Why do Pakistani lawyers want to ban the country’s favourite soft drink? (A clue: it’s 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.”Tagged in: ahmedi, Pakistan, shezan
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