Friday, July 19, 2024

Pakistan’s Religious Right Succumbs To Militancy

The Killing of the Punjab governor is not an individual’s act, it is a mindset, and it is unacceptable.

governer-punjab-salman-taseer The recent gruesome murder of Salman Taseer, the governor of Punjab – the most populous and prosperous of the four provinces of Pakistan, at the hands of a member of his personal security squad has stunned almost the whole nation. A zealot, the guard claimed to have been motivated into committing this crime because he took offence to the views of the liberal governor who advocated a review of, what many believe, a faulty blasphemy law enacted by an earlier military dictator, General Ziaul Haq.

Unlike any verse from Quran, this law is man-made, one that is prone to misuse and one that can be reviewed and amended if found necessary. Hence if the governor of Punjab or any member of the legislature sought its review, they committed no crime. To make a man-made law so sacrosanct as to kill anyone who disagrees with it is outright barbarity.

Fed on the frenzy created by semi illiterate and uncompromising clerics who have come to dominate the religious right, disciples like the murderer of the governor who come from poor and illiterate backgrounds are ready to go to any length to force their beliefs on an otherwise moderate society, even using violence if necessary.

Symbolizing the struggle between silent moderate majority that views Islam as a religion of love and tolerance and the vocal minority that represents orthodoxy and rigidity in religious views, this tragedy has stirred outrage among the moderates and liberals. It has initiated an intense debate over the question as to which Islam should the nation follow – ‘theirs’ or ‘ours’, the ‘firebrand and intolerant’ kind that rejoices at Taseer’s murder or the ‘gentler, peace loving and tolerant’ kind that abhors this murder and demands death for the killer. For the vast majority, this murder has underscored the need for the state to firmly rein in religious fanaticism and anarchy and protect the fundamental rights of the people.

While the place and importance of religion in the lives of people cannot be minimized, the extremists at the same time cannot be allowed to take the Pakistani people hostage to their views by committing and encouraging crimes in the name of religion. They not only violate the law but also the universally accepted injunctions of Islam.

The Afghan-Taliban model of brutal enforcement of orthodox Takfiri Islam based on elimination of dissent and rule through fear and coercion was used by the Pakistani Taliban to take control of the autonomous tribal belt (FATA) bordering Afghanistan. Later, using the same tactics they established control in the adjoining settled area of Malakand and terrorized people into submission. Though they were eventually defeated and expelled and writ of the government was restored by the military after a massive operation in Malakand and South Waziristan the damage was done. The reluctance with which the state proceeded to confront religious extremism in Malakand sent a wrong message and encouraged extremists to extend their operations in other areas of Pakistan.

Although these fringe elements do not represent the entire society, yet by creating an environment of fear, they have succeeded in dominating the social discourse and public policy thus inhibiting free exchange of ideas and the journey towards enlightenment. This creates an impression, both domestically and internationally, that Pakistan’s social and political life, its vital systems from social attitudes to culture, values and ruling ideas are in danger of succumbing to Talibanization. Some religious groups even tried to give a new meaning to the beliefs and statements of Jinnah – the founding father, betraying their intentions of trying to move the country towards theocracy, a concept that Jinnah had openly and forcefully rejected over six decades back, as does an overwhelming majority of the people today.

Not only have mainstream religious political parties, who have always professed to be moderate in outlook, failed to decisively condemn the extremists and their brand of Islam, some of them have even eulogized Taseer’s murder, in an obvious attempt to gain support among those segments of the population that have been won over by the extremists. Their desperate efforts so far to widen their social and political support base did not succeed as is evident from their failure to secure even a respectable representation in the assemblies. By glorifying a religious murder they now hope to keep themselves relevant to the debate, uphold their image as champions of Islam and win some political space, even if it means fanning bigotry and intolerance and pushing the nation back to the days of medieval era Inquisition.

There is urgent need for the government of the day to effectively correct this course before it is too late. Although a difficult task, yet it cannot abdicate its responsibility. The civil society, the intellectuals, if we have any honest ones left,  political parties with liberal and middle-of- the-road agendas and even those with Islamist leaning, must all come together to stop this madness.

Unfortunately, the past politically weak governments have shied away from confronting the issue of religious extremism, for religion is a sensitive issue. They preferred to sit on the fence because taking a position against extremism could mean clamorous rabble-rousing clerics exploiting the situation by mobilizing their bands of followers to stage street demonstrations and creating trouble. This could also hurt political fortunes of those who depended on conservative and religiously inclined rural constituencies some of which are breeding grounds for militancy. Failure of the state to stem this tide of extremism has already cost heavily: social structures are shaken to the roots, economic development is at standstill, fissiparous tendencies show signs of gaining strength and the country’s image is tarnished.

While the nationalist historical narrative generally traces the rise of religious extremism to the two Afghan wars and General Zia’s use of religion as a tool to perpetuate his rule, the real causes are often missed. The religious right can best succeed in an environment dominated by ignorance, social injustice and poverty and it is exploiting precisely these factors.

Pakistan’s literacy standards are dismal. Sixty three years after its birth it can boast of only about 45% literacy rate. Mainly the rural population, almost 70%, has lagged behind in education and consequently in economic development. Historically conservative, their lack of education and awareness relative to urbanized populations makes them an eager audience for orthodox, semiliterate clerics who in turn play in the hands of religious groups with self serving agendas. Financed by these groups, religious schools have mushroomed in these areas providing free education and boarding facilities to poor children, a blessing for parents who cannot even afford to raise them. Product of lopsided curricula the youth coming out of these schools adds to the number of religious fanatics and is often exploited by extremists and militants for their purposes.  The denial of social justice to the disadvantaged segment of the population has brought enormous suffering. This results from the dominance of the feudal and the moneyed class in all spheres of national life that puts them in control over public policy making. Corruption and poor governance makes matters worse. Common man in the street sees no hope of things changing for the better. This disillusionment and loss of hope is the worst enemy of any society.

Poverty is another factor that shifts the social balance of power in favor of the religious right. The increasing poverty levels in the country during the last three years have reached alarming proportions and the ever increasing gap between the rich and the poor causes a sense of deprivation and alienation among bulk of the population, promoting crime and extremism. Terrorists, militants and suicide bombers with religious orientations come from this poor, deprived and marginalized segment of the society.

If poverty goes unaddressed and if Pakistan’s electoral elite continue to plunder the country using all foul means to amass wealth at the expense of the poor, there is a danger that the militants who have taken over the religious right will exploit this to carve out a big enough chunk of social support base and challenge the status quo with violence.

This would be a dangerous development. All political upheavals and revolutions have had their roots in poverty, denial of justice and ignorance while religion was used as a vehicle to motivate people into action. The most recent and relevant to Pakistan’s contemporary conditions is the Islamic revolution in Iran where the clergy led the dispossessed to an uprising against a powerful U.S. backed monarchy, and with success. Flawed state building, expediency based politics in the clutches of vested groups that deny participation to the middle class , poor governance and flawed distribution of wealth must immediately be addressed, if this danger is to be averted.

By Shahid R. Siddiqi. “Axis of Logic” Exclusive
Axis of Logic
Saturday, Jan 15, 2011


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Category: Politics

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