In spite of the gradual infiltration of ubiquitous religious symbolism and mentality in the social spheres of everyday life, Pakistan has managed to remain afloat as a pluralistic society comprising various ethnicities, religions and Muslim sects.
However, starting in the late 1970s, an anti-pluralistic process was initiated by the Ziaul Haq dictatorship that soon spiralled beyond mere posturing and sloganeering.
With the ‘Afghan jihad’ raging against the former Soviet Union, Zia, his intelligence agencies and parties like the Jamat-i-Islami and Jamiat Ulema-i-Islam started embracing a narrow and highly politicised version of Islam. This was done to radicalise large sections of Pakistani Muslims who had historically been part of a more apolitical and tolerant strains of the faith.
Most Pakistanis related to the shrine culture and the sufi traditions of the subcontinent, and thus, were least suitable to fight a ‘jihad’ that Zia was planning to peddle in Afghanistan at the behest of the CIA. Pakistanis’ beliefs were not compatible at all with this new strain of a political Islam. To compensate this ideological ‘deficiency’, the Zia regime (with American and Arab money) helped start indoctrination centres in the shape of thousands of jihadist madrassas.
Almost all of them were run by radical puritans. These were preachers and ‘scholars’ who had become critical of the strains of the faith that most Pakistanis adhered to. Accusing these strains of being ‘adulterated’, they advocated the more assertive charms of ‘political Islam’, of the likes recommended by Abul Ala Maududi, Sayyid Qutb and Khurram Murad.
These three men were simply updating the proto-Islamist thoughts of people like Shah Waliullah. Waliullah was an 18th century Indian Muslim scholar who campaigned to rally the Muslims of the subcontinent by inviting them to fight an armed jihad against the British. Waliullah insisted that such a jihad also required a rejection of western education and political ideals. His jihad was also directed against the ‘folk Islam’ of Indian Muslims (that he thought was close to Hinduism), insisting on a literal interpretation of the Quran and Sunnah.
Promoting literalism, Waliullah also propagated religious exhibitionism, i.e. compulsory keeping of beards, wearing of burqas and the glorification of ‘Daagh-e-Sajood’ (the mark one gets on his/her forehead due to vigorous prostrating).
Interestingly, Shah Waliullah was an obscure figure until he was resurrected from the 19th century onwards by various Muslim historians and leaders, especially those in search of heroes to rally the Muslims of the subcontinent against a perceived danger of Hindu majority-ism and infiltration of western cultural ethos. So when men like Maududi (through scholarship) and then Zia (through propaganda and draconian laws) revived this puritanism, a ‘real Islam’ started to mean violent jihad, xenophobia, cultural isolationism, religious coercion, and, at times, a display of sheer barbarism that was proudly explained away as acts replicating the mythologised ways of medieval Muslim heroes. Since this new meaning of the faith did not exhibit any tolerance whatsoever for any critique (scholarly or otherwise), the tradition of meaningful debate on matters of religion too got lost. The open debate culture was now labelled as ‘a conspiratorial secular tool to defame Islam’. For the last 30 years or so, certain cliched notions about patriotism and sovereignty tied to the notions of faith have been cleverly engineered into our system.
That’s why most Pakistanis today, both young and old, go off the moment anyone dares question such notions. These retaliatory sparks are nothing more than what has been uncritically lapped up by these people as faith and history. Puritan Islamists have a habit of invoking events and memories from early Islamic history. But none of their listeners bother to realise that this history is derived from documents written by men who were writing it as a way to guard the political and dynastical interests of the caliphs, ameers and kings that they served.
Also, most of the sources from which Islamists concoct their narratives and law were documented only from the 8th century onwards or almost 150 to 200 years after the arrival of Islam. It’s a case of ‘backward projection’ an act in which someone who wants to justify a present-day religious dictate, does so by suggesting this was what happened at the birth of his/her faith. Such a person does so not through historical fact or dispassionate scholarship, but by using the tradition of hearsay and latter day myth-making around historical events.
In such a scenario, when certain disturbing events start taking place in the name of faith, how can one expect Pakistanis to react? Most of us just shy away, or distract ourselves by blaming the ‘enemies of Islam’. By continuing to tolerate a psychopathic, militant fringe for so long, we have actually helped it metamorphose into an unrestrained monster that has zero tolerance for what we think or do. This fringe risks becoming a mainstream event. Today, this frozen but arrogant mindset creates grave social and political dichotomies amongst Muslims and other religious and secular beliefs held by Pakistanis.