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The Pervaiz Rasheed affair

Updated Jun 06, 2015 08:00am


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The writers teaches physics in Islamabad and Lahore.
The writers teaches physics in Islamabad and Lahore.

When Information Minister Pervaiz Rasheed spoke at the Karachi Arts Council on May 3, he stated the self-evident. Without explicitly naming madressahs, he said large numbers of factories mass-produce ignorance in Pakistan through propagating “murda fikr” (dead knowledge). They use loudspeakers as tools, leaving well over two million young minds ignorant, confused, and confounded. The early tradition of Muslim scholars and scientists was very vibrant and different, he said. But now blind rote learning and use of books like Maut ka manzar — marnay kay baad kya hoga? (Spectre of death — what happens after you die?) is common.

That last reference made me sit up. A best-seller in Pakistan for decades, I had bought and read my copy some 40 years ago and have since re-read it from time to time. My fascination with it, as with Dante’s Inferno, comes from the carefully detailed, blood-curdling horrors that await us in the grave and then beyond. One part of the book reports upon conversations between the inhabitants of heaven and hell. Another section specifies punishments for grave dwellers guilty of treating one of two wives unequally, disobeying one’s mother, owning more houses than necessary, or urinating incorrectly. While doubtless of grave importance, the minister’s point is easy to see.

The speech was extempore, and the minister rambled. Yet he set off a firestorm. Accused of making fun of Islamic books and Islamic teachings, clerics across Pakistan competed to denounce him. Authored by an extremist sectarian outfit, the JASWJ, banners on Islamabad’s roads appeared. They demanded that Rasheed be publicly hanged. Taken down by the police, they reappeared elsewhere. The police accosted those putting them up, but withdrew after being confronted by youthful stick-bearing students from an illegally constructed madressah in Islamabad’s posh F-6/4 area — one of the scores of other such madressahs in the city. The police chief expressed his views frankly: he was not equipped to take on religious extremists and suicide bombers.

The episode involving the information minister illustrates the present condition of state and society.

The story gets curiouser. Mufti Naeem — the powerful cleric of Karachi’s Jamia Binoria who had issued the fatwa of apostasy on Mr Rasheed — was a guest on a TV television talk show broadcast live on May 24. He reaffirmed his fatwa at the outset of the conversation. The two other guests were the Punjab law minister, Rana Sanaullah, and myself. One might have expected the law minister to insist on the rule of law, and to challenge the extrajudicial sentence passed against a colleague who sits with him in the cabinet. On the contrary, Mr Sanaullah expressed his high regard for the mufti and the mufti duly returned the compliment, expressing his delight at the minister’s recent reappointment.

The pressure on Rasheed was unbearable. Many, including the minister of defence, rushed to offer explanations and excuses for his May 3 speech. Privately they agree with him but taking a public position is another matter. Mr Rasheed too has retreated since and apologised, claiming he has been misunderstood. He was later seen at a dastarbandi (graduation) ceremony at the Al-Khalil Qur’an Complex in Rawalpindi where he distributed prizes to madressah students who had memorised the Quran. By doing so, he showed his lack of keenness in following in the footsteps of governor Salmaan Taseer.

Irrespective of the final outcome, or the personality of the individual, the Pervaiz Rasheed episode starkly illustrates the present condition of state, society, and politics in Pakistan today. One takes from it some important conclusions.

First, the urban-based clerical establishment grows bolder by the day, believing it can take on even sitting ministers or, if need be, generals. They have many tanks and nuclear weapons but didn’t Islamabad’s Lal Masjid — now grandly reconstructed — finally triumph over the Pakistan Army? Even though the clerics lost 150 students and other fighters, the then army chief sits in the dock, accused of quelling an armed insurrection against Pakistan and killing one of its ringleaders. Chastened by this episode and others, the establishment now seeks to appease the mullah. Not a single voice in government defended the information minister. Like the brave Sherry Rehman, who was also abandoned by her own party in a similar crisis situation, he was left to fend for himself.

