New Age Islam
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The War Within Islam ( 20 Sept 2013, NewAgeIslam.Com)

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Pakistan: Pluralism and Tolerance



By Najam Sethi

September 20-26, 2013

Several issues related to the role of "Political Islam" in the making and unmaking of Pakistan have recently cropped up. They deserve serious, rational comment.

The first concerns the nature and role of blasphemy laws bequeathed us by General Zia ul Haq. Pakistanis are understandably passionate about the Prophet (pbuh) of Islam and will not brook any slight towards him. Therefore attempts to revoke or even dilute the laws have met with fierce resistance. But everyone knows that these laws have been misused, misinterpreted and misapplied by vested interests sheltering behind the garb of religious piety to advance personal vendettas, mundane interests and political affiliations on the basis of false, trite and trumped-up allegations. Unfortunately such instances taint the fair name of Islam in general and Pakistan in particular.

The Council of Islamic Ideology (CII) is constitutionally mandated to guide parliament on such issues. In the past, however, it has refrained from recommending any positive reform in problematic areas. But now the CII seemingly wants to set things right. This is probably due to the public outrage provoked by the rape of a 4 year girl in Lahore in which media and citizens are demanding death for the perpetrators of this heinous act.

The CII has passed a resolution confirming the utility of DNA evidence in rape cases. This is very welcome because its earlier stance negating the utility of DNA testing was threatening to undo the administrative measures taken by the government to set up DNA forensic labs for facilitating prosecution against criminals in general and rapists in particular. Equally welcome is the news that the CII believes that those who deliberately level false allegations of blasphemy should be subject to punishment no less severe than those who are actually convicted for blasphemy on the basis of solid evidence. Therefore parliament should heed the mood of the public and CII and make such amendments in the relevant laws as reflect these sentiments and provide some sort of deterrence against the willful misapplication of these laws.

Another such issue is crying out for redress. This refers to the teaching of religion in general and Islam in particular in schools and colleges across the country. Since the time of Gen Zia, our textbooks have been fashioned to promote a jihadist and nationalist-exclusive interpretation of Islam. This is a manifestation of the application of Islam for political reasons of state. Over the years, this singular identity has distorted our collective vision of nation-state realities, crippled our economy, gridlocked our legal system, made us prone to societal violence and isolated us in the comity of nations. Unfortunately, attempts to rationalize and modernize our education system have continuously foundered on the rock of misplaced, conservative or politically motivated religious elements in society.

Two such cases have caught headlines recently. The first is an attempt by Imran Khan's PTI government in KPK to undo the rational cleansing of the textbooks by the previous ANP government by reinserting nations of jihad and "Islamic" vice and virtue into the curricula. The second is an attempt by a section of the media to devalue the teaching of "comparative" religion in schools in which the values of relative compassion, mutual respect and human dignity common to all religions are emphasized.

The KPK government is accused of mal-administration and corruption. It is therefore seeking the age-old device of clutching at "Political Islam" for purposes of political legitimacy. Its cowardice in the face of Taliban terrorism and its insistence on Islamizing textbooks are direct consequences of its political alliance with the Jamaat i Islami, a party that has never been popular with Pakistanis. The tragedy is that Imran Khan's concreteness is misplaced because he doesn't know that he doesn't know.

The media's stance on the subject of comparative religion studies is another disquieting matter. Most youthful media practitioners are an unhealthy product of the education-brainwashing system bequeathed by Gen Zia that inclines them to religious self-righteousness and intolerance. But it is also the quest for "ratings" based on outrageous lies, falsehoods and deceits that spur many anchors to deliberately stir up religious passions. Unfortunately, the courts are also imbued with the same sort of negative populism to take due cognizance of the problem, and so the issue is lost by default.

Nobel Laureate Amartya Sen's treatise on the relationship between "singular identity and violence" is worth prescribing as a text in colleges and universities. It explains how, in an increasingly pluralist global village, attempts to create, sustain or manage singular (Muslim) personal or national (Islamic) identities are recipes for violence and instability. No individual or nation-state can be an island. For example, women are mothers, sisters, doctors, teachers, and professionals all at the same time, donning plural identities. Similarly, we are all Muslims no less than global citizens, students, businessmen and professionals, sustained by the values of toleration and pluralism in society. The sooner Pakistanis subscribe to these realities of pluralism and tolerance, the better. –