Who are the ‘Real Muslims’? | Pakistan Today

Who are the ‘Real Muslims’?

And will they please stand up already?

Among the most elusive species known to man – a human faction that is nearly only theoretical at this point in time – is the quasi-mythological ‘Real Muslim’.

The ‘Real Muslim’, is an archetype that is frequently mentioned in the aftermath of any act of religious violence, and goes like this: “The attacker wasn’t a real Muslim!” The most recent example is the attack on the Ahmadi house of worship on a day none other than 12 Rabi-ul-Awal itself.

A mob of a thousand to two thousand predominantly Sunni Muslims, launched a frightening assault on the Batul Noor mosque; reportedly angered by the fact the Ahmadi worshipers inside were commemorating the birth of the Holy Prophet (PBUH). It baffles the ordinary mind why a Muslim would ever punish a person for venerating any of the sacred Islamic personalities, but the idea behind the attack is that Ahmadis must not ‘pretend’ to be Muslims, because they’re not.

And neither are the attackers, in the imagination of the moderate, non-violent Muslim. This imagined authority of the educated Muslim in determining unilaterally who’s Muslim or who isn’t, is assumed without any appreciation of the irony of this matter. This is the same thought process that had the Ahmadis excommunicated from the Pakistani circle of Muslimhood in the first place.

It’s certainly understandable that every Islamic school of thought has its own idea of how Islam is best practiced; concerning the priority level of each principle, if it’s even a principle at all. It is not wrong to have an opinion on which series of roads form the best route to God.

But these opinions have value only when the discussion is carried out in a strictly spiritual sense, and not when they are intertwined with real-politik. When your opinion of who a real Muslim is or isn’t, begins impacting the lives of the minorities who are most likely to be voted out and socio-politically isolated – by the unforgiving force of majoritarianism – your ‘opinion’ becomes a tool of oppression.

Possibly even worse, this ‘opinion’ becomes the means of shirking your responsibility towards the perpetuation of a hateful atmosphere, which forms the perfect conditions for the birth of a violent fringe. In this case, the two thousand people who attacked the Ahmadi house of worship with stones, sticks, and even bullets – were practically carrying out the things that many non-violent Pakistani Muslims only theorised in their private conversations at the dinner table.

The Pakistani Muslim is a powerful element in this specific socio-political context. You have the honour of having this country literally named after your religion. You have the privilege of setting the social policies that determine what’s appropriate (saying ‘Assalamualikum’) versus what’s inappropriate (saying ‘Namaste’), based on your cultural-religious preferences.

You have the privilege of having all laws, central or provincial, being fine-tuned to your religious requirements. These include the law that excludes Ahmadis from the definition of being a Muslim in Pakistan, or other laws that make non-Muslims more susceptible to discrimination or violence.

So what does it truly mean when you say, “The attacker is not a real Muslim!”?

In a religious sense, it simply means that the attacker does not follow the ideal that you consider essential in the making of a Muslim – namely, non-violence. In a political sense however, it means that the hate did not come from your side of the political aisle, and is therefore not your responsibility to tackle.

I ought to make it clear that my argument has no value in the context of Western countries, like the United States or the European countries, where Muslims are themselves a minority. These are places where Muslims have limited political power to make a meaningful difference in global efforts against ISIS, Al-Qaeda, female circumcision, forced marriages and so on. They are also much more likely to be oppressed by the dominant non-Muslim factions, than to hurt the “kufar” with their own brands of bigotry.

In the context of Islamic Republics, however, it is the Muslim majority that determines its minorities’ fate – particularly in terms of inter-religious interactions. All Ahmadi, Christian, Hindu, Sikh, Buddhist, and non-religious state officials and law-makers combined, don’t come anywhere close to the number of Muslims harnessing the same kind of politico-legal authority.

Outside the government, it is the Muslim majority that sets the baseline tone in which Ahmadis are to be spoken to. The violent fanatics do not exist as an entity independent of the non-violent Muslim nation; they are the top section of a pyramid whose base is formed by moderate Pakistani Muslims who normalise tableeghis who spout hateful rhetoric against the minorities, and applaud politico-legal acts that prioritise their own religion over the non-Muslims’ needs.

The ‘Real Muslim’, like the ‘Real Scotsman’, does not exist anywhere outside our own subjective imagination of what is ideal. There can never be political consensus on what a ‘real Muslim’ looks or behaves like, though we are free to have our own religious opinion of what the term denotes.

Any political attempt at defining a ‘Real Muslim’ is more likely to jeapordise the rights and equal status of the minority sects and non-mainstream schools of thought, than it is to isolate the violent fringe. You cannot clean the mess through cantankerous denialism, and doubling down on the very behaviour that spawns these self-proclaimed “real Muslims” – those who believe they are entitled to determine the fate of minorities, just as you feel entitled to determine theirs.

Faraz Talat

Faraz Talat is a medical doctor from Rawalpindi and an ardent traveller who writes frequently about science, social politics and international relations.