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Old Saturday, April 13, 2013
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Default Last Word: Tahir Ashrafi(Interview) "NEWSWEEK"

The conciliatory cleric on sectarian and religious violence, politics, and more. Excerpts:

Afghanistan’s media recently accused you of defending suicide attacks. What’s the real story?

Killing any innocent is completely unacceptable. My statements were taken out of context. Afghanistan’s media has been running a campaign against me since the All Pakistan Ulema Council declined to attend the Kabul Ulema Conference because they changed the agenda we had earlier agreed upon. Sometimes they say I am a stooge of [Army chief] Gen. Ashfaq Kayani or a relative of [ISI chief] Gen. Zaheer-ul-Islam, other times they say I am a puppet of America or Saudi Arabia. We support the cause of peace in Afghanistan wholeheartedly and are ready to help, but it is not my place to declare Hamid Karzai a saint and Mullah Omar a rebel, as they wanted me to. Afghan groups must lead the peace process themselves.

When does the violence against Pakistan’s religious minorities come to an end?

It will not stop until the authorities act against criminals. Had Rimsha Masih’s accusers been brought to justice, the rampage at Joseph Colony would not have happened. We worked very hard to make an example out of Rimsha’s case. For the first time since 1985, charges were withdrawn in a blasphemy case. That’s success. But despite our ongoing efforts, her accusers remain free. With Joseph Colony, the authorities have been more helpful, but I doubt the perpetrators will be brought to justice. The powers that be just don’t seem interested enough. We held a moot on interfaith harmony on March 20 which was attended by all major political parties and minority groups. And in addition to providing on-the-ground relief to the victims of Joseph Colony, we have formed a committee with the Christian community and religious scholars. It has agreed to monitor blasphemy-related violence and to help prevent misuse of the blasphemy laws instead of demanding these be amended.

The blasphemy laws should not be amended?

I have no doubt about that. Pakistan is not a progressive, secular, and tolerant society like Indonesia or Malaysia. People accused of blasphemy would get killed here every day if the laws didn’t allow authorities to intervene. The debate should not be about the laws, but about how investigations can be made foolproof so innocent people aren’t falsely charged. The accuser’s motives should be investigated. Blasphemy is a sin, but only a court of law can decide when it is a crime. It is nobody’s business to take the law into his own hands, Islam does not permit that. My religion teaches me not to allow it to be used to justify acts that will give it a bad name. I spoke up against the killings of Gov. Salmaan Taseer and Shahbaz Bhatti, against the attack on Malala Yousafzai, and will continue speaking up wherever I see injustice.

How much is the state to blame for sectarianism?

It needs to play its part in punishing those responsible. However, I think our Shia-Sunni problem is less our own and more coming from outside of Pakistan. It is true that Pakistanis carry out these attacks, but I feel they are being supported by foreign powers. We need to think for ourselves and not get involved in wars that are not our own, even if our brotherly countries are involved. The Ulema Council wishes to make peace; I even went to visit [Lashkar-e-Jhangvi’s] Malik Ishaq in jail to bring him onto our path. I have had no contact with him for over 14 months since he made that controversial speech in Sindh. I also met with the leaders of Sipah-e-Sahaba to discuss the possibility of uniting. But sadly, everyone has his own definition of peace.

What’s your take on the upcoming elections, and who will you vote for?

The elections will take place on time. I think Muttahida Qaumi Movement is good because their people come from the grassroots. I like Imran Khan’s views and slogans. But if he is so confident that whoever he gives a ticket to will win, what’s the need to corral so-called electables? Voters must realize the urgency to elect those who will fight the forces of extremism. The Ulema Council plans to contest the 2018 elections. It is our wish to create a state like the Medina of olden times—a state where Muslims and non-Muslims both are safe, where the rich and poor equally respect the law, and there is justice for all.

Newsweek
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