Intolerance is the result of self-indulgence, and when religions turn their hack on their founding ideals.

A standard thesaurus list of the syn onyms for "intolerance" would in clude words such as "bigotry", "prejudice", "partiality", "fanaticism", "dogmatism", "racism", "jingoism", "sexism", "bias", "injustice", "umbrage", "discrimination", "high-handedness", "narrow-mindedness", "nepotism", and so on. Each of these terms denotes base characteristics that are antitheses to the development of a just and democratic society.

The history of human civilisation has been a continuous struggle to combat various forms of intolerance in individuals, rulers, groups and nations. The more autocratic a ruler, the less tolerant will the establishment be towards the common people. In reverse, citizens are more tolerant towards each other when their society is democratic. Intolerance is at its height in regimes which cannot stand criticism.

We find that many of the eternal stories of the world, the myths, are based on this residuum of reality. Take Greek mythology, for example. Zeus is portrayed as the supreme deity, the symbol of Power, Rule and Law. He is furious at Prometheus for stealing fire from the gods and giving it to man, and for teaching him many useful arts and sciences. For this rebellious act of imparting knowledge to a lesser being, Prometheus is chained to a mountain and vultures let loose to tear his body into pieces.

At one level this is a fantastic story that shows how a powerful god manifests his wrath towards someone who dares think differently or go against accepted mores. On the other hand, tales like these contain a deeper lesson—they serve as warnings to would-be dissenters. This is why such stories continue to be told, to appease the powerful in society.

History is replete with tragic episodes in which upright people were killed, maimed, exploited or exiled for expressing views contrary to those held by the powerful. The revolutionary preacher to the poor and destitute, Jesus of Nazareth, became a threat to the Roman rulers and their rich Jewish business associates. Together they connived to convict him of blasphemy and had him crucified. The grandson of Prophet Mohammed, Imam Hussain, revered by the Shias of the Muslim world, was killed at Karbala for refusing to recognise the establishment of the first hereditary rule in Islam.

Indeed, most of the world's organised religions had begun as movements for the liberation of the oppressed that is what is at their core. However, with the spread of faith, invariably, religion had to find a way to adjust to the power structures in society. Jockeying for power with the temporal rulers, the religious leadership always found it to its advantage to "co-exist". In return for a place among the ruling clique, the clergy bestowed upon the monarchs the divine authority to rule. On the basis of that strength, the latter went on to impose laws that limited freedom.

In the Islamic world, the rulers made good use of the tenet of blasphemy and fatwa to prevent or deal with dissidence. Nevertheless, there was resistance to religious fanaticism and to the strict religious laws, or the Shariat. This resistance came mainly from the mystics, the Sufi Karam, who had their own way of showing disregard for the laws of the caliphs. They did not directly attack the divine authority of the ruler; rather, they expounded the concept of Wahditul Wajood (Unity of Existence), which, in essence, taught that since Allah creates everyone, all are equal in his eyes implying that no ruler has divine power.

Certainly, the Sufi masters were made to pay for their defiance, and in this, the rulers took the help of the clergy. Thus when Mansur Al Hillaj pronounced his idea of Annul Haq ("I am the Truth"), the rulers grew anxious of his popularity and got the priests to interpret Annul Haq to mean "I am God". Hillaj was condemned to death. Yet another mystic, Sarmad Sarmast, was killed for his proclaiming of La Illa (meaning that there is no god). This was in the era of Mughal Emperor Aurangzeb, the only Muslim ruler of India who tried to impose Islam among the people.

Blasphemy law

It is the greatest of ironies that while religious leaders sought to use religion to reform society and to establish a just and equitable order for all, with the passage of time some of their followers have used their very teachings to create dogmatic states which emphasise differences between peoples and nations. They foment hate. The most evident manifestation of this today is in the former Yugoslavia, where the Christian Serb majority has embarked on a systematic massacre of Muslims

At home, in Pakistan, the average person's acceptance of the other's religion is hardly any better. However, more alarming is the fact that the state itself has been active in persecuting religious minorities. The greatest threat these communities live under is the country's blasphemy laws under which it is easy to charge someone with malafide intentions, or even for mistakes committed inadvertently.

