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Pakistan: Is a reversal possible?

by Naeem Sadiq, 20 January 2011

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(The News International, 20 January 2011)

Those who killed Salmaan Taseer and those who instigated, justified or celebrated this madness can only be described as religious fanatics, bigoted extremists or intolerant fascists. Those opposing this mindset are often referred to as liberal, progressive, moderate and tolerant. This apparently sharp socio-religious divide seems to be widening rapidly and may well become a battle for Pakistan itself.

But is this divide real? Or does it only reflect two attitudes of irrationality, apparently contradictory but actually complementary to each other, both ultimately supporting extremism, militancy and use of religion as a tool for gaining or retaining political power? Is it possible that the rise of religious fanaticism in Pakistan is in fact a creation and a mirror image of the attitudes and actions of its own ruling elite? Is it possible that the space now occupied by the rightwing militancy was deliberately legislated, to fool the masses, appease the clergy and strengthen the power base of the rulers? Is it possible that the "liberal progressives," through apathy and silence, may have made the largest contribution to the creation of the tyranny of the bigots today?

There are at least four key, and difficult, issues that ought to be addressed if we wish to see an end to this cancerous strife plaguing our society. As a first step, the state must get rid of its obsession for creating legislation intended to appease the clergy. While this constitutionalised religiosity has done nothing to improve the society even by an iota, it has created alarming new opportunities for confusion and conflict.

It all began when the First Constituent Assembly ignored the Quaid-e-Azam’s speech of Aug 11, 1947, and instead opted for the Objectives Resolution. From then onwards, there was no looking back. In 1974, ours became the only parliament in the world to assume the divine right of deciding whether or not a citizen was in fact a Muslim. A new definition of who is a Muslim was legislated.

Our clueless parliaments, often consisting of tax evaders and fake degree-holders, even foreign nationals, ought to refrain from making laws that interpret, define or dictate citizens in matters of religion.

The state in Pakistan has virtually surrendered its fundamental responsibility, which is to protect the life and liberty of its citizens. "If your life is at risk, it is better that you leave the country," is the advice given by the federal interior minister to someone who has been publicly threatened. The second essential requirement to reverse this militant madness is for the state to firmly resolve to protect its citizens, regardless of their respective faiths or backgrounds. Not a single perpetrator was punished, for example, after eight Christians were burnt alive in Gojra or 86 Ahmadis gunned down in Lahore.

Was it not for the state to apprehend the "imam" in Peshawar who announced a reward for the killing of Aasiya Bibi, the Christian woman charged with blasphemy? Clerics of this or that sect or religious school of thought have regularly and publicly been declaring members of other sects or persuasions "wajibul qatl" (deserving of murder), and this has been going on for years. These and hundreds of other such incidents are a result of incitements from the pulpit, with citizens being asked to take the law into their own hands. These incitements have been conveniently ignored by the state machinery.

The third step necessary for a change is to reform or neutralise the country’s rich and powerful elite - which has also become its biggest curse and roadblock to progress. This community is the largest law-breaking, militant, selfish and irrational segment of Pakistan’s society. In Karachi alone, this category of urban militants drives thousands of illegal vehicles displaying fake number plates, or none at all.

Their vehicles are loaded with illegal weapons and private goons. Their obscenely lavish weddings play night long music at a volume before which even the cleric’s loudspeaker is a whisper. Their indulgence in New Year’s Eve’s aerial firing would put FATA tribesmen to shame.

With its powerful contacts, this class managed to receive a staggering 139,000 arms licenses since the present government came to power. Of these, 39,000 licenses were issued for prohibited bore weapons such as Kalashnikovs, G3s and Uzis, mostly on the direct orders of the prime minister and the minister of state for the interior. Pakistan has no chance to counter the radicals when its so-called secular or liberal parties are led by such a corrupt, militant, and incompetent ruling class.

Finally, the refusal of both the state and its more privileged classes to comprehend that Pakistan can never be a tolerant and peaceful country while its 170 million people are neglected, uneducated and unemployed, whose lifestyle in so many cases may only be marginally better than that of cavemen. The children joining religious schools are provided boarding and lodging in this world and a promise of still better rewards in the next world. The state, on the other hand, has little idea of how many functional schools it has or what goes on inside them.

Pakistan would do well to begin its battle for restoration of its society’s tolerance and moderation by turning the focus on the lives and the wellbeing of its forgotten ordinary citizens.