Second, by refusing to own the remarks of its own information minister the government has signalled its retreat on a critical front — madressah reform. This part of the National Action Plan to counter terrorism involves financial audits of madressahs, revealing funding sources, curriculum expansion and revision, and monitoring of activities. Some apparent urgency was injected after Interior Minister Chaudhry Nisar’s off-the-cuff remark earlier this year that about 10pc of madressahs were extremist. Even if one-third of this is true, this suggests that there are many hundreds of such seminaries. Plans for dealing with them have apparently been shelved once again.

Third, one sees that open television access was given to clerics and other hardliners who claimed that Mr Rasheed had forfeited his right to be called a Muslim. This is clear incitement to murder since a good fraction of society believes that apostates need to be eliminated. Such ideological extremism on TV is far too common these days to deserve much comment. Still, it is remarkable that a serving minister — and that too of information and communications — was allowed to be targeted. Has Pemra also fallen in the hands of extremist sympathisers?

For a while the Peshawar massacre had interrupted the deep slumber of Pakistan’s military and civil establishment. That those who slaughtered children at the Army Public School were not agents of India, Israel, or America came as a huge shock. It turned out that the killers were religious fanatics who saw their acts as paving their path to al-jannah. But dealing with this disturbing reality requires more wisdom and courage than Pakistan’s establishment can presently muster. It is lulling itself back to sleep by tossing more bombs into Waziristan, and lazily blaming five subsequent massacres upon RAW’s hidden hand. This is infinitely easier than dealing with the enemy within. Unfortunately it cannot work.

The writers teaches physics in Islamabad and Lahore.

Published in Dawn, June 6th, 2015

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The views expressed by this writer and commenters below do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of the Dawn Media Group.

Comments (53) Closed

Gramscian Jun 06, 2015 02:18am

If the government cant defend a sitting minister against such mobbing, what chance does an ordinary citizen stand?

Once again political expediency trumped just response.

Plausible Deniability Jun 06, 2015 02:19am

As an Indian, I have nothing but the highest respect for you. I fervently hope THEY at least spare you.

Harmony-1 Jun 06, 2015 02:46am

Great article! Yes, this disturbing reality requires more wisdom and courage. Sooner we take the bull by the horns the better.

Jalaluddin S. Hussain Jun 06, 2015 02:56am

Gradually all Madressahs will have to incorporate Science and Humanities components in their teaching courses. Only religious education will not help.

Khurram Jun 06, 2015 04:02am

In my opinion, apart from the establishment, masses are also equally responsible. Even in the absence of any media trial against Mr. Rasheed, a public opinion survey would have held him a heretic. You can try this if any such kind of issue surfaces next time.

Shan Jun 06, 2015 04:42am

Pervez Hoodbhoy has described the present situation in Pakistan so well! I do not see any hope for my beloved country if the maddersas'culture keeps on growing at the same rate and the establishment and the rulers taking cover behind the" foreign conspiracies theories".

Sridhar Jun 06, 2015 06:15am

The horrors you recount from the book are already being meted out to people of Pakistan today except that there is no contingency between one's behavior and one's punishment. In fact, the contingency is in just the opposite direction. Any rational, reasonable person is at the real risk of being characterized as an apostate. My heart goes out to the people who are silenced either with death threats and worse.

P. S. Natarajan Jun 06, 2015 06:48am

There is nothing specially "Pakistani" about this Pervaiz Rasheed affair as this is universal in the Islamic community world-wide. In the early 17th century, Galileo (like our Pervaiz Rasheed) very wisely retracted from his heliocentric blasphemy lest he be burnt at the stakes, but the stupid Giordano Bruno (like Salman Taseer) met the same fate for not acting wisely in such a religiously sensitive matter. But all this happened in the Christendom 400 years back. The failure of the Islamic world lies in this. They have failed to critically examine as to why Islam had its golden period at Baghdad and Cordova from the 9th to the 13th centuries, but not thereafter. Islam attained its highest summit then because while fully retaining the cultural essence of the scripture, the Caliphate didn't take it literally, but pragmatically. It was Ghazali who supported the literalist Hanbalism to pave the smooth decline of Islamic civilization subsequent to the tragic events of 1258. Let every Muslim realize that one's religion is like one's parents; it would definitely hurt one if one's mother and father are criticized, but then the child as an adult must come out of the parental shadow to lead a free and meaningful life.

