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Forward to the past

October 29, 2015


The writer is a political and development economist.
The writer is a political and development economist.

THE movie Back to the Future portrayed humanity’s high-tech future. But fundamentalists distort scriptural teachings to pursue ‘forward to the past’ narratives where futures mirror ancient pasts.

Recent experiences across the four ‘billionaire’ religions (billion-plus adherents) reveal five states. Progressivism desires chang­­ing with the times. Conservatism changes very reluctantly. Fundamentalism, led by fringe groups, desires change but in reverse to ancient ways. Extremism arises when powerful entities start supporting fundamentalism to supplant broader conservatism for political gains, producing random violence. Terrorism emerges when violence become systematic and frequent, with support from political sponsors or when sponsors start curbing violence as it becomes counterproductive. Thus, fringe fundamentalism’s transformation to large-scale terrorism encompasses politics more than religion.

‘Muslim’ fundamentalism has expanded the most since 1980. The 1980s follies of the world’s richest country, biggest oil producer and second biggest Muslim country lifted a global jihad philosophy existing obscurely for centuries to centre stage. Pakistan supported such groups to further regional goals. Many see Pakistani terrorism today as the inevitable consequence of using religion poli­tically since before 1947.

However, Pakistan’s religion-politics nexus is different and covers four phases. During 1940-1971, Westernised politicians used religion opportunistically to tackle domestic com­­­­­­pulsions. During the 1970s, again a Westernised politician used reli­­gion opportunistically to tackle domestic but also external compulsions. This produ­ced Pakistan’s first major anti-minorities law as Ahmadis were sanctioned under Saudi pressure.

Terrorism is seen as the result of using religion politically.

During the 1980s, a devout dictator-leader first used religion in Pakistan both ideologically and opportunistically. Saudi-Salafist influence gave global jihadist views prominence and led to terrorism. Without these politically driven foreign influences, Pakis­tan’s dominant religious sects would have produced extremism, as common regionally, but not global jihadist terrorism.

Since Zia, religious opportunism by non-devout leaders has prevailed. As violence became self-consuming, the crackdown has started. But critics slam its selectivity. Afgha­nistan says Pakistan still hosts the Afghan Taliban. Pakistan earlier claimed it banished them during Zarb-i-Azb. It now says it cannot both fight and facilitate talks with them.

Pakistan should reconsider using the Tali­ban to counter Indian influence in Afgha­nistan. Instead, together with China, it should offer Afghanistan economic incentives to become a place where neighbours compete economically, not politically. But security minds can only imagine self-defeating war games to gain regional clout. Commercial minds instead curry it through win-win economic means. Unsurprisingly, countries do better when commercial minds prevail.

India too gripes with Pakistan regarding terrorism, as does Pakistan now with India. But Pakistan has suffered far more terrorism. If Pakistan truly believes India supports massive cross-border terrorism while Pakistan does not, it should, more than India, be insisting that terror talks precede other talks. Strangely, it eschews terror talks first.

This puzzles ‘unpatriotic’ Pakistanis like me who, inspired by Islamic teachings, ‘treasonously’ place loyalty to the truth above loyalty to Pakistan. Pakistan recently submitted dossiers to the US. If they contain concrete evidence then Pakistan should make them public. This will silence doubters, embarrass India and force the US to react.

Other major religions suffer from fundamentalism too but produce less violence. The ‘Christian’ Lord’s Resis­tance Army, supported by Uganda’s neighbours, introduced mass mutilations and sex slavery decades before the self-styled Islamic State.

Western countries too experience infrequent religious extremism, raising the worry that even high incomes and education do not eradicate fundamentalism. Politically supported ‘Buddhist’ fundamentalism is fanning extremism in Sri Lanka and Myanmar. ‘Hindu’ extremism is undermining India’s secularism. While the Indian upper classes generally support secularism (unlike Pakis­tanis who generally prefer vague, feel-good religiosity in politics), Indian masses are more conservative.

Consequently, even secular politicians ex­­ploit religion for petty gains. Under the BJP, ideology is now buttressing opportunism, as in Zia-era Pakistan, raising the spectre of similar outcomes. However, ‘Hindu’ and other fundamentalisms will unlikely thrive like ‘Muslim’ fundamentalism, lacking its massive opportunistic support by several powerful countries.

Evolutionary psychology suggests that fundamentalism and even conservatism, being counterproductive traits now, will disappear with further human evolution. Until then, politicians must control fundamentalism, firstly by not supporting it for petty gains.

The writer is a political and development economist.

Published in Dawn, October 29th, 2015

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