Why do Pakistani lawyers want to ban the country’s favourite soft drink? (A clue: it’s made by minorities)

Andrew Buncombe

1 shezan mango juice 250x300 Why do Pakistani lawyers want to ban the countrys favourite soft drink? (A clue: its made by minorities)

Generations of Pakistanis have grown up reaching out for the sweet and easy pleasures of Shezan soft drinks. Over five decades the company has cemented its reputation as a supplier not just to high street shops, but to hotels, airlines and the country’s armed forces.

But not everyone approves of Shezan. An increasingly vitriolic campaign led by religious conservatives who say the founders of the company belong to an “outlawed” Muslim sect, has urged people to boycott the brand. Shop owners have been threatened, deliverymen attacked.

In recent weeks, this campaign has taken a depressing new twist, with both lawyers and university students voting to boycott Shezan’s products simply because the company was founded by Ahmedi Muslims.

“This is not new. We been facing this problem for many years,” Waseem Mahmood, the company’s marketing director, told me last week over tea in an Islamabad hotel. “Whenever there is a campaign against the Ahmedi community, the Shezan company is the first victim.”

The company was founded in 1964 and since grown to be an industry leader in producing everything from juices and soft drinks to jams and ketchups. (The Karachi-based chef Poppy Agha tweeted recently that it produced the best ketchup around.) Along the way, said Mr Mahmood, the company had claimed several achievements, including being the first producer of a vibrantly-coloured mango drink – still a favourite with Pakistani children – and becoming the largest grower of mangoes in Pakistan. The company, which went public in 1988, today has more than 1,000 employees. Around 25 per cent are Ahmedis.

The campaign against Shezan has existed for several years, with activists distributing leaflets and stickers urging people not to buy the products. Recently, alongside demonstrations against the Amhedis that included a protest last month outside a mosque in Rawalpindi, the campaign has taken a more sinister turn. “In Peshawar, three or four months back, six shops were destroyed,” said Mr Mahmood. “They hit the salesmen traveling in the [company] van.”

The latest incidents have taken place in Punjab where members of the Lahore Bar Association (LBA) and students at the University of the Punjab have voted to boycott the products. Chaudhry Zulfiqar Ali, president of the LBA, whose members were involved in the 2008 campaign to restore the country’s ousted Chief Justice, said the boycott had been proposed by a religious faction within the association, known as the Khatm-i-Nabuwwat Lawyers’ Forum, and would shortly be voted on by the organsisation’s full membership.

Asked why some members wanted to ban the drinks, Mr Ali failed to answer, but he said: “[The foreign media] is never concerned about the plight of 150m Muslims, but now you are [concerned] about the little boycott of a bottle?”

A report by the Press Trust of India suggested that the move to ban the company’s products on the University of Punjab campus may be the result of the presence of the Islami Jamiat Tulba, the student wing of the conservative religious group Jamaat-e-Islami. A spokesman for the university’s vice chancellor, Prof Mujahid Kamran, said the authorities were unaware of any such ban. “When this administration took charge in January 2008, Coca Cola, Pepsi Cola and other drinks of multi-national companies were indeed “banned” by a so called student outfit,” said the spokesman. “However we were able to break this “ban” and these drinks are now easily available on campus.”

The Ahmedis, a revivalist movement founded in the 19th Century by Mirza Ghulam Ahmad, have long faced persecution in Pakistan and were declared non-Muslims by the parliament in 1974, while Zulfikar Ali Bhutto was prime minister. In May 2010, more than 85 Ahmedis were killed in bomb attacks on two Lahore mosques.

Some observers say the involvement of lawyers in the campaign against the Ahmedis, highlights the extent to which religious conservatism has spread within Pakistan’s educated and largely urban middle class. Pervez Hoodbhoy, an academic and commentator from Lahore, told me: “A generation ago this would have been inconceivable. Today, everything is viewed from the aspect of religion. It’s a very unhealthy direction that Pakistan’s society is taking.”

The move against Shezan and the Ahmedi community has triggered protests from liberals. In an article, Saroop Ijaz, a Lahore-based lawyer, recently wrote: “The Ahmedi question is becoming the real test of fighting oppression and tyranny in Pakistan. The cavalier manner in which bigoted, hateful and malicious remarks can be made against the Ahmedis and go unchallenged is unbelievable and unimaginable in regards to any other community.”

Asma Jahangir, a leading Pakistani lawyer who is currently president of the Supreme Court Bar Association, said the proposed boycott was “deplorable and ridiculous”.

Meanwhile, the Karachi-based writer Bina Shah, said in an email that Shezan products had been ubiquitous in her house while she was growing up. “They also operated two famous cafes in Karachi – Shezan Cafe, where the hipsters of the time would hang out and drink coffee, cold coffee and eat sandwiches, and Ampy’s, where I remember going as a little girl to birthday parties held by the owner’s son, who was in my class at school,” she said. “If a certain food or drink should be banned because it’s made by people supposed to be non-Muslim, Pakistanis should never eat or drink anything when they travel abroad to non-Muslim countries.”

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  • And789

    How can someone who murders people in a gas chamber be a Christian? It goes against all Christian teaching.

    They may have been baptised into various Christian denominations when they were babies, they may have even been taken to church by their parents, but when they accepted the Nazi ideology of hate, they affectively renounced their religion, whether they realised it or not.

  • Raphael Aurelio

    I agree with you. The nazis by their actions did not adhere to the teachings of Jesus. However, christains have demonised the Jews and have persecuted them for centuries. Even now the american bible belt support Israel not for the love of the jews but for the belief that Jesus will return to the temple mount and convert the heathens including the jews to christianity. Hence by the same coin the mullah nutters in the garb of a Muslim appearance are about as Muslim as the Nazis were christian. Muslims like me have nothing to do with these fascist evil pretend look a like muslim but are NOT muslim entities. (This is in reply to And789 reply to my post but I can’t seem to post below. Sorry)

  • And789

    We are in agreement:-)

  • Pagal Sa

    ok heres the thing mirza ahmed claimed he was jesus re incarnated tht is why ahmadis are none muslim because he said he was a prophet, secondly shean converts poor ppl to this scewed biliefe tht mirza ahmed was jesus, my cousin was offered to be paid twice as much monthly if he converted to ahmadi religion tht is why ppl r speaking up agaisnt them, ahmadias despite being a minority have taken over the government in pakistan, they buy politicians with the profits of the business and appoint burorcrats of there religion in high office using money earned from these businesses tha is why ppl r clling for a boycot

  • Mohammad Ilahi

    Gimme 1 proof of what you just uttered..As far as your cousin is concerned dont tell us about story tellers!!!

  • 1BDI

    Well, his father supplied several horsemen to the British war effort, so his family was on the winning side.
    He made his name as a debater in his later years debating missionaries, and was quite friendly with them. That gained him much credibility, especially since the old scholars had no biblical knowledge and were forever playing defence. Then he lost very badly and publicly to said missionary. It was a traumatic event for a community still coming to terms with defeat, massacre and relegation. Whether the trauma of the event set off Ahmad’s messianism, or whether it was something cooked-up by colonial authorities is a matter of speculation.

  • 1BDI

    Credible religious leaders don’t cosy up to regimes of occupation.

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