The question of tolerance —Rasul Bakhsh Rais


Intolerance stems from arrogance, from a belief that a person’s religion and ideology are true while all else is false. But above all intolerance grows from an individual taking responsibility for scrutinising and guarding the beliefs and practices of other and passing a final judgement on them.

We need to build tolerance by reforming the education system. A public education system that functions and has quality and public trust will go a long way toward cultivating young persons in modern values of respecting diversity and an opposite point of view

It is hard to contest the growing view that in recent decades, the social trends in Pakistani society have changed a bit for the worse in becoming less respectful of diversity. The question is, is it accommodative of or tolerant toward the religious difference as it used to be about three decades back? Our tentative answer is that it is not.

What is then the trend? The trend is toward seeking conformity to the dominant views on religion and religious values. There are many causes for this, but one of the salient ones is the failure to develop educational institutions into places of free debate and inquiry. We cannot expect it to happen with poor quality of academic leadership. And of course another reason is political expediency guiding the policies of governments that have lacked a vision and a practical programme to restore true spirit of learning and reflection in the colleges and universities.

We need to focus more on modern institutions than on other factors is for obvious reason; the primary function and the historical identity of the academy is associated with the training of free thinking, rational, tolerant and open individual that develops himself to respecting others and giving equal value and respect to beliefs of others. Sadly, our colleges and universities that churning out graduates in thousands and the majority of those who are imparting them modern knowledge lack some of the essential qualities of modern man.

Let me also discuss briefly two other reasons for growth of extremism and violence. The first is the worsening quality of governance at all levels. Contrary to official claims, our system of governance, including all branches has deteriorated. There are so many elegant philosophical and political debates, mainly in the western societies, about the purposes of the government.

These debates are open to everyone, and are part of collective human heritage; our rulers will greatly benefit by opening some pages of literature on why the government was created. Even if we take the first principle, law and order, being the primary responsibility of the government, we see a poor record of the Islamic Republic.

Most of the questions about law and order become centred on the fundamental rights of the individual—life, property, and in the Lockean sense, pursuit of liberty. Property rights are poorly enforced; life, if not short and brutish, its fullness and self-actualisation is uncertain and problematic; and liberty is hostage to tradition, conservative religious values and hybrid of feudal authoritarianism. The combination for these forces overtime has created an intolerant society. Because all elements of the iron triangle—mullah, bureaucracy and the feudal by their class interests and organisational culture seek conformity and punish dissent.

Whether or not the ruling classes help create a pluralistic social order would depend on what is their vision of the society and what institutions they create to resolve conflicts and help create a pluralistic social order. To gauge their capacity we need to look at their own socialisation or social learning. In the end it is culture of our ruling elites and their being insensitive or sensitive to larger question of social injustice violence against women, religious minorities that would increase tolerance or intolerance.

Our debate about the failure of the state in dealing with religious, ethnic and sectarian violence often revolves around its capacities. That is true, but not enough an explanation. The general mindset of three major groups that I have referred to above and their attitudes, values and orientation toward accommodation of difference need to be looked at closely to understand ineffectiveness of the government.

Intolerance stems from arrogance, from a belief that a person’s religion and ideology are true while all else is false. But above all intolerance grows from an individual taking responsibility for scrutinising and guarding the beliefs and practices of other and passing a final judgement on them.

The numbers of men and women who think it is their primary religious duty to make other Muslims believe and behave like them seem to be growing. They are possessed with an artificial sense of certitude, authenticity and being on the right-path to influence others’ religious and social choices.

A good number of them have become self-appointed soldiers of God, His judges and executioners. Violence motivated by sectarian considerations is not so infrequent and takes many forms of humiliation, physical assault and target killings of prominent individuals—religious scholars, professionals and community leaders of rival sects.

Religion is part of life and society and will remain so even in post-industrial societies, though it may take different forms. Religion has a great value in answering questions about the mystery of existence and giving a positive and purposive direction to a person’s life.

But we cannot rely on religion alone to create a peaceful, orderly and tolerant society. An individual made up of greed, ambitions and lust for power cannot be tamed by religious values alone. This role has to be played by the state through its strong arm of law. But then, law cannot be strong enough without the rule of law. Here we are back to the basics.

Never will intolerance and violence disappear from Pakistani or any society for that matter with sermons, speeches and florid statement of religious and political leaders. We must start a reform process in the governance, accountability of ruling political groups that have alternated in power.

We need to build tolerance by reforming the education system. A public education system that functions and has quality and public trust will go a long way toward cultivating young persons in modern values of respecting diversity and an opposite point of view.

The process of promoting social change and cultivating modern rational attitudes of tolerance of difference is a long-term developmental issue. No matter how difficult and long this social journey might be but we must set ourselves on this path by investing more in social development and by making calculated interventions through law and public policy into the structures of our social and political life.

Tolerance is dependent on culture, religious orientations and general social framework of the society. Our tradition cultural values both in social and religious realms were tolerant of other communities and accorded respect to the beliefs and practices of other religions and sects within Islam.

Unfortunately, the traditional social pluralism has been under constant threat for the last thirty years mainly because of militancy among some of the religious sects. This trends must be reversed, but it is not going to happen without major reforms, good political, better governance and rule of law regime.

Dr Rasul Bakhsh Rais is author of “Recovering the Frontier State: War, Ethnicity and State in Afghanistan” (Oxford University Press, 2008) and a professor of Political Science at the Lahore University of Management Sciences. He can be reached at rasul@lums.edu.pk (Daily Times)