By Saad Hafiz
December 12, 2017
Recent events have clearly demonstrated the massive power wielded by religious fascists in Pakistan. The organs of state power have never before so easily capitulated to extremist threats and intimidation. Unfortunately, state institutions not working in harmony played into the hands of extremists. Simply put, the law of the jungle prevailed. The country continues to pay a heavy price for the incendiary mix of politics and religion.
Pakistan’s inability to restrain Islamist groups raises serious questions: Is the creeping confluence of religion and state complete? Will governments need the support of religious extremists to acquire power and keep it? Can religious radicals meet their long-desired goal of establishing a theocracy? Has the military joined politicians in the race to pander to extremists? Will the military agree to share power with extremists? Can extremists eventually replace the military as the arbiters of the country’s destiny? Will semi-literate clerics and Madaris students one day rule a country of two hundred million people armed with nuclear weapons?
Arguably, the dangerous union of religion and state was always a possible outcome in Pakistan. Its origins lie in the political demand for a separate Muslim state in South Asia. There was no turning back once the genie of religion had been let out of the bottle. The ideological contours of the country wrapped around religion became the basis of nationalist aspirations. Certainly, Jinnah with his unquestioned secular credentials opposed religious extremism. But the leaders that followed Jinnah failed to balance a religious identity with their secular inclinations.
The pioneers of religious extremism in Pakistan such as Maulana Maududi and his party, the Jamat-e-Islami (JI) who had earlier opposed the country’s creation became the main proponents of Islamisation. Furthermore, civilian and military leaders exploited Islam to legitimise their rule and as a tool of state policy. Thus the role of religious parties in politics and society was strengthened. Thereafter, the unintended laboratory of Islam produced undesired results, bringing the country to this sorry pass today.
The entry of the military in politics saw an upsurge in religious politics. In 1953, the military initially took on religious extremism by jailing Maududi and others during the anti-Ahmadi riots in Lahore. But unlike Indonesia under Suharto, Egypt under Mubarak, Syria under Hafez Assad and Iraq under Saddam the military in Pakistan never kept extremism in check ruthlessly. Instead, the military used its firepower against the country’s religiously moderate Bengali and Baloch populations. The Zia dictatorship removed the last obstacle to a potential religious takeover by implementing avowed Islamist policies.
Unquestionably, the destructive nexus between the military and religious extremists helped to mainstream religion in politics. During the recent Faizabad standoff, senior military officers openly fraternised and mediated between the government and religious extremists. Consequently, by catering to rule breakers, the military compromised the rule of law. It is unclear whether the military is playing a game of can’t beat them join them or it feels it can manipulate religious groups as always to do its bidding. It must know that its machinations can lead to the extremist tinderbox blowing up in the country’s face.
Overall, the power of religious extremists in Pakistan denotes a deep crisis in state and society. Gone are the days when clerics were irrelevant, even derided figures confined to the mosque delivering sermons while people at large went about their business. Rampaging clerics and madrasa students have now spread like a cancerous growth in the body-politic. The people cower in fear as extremists define who is Muslim and who is not. Islam’s message of peace and tolerance has been drowned out by the chilling shouts of martyrdom, coffins, murder, and revenge. As Bertrand Russell said, “many people would sooner die than think”. Extremist propaganda a repeats the falsehood that Islam is in ever-present danger from unbelievers and conspirators.
At this late stage, turning back the radical juggernaut will need strong will and lots of luck. Over 60 years of appeasement has emboldened the fanatics. Previously, the electorate’s rejection of religious parties in free and fair elections was one silver lining in an otherwise fixed political outcome. However, recent polls suggest that a sizable majority of Pakistanis support the Islamisation drive and consider themselves Muslims first and Pakistani citizens second.
Any pushback against religious extremism needs inspired and decisive leadership. Sadly, the leadership vacuum was very clearly visible during the latest crisis. Many of the country’s leaders have accepted the Islamist version of Pakistan’s basis and rationale. The case in point is the western educated ex-cricketer turned ‘political leader’ Imran Khan whose immature rants most recently equated religious extremists with ‘bloody’ liberals. This confirms the demise of a thinking and tolerant Pakistan. Obviously, politicians intent on riding the extremist tiger to power don’t understand history. They will pay the price for their stupidity as religious fascists demand exclusive power and control.
In conclusion, allowing extremists free rein to speak to large groups and spread their views on social media is a certain recipe for disaster. Education reform, improved governance and increasing economic opportunity could draw the country’s growing young population away from radical group influence. Most importantly, if Pakistan is to emerge from its extremist nightmare, the military must stop its tango with militant groups and embrace civilian control and direction.