cause. The secularists and the elite are not ready to take this up, they are not ready to talk and engage especially about beliefs.
What role do you see religious scholars playing to improve our society?
They, like doctors and engineers, are experts in their field. Their role is not to pick up guns, but to argue with facts and to present their arguments logically and calmly. Their role is not to threaten or to preach in a hostile or forceful manner in the streets, but to inform and show people the right Islam. The unfortunate reality here is that those who claim to be adherents of Allah’s word are actually quite unfamiliar with the faith.
There also seems to be virtually no separation between mosque and state.
Our leaders and lawmakers are very weak in this regard. They do not have the will power to stand up to the militants, they abdicate their responsibilities. We must educate Parliamentarians and politicians and the intelligentsia. If you start now you will see the results in a few months and years. People are not ready to listen to this, though. They are comfortable sitting in their homes thinking they can’t tackle this. A movement must rise up. It must create its own power and be secure in its strength to gain traction. Religious scholars have always dictated terms to Parliament. This can only change when we want it to. Parliament has to have the real power, but how can it when political parties themselves are dictated to? A new and separate power needs to emerge. Take Imran Khan, for example, he was new and separate, but now he’s talking their talk, too. Truthfully, there is no one who’s ready not to be dictated to. But let’s not worry. Let’s move forward and take this current state of affairs as a lesson learnt.
You no longer live in Pakistan. Why the self-exile and are you scared?
It became difficult for me. My friends and neighbors were in danger because of me. People close to me were killed, threatened, and harassed. People I know began to live in fear because these people who are after me don’t spare anyone. So I decided to leave. I don’t want anyone to suffer because of me. These people are everywhere, but I am trying to spread my message as much as I can through the media. I am still doing my work. Who would I be scared of? One should only be scared of Allah. I get to travel back and forth all the time, I come and visit my institute and visit my people. I have not left.
Source: Newsweek Pakistan