Battle for the SOUL of Pakistan

There is no consensus on what actually the soul of Pakistan is. What, indeed, is the soul of Pakistan?
Arshi Saleem Hashmi Islamabad

Struggling to grab some space in the politics of a newly independent Muslim nation-state till early 1970s, Pakistan's religious groups have become a well-armed and well-financed force in the last 30 years that wield considerable influence within different branches of government and other institutions. Religious groups have benefited from the patronage of successive regimes, which have viewed them as useful tools in perpetuating the control over foreign and domestic policy. There worldview is incompatible with the vision of a modern Pakistan. The violent vigilantism of some Islamists has become a serious threat to its civil society and has promoted violent extremism. 

These groups have the potential to disrupt not only domestic politics but the conduct of foreign policy since they operate outside the framework of the rule of law. Any drastic change of stance on Kashmir or Afghanistan by the government would surely face protests leading to disturbance by the so called Islamic political parties claiming to be representing people. Interestingly, when it comes to voting, they have never garnered more than 2 per cent votes in the national election. This shows that while people do respect their religion, they do not want to see the religious groups as their representatives in Parliament. 

It is also true that currently the military as an institution has zero tolerance towards the extremists but one cannot deny the fact that a generation of officers indoctrinated by the narrow interpretation of Islam under the Zia regime has been sympathetic towards the extremists. The retired high profile still dream about the 'unfinished' agenda of the 'Afghan jihad' -- thus ruining any attempt by the State to strengthen the shift in policy vis-à-vis Kashmir or Afghanistan.

Unfortunately, Pakistani society is on a collision course with itself. The tagline frequently used in media to describe the political and social situation in Pakistan -- 'Battle for Pakistan's Soul' -- does not surprise people here. It is not clear - so where and what is this battle? Who is going to fight it? How will it be fought? 

Interestingly, there is no consensus on what actually the soul of Pakistan is. What, indeed, is this soul of Pakistan?

Pakistan's efforts to create homogeneous social opinion on important issues has failed and ended up confusing the masses. And if the growing gulf between State and society cannot be bridged, this confusion will only grow in the future.

When Pakistan came into being in 1947, it was dubbed by some as "the Islamic State experiment"; others, including Jinnah, described it as a Muslim State for the Muslim community of India. Now, 60 plus years later, the country is locked in a battle to define what brand of Islam it should follow, and just how 'pure' Pakistan should be. 

Questions like what to say and how to express views on anything related to religion is deeply dividing the country. Moderates are defending freedom of expression/religion and women's rights, and arguing that society should not interfere in personal matters. Social conservatives, such as the pro-Taliban, want to impose the death penalty for adultery, rape, blasphemy, and lashes for fornicators and drunks. Many see it as a battle between the liberal and conservatives, rich and poor, commoners and elites.

Either way, it is tearing the nation apart, becoming bloodier day by day. 

Radicalisation in Pakistan is unique. It is not a simple phenomenon that may be measured through support for or disapproval of violent actions. For instance, despite the low support for Al Qaeda and Taliban, Pakistan faces an unprecedented and devastating wave of terrorism, which far exceeds anything confronting other Muslim countries such as Egypt, Indonesia, Nigeria and Jordan. Despite popular opposition to terrorism, why is Pakistan marred with so much violence?  

The answer lies in the fact that segments in Pakistani society may be against violence, but not necessarily against the agenda of extremists. Extremism is tied up with long-standing militant networks and State patronage.  Radicalisation and terrorism have a cause-and-effect relationship; the challenge cannot be overcome without weakening this bond. 

There is much hue and cry about the world not really trying to understand our situation, while we are not realising that no serious attempt has ever been made to understand why people are turning into extremists and terrorists. There is lack of an open discourse on whether Shariah should be imposed in Pakistan and in what shape and form? Would the Deobandis, Braelvis, Ahle-Hadith and Shiites agree on a uniform system based on Shariah?  

A question always being discussed with no answer is that if religious extremism is a manifestation of poverty and economic circumstances, would providing better modern education to children solve the problem? Is accommodation better than confrontation? Is there any hope that religious extremists could be co-opted back into mainstream politics so that their grievances are addressed through a political process rather than extra-legal means? 

The key to any solution to Pakistan's problems is an open discourse on the role of religion and politics in society. Tolerance of diverse viewpoints is important, while the State's patronage to a sect against others complicates the situation. 

Jinnah envisioned Pakistan not as a place for the 'ingathering' of all Muslims from distant lands the way Israel sees itself in respect to the Jews, but as a place where Muslims of the subcontinent could feel safe, economically and politically. It has clear geographical limits; not what today's Islamists desire -- to make Pakistan a political center for Muslims all over. The most quoted speech of what Jinnah had in mind for Pakistan is when he stated on August 11, 1948:

"You are free to go to your temples; you are free to go to your mosques or to any other place of worship in this state of Pakistan. You may belong to any religion or caste or creed, that has nothing to do with the business of the State.''  

In contrast to what Jinnah suggested, an entirely different interpretation of the idea of Pakistan has taken hold. Religion has penetrated domestic/foreign policy; cultural, social, personal issues. It has become the business of the State.

Intolerance of the kind that would execute a Christian for not being polite about Islam took a quantum jump under the regime of Zia-ul-Haq who wanted to use Islam to bind fractious Pakistan together and in doing so legitimise his illegitimate dictatorship. Today, it is not just other religions that are under assault in Pakistan. Within Islam, followers are not sure who would attack them for not obeying their version of Islam.

Winston Churchill, in June 1921, warned in the House of Commons that emerging out of the deserts of Nejd was a form of religion of exceeding austerity. And what they practice themselves, they rigorously enforce on others. They hold it as an article of duty, as well as faith, to kill all who do not share their opinion. 

Churchill's warning 90 years ago has taken an ugly shape in today's Pakistan. It can well describe Salman Taseer's assassin (though he belongs to the Braelvi school of thought, till now a more tolerant version, now maligned with extremist thoughts), or the forces of religious extremism that are now tearing Pakistan apart. Churchill could not have foreseen the Wahabis' capture of Mecca, the birth of Saudi Arabia, or the great transfer of petro-dollars from the West that would finance religious schools throughout Pakistan, helping the US in the Afghan jihad against the Soviets and indoctrinating Pakistani students which is so different from the home-grown Islam of the Indus Valley civilisation.

Pakistan's self-characterisation as an Islamic ideological State is unlikely to change in the near future. The population remains fractured by ethnic/ linguistic differences, with Islam being politically used as the common bond in an attempt to achieve unity. The linguistic/ethnic divide is already replaced by sectarian divides, thus creating divisions based on religion. 

It is true that most Pakistanis still reject fanaticism, but extremist ideologues have for the time being won the battle by forcing the majority of moderates to keep silence on any issue concerning re-interpretation of Islamic laws that are part of the Constitution and have helped the religious groups to maintain status quo. The extremists are winning the battle not because the majority has accepted their intolerant interpretation of Islam, but because the moderates have stopped challenging the extremists. 

The writer is Senior Analyst, Institute of Regional Studies, Islamabad, Pakistan

This story is from the print issue of Hardnews: FEBRUARY 2011