Politics of Fatwas
By Arif Jamal


The governments in Pakistan never fail to call on the ulema in their hour of need. The tradition was kept alive when President Pervez Musharraf and Prime Minister Shaukat Aziz met ulema from different sects on October 15. The meeting featured a failed attempt by the big two to obtain a fatwa against suicide attacks.

Soon after the meeting, Minister of State for Religious Affairs Dr. Aamir Liaquat Hussain claimed the ulema had agreed to issue a fatwa against suicide attacks. However, some of the ulema immediately denied having made any such promise in the meeting. Other participants chose to keep a meaningful silence. Consequently, the government was put on the defensive.

The delegation which met the President and the Prime Minister comprised some of the leading ulema representing various sects. Maulana Mohammad Rafi Usmani and Maulana Hanif Jallandhari are two leading Deobandi ulema while Mufti Muneebur Rehman is a leading Brelvi mufti and head of the Ruet-i-Hilal Committee. Fatwas from them may have come handy in the government's campaign to curb the sectarian threat.

Pro-suicide attack edicts appear to be in vogue in the post-9/11 situation. A number of Muslim leaders all over the world have given fatwas in favor of suicide attacks. Mohamed Elmasry, the head of the Canadian Islamic Congress, has recently called upon all Muslims to target Israeli civilians. He did not care about the Canadian government's reaction to his edict.

The fatwa failure is not the only recent evidence betraying the government's helplessness in dealing with the situation. Terrorism charges against two leading Deobandi ulema of Islamabad, Laal Masjid Khateeb, Maulana Abdul Aziz, and his younger brother, Abdur Rashid Ghazi, had to be withdrawn recently. The two brothers are the principal and the vice principal of Jamia Fareedia, a leading Deobandi madrassa in Islamabad. The government had put the security and intelligence agencies on high alert across the country after discovering an al-Qaeda terrorist plot to target important buildings in Islamabad two months ago. The plot was allegedly discovered after the security agencies arrested some al-Qaeda operatives who were part of this plot. At that time the government also accused Maulana Abdul Aziz and Abdur Rashid Ghazi of being part of that plot. The withdrawal of terrorism charges seems to be a part of the government efforts to placa te the Deobandi ulema.

It is commonly believed among the religious circles that the government had moved against the two ulema because of the harsh fatwa the Darul Iftah of the Laal (Red) Mosque had issued against the military operations in Waziristan early this year. The fatwa also forbade the Muslims to offeer funeral prayers for those soldiers who died in the military operations. Around 500 leading ulema and many other Darul Iftahs of the country had supported the fatwa. The withdrawal of the terrorism charges is seen as a clear message to the sectarian and extremist forces that their activities can be ignored, even if selectively.

As part of its strategy to control the extremist religious forces, the Musharraf government had been distancing itself from the Deobandi ulema in the aftermath of the 9/11 events because of their affiliation with the al-Qaeda network. The distance between the government and the Deobandi ulema widened after the failed suicide attacks against General Musharraf. The government had been courting the Brelvi ulema to offset the influence of the other sects and bring in some kind of religious harmony in the country. So much so that the Ulema Convention, held in Islamabad earlier this year, was primarily a Brelvi affair. The idea was that the state patronage of the Brelvi ulema would help the government control the extremist forces.

It is perhaps time to realize that courting one sect to counter another is not a good solution. If it has never worked in the past, how can it be expected to work in the future?

Some recent edicts can be quoted to show that no one sect has a monopoly over issuing fatwas. Shaikh Hamza, the then secretary-general of the Brelvi Jamiat Ulamae Pakistan (JUP), was the only Pakistani religious leader who signed Osama bin Ladin's fatwa of February 1998 that called upon the Muslims to kill the Americans and their allies everywhere. Even the so-called al-Qaeda affiliates in Pakistan had refrained from doing so at that time. And one of the harshest fatwas against General Pervez Musharraf also came from a Brelvi leader, Pir Afzal Qadri of the Almi Tanzeem Ahle Sunnat. Yet one more proof that the only possible solution to the sectarian violence in the country lies in the separation of the functions of state from the mosque.


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Editor: Akhtar M. Faruqui
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