From USA, S.A.Hyder, Ph.D. Jun 06, 2015 07:56am

Great article, as usual. Pakistan can not survive as long as these Mullahs live. It is simply a matter of Mullahs or Pakistan. Choice is ours. Simply said, one has to go. Does it not make common sense to eliminate the former in order to save the latter?

Najje Jun 06, 2015 08:14am

Pervez Rasheed statement is absolute truth. Ignorance is being propagated under the guise of religion. My hats off to his words of wisdom. The books mentioned in this article are very lame and have been in circulation for ages.

cynic Jun 06, 2015 08:17am

If the past governments have been paying attention to providing universal education through public schools systems, we would not have this sorry state of affairs at our hand today. With metro being a priority over educating our children, then this is what you end up with.

The only way we can succeed is to reverse the process that pushed the children to the madrasah system. Free quality education with financial inducements for the parents can break the recruitment stream of the madresahs. This however would not be sufficient as the government also needs to generate trust among the masses that it is working for the betterment of people. Alas, our current leadership has neither foresight nor sincerity to serve this country. Pervaisz Rashid should first try to improve his own government before blaming others for this mess.

NORI Jun 06, 2015 08:21am

Pity that religious extremists are gaining upper hand and could successfully challenge the Government.

C S Malhotra Jun 06, 2015 08:42am

Excellent article. I hope the voices of sanity are heard by those in power and by responsible citizens who wish to see a better country for themselves and for the future generations. Religious extremism has never taken any country any where.

Masood Haider Jun 06, 2015 08:44am

I cannot help but truly admire the courage that Dr. Hoodbhoy displays in speaking openly time and again against the hordes of illiterate barbarians who have taken over Pakistan and those timid souls who have shamelessly caved in. ay God protect this fearless voice from harm.

Truth Jun 06, 2015 08:56am

@Jalaluddin S. Hussain Who will do it - Madressah administration, Govt or some body else?

Rabia Jun 06, 2015 08:59am

This is depressing, scary and mind boggling all in one. What is to be done about a situation in which one party refuses to talk and relies on nothing but the name of peace! What an irony! One problem of course is that the motives of much of the other party are also rather murky

javed Hasrat Jun 06, 2015 09:07am

whatever the information minister said facts & figure, Respect you HoodBhoy, well come your such brilliant articles onwards.

Akbar Jun 06, 2015 09:24am

Dante writes that the hottest places in hell are reserved for those who in times of moral decision remain neutral. The government needs to unite against primitivism and terrorism in the name of religion. This is a daring analysis. You are a much needed voice in today's Pakistan. Good luck.

Reza Khan Shinwari Jun 06, 2015 09:26am

Mr Pervez, in fact till the time the establishment of this country doesn't take practical steps it may not be possible to rope in the bull. Don't you feel a society is destined to be doomed where you find rampant corruption, injustices, unequal distribution of wealth, untouchable religious leaders and rulers above the law. Will that society be at peace with it self. Please have a re look.

A Patriot Jun 06, 2015 09:49am

Regretful indeed. Shame on the coward government and its ministers for not supporting the right things and further emboldening the fanatic mullahs. The mullahs openly spreading hatred should be tried and hanged .

Raj Jun 06, 2015 10:04am

"Believing it can take on even sitting ministers or, if need be, generals". The statement clearly indicates that the armed forces are more powerful than the democratically elected people's representatives!! Very dangerous for a democratic country. This is noting but covert military rule. Sure-shot road to suppressing common people and filling coffers of influential top brass in the armed forces.

Feroz Jun 06, 2015 10:24am

Saudi Arabia has a greater hold on the Mosques and Madarasas in Pakistan than the Government. No one is able to see that sovereignty has already been lost to a foreign Ideology. NAP is a dismal failure and stands for "not at all possible".

