By Muhammad Mutahir Ali
August 2, 2014
As the nation takes on terrorists, religious extremism is still on the rise
‘Pity the nation that is full of beliefs and empty of religion.
Pity the nation that acclaims the bully as hero’
A hundred years after Khalil Gibran wrote these words, we fit the profile of the doomed nation that he mourned. As if showering rose petals on killers was not enough, in a recent episode of depravity, a handful of ‘devout’ Muslims displayed their piousness like never before. They set on fire an Ahmedi family’s house in Gujranwala; killing three people including two minors on the allegations of blasphemy. Other than taking life of an eight month old, the incident also resulted in a miscarriage of a seven month old unborn child. To further boast their bravery, the crowd later gathered to celebrate their act with their hands up in the air accompanied by jubilant roars. We have become a nation that glorifies assassins and celebrates murders. Pity on us, indeed.
Today, Pakistan is marred by religious extremism, intolerance, bigotry and hate. To compound the irony, all these menaces, which are far from the true values any religion, are perpetuated in the name of Islam in our society. But how did we get here? Of course, it did not happen overnight; our trajectory of moral decadence was steadily shaped both by the political elite and religious leadership. But one name specifically rings a bell. The name is Zia.
Zia ul Haq’s dictatorship, in addition to derailing the natural democratic political process of the country, also proved to be an opening of the floodgates for a lot of problems that we are dealing with today. With the people having a strong emotional attachment with religion, Zia ul Haq blatantly used Islam to legitimise his rule. Extremist policies were adopted under the banner of Islam. School curriculum was revised, media was ‘reformed’, dancing and music was prohibited and Shari’a courts were set up. While a bigoted class of superior religious leaders was created to concur with the government’s Islamist agenda, the state apparatus also actively undertook the task of Islamising the society, rewarding those who were ‘good Muslims’ and punishing the bad ones. Then began the rat race of becoming better believers, in which many assumed the role of judging others’ faith, finally turning it into a ‘national ostracisation project’ under which group after group was declared to be out of the circle of Islam.
“Mid ‘80s was, in many ways, the beginning of the sectarian conflict in Pakistan,” said Hassan Askari Rizvi, a seasoned political analyst.
Zia tended to implement a strict Sunni version of Shari’a on Pakistan, which largely alienated the minority Shi’a population. As the resentment of the minority population grew, the sectarian conflict escalated. Meanwhile, Zia decided to bring home the Afghan jihad, turning the sectarian conflict into a virtual proxy war. While Iran readily supported the Shi’a organisations after the 1979 revolution, CIA dollars and Saudi riyals were poured in to fund the Sunni militant groups. Hence, the decade of 80’s saw extremely radical and violent sectarian clashes where many members, including prominent leaders, of both sects were targeted. However, Ahmedis have always borne a very significant brunt of religious intolerance as well and the latest incidents are only the continuation of their systematic targeting by extremists who do not only consider them non-Muslim, but also conspirators against Islam.
As the military operation in North Waziristan is underway to get rid of Taliban, the extremists within us who continue to kill in the name of Islam will still remain active. In a society where religious extremism and intolerance has been so systematically ingrained, a military operation might not be enough to uproot the problem.
“It is evident from history that whenever religion is used for political purposes, it only breeds violence,” said Mehdi Hassan, veteran journalist and analyst. He said Pakistan’s political parties have regularly used Islam for political mileage, which has resulted in increasing intolerance.
“Military operation will not be able to curb this extremism, for that the government will have to throw out the shackles and adopt brave policies”.
For any kind of an effective approach to instill the values of tolerance and harmony, the government will have to extensively involve the state apparatus. An apt place to take the initiative can be our schools as our education system is far below accepted modern day standards. The widespread and unregulated madrassa system, for one, provides easiest opportunities for extremist factions to further their ideologies. In addition to that, the decades-old, obsolete curriculum of government schools in incapable of instilling the values of respect and harmony.
“We should at least start telling our children that non-Muslims are also a part of this country; they are not even aware of that,” added Hassan Askari Rizvi.
“Positive values of Islam need to be highlighted in the national curriculum.”
A military operation can eliminate an enemy but cannot change mindsets. While our troops might be able to secure victory in North Waziristan, it will remain futile if we fail to curb the increasingly extremist mindset, which is perpetuated and appreciated by a major part of our society. The Gujranwala episode where the self-righteous Muslims cheered the murder of those they considered infidels were no less inhumane than the acts of Taliban. A military operation cannot prevent such acts, only a thorough change of hearts and minds can. The Taliban without will die the day we kill the Taliban within.
Muhammad Mutahir Ali is a student of political science at LUMS.