December Issue 2015

By | People | Q & A | Published 8 years ago

Mufti Muhammad Naeem is the chancellor of the Karachi-based Jamia Binoria, one of the largest seminaries of the Sunni Deobandi school of thought in Pakistan — which forms the essence of extremist and sectarian Islamist  ideology. 

In this interview with Newsline, Mufti Naeem discusses the National Action Plan (NAP) and how it has affected religious seminaries; his support for the alliance led by the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) in the upcoming local bodies polls in Karachi, and the alleged involvement of the Jamia Binoria and its faculty members in the multi-billion rupee Modaraba scam. 

You have recently returned from a meeting of the Wifaqul Madaris Al Arabia, the board of Deobandi religious seminaries in Pakistan. Did this meeting have any particular agenda?

It was a meeting of the executive committee of the Wifaq. The committee has 30 members from seminaries across the country associated with the Wifaq, and I am one of its members. Veteran religious scholars associated with the Wifaq also attended the meeting, which was called to discuss the overall situation regarding religious seminaries in Pakistan. We spoke about how these seminaries have been bullied by the law-enforcement agencies and discussed at every forum. It seems like the National Action Plan (NAP) only has a one-point agenda: to target religious seminaries and personalities associated with them, and I think this is a foreign agenda. The prime minister’s recent statement about making Pakistan a liberal country has proved this impression is right.

How has the NAP caused problems for the religious seminaries?

It hasn’t caused problems; it has devastated them in different ways. Just in the Punjab, the names of 500 ulema have been placed under  the 4th schedule of the Anti-Terrorism Act (ATA), and 2,300 of them have been detained and have gone missing for the last four or five months. When the moratorium on the death penalty was lifted, they started by hanging people associated with religious groups. We do not say that these people should not be hanged if they are convicted, but why has the death penalty only been applied to those from religious groups, or those convicted in religious disputes? People linked to political parties and charged with murder are not dealt with in the same way. Except for Saulat Mirza, whose case engendered much hype, none of the political parties’ affiliates have been sentenced to death, despite charges by the law-enforcement agencies about their involvement in murders. Thousands of people associated with one political party were detained, but most of them are now back home and even participating in the local bodies’ elections. Sara topi drama hai. [This is all a farce].

So because of NAP’s focus on only the religious organisations, we decided at the Wifaq meeting that an all-Pakistan congregation of seminaries and religious parties will meet on March 20 next year.

The Jamia Binoria is known for its high number of foreign students from across the globe, including the United States, assorted European countries and the Central Asian states.

Does this enrolment trend continue?

No, a lot has changed in these past few years. Due to denials of visas, complications for students vis-a-vis acquiring other related documents, and strict security measures laid down for students coming from other countries, most of them prefer to go to India now. The irony is that India, a secular country, has eased the visa process. I have heard that students from abroad travelling there for enrolment in Indian seminaries are actually offered visas on arrival. Special counters have even been established for them at Indian airports. Three hundred thousand students from other countries are currently studying there.

Has foreign funding for local seminaries been affected by this? 

Why is there always a fuss about the funding of seminaries; why don’t you question the funding of the non-governmental organisations (NGOs)? Why have those jihadi groups with unlimited resources not been questioned? And shouldn’t you ask political parties, which spend billions on their meetings and functions, where their money is coming from? One political party spent a sum on its local bodies campaign that equals the combined annual expenditure of all the seminaries across Pakistan. Shouldn’t there be questions about this spending?

Do you concede that many people involved in terrorism have been associated with religious seminaries? Aren’t most jihadi leaders and their devout supporters graduates of these seminaries?

Linking religious seminaries to terrorism is absurd and fallacious. What does a seminary have to do with terrorism? If there is any connection, it should be revealed. It was General Zia-ul-Haq who promoted jihad, and so centres to train militants were established here. People with religious zeal went to get training at these centres and participated in the jihad in Afghanistan and Kashmir. Then another general came and declared that the same people who had fought these wars — with the military’s consent — were terrorists.

You made them ‘mujahids,’ and then you declared them terrorists. What do religious seminaries have to do with that? And if mullahs and jihadis are accused of terrorism, how come the generals and facilitators of the jihadis have been absolved? How are  they lesser criminals than the mullahs and jihadis?

Look at the country’s public sector universities — they also have people involved in terrorism and violent crimes. Are they less involved in criminal activities than those in seminaries?

Now, in the name of the National Action Plan, the creations of the state’s own jihadi enterprise are being detained and killed, but the creators go scot-free. Then there is the leadership of these jihadi organisations, who are taken care of by the intelligence agencies and are at large. Name any jihadi organisation, and I will tell you about their leadership —those who are enjoying perks and luxuries, while their affiliates at lower levels have been caught, put behind bars and many of them have even been killed.

