By Nadeem F Paracha
Good news: Only 10 per cent Pakistanis recently surveyed by a leading US research group have any liking for the Taliban. What’s more, a mere nine per cent exhibited sympathy for Al Qaeda. So, does this mean that we are finally moving towards being a more rational, humanist, tolerant and moderate society?
Hold your horses. Or shall I say camels. Because the same survey finds broad support for harsh punishments: 78 per cent favour death for those who leave Islam; 80 per cent favour whippings and cutting off hands for crimes like theft and robbery; and 83 per cent favour stoning adulterers to death.
Now, if such overwhelming numbers of Pakistanis have such brutal ideas about crime and punishment, one wonders exactly what is it about beasts like the Taliban and Al Qaeda that Pakistanis don’t like. Why would a Pakistani support death (by stoning) of an adulterer and similar punishment for apostates, but dislike the Taliban?
After all, it is the Taliban (and their many hoarse apologists in the media and the religious parties) who are our best bet to implement the brutality based on ancient Bedouin tribal customs that were later added by jurists to Islamic law. Isn’t this what a whooping 70 to 80 per cent Pakistanis want? The truth is, Pakistanis don’t know what they want. Either we are one of the most hypocritical nations or certainly the most confused.
We find the violent and coercive ways of the Taliban distasteful, but want the law to chop heads and hands, and order men and women (preferably the latter) to be stoned to death. Of course, we have no clue as to who decides who is an adulterer or an apostate, or what Islamic school of thought (among the many present in this country) to implement while enforcing these pleasant punishments.
According to the said survey 89 per cent Pakistanis say they think of themselves first as Pakistanis, rather than as members of their ethnic groups; yet the country is always standing on the edge of ethnic, sectarian and inter-sectarian strife. We like to call ourselves moderate Muslims, yet our thinking is clouded by fantasies of a violent religious order emerging from artificially induced memories of some glorious mythical past of a Utopia.
Years of misrule by military dictators and civilians and early erosion of the hope and glory that was attached to the creation of Pakistan have for long left Pakistanis in a deadly ideological quagmire. A collective neurotic state of mind has emerged in which feelings of disappointment and scepticism about Pakistan’s religious and political raison d'être are severely (and at times instinctively) repressed.
The resultant psychological anguish of this self-repression is then attempted to be set off by loud (but empty) proclamations of patriotism and a belief in meta-myths and superfluous ‘historical’ and religious narratives that feed the manufacturing process of a superiority complex found in the majority Muslim citizens. This is symptomatic of the prevailing myopia in society.
Alternative experiences, narratives and arguments that are not part of the state-sponsored, conservative or ulema-sanctioned cannon (regarding history, ideology and religion) are ignored or shunned as attacks on rationally discredited theories of nationhood and belief.
A figurative ideological and spiritual island is thus created, and its shores willingly cut off from what is seen as ‘dangerous knowledge’ and harmful people. Aren’t these the ones that so many Pakistanis want to banish and put to death for apostasy, blasphemy and what not? Put to death anything or anyone that can’t be understood from the narrow lens of patriotism and a certain brand of religion propagated to us for many decades.
In 1988, while reading about a stoning to death incident (of an adulteress) in the former NWFP, Dr Makri — a forgotten, broken intellectual — once told me that Pakistan was abandoned by god. I was in college in those days and going through a Marxist phase. So I asked him how god could abandon a people who pray so regularly and talk so often about his religion.
“They don’t pray to the compassionate, benevolent and merciful god of Islam,” Dr Makri replied. “They pray to a violent deity preached to them by the mullahs, generals and inflexible ulema.”
The writer is among the most popular Pakistani columnists.