It’s that time of the year again. Once more, an assemblage of men most had forgotten even existed has decided to come forward and provide advice that was neither sought nor required. The Council of Islamic Ideology (CII) is up to its old tricks, convening prior at the end of 2015 to ponder some of Pakistan’s most urgent and pressing issues. As has been its wont in the past, the CII completely ignored issues related to the violence, deprivation, and injustice confronted by the majority of Pakistanis every day, choosing instead to continue its deliberate targeting of the most vulnerable, marginalized, and disempowered sections of Pakistani society – women and religious minorities. In its patently unhelpful previous contributions to the public discourse in Pakistan, the CII has bloviated on the acceptability of child marriage and the inadmissibility of DNA evidence in rape cases. This time Maulana Sherani, the chairman of the CII, sought to debate the issue of whether or not Ahmadis were non-Muslims of apostates.

One might be forgiven for believing that this particular question had already been settled by the second amendment to the Constitution of 1973, which declared Ahmadis to be non-Muslims. While this is not the place to engage in a discussion of the political circumstances and conditions under which that particular law was passed (other than to point out that it has since then been used to justify a systematic campaign of state-led discrimination against an entire community), it is certainly worth pondering precisely why Maulana Sherani wished to raise this issue again. Here, the distinction between being a non-Muslim and an ‘apostate’ is of crucial importance; some religious conservatives believe that apostasy is a capital crime, and that those who are ‘guilty’ of it can justifiably be executed.

As such, Maulana Sherani’s desire to raise this question once more cannot be seen as a purely innocent exercise in theoretical theology. This was reportedly pointed out by Maulana Tahir Ashrafi, another member of the CII, who argued that debating the Ahmadi issue along these lines would potentially lead to violence across the country. Then, in an interesting turn of events, the CII meeting in which all of this was being discussed descended into chaos as Sherani and Ashrafi engaged in a physical altercation that led to the meeting being adjourned for the near future.

In recent years, the incredulity and anger that greets many of the CII’s pronouncements has tended to be tempered by the observation that, at the end of the day, it is a purely advisory body that lacks the power to actually act on its declarations. While the CII can recommend that the government legalize child marriage, it does not possess the means to make the latter do so. Following from this, some have argued that the best strategy for dealing with the CII is to ignore it, and to focus instead on the more immediate and manifest problems Pakistan faces with regards to religious extremism and militancy.

While it is correct to point out that statements by the CII do not automatically become law, it is important to recognize how the Council and its members play a significant symbolic role in Pakistan today. In addition to being affiliated with a variety of different formal and informal religious organizations and institutions, many CII members are also linked to different political parties. Maulala Sherani himself, for example, represents the JUI-F in the National Assembly. Furthermore, the CII and its members benefit from the fact that they are given a powerful platform from which to spread their thoughts and opinions; indeed, the CII’s meetings and decisions are always given a tremendous amount of press coverage, and it would be reasonable to assume that its message manages to filter through to hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of Pakistanis throughout the year.

The implications of this are clear. Even though the CII may not be able to force the government to act on its recommendations, its institutional position and the attributes of its members ensures that much of what it said can and will be taken seriously but significant numbers of people who look to it, and its leaders, for spiritual guidance. Thus, when the CII claims that child marriage is completely acceptable, the fact that the state does not legislate in accordance with this idea does not prevent individuals in society for taking it to be a valid religious principle. Similarly, had Maulana Sherani and his allies been successful in their attempts to have Ahmadis declared as apostates, it is not unreasonable to assume that such a statement could have instigated violence against the community. After all, when a cleric made precisely this declaration during an episode of Amir Liaquat’s popular television show in December 2014, gunmen used it as justification for shooting an Ahmadi in the village of Bhiri Shah Rehman in Gujranwala district. A government body like the CII supporting such ideas is tantamount to state-sanctioned murder, compounding the misery and oppression of a group that has already suffered tremendously in this country.

People speaking and writing in the public sphere in Pakistan are well aware of the fact that there are some issues and questions that simply cannot be discussed or even raised without inviting the ire of different entrenched, and often violent, segments of the state and society. This is most evident in the case of the blasphemy law, the discussion of which has resulted in the deaths of politicians like Salmaan Taseer and Shahbaz Bhatti, as well as lawyers and activists like Rashid Rahman. The Ahmadi issue is similar, in that it invariably provokes extreme sentiments and emotions that could potentially take a very dangerous turn, with the fight between Maulana Sherani and Maulana Ashrafi simply providing a demonstration of this fact. This does not mean, however, that the issue can be ignored, or that fear of reprisal should prevent standing up for what is right. At a time when shops and other public places openly put up signs barring Ahmadis from entry simply due to their religious beliefs, and in a context where it seems increasingly clear that the government’s stated aim of eliminating religious extremism does not extend to policing the clearly inflammatory hate speech spewed out by sectarian leaders hoping to incite their followers to violence against minority communities, it is more important than ever to fight against the intolerance and bigotry that has spread across this country. While it is fortunate that Maulana Ashrafi’s intervention prevented the CII from saying something that would have almost certainly led to blood being shed, there is a need to remain vigilant against the possibility of this episode being repeated in the future with tragically different results.