Let me warn all those acting against religious seminaries that they have not succeeded; in fact, they have failed miserably. We are still here to defend these institutions.

How could assorted generals have been allowed to manipulate members of religious groups for their own objectives as you keep claiming? Don’t you think those who kept falling into this trap share the blame?

Religious circles are not all the same. There are people in their ranks who are used by the state to promote jihadi enterprises, and are provided with all the resources necessary, such as money and land cruisers etc. These jihadi leaders incite others to fight for the ‘Holy Cause,’ citing references — often erroneously — from medieval texts and the glories of past Islamic history to spur them on. But they will not go for jihad themselves.

What I have criticised is the way the authorities  kill people with alleged links to jihadis in fake encounters, and conveniently label them Taliban or Lashkar-e-Jhangvi affiliates. This is unjust. I am not saying that those taken down were not guilty, but if you eliminate them like this, it will pave the way for more people to join their ranks.

Don’t they remember what happened in East Pakistan, how their atrocities resulted in the break-up of the country?

A few months ago, you were criticised for taking a stand in support of rocker-turned-televangelist Junaid Jamshed. It is said you were selective in your response to charges of blasphemy when they were levelled against Junaid Jamshed.

What Junaid Jamshed did was use objectionable language. He made some reckless comments against Hazrat Ayesha (RA), the wife and companion of the Prophet (PBUH), which can be termed as tauheen-e-Sahaba(insulting the Prophet’s companions). I supported him because what he said was unintentional, and he has apologised for his blunder.

In that case what about that poor Christian mother of two children, Asia Bibi, who was also accused of blasphemy? Don’t you think it is unjust that an illiterate, non-Muslim woman, who has no knowledge of the Islamic reverence for the Prophet (PBUH), is charged with an offence which can result in her execution?  

Yes, she can be forgiven, but I am not aware of the details of her case. If I am briefed about the background of the case, and I am convinced she is innocent, I assure you, I will support her.

It is alleged the Jamia Binoria has been involved in the forced conversion of Hindu and Christian girls. There have been several complaints from minority groups about the kidnapping of girls and their conversion. To add insult to injury, some of these girls are already married according to their own religious traditions and cultures. How do you respond to such charges?

We do not get involved in cases of conversion, except for those when girls approach us and express a desire to embrace Islam of their own accord. If they are unmarried and want to study here in the seminary, we keep them in our residential facilities for girls. But we do not provide shelter to married girls, or those who have converted in order to marry a Muslim boy.

Social media was recently abuzz with your expression of support for the Profile For Peace initiative launched by people on both sides of the India-Pakistan border. Pictures of you with placards carrying the text `I am a Pakistani, I don’t hate India, I am not alone,’ accompanied by your students, were posted on the Jamia Binoria Facebook page. Is this part of the age-old Deobandi soft stance on India, or does this owe to something else?

I thought any sane person would understand that we have achieved nothing from fighting three wars, from almost seven decades of enmity. So I believe people from both countries should come closer. After all, there are scores of families who are split between the two states, and are at the receiving end of the hostile environment. I am against the Indian state and government, but the people of India have nothing to do with that.

Recently, some religious groups in Karachi, especially those from the Deobandi school of thought, members of the Tableeghi Jamaat and those associated with various seminaries, were hit by reports of a financial scam involving them and Modaraba companies. Your seminary was, in fact, in the forefront of this business. Reportedly virtually every member of your institution has invested his/her own money in such schemes, or taken money from others to invest in those companies. Resultantly, hundreds of people in Karachi have been deprived of billions of rupees. Would you coment?

Let me clarify this. The Modaraba business was run by people who were not associated with the Jamia Binoria for the last seven or eight years. When this scandal broke, we called all Karachi’s ulema here. In 2012, we had already pasted written clarifications on all three gates of the seminary and run an ad campaign in the newspapers that clearly stated the Jamia Binoria had nothing to do with this business. I also took written affidavits from the academic staff that they would not invest other peoples’ money in such businesses. If they wanted to invest their own money however, we had nothing to do with that.

The central character behind this scam, Shafeeq ur Rehman, has come out on bail. You can ask him if I had invested in his business. The propaganda against me and Jamia Binoria is led by a single Urdu local newspaper, which probably has its own ulterior motives in this affair. If I had been involved, I would have been investigated by many agencies looking into this scam.

What is the rationale behind pledging support to PPP candidates in the local government polls?

Local bodies are for resolving problems faced by people regarding things like roads, infrastructure, the provision of public utilities, etc. They have not been given a mandate to amend the constitution or make laws. Since the PPP is in the provincial government and in a position to get funds allocated for development, we pledge our support to them with the hope that they will get these issues resolved. These are local bodies’ polls, not a war between good and evil!


This interview was originally published in Newsline’s December 2015 issue.

Ali Arqam main domain is Karachi: Its politics, security and law and order