Is Religious Moderation Dying in Pakistan?


By Ehsan Ahrari —Honolulu;     January 6, 2011

The recent assassination of the Governor Salman Taseer of Punjab, the most populous state of Pakistan and the state that formulates a large chunk of its Army, raises that perennial question: Is religious moderation dying in Pakistan? Assassin’s bullets are notorious about leading to major cataclysmic events, and one should be careful about reading too much into such events. However, in Pakistan’s case no amount of broad sweep of analytical thinking may be regarded as exaggeration.

The cause of Governor Taseer’s murder was the blasphemy laws of Pakistan that are being invoked to raise the level of tensions by accusing non-Muslims of insulting the religion or the Prophet of Islam, and then not even having an unbiased inquiry into the accusation. He was a critic of it and was a strong voice about repealing them. According to reports, there is a widespread support for such laws inside Pakistan. As an example of the popularity of the blasphemy laws in Pakistan, consider this. More than 500 scholars of the Jamaat Ihle-Sunnat, a relatively moderate Islamist group, “have advised Muslims not to offer the funeral prayers of Governor Punjab Salman Taseer nor try to lead the prayers.” They also advised people against “expression of grief or sympathy on the death of the governor, as those who support blasphemy of the Prophet are themselves indulging in blasphemy.” The environment of fear is intensifying, and religious fanatics are having a field day in defaming a religion one of whose chief tenets is tolerance.

The murder of a high ranking official by his supposedly elite guard also points to the fact that Pakistan’s security forces are being regularly contaminated by the inflamed rhetoric of those who propagate apocryphal stories of “defamation” of Islam and stories about how Islam is under constant “threat.” The only and mounting reality is that the chief threat to Islam is coming from those who are spreading such stories nonsensical stories, who are accusing minorities of defaming Islam, and who are murdering those who are asking them to tone down their insane rhetoric.

What most people (especially those who are at the helm of the government in Washington) fail to understand is that the civilian government of Pakistan is too weak to stand up to the rising tide of extremism. Fanatics anywhere do not have to have large number of supporters. Even their small gatherings are so voluble and so dedicated to their cause at a given time and at a given place that they tend to create simultaneous a movement and an environment of terror. That movement, if not countered by the law enforcement forces, tends to gather momentum and expands. It seems that most—if not every—official in Pakistan is getting scared in that environment of terror, getting scared of being accused of as an “agent of America” if he/she criticizes the irrational ululations of the forces of extremism. The country is full of stories of conspiracies: about America, about India, and about the “secret” plans of taking away Pakistan’s nuclear weapons, and, above all, about conspiracies regarding Islam.

What is happening to Pakistan, whose religious enlightenment—not of the imaginary type promoted by General Pervez Musharraf, but a genuine one was a living force at one time?

The origin of the malignancy of extremism go back to Zulfiqar Ali—father of Benazir Bhutto—who started appeasing Islamic parties in the early 1970ss to prove his own commitment to Islam. However, Bhutto was too much of a secularist and too hard a whisky drinker to fool anyone. Then came Zia ul-Haq, the Islamist General, who unabashedly used Islam to stay in power. In Zia’s regime those contentious blasphemy laws were originally promulgated.

The post-9/11 environment created a profound siege mentality inside Pakistan. George W. Bush’s warnings to Pakistan—that either you are with us or you are with the terrorists—offended the dignity of Pakistan. The global perspective that Islam was under attack by the world’s lone superpower put everyone on the offensive in Pakistan. Islamists and other religious extremists thrived under such a charged environment. No Pakistani official dared to challenge them fearing the dreaded charge of being an agent of America. While Usama Bin Laden and his ilk was envisioned as the enemy of the civilized world in the West. Inside Pakistan, Ben Laden’s infamous phrase of about the “crusade by the Christians and Zionists against Islam” was emerged as the new enemy. And that perception, over time, transformed itself into a siege mentality.

General Musharraf played a crucial role in that transformation, once again, to extend the term of his rule. He made George Bush believe that he was the last and real promise against the takeover by the Islamist extremists, while at the same time coalescing, conniving with, and appeasing the Islamists inside Pakistan to stay in power.

Considering how “superb” America’s intelligence agencies are in their “just in time” analyses and producing “agile intelligence,” Musharraf fooled Bush for a long time. In the meantime, religious extremists continued to grow. The world only knows about the infamous Deobandi Madrasas (religious schools) of Pakistan-Afghanistan frontier that are spreading the ideology of militancy. However, the entire country is being contaminated by the Deobandi-Wahhabi rhetoric of religious fanaticism, obscurantism, and actavism.

Under such an environment, the most crucial question is how untainted the security forces of Pakistan are these days? Even General Ashfaq Kayani cannot answer that question with certainty. Just look at the ISI and its own so-called “rogue elements” that are reported to be sympathizing with the Taliban of Afghanistan. Who can stay with any amount of confidence how much infiltration has been made in the Pakistani Army by the Taliban of Afghanistan? These are the questions that the Pakistani military’s high command must find answers to earnestly and most urgently. They do not need to be on the defensive in answering these questions to the Americans. After all, those questions are about the long-term stability of Pakistan. The recipe of Pakistan continued existence as a nation-state rests in promoting Islamic moderation, which is the real face of Islam.