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Are Pakistanis extremists?

August 01, 2012


THERE are two ways of effecting a change in a society: from top to bottom or from bottom to top. Conventionally, it has been believed — and development and political strategies are based on this notion — that changes at the top and the trickle-down effect will create an impact at the bottom, where it is needed.

Unfortunately, this approach has failed in our case for two reasons. First, in the absence of statesmanship in the leadership and its corruption, the vested interests at the top support the status quo. Hence they obstruct changes in the system or their policies for the benefit of the majority. Second, there is no pressure or demand from below to force those at the helm to reform themselves and the system they administer.

Most human rights activists fighting for change adopt the top-down approach. This means that any change in mindset comes about in a small class which the leaders can afford to ignore. Hence my scepticism of this approach, which includes advocacy as has been practised in Pakistan. This was my reaction when I received a lovely book from the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan, Inteha Pasandi sey Nijaat Mumkin hai. The optimistic tone of the title at least forces one to read it in the hope of finding solutions. Experts such as I.A. Rehman, Dr Mubarak Ali, Dr Pervez Hoodbhoy, Dr Mehdi Hasan, etc, give an excellent analysis of the extremism and militancy that plague this country today.

Will those who need to be convinced read this book? Or will this be another attempt to preach to the already converted? If the idea is to get the authorities to accept the enlightened suggestions put forward in the book, it is doubtful if these words of wisdom will actually change anything. Policymakers are the ones who are supposed to act when you demand a new social contract, revision of our textbooks or the introduction of economic justice by reforming our social and political structures. Will they? Not without public pressure from below.

Only when the masses feel the need for change will they create the demand that will force the government to act. In the absence of this demand the powers that be get away with all their anti-people shenanigans.

This demand also has to be mobilised and channelised. Change has been slow in coming to our society because we do not have leaders of public opinion to create a progressive mindset and give a focus to opinion at the grass roots. This is basically the function of political parties. They have, however, failed to play this role because our democracy — even in the phases when it has existed — has been a sham. The political representatives have not felt the need to gather their constituents behind them as they have devised other ways of winning votes.

Only activists with a liberal agenda working on the ground at the grass roots have managed to mobilise the people and effect some changes in their lives. But they have not made an impact nationally because their reach and resources are limited.

As a result, our society displays a dichotomy that is mind-boggling. The visible layer that is organised, educated and affluent — but is in a minority — demonstrates a growing trend towards religiosity and extremism. Some sections even tend to be militant. For the masses that live below the poverty line, religion is limited to going to the mosque, fasting in Ramazan and observing the ‘Islamic’ dress code. Their opinions cannot even be defined as being extremist, intolerant or militant in the way some opinion surveys project them to be.

As for disrupting law and order, that is beyond them. Parveen Rahman, director of the Orangi Pilot Programme Research Training Institute, who has been working at the grass roots in the low-income localities of Karachi and rural Sindh and Punjab, says she is surprised by the patience and lack of aggression shown by people in the face of extreme hardship created by the collapse of the state.

Apart from the terrorism unleashed by Islamist militants who are driven by their political goal of seizing power, the violence that is tearing our society apart is related to issues not of a religious nature.

The media, academia and the middle class have been penetrated by organised groups — be they the Islami Jamiat Talaba, the Jamaat-i-Islami, Al Huda — or parties that continue to play their proselytising role concertedly. They also provide welfare services through organised networks whose presence cannot be ignored. They win the confidence of the students and the mosque-going and TV-watching middle classes.

Parveen Rahman confirms that only by interacting with the people, identifying with them and ensuring that some benefits accrue to them can you win their trust and mobilise them.

In his insightful book, Pakistan: Social and Cultural Transformation in a Muslim Nation, Prof Mohammad Qadeer, a professor emeritus from Queen’s University, Canada, points out that developments in Pakistan have “widened the chasm between private and public spaces” with public interest being trumped by private commitments. This is reflected in pervasive corruption and inefficiency.

This has left people feeling isolated and insecure. The religious parties are scrambling to fill the vacuum so created, while liberal and secular opinion lags behind as it lacks adequate structures to counteract the religious thrust. This is the area that needs to be addressed by liberals if the country is to be saved from the scourge of religious extremism. The poor are no problem.