IS the ideological scrutiny of our future lawmakers largely a reflection on the existing religiosity in Pakistani society or an indication of the inefficacy and lack of capacity permeating most state institutions?
The scrutiny of lawmakers is not a unique case as all the public service candidates in Pakistan have to pass a similar test. But it is quite relevant to examine whether such scrutiny contributes to the improved institutional effectiveness and professional capacity of our civil servants, or whether it encourages those elusive moral standards that only serve to propagate camouflaged institutional ineffectiveness and the lack of professionalism.
Also, will the ongoing scrutiny encourage the lawmakers to strengthen their resolve and capacity in areas of governance and service delivery or provide them with yet another opportunity to gain political strength merely on the basis of religio-ideological ethos?
Both considerations, religiosity and the lack of capacity, could hold true in certain contexts, but some recent surveys and research studies endorse the former. Their findings indicate that the majority in Pakistan consider religion essential for the smooth functioning of the state and that currently most Pakistanis think the country is heading in the wrong direction.
Though the common man has hardly ever been satisfied with the functioning of the Pakistani state, a recent survey-based study by the British Council titled Next Generation Goes to The Ballot Box came up with the finding that Pakistani youths have increasingly started considering Islamic Sharia rule as the answer to their dissatisfaction.
The survey also revealed that the Pakistani youth showed more trust in the army than in democratic institutions. A national-level survey in 2008-2009 by the research organisation, the Pak Institute for Peace Studies, had also revealed that more than half, 55 per cent, of about 1,600 respondents questioned in a survey believed that religious scholars and clerics were serving Pakistani society and Islam better than the political and military leadership and academics/intellectuals.
Though the British Council survey did not explain the correlation between the youths’ trust in Sharia and in the army, the impression that comes across is that an authoritarian mindset is in the making, for which democratic political and religious parties hold little appeal.
Similar studies conducted by Pakistani and foreign scholars and research institutions also show that the space for moderate discourse is shrinking in Pakistan and that paradoxical thinking patterns prevail.
These paradoxical thinking patterns can be summed up as a desire for 1) Pakistan to be politically sovereign and assertive, with all the benefits of international engagement without compulsions or reciprocity; 2) economic self-reliance with the advantages of globalisation; 3) individual freedom of choice but ‘piousness’ and conservatism at the societal level; 4) a tendency to be ideologically less receptive to new ideas; and 5) emotionally reactive and inclined to put the burden on others.
The average Pakistani wants to be progressive in a conservative framework. He is caught between two competing narratives: the one which is primarily grounded in religion and is now championed by militant groups makes him want to see his religion triumph; the other, usually put forward by the government and sections of the media, is geared towards making people realise the significance of progressing in the world.
Nevertheless, there is a flicker of hope. On the whole the findings of the British Council survey mentioned earlier paint a pessimistic picture but underlying the survey are some rays of optimism.
For instance, despite their lack of trust in democratic institutions, the overwhelming majority of Pakistani youth respondents (40pc) say they will definitely vote in the election while 21pc plan to do so. Forty-five per cent say it is the responsibility of every citizen to vote while 25pc think their vote will make a difference. Interestingly, those who gave a negative answer (34pc) did not get registered or do not have a national identity card.
A Norwegian research scholar Dr David Hansen explains Pakistani people’s political and ideological attitudes as “rhetorically radical” and “practically moderate” — meaning that the majority in Pakistan has a tendency to voice quite radical expressions, but remains moderate in actions.
In many cases, however, people have a tendency to be moderate and radical on a selective scale. At the same time, religion is an issue of identity for the average Pakistani but he is confused on whether he should seek guidance from it for solutions to all his problems.
This is demonstrated by a large proportion of respondents in a survey by the Pak Institute for Peace Studies supporting the country’s hybrid legal system in which the Sharia is not the only source of law. However, in the same survey a fairly large percentage also thought that democracy would not make a difference in dealing with the challenges facing them. The same confusion can be seen in society overall.
This could be due to the fact that sometimes surveys jump to conclusions by taking into account the level of religious education of a common person in Pakistan. A recent study by three US researchers acknowledges, “there is no evidence that support for Sharia per se or even support for parties espousing Sharia indicates a fundamental support for militant groups”.
One optimistic way to move forward is to use the available space to stop religio-sensitive political perceptions from transforming into rigid thinking patterns. But sadly the state institutions are committed to further strengthening the religio-ideological discourse in the country and setting high moral standards, which may not be achieved by the custodians of these institutions themselves. State behaviour is a vital impediment to reversing regressive discourse.
The writer is editor of the quarterly research journal Conflict and Peace Studies.