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Reaping what we sowed

April 14, 2007


ALTHOUGH I am used to getting my share of fan mail and hate mail from total strangers, I was a bit taken aback to get an email from Maulana Abdul Rashid Ghazi, the head honcho of Lal Masjid in Islamabad.

Thoughtfully, the good cleric informed me that the mosque’s website was now operational again at

He went on to complain that it had earlier been blocked by the government, and that this step was “against the freedom of expression.” I savoured the delicious irony of this complaint as I watched televised images of zealots from the Jamia Hafsa and the Jamia Fareedia — both involved in the long-running standoff with the government — burning DVDs and CDs in Islamabad. Ghazi, in a recent interview with Declan Walsh, the Guardian correspondent, expressed his opposition to democracy thus: “Democracy is about elections. Islam is about selection.” He went on to elaborate that ignorant people did not know what was good for them, and therefore the educated elite had to show the way.This was in response to the reporter when he remarked that Islamic parties in Pakistan had never won over 13 per cent of the popular vote. And this is the paradox: fundamentalists benefit from democratic freedoms wherever they are available to them, and use them to impose their reactionary agenda on society. And wherever they do not get their way, they complain that they are being denied their democratic rights. If and when they achieve power, they deny their opponents these very rights at the first opportunity. For them, as Maulana Ghazi was frank enough to admit, democracy is irrelevant.

For weeks now, the drama of the two madressahs in Islamabad and their takeover of a children’s library has gripped the country. Images of burqa-clad young women clutching staves are shown daily. For the West, this absurd situation is further proof of Pakistan’s slide into violence and mediaeval anarchy. But for us, the standoff reveals the faultlines in our society, and the inherent contradictions that remain unresolved in a state created in the name of religion.

The price being demanded by the madressah students and their patrons is nothing less than the imposition of Shariah law, and the instant abolition of all “dens of vice”. The fundamentalist definition of this term is a wide one, and includes all shops selling music CDs, videos and DVDs. Thus far, Musharraf’s government of enlightened moderation has caved in on several other demands, including the reconstruction of all seven mosques that were illegally built on state land, and rightly demolished by CDA.

While the dictates of the law and plain sanity demand tough and swift action to end this open rebellion, Musharraf’s political interests lie elsewhere. The fact is that this is an election year, and the general realises that he needs the support of the clerics and their reactionary parties to survive. And when it comes to choosing between survival and the national interest, we know all too well what the choice will be.

Among the many emails I have received on the subject are a substantial number supporting the demands of the Jamia Hafsa women. They ask why Shariah should not be the basis of the law of the land since Pakistan was created in the name of Islam. The authors of these diatribes are not interested in Jinnah’s sophistry of Pakistan being a ‘home for the Muslims of the subcontinent’, rather than an Islamic state.

In truth, this is a tough argument to rebut. Perhaps the mullahs have it right. Maybe the demands that are being voiced by religious fanatics, seen in the context of the partition of India along religious lines, should be considered. Clearly, a return to the seventh century, something the zealots are adamant about, would be disastrous for the country. But that’s a separate argument. If you are convinced that our brief stay on earth is transient, and that we will be rewarded or punished for the rest of eternity for our actions in this life, then obviously what happens in the here-and-now is unimportant.

Things like GDP, life expectancy and literacy rates become irrelevant. What truly matters is that we obey the divine rules, as interpreted by various schools of Islamic jurisprudence. In this worldview, manmade laws, ethics, and boundaries are all of secondary importance. If our destiny is pre-ordained, we can only submit. Within this narrow frame of reference, it makes perfect sense for our cricket team to spend more time at prayer than at the nets. And if the team is sent crashing out of the World Cup in the first round, clearly this was the will of God.

It is easy to see that with this mindset, no society can progress. Countries that have blindly followed rigid dogmas have either had to relax their governing beliefs, as China has done, or implode, much as the Soviet Union did. India, for all the decades it stuck closely to the Fabian socialism of its founding fathers, limped along.

Pakistan today is in the grip of a fundamental contradiction that it seems incapable of escaping. On the one hand are the modernising impulses of a dynamic, striving people who flourish when they leave the stifling environment of their country. On the other is the retrogressive pull of a small minority of fanatics whose only claim to power and influence is the grip they exercise on an uneducated and conservative community. But since Pakistan was created in the name of religion, most politicians and generals feel they have to pay lip service to its form, if not its substance. Each time the mullahs increase their demands, the establishment makes concessions.

Nobody in power has had the courage to take the bull by the horns and tell the mullahs that while obviously, Islam is the faith of the majority, Pakistan will be governed as a democratic, secular country. Musharraf, instead of building a consensus around this central plank, has curried favour with the mullahs, while driving secular politicians into the wilderness. The current standoff with the Jamia Hafsa is the logical outcome of these self-serving policies.

Tailpiece: I still haven’t been able to understand why the government has not cut off the electricity, water and gas to the entire Lal Masjid complex, with its two radical madressahs. Given the onset of the warm weather, the stifling head-to-toe clothing of the chicks with sticks, and the absence of deodorants, it wouldn’t take long for the students to call it a day.