Rabia Mehmood analyses how Tahir Ashrafi, Prime Minister Imran Khan’s newly-appointed Special Representative on religious harmony, has been involved in peddling religious disharmony in the country.
Every time Maulana Hafiz Tahir Mahmood Ashrafi is mentioned on social media, progressive users remind everyone of his infamous photo with a garlanded Malik Ishaq of Lashkar-e-Jhangvi sandwiched between him and Muhammad Ahmed Ludhianvi of Ahl-e-Sunnat Wal Jammat. This historic photo was taken on the day of Ishaq’s release from prison after fourteen years and is still shared widely. That photo is a moment that I witnessed in person and recall vividly the humid day in July 2011. I was reporting on Ishaq’s release, and saw Ashrafi, a prominent Deobandi cleric for the first time there.
Outside Kot Lakhpat Jail in Lahore, there was a jubilant commotion that day. Supporters of ASWJ who never even pretended to hide the fact that they were actually the banned anti-Shia politico-religious party Sipah-e-Sahaba Pakistan (SSP), distributed sweets, threw flower petals at their leader, waved party flags and chanted slogans. Hyper-alert armed guards who appeared as the trained fighters of SSP or rather Lashkar-e-Jhangvi, were part of the convoy that drove off the very toothy Ishaq, Ashrafi and Ludhianvi once they were done posing for cameras.
Ashrafi’s role in ‘mainstreaming’ Malik Ishaq
Ashrafi, a former member of SSP himself, would forever be the guy who received one of Pakistan’s most notorious militants, inciter and organizer of violence against the Shias of the country. He was given the job to “mainstream” Malik Ishaq by powerful quarters. Later, Ishaq was also seen on the stage, at a Defence of Pakistan Council rally in Multan. This council was a joint venture of religious organizations and parties varying from extremely conservative to militant i.e. Jamat-e-Islami, Jamat-ud-Dawa, ASWJ (SSP) to name a few. Malik Ishaq joined ASWJ for a while, but after being sub-jailed at his home, multiple detentions and facing travel restrictions, which he violated continuously to incite hate and violence, he was eventually killed extrajudicially with his sons, close aides from LeJ Ghulam Rasool Shah and other alleged members of LeJ.
Ashrafi, however, continued to thrive. Besides, his relationship with the establishment is not a secret. He was also an advisor to the government during General Musharraf’s era.
In 2012, Ashrafi played a strategic role in saving the Pakistani state from intense embarrassment by coming out as a moderate cleric during the Rimsha Masih case. Rimsha, a Christian minor was arrested on false charges of blasphemy. The far-right’s uproar against her needed to be countered, and Ashrafi as the head of the Pakistan Ulema Council did a press conference in her support. Multiple foreign press outlets quoted him asking for an impartial probe into her case. The crisis was handled, and fortunately for Rimsha, she was allowed to flee Pakistan. Ashrafi wrote his first of four op-eds in an English daily, arguing against the misuse of blasphemy laws, which momentarily melted even the most liberal of hearts. My Facebook friends widely shared his articles. Everyone conveniently forgot his relationship with sectarian militants. But as a society, we did not even come close to making any progress in the conversation about repealing or amending the draconian blasphemy laws.
Ashrafi was undoubtedly very popular and went on to appear frequently on TV. To a degree, extremism watchers remained soft for a maulana who was willing to let his byline be attached to an op-ed on blasphemy laws, was fond of imbibing and could schmooze with foreign diplomats.
In a previous assignment, we also had to let diplomats pick our brains on human rights abuses in Pakistan. Once, a group of visiting state department officials working specifically on freedom of religion brought up Ashrafi as a beacon of moderate hope and someone they could talk to. Ashrafi’s views about Ahmadis was news to them.
Pakistan’s Ahmadi question
Ahmadi hatred is a litmus test for most Pakistanis’ tolerance; it can turn the softest of clerics into die-hard defendants of the “right” version of Islam.
Hassan Muawiya, Ashrafi’s brother, has long been involved in targeted campaigns against the country’s Ahmadis. He has been behind a string of blasphmey cases targeting Ahmadis in the name of ‘inter-faith harmony’. In a previous interview he had told me, “the Qadiyani faith provokes us and there is evidence that they want Pakistan to become part of India.” An absurd claim, considering Ahmadis actively supported Jinnah’s call for Pakistan in 1947. In addition to running smear campaigns against the community on college and university campuses, since at least 2013, Muawiya is also associated with Khatm-e-Nabuwwat (finality of Prophethood) lawyers forum.
A few years back, at a roundtable for religiously motivated violence, Ashrafi while performing his moderate maulana role, insisted that Ahmadis were a problem. He has never wavered from his position on the Pakistan’s most discriminated against religious minority, supports multiple chapters of the Khatm-e-Nabuwwat council which is synonymous with persecution of Ahmadis. His engagement with this cause is public and well-established.
Ashrafi now also leads the Muttahida Ulema Board in Punjab, an influential group of religious scholars which recommended a ban on sacrilegious literature to the relevant authorities. The board is behind the ban on dozens of publications of the Ahmadi community which were published for its own consumption. Banning Ahmadi literature and shutting down their printing press had also been a long-time dream of the Khatm-e-Nabuwwat Council. The ban was put in place to protect sentiments of the majority. A YouTube account linked with his official social media accounts, set up on April 2, 2020 begins with an anti-Ahmadi video message from Ashrafi. He advocated against inclusion of Ahmadis in the National Commission for Minorities (NCM). On April 30, 2020, he published a video message thanking the current prime minister, an assorted gang of politicians and clerics for excluding Ahmadis from the NCM.
Instructing his followers to take the legal route of religion based discriminatory laws, in a video message on July 3 this year, Ashrafi insists that any insult to the revered figures of Islam must be addressed via a police case, and offers to intervene if the FIR application is not taken up by the police. On his Twitter, he also welcomed FIRs filed against Shia speakers during Muharram. To foster religious harmony, the best Pakistan can do is to appoint a careerist cleric who has been trying to reinvent himself? Did the prime minister fall for Ashrafi’s views against obscenity and selective interpretation of religious tolerance which sustains the discriminatory status quo of majoritarian religion in the country or does he simply fully agree with Ashrafi?
If his appointment as a Special Representative is an attempt at appeasing the Saudi monarchy and Ashrafi’s current favorite MBS, how is this appointment beneficial to Pakistan which has long suffered due to violent intrusion of KSA in the matters of Pakistanis’ understanding and practice of their faith?
Tahir Ashrafi is the antithesis of ‘religious harmony’
As a conservative religious scholar, with an occasionally right message which could get the state out of a fix, he continues to use his influence and power to put members of a marginalized minority at risk. Regardless of his speeches and advocacy against sectarianism, the narrative Ashrafi & Co subscribe to and disseminate will put the onus of harmony among minority sects and how politely their members behave towards followers of majoritarian Sunni Islam.
Such supremacists aggressively hog all the public space to stay relevant and politicians like Khan, suffering from narrowness of imagination, continue to increase their societal influence.
The writer is an independent researcher and journalist. Her work focuses on social justice and human rights. Rabia is a former South Asia researcher for Amnesty International and the IWMF’s 2010 Elizabeth Neuffer Fellow at MIT. She tweets at @rabail26.