There is nothing vague about the concern that knee-jerk acts of religious intolerance, exhibitionism and self-righteousness have become a norm in Pakistani society.
Whereas the state is fighting an armed battle against the more militant expressions of this phenomenon, there is no such battle taking place against the social aspects of the issue.
It is important that such a battle is drawn-up because the Islamist guerrilla insurgencies raging in Pakistan are still managing to draw periodical bursts of moral and material sympathy from certain sections of the society despite the fact that their actions have caused the deaths of over 40,000 Pakistanis in the last decade or so.
Armed ideological insurgencies are not defeated by the bullet alone. Political legislation and social action too are required, especially if the insurgencies’ moral credibility is to be eroded and challenged.
The militants gain this moral credibility by glorifying acts of intolerance by non-militant members of the society as statements against the state’s failures. They then legitimise their own militant violence as being the revolutionary expression of society’s fight against state and governmental malfunction in the spheres of economics and justice.
It is true that out of frustration faced in the areas of economics and justice, sections of the society do begin to express their desperation by committing acts of discrimination and outright violence against their perceived tormenters.
But it is also correct that such a society then becomes extremely vulnerable to both cynical as well as fanatical forces that begin to colour the society’s reactions in this context with deep, brash strokes of extreme versions of ideology.
They do this because, though these forces are usually found on the fringes, they however become the main beneficiaries in the awkward outcome of whatever friction that is produced in a society that begins to justify acts of intolerance and xenophobia as an expression of its creed and faith.
Mainstream politicians in Pakistan have all suggested that the best way of lessening the growing menace of religious intolerance in the society and militancy in the mountains is to co-opt the more extreme and fringe groups into the mainstream political process.
These are the groups — that include Islamist militants, sectarian outfits, radical evangelical organisations, and even some televangelists — that are manipulating the society’s economic and judicial woes by explaining them as crises of the faith that need to be addressed by imposing an extreme and xenophobic version of the religion.
How to co-opt these groups into the mainstream democratic process?
How will this be done when these groups may have street power, media audience and the loudspeakers of the mosques but hardly any electoral clout or votes?
More so, how to manoeuvre in this regard in a society and polity plagued by a glaring dichotomy in which those elements of the society with anti-democratic and extreme views about faith have clout in the Urdu media, the mosque and on many a street, but none whatsoever when it comes to populist electoral politics?
If legislation is required to stop extreme elements from manipulating religious sensitivities and emotions just so they could undermine religious and sectarian plurality, and the parliament’s jurisprudence in such matters, then who is going to do that?
Secular and/or non-religious political parties in the parliament remain to be the logical choice. These parties can be from the left-liberal and centre-right traditions.Though the recent parliament has been successful in constructing an impressive democratic consensus that supports a large part of the military’s campaign against armed Islamist militancy, little thought has gone into also developing a similar consensus and legislation against those tendencies in the society that actually end up giving moral credence to armed religious militancy.
The social battle in this respect is being lost.
Non-religious parties such as the left-liberal PPP and the centre-right PML-N have no coherent programme to address this.
It is true that both these parties have been kept busy by fighting their own battles of existence against nosey military interventionists, a cynical, ratings-hungry (and at times bizarrely monologist) electronic media, and now (especially where the PPP is concerned), a rather whimsical exhibition of judicial activism.
But one can safely conclude that there has been very little understanding in these parties about the social aspects of Pakistan’s fight against extremism.
This aspect may (as yet) not be able to dent these parties’ electoral prowess, but their legislators can expect to continue remaining hostage to the impulses of extremist social tendencies.
These reactive social tendencies will go on clipping these parties’ wings when it comes to passing legislation that can guarantee religious freedom, tolerance and at least a semblance of secularism that is required to run a democracy in a country brimming with sectarian, religious and ethnic diversity and tensions.
Comparatively speaking, the social aspect of the issue seems to be more apparent in the thought process of parties like the MQM and the ANP.
The understanding of this aspect can also be found in Imran Khan’s PTI.
Though PTI may constantly fluctuate between being conservative and ‘liberal’ on any given day, I believe it is (at the moment) the only party that, if it comes to power, will be willing (and relatively freer) to push through legislation to address the social angle of the said issue.
Of course, whether this legislation would be done to offer another bone to the always-agitated religious groups (like Z A. Bhutto did when he passed the anti-Ahmadi laws), or end up check-mating those faith-based outfits that are supporting PTI is anybody’s guess; one thing is for sure. A PTI-led regime is most likely to fuse the political with the social.
Let’s see if it does this like Ziaul Haq or Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdogan.
Khan’s anti-liberal posturing may as well hold a more secular agenda within.
Nadeem F. Paracha is a cultural critic and senior columnist for Dawn Newspaper and Dawn.com
He tweets @NadeemfParacha
The views expressed by this writer and commenters below do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of the Dawn Media Group.