It was a very hot and bright day in July when I entered the main hall of a newly built private hospital in Peshawar for a medical checkup. A wave of cool breeze touched my face as I opened doors of the air-conditioned hall of the hospital. The semi-dark hall was covered with whiteness from one end to the other. Actually, it was a huge crowd of men in white shilwar Kameesz waiting to see doctors. The majority had beards. All of them had come from different parts of the Khyber Pukhtoonkhawa but almost all of them were wearing the same color traditional Pakistani dress.
While waiting for my turn, I heard the people around me talking about threats to Islam and how bad the Pakistani rulers were. Most people in the waiting area of the hospital had common opinions. They saw the world in black and white.
For the last 10 years, I visit Pakistan every few months. During each visit, I see that more and more of my friends and relatives have grown beards in a race to become ‘good Muslims’. Children are named after Osama Bin Laden and Saddam Hussein. The number of mosques and visits to mosques has increased tremendously in the past two decades. Young people are joining preaching tours of the Tabligi Jamat. There is a fear that Islam is in danger. Most ordinary people believe in a past that is glorified in school textbooks as well as in the media. People dream of an ideal Islamic society where all their problems will be resolved. Nevertheless, everyone appears to have his or her own interpretation of such Islamic society.
Religious zeal has been rising in Pakistan since the 1980s when the country was under a US-backed military dictatorship, however, the West’s occupation of Afghanistan and Iraq and the mass murder of innocent people in occupied Muslim lands has deeply affected thinking of many Pakistanis. They see the West as Muslims’ cruel and dishonest enemy. Reaction to the West’s continued aggression has led Pakistanis to seek the revival of the glorious Islamic past when Muslims dominated the world. Pakistan’s nuclear capability is a sign of great pride for a vast majority of Pakistanis as it gives them a sense of security against the West and from a perceived Indian threat.
Pakistanis are a wonderful people. In fact, in some ways, Pakistanis can be role models for other peoples and societies. They are warm and loving. They are sincere and simple. Pakistanis are kindhearted and emotional but they can be hotheaded if they observe unfairness. Indeed, the majority of Pakistanis believe in a fair and just world.
The institution of family is very strong and plays a central role in the lives of Pakistanis. In the Pakistani society husbands and wives are extremely faithful to each other. Values of love and respect are very dear to Pakistanis and they care a lot for their elderly and sick. Pakistanis are also among the few people who generously donate to charities and participate in charity work.
When recent floods hit Pakistan, the way people helped and supported each other was remarkable. There were wonderful and marvelous stories of exemplary human behavior. People opened their doors even for strangers. They provided them with food, shelter and offered flood victims with what ever they had, and not for a day or two but for weeks. In hundreds of cases several families were staying in one house but hosts were not bothered by their presence.
I saw young men risking lives to rescue the flood victims and their belongings. The house of a government minister in Nowshera came under the flood water but he was on the streets saving others’ houses. Charities and activists of different political parties worked day and night to save lives and properties.
Unfortunately, there is lot of confusion and mistrust in Pakistan. People are suffering from anxiety and depression. The situation is exacerbated by mullahs and the media while the military plays with peoples’ minds by putting its own spin on events and circumstances.
Many people are confused about Islam and Islamic teachings. They offer prayers, they talk about Islam but often they do not understand it. Instead of educating people on virtues of peace and tolerance, and about civic responsibilities the media and the mullahs protect powerful interest groups by playing the blame game. They do not criticize the military and the judiciary but civilian governments and foreign forces. The media and the mullahs spread rumors without verifying the validity of charges. Indeed, they can be held responsible for promoting a victim’s mentality in Pakistan.
Television anchorpersons wearing expensive cloths talk about the miseries of the poor, and armchair intellectuals write about conspiracies waged against Pakistan and its people by Pakistan’s inner and foreign enemies.
The media in Pakistan are biased, polarized and politicized. They have been poisoning the environment fanning mistrust and hate in the name of religion and ethnicity.
The media and the mullahs should also be blamed for intolerance, narrow-minded behavior and growing violence in the society. Self-obsessed, arrogant and intellectually bankrupt anchorpersons of TV talk shows encourage fights and negative sentiments. TV shows are loud and noisy where interviewers become more important than interviewees. Loud voices and aggressive gestures and body language precede any substance.
The Pakistani military, the mullahs and the media have jointly promoted a perception of Islam where the stress is on rituals and appearance. The spirit of Islam is based on kindness, honesty, modesty and simplicity but the mullahs terrify innocent people by portraying God as the unkind, mechanical and coldhearted force that just punishes poor and helpless sinners. Torture and violence in the name of the God are core messages coming out of those mosques which are led by semi-illiterate mullahs many of whom suffer from deep anger and other complexes including an inferiority complex. The character of Pakistani mullahs is darker than that of medieval European priests.