The two main provisions in the laws are:

Section 295-B: (Defiling, etc, of the Qur'an) Whoever wilfully, damages or desecrates a copy of the Holy Qur'an or an extract therefrom or uses it in any derogatory manner or for any unlawful purpose shall be punishable with imprisonment for life.

Section 295-C: (Use of derogatory remarks, etc, in respect of the Holy Prophet) Whoever by words, either spoken or written or visible presentation, or by any imputation, innuendo, or insinuation, directly or indirectly, defiles the sacred name of the Holy Prophet Mohammed (Peace be upon him) shall be punished with death.

It was to protest against these harsh laws that in May 1998, Bishop John Joseph, the well-known human rights activist and the chairman of National Justice and Peace Commission, committed suicide by shooting himself through the head in front of the Sahiwal Session court in Karachi. A day before killing himself, the bishop had sent a fax message to several newspapers stating that:

Section 295-C is the greatest block in the harmonious relationship between Muslims and the religious minority in Pakistan. Once this obstacle is away each Pakistani will live in peace and our beloved Motherland, Pakistan will prosper… i shall consider myself extremely fortunate if in this mission of breaking the barriers, Our Lord accepts the sacrifice of my blood for the benefit of his people.

The tragedy of Pakistan, however, goes further than the bishop's sacrifice of self. Not only is there prejudice against someone else's religions, there is extreme intolerance among the different sects of Islam within the country. The heightening of tensions began with the Islamicisation of Pakistan under Gen Zia-ul Haq. Punitive measures during Gen Zia's rule, such as public hangings, floggings, stoning to death, and chopping of hands, were meant to generate an atmosphere of fear in the country.

It succeeded at that, but in the process destroyed the sensibility and sensitivity of Pakistani citizens and created an environment of mistrust and excessive self-indulgence. It is now a regular feature that sects fight each other, spilling blood in individual or mass killings. Brutal and ruthless regimes can only beget brutality and ruthlessness in society, the extreme forms of intolerance, and Gen Zia's spawned such a situation in Pakistan. It is the country's misfortune that there are so many today who know no other way than to continue on the path he charted.

Wherever and whenever intolerance raises its head, it has always been at the instance of some organised agency or the other. Undemocratic governments and autocratic political parties, to maintain their hold on power, create conditions conducive to disruption and division in society. Thus goaded on, people who are 'ordinary' in normal situations, behave abnormally and atavistically.

Which is why we see a parallel to Pakistan's experience in nearby India, where the coming to power of the Hindu rightist Bharatiya Janata Party has been accompanied by growing intolerance towards other religious faiths. The beginning of the new year saw Hindu extremists attacking churches and Christian missionaries. That the targetting of Christians comes after more than a decade-long campaign against Muslims by these very forces, which included the destruction of the 500-year-old Babri Masjid in 1992, points to a systematic propagation of the ideology of hate

Religious intolerance in South Asia has its modern roots in the British colonial strategy of "divide and rule", whereby the indigenous population was divided into several groups, while the coloniser, remained a single entity. However, not all the ills of our region can be blamed on the British colonisers. Intolerance towards others existed long before the first European set foot on the Subcontinent—in the form of racism.

For millennia, the deep-rooted caste system, based on the wholly irrational premise of superior' and 'inferior' races not unlike that practised by Hitler, ensured the tyranny of the privileged few over the majority 'low castes'. Later, with the spread of other religions in the Subcontinent, this prejudice found wider application among the two main religious groups, Hindus and Muslims. Muslims were the unclean' for the Hindus, and Hindus the unbelievers' for the Muslims—creating its own cycle of hate. Its final legacy has been the half a century of war-like tension between India and Pakistan.

Today, tragically, the two countries have internalised the animosity that earlier was limited to sabre-rattling between the two governments. Today, the swords are unsheathed within each country, community against community.

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