Ahmed Jun 06, 2015 10:52am

Thank you Dr. Pervez Hoodbhoy for your analysis and rightly pointed out the moral flaws in Ruling elite. Every sane country man / woman is worried at the rapid pace with which our society is headed towards anarchy. Mark my word ; the days of guillotine is not far away. Rulers ! Beware.

Nasik Elahi Jun 06, 2015 10:55am

truthtellers are rare in Pakistan because of the risks. Dr. Hoodbhoy should be commended for his courage in stating that the current political and religious leaders have no proverbial clothes.

Ahmad R. Shahid Jun 06, 2015 11:07am

Live today, fight tomorrow!

Talat Haque Jun 06, 2015 11:24am

As always you have spoken the truth

Bharatiya from Australia Jun 06, 2015 12:14pm

Salute to you Pervez Hoodbhoy......Pakistan still has some hope till such time it has strong people like you who are trying to fight the biggest 'denials'...Hope your writings can bring out strength in at least few leaders who are able to ignite a revolution to Pakistan's real prosperity.

MUHAMMAD KHAN Jun 06, 2015 12:58pm

Excellent, Dr. Hoodbhoy you are great analyst, and writer.

Tahir Khan Jun 06, 2015 01:10pm

Great article! God bless you Hoodbhoy for your honesty, bravery and love for Pakistan!. Similar to last year's statements from Pak Army that General Kyani deliberately delayed Wazirastan operation and that Taliban got stronger due to his unwillingness to go after them, it also applies to current mullah and madrassa problem in Pakistan. The unwillingness of politicians and establishment to seriously face and tackle this problem, they are letting it to be even worst day by day. Eventually, they would have to face it either by fighting or surrender. The sooner they decide would be better otherwise, it will become harder and harder to defeat them and Pakistan would have to pay such a very heavy price likely beyond our imaginations.

Nazish Jun 06, 2015 01:10pm

Excellent comparison with Dante's inferno. Loved the whole article!

Akram Jun 06, 2015 01:41pm

@Raj "The statement clearly indicates that the armed forces are more powerful than the democratically elected people's representatives!!" I'm glad you got that off your chest. Right now Pakistanis couldn't care less if army is more powerful than govt, they just want to get rid of the power of the mullahs.

UMAR Jun 06, 2015 01:49pm

This problem will remain unsolved till the education level improved in villages and slums of big cities. People send their children to such so called religious madressah and small mosques with fanatic molvies because they have no means to send their children anywhere else due to poverty and lack of jobs.

Malang Baloch Jun 06, 2015 01:59pm

i wish pakistan were a secular state with a mission to become a welfare state and an example of equality and prosperity. until these Madressas which teaches hatred all the time and preaches an ancient way of life which is in collision course with our modern needs, there is no future for those who are doing it and to those who silently let it happened. there are few pakistani intellectuals who have the guts to write something realistic. professor you are always an inspiration for us. i am an openly secular person and i am an atheist and i have every right to live in peace and be treated as an equal citizen in this country. these Madressas have not right to call me a Mortath, an apostate, and preach hatred against me!

farooq moazam Jun 06, 2015 02:18pm

A perfect and courageous article, as rightly pointed out this requires wisdom to tackle the situation. Perhaps the whole subject is subdued by one primary factor in our society that is wrong and overpreaching which conveniently opens up indoctrination and exploitation. Initially it must have been initiated for some vested interests but ever since afghan war and the affected generation which follows that ideology it is now a visciuos phenomena.

Like our esteemed professor who appreciates ALLAHs creations by understanding physics, a true approach is education disconnected from uncontrolled and meaningless preachers. Again the biggest challenge are the individuals in control and govern but truly orthodox and ritualistic without reasoning!!!

Ranjha Jun 06, 2015 02:49pm

Yes, your exalted one, the man has great reputation, including famously driving the Water Car and proclaiming, on national television, that this will solve the national energy crisis.

A man is known by the company he keeps.

wellwisher Jun 06, 2015 03:05pm

writer and speaker like hassan nisar and pervez saab are the only hope for peace loving civilains of pakistan....may god give them required strength to save the neighbours.......