Before the Friday prayer, I often heard the mullahs giving fiery political speeches that were full of hate and anger. Their message was full of pessimism and hopelessness. They were using the platform of mosques and loudspeakers to spread fear. They were accusing others without a shred of proof that is in fact against the Islamic teachings.
Due to the confusion created by the media, the mullahs and their main sponsor, the military, contradicting and hypocritical behaviors have developed in the Pakistani society where people are forced to live double lives and believe in cultural and religious taboos. For example, many journalists, generals and politicians, including leaders of some religious parties, consume liquor but in public they staunchly oppose drinking alcohol.
A large number of Pakistani journalists demand residential plots and ask for other favors from the government. Hundreds of journalists have accepted bribes from successive governments in form of residential plots, licenses and permits to import or sell different products and services. They have obtained other favors as well. But the same journalists promote a false, confused and jingoistic brand of Islam through their writings and now in their television programs. There is no criterion to become a reporter or a journalist in Pakistan. Many journalists, writers, anchorpersons as well as editors and publishers are former activists of Jamat-e-Islami, a sister organization of the Muslim Brotherhood of Egypt and a traditional ally of the Pakistan Army. Large media organizations often ask for money if one wants to work as a reporter or a news stringer. Several media groups do not pay salaries to their staff because they expect that their reporters and writers can ‘earn money’ and thus do not need to be paid. A section of the media is closely connected with elements in the military that have been instrumental in undermining the civilian rule in Pakistan. The media in Pakistan have turned into mafia which has stakes in the corrupt system.
Because of the above factors usually it is not important how kind, affectionate, and humane a person is, what really matters if one attends prayers in his favorite mosque and how many hajj and Umras one has performed. Upper middle class of Pakistan is fascinated by imitating the West in spending money and showing off their possessions, while lower and lower middle classes have turned to a confused form of religion where just going to a mosque is not enough: you must go to your ‘own mosque’ as mosques have brands and categories based on sectarian divisions and ethnicity. One can be branded as an enemy of ‘true Islam’ if he visits a mosque that is visited by people who believe in a different Islamic school of thought. Dishonest traders, businessmen cruel to their employees, corrupt policemen and civil servants all offer prayers and pose as best Muslims.
During my stay in Peshawar, Nowshera and Rawalpindi Islamabad I saw mosques opposite to each other and even side by side. All mosques have a number of loudspeakers; some have extended the loudspeaker network beyond mosques. The loudspeakers are placed on roofs tops of houses, on electric posts and even in police stations. A mosque in Nowshera has installed its loudspeakers inside a police station. Another mosque has been built in a football stadium and it is gradually occupying the playground.
When the floods hit Nowshera there was no water and no power for more than a week but the mullahs continued giving speeches via the loudspeakers in mosques because they had generators to produce power. One mullah in Nowshera locked the mosque doors while homeless people with no food and water waited outside. The mullah would return to the mosque and bombard the people with his speeches but he would not let them use water or stay in the mosque.
Throughout the floods the military’s public relations department, the Inter Services Public Relations (ISPR) was engaged in building the image of the Pakistan Army. They portrayed the Army as the only peoples’ friendly institution while subtly denouncing the civilian government.
ATV Khyber is a Pashto language TV channel popular in the Khyber Pukhtoonkhawa, tribal areas and Afghanistan. This channel has a vast viewer ship in the Middle East as thousands of Pashtoons live and work in the Middle East. Surprisingly, ATV Khyber is owned by a Punjabi who is said to have deep links with the military establishment of Pakistan. Young men and women who appear on the Channel wear western costumes. Copying Bollywood actors, the young Pashtoon men and women speak Pashto with foreign accent and often mix English words with their Pashto. The Channel’s policy seems to fit into the goals of the US led ‘War on terror’ in Afghanistan that includes modernizing and pacifying Pashtoon worriers. However, there could be other agendas because soon after the floods reporters from the ATV Khyber were in the flood-affected areas asking pointed questions that targeted the civilian government and politicians. On the second day of the flood, I was interviewed by an Urdu TV channel but my interview was cut in the middle when I said that the Army helicopters were rescuing only army personals, and civilians were left out. The ISPR was using the tragedy to boost the Army’s image amidst cries and calls that the military should be in the driving seat for the fifth time. Some see the Chief Justice of Pakistan as the new man.
Well, Pakistan does not need a new man or a military driver to fix its problems. A General or a Judge cannot bring Pakistan out of the destructive illusions. Politicians, parents and teachers can. The starting point would be to give up the habit of living in the distorted and imaginary past and strongly reject all those who want to use the trap of reviving that past. A fresh historical, political and social narrative as well as honest and harsh soul searching may help Pakistan to find its place in the world.