In the name of faith

Published September 27, 2008

IN a moving article on this page (`Not in the name of faith`, Sept 21), Kunwar Idris reminded us of the treatment being accorded to the Ahmadis in Pakistan.

He mentioned the three murders that took place this month in the aftermath of a television talk-show in which one of the participants said Ahmadis were `wajib-ul-qatal`, or deserving of death.

A few days later, the Marriott hotel in Islamabad was targeted by a suicide bomber, killing around 60 people, most of them Muslims. Before and since, many other innocent victims have been murdered in the name of faith. So what do all these deaths have in common? Two things firstly, these people are killed because one group believes it has a monopoly on faith, and anybody who does not subscribe to their version of it should be killed; and secondly, those who murder in the name of their faith are rarely caught and punished, unless they are suicide bombers.

According to Kunwar Idris, 105 Ahmadis have been killed since the community was declared non-Muslims in 1974. In the recent murders, the motivation seems to have come from the popular religious talk show, Alim Online, in which the participants vilified Ahmadis without anybody present explaining or defending their viewpoint. This kangaroo court was presided over by the smarmy presence of Dr Amir Liaquat Hussain, who was seen constantly rubbing his hands in delight during the proceedings, without once interrupting his guests who were virtually inciting viewers to murder.

When private TV channels began to sprout across the airwaves, I had high hopes that they would alter the political and social landscape. Given the power of the medium, it can act as a major agent of change. However, while many of these channels have challenged the political establishment, they have seldom questioned the intolerance that holds sway in our society. Indeed, more often than not, they have reinforced existing prejudices.

Most analysts and commentators seem to feel that the freedom of the press is to be used only to criticise the government of the day. But that`s the easy bit. Although useful, the true test of independence lies in the ability and willingness to take on rigid beliefs that have resulted in most of the country remaining backward and ignorant. And this, I am sorry to say, is a test the Pakistani media have failed.

When I am in Pakistan, I frequently flip across the spectrum, hoping to see an intelligent, iconoclastic talk-show. Time after time, I am disappointed. Mostly, guests agree with each other, and the hosts seldom provoke them by asking tough, probing questions. Even here in England, the wonders of satellite technology allow me to watch several Pakistani TV networks, and I am struck by the lack of controversial topics raised in these programmes.

Over the years, I have received literally hundreds of emails from readers accusing me of towing the western line over the war against extremism. I suppose this is the result of arguing consistently that this is not America`s war, but ours; and irrespective of what Washington does, we need to fight this battle for our own survival. By and large, this kind of anti-western sentiment is echoed across our television channels and our print media. Our talk-show stars and our newspaper pundits sing from the same hymn-book as they repeat their jingoistic mantra of sovereignty and nationalism.

I can understand the thought process of the Taliban in their different manifestations as they wreak mayhem across Pakistan. They believe in a cause, and are willing to kill and die for it. I happen to abhor everything they stand for, but at least I know where they are coming from and what they want.

However, what I cannot grasp is the position so many of our urban elites have adopted. They appear to want Pakistan to be a modern, prosperous country that is part of the rest of the world. They also seem to want to live in the 21st century with the rest of us. So why is it that they think we should not be fighting the Taliban? Basically, their hatred for America has blinded them to the real threat these extremists pose. Perhaps they imagine that if western troops were to leave Afghanistan tomorrow, peace would return to the region overnight.

Wake up and smell the danger out there. The Taliban want nothing less than the imposition of the Sharia. And obviously, they are not going to tolerate any dissent, such as the kind of anti-government commentary so common in the media today. In a very real sense, our commentariat are making the task of the Taliban easier. By equating opposition to the Taliban with pro-western opinion, they are, consciously or unconsciously, preparing the way for an extremist victory.

Oddly, many of my online critics are women who accuse me of taking a belligerent line when it comes to fighting the Taliban menace. When I ask them if they would like to live under a benighted version of Islamic law such as the one the Taliban imposed in Afghanistan, they immediately say they don`t. Basically, all these people would like their cake and eat it too. They want to vent against the Americans, and they want the extremists to stay a long distance away, too. Sorry, friends, but you have to choose no neutrals allowed in this war.

Over the years, intolerance has hardened and become a murderous element that is now threatening to break up Pakistan. Whether this is expressed in the form of a truck of explosives detonated outside the Marriott; an Ahmadi killed because his beliefs do not conform to mainstream orthodoxy; a Christian attacked on the grounds of his faith; or a Hindu girl kidnapped because she has no protection in a Muslim state, it all leads back to the same strain of intolerance that says `I am right, and you are wrong. And because you are wrong, I have the right to kill you.`

We need to be very clear that all these everyday examples from contemporary Pakistani society reveal a nation at war with itself. More than ever before, this violent zeal needs to be fought by moderates. We need to hear more voices of reason and sanity that oppose the simplistic, black-and-white worldview of the fundamentalists. And the media has a duty to promote this peaceful vision.



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