Aghast Jun 06, 2015 03:57pm

Pervez and the many millions who think likewise have to act and act very fast. Otherwise we all go the way brave Salman Taseer, and many thousands have gone. this is no hyperbole, this is a most serious matter. The west has been continuously reminding us of this most devious, and insidious threat from within. Education, social reform, civic sense, has to overcome indoctrination and brainwashing, otherwise forget Pakistan. Officialdom as mentioned in the article are cowards, they do not have the courage to stand. No one takes on ownership, no one takes responsibility. In a situation as the status quo prevails what does one do. Unite. Like the Mullah's have done or simply bear the consequences, and bear the fate as brave Salman Taseer did.

4N Jun 06, 2015 04:01pm

@P. S. Natarajan well said. But this region is not allowing that space.

Wajih Uddin Qidwai Jun 06, 2015 04:18pm

you can not enter or interfere within the domain of Religion without the permission of its so called owners and nobody has courage, within the government, to say anything against these religions clerics. Nothing is going to happen against these madarsahs those are untouchables.

Khalid Jun 06, 2015 04:24pm

@Malang Baloch I agree. We need more people like you in our beloved Pakistan. Fanatics and illiterates have destroyed Pakistan.

Faisal Maqnateesi Jun 06, 2015 05:04pm

What an irony!! For once in his life Rasheed says something sensible and it gets him into trouble!!

Parvez Jun 06, 2015 09:19pm could not have been more truthful or more correct. This sadly, also reads as an irrefutable indictment of the establishment.

TARIQ Jun 06, 2015 09:41pm

The simplest solution should be to go back to the Republic of Pakistan as it used to be called, rather than The Islamic Republic. Over time it will heal the nation.

Ahmed Jun 06, 2015 09:50pm

You are brave man sir.

yawar Jun 06, 2015 10:14pm

knowledge of Pakistani youth must be corrected, religious extremism should be cleansed. this can be done by easy mentoring, schools, colleges, books, parents and not by force. use of force can trigger inevitable clash between two extremes and their will be no difference between the us and TTP.

think_then_speak Jun 06, 2015 10:40pm

very true. The monster of religious extremism is unleashed and no one is willing to face it. It is devouring the people and minions of this monster the mullahs are busy in thumping their chests. They are selling destruction for the generations to come.

Level headed Jun 06, 2015 10:53pm

How can common people counter act this most insidious cancer, people at large have to give suggestions and act. If this continues as it will and government functionaries are simply too scared, then really we and all like minded have to form a platform, otherwise either leave Pakistan, or create a secular Pakistan for people like you and me. This is an unacceptable, intolerable, mind set.

Rashid Sultan Jun 06, 2015 11:01pm

@Jalaluddin S. Hussain But how will it stop radicalisation and bigotry?

fida, USA Jun 06, 2015 11:06pm

In nutshell the problem is that no one loves Jinnah's Pakistan. On one side is Religious fanatics and on the other side are those always ready to please their masters in the west. In between the large population is struggling to meet their daily survival. If only we had followed Jinnah's speeches, warnings and his ethical behavior, we would have avoided the pit falls. Presently we are in dire situation, but can change course if we follow him in letter and spirit.

Concerned Jun 06, 2015 11:15pm

I am really alarmed to learn the place my home country is becoming where even a sitting minister has to retract from the truth he spoke on spreading fanaticism through madrassahs!!! Time for for all politicians to sit together and come up and act on solutions before it is tooo late.

Fazal Karim Jun 06, 2015 11:35pm

I am seriously worried about Pervez Hoodbhoy.

A Ali Jun 07, 2015 02:30am

I am interested following from above article ,,,, rest must be good.

Not a single voice in government defended the information minister.

above sentence does not means that Govt was NOT defending Parvez on purpose, no, not at all... in fact they were not knowing what does Parvez Rasheed means ... it took them lot of days to finally understand what he said...

One Individual Jun 07, 2015 09:54am

@Fazal Karim: We are all concerned about this good profoundly educated person who shares his good fortune of a good mind and reading with humanity.