A requiem for freedom – By Ayesha Siddiqa

Religion must be reinterpreted, not to make it acceptable to the rest of the world but to breathe life into the Muslim world itself…. Such people, who subscribe to the ideology of Hameed Gul — Pakistan’s indigenous version of Osama bin Laden — see the battle in terms of a clash of civilisations. Here is an op-ed by Dr Ayesha Siddiqa on this topic.

One is often asked whether or not Pakistan will survive the current crisis. You tell them that, yes, Pakistan will survive. After all, territories don’t grow feet to walk away with.

There is a sigh of relief and those asking the question happily walk away despite one’s attempts to draw their attention to the fact that there is something fundamentally changed about Pakistan.

In fact, there are some seriously sad things happening around us that do not grab people’s attention because all they are bothered about is the survival of the physical. Saving the soul is not an idea that catches the public’s attention.

I wonder how many people notice the rapidly changing world around them. Suicide attacks and bomb blasts add to the din created by those who are busy establishing a new brand of nationalism which has no shade of tolerance, pluralism or multi-polarity. There are young bloggers who believe that all forms of dissent especially those that challenge their version of nationalism must be silenced. One would not be surprised if they use uncivil methods to achieve their objective.

Another set of people believes that killing is justified as long as it happens in other countries. Conceptually, there is no difference between the thinking of this lot and others who have been murdering innocent people in this and other countries. After all, terrorism is a byproduct of extremism.

Two decades after Ziaul Haq the general is still remembered for changing the nature of state and society. We have not even begun to think about the generation that is being fed on erroneous dreams of attaining national and civilisational glory through brute force. They are being fed tales of Pakistan and the Mujahideen defeating the communist superpower. They hope to perform a similar feat.

Just imagine what will happen inside Pakistan after the US forces begin to withdraw in 2011 — in fact, how about a withdrawal from Afghanistan accompanied by a drastic reduction in America’s financial power which is already happening? This is not to say that the Americans should remain there but that there are elements who will don the victor’s mantle and trample on the rest of society in Afghanistan, and try to do the same in the rest of the world. Choosing sides is no longer an easy task.

Such people, who subscribe to the ideology of Hameed Gul — Pakistan’s indigenous version of Osama bin Laden — see the battle in terms of a clash of civilisations. From the point of view of such people, the world is back to the days of the Crusades except that this time it is the Muslim world up in arms against all other civilisations. Therefore, an American withdrawal would be tantamount to the supremacy of one race over another. Sadly, they are not alone in their adventure.

It is sadder to observe some of those, who were formerly from what was deemed as the liberal left in Pakistan, arguing that the Taliban should not be pushed until the Americans are out. Such an argument is made without recalling that the partnership between the liberal left and the extreme right in Iran was at the cost of the former. The left represented by Ali Shariati didn’t realise how fast it was taken over and swallowed by its partners.

Mention must also be made of the centrist liberals in Pakistan who believe that the right can and must be eliminated. In a nutshell there is a general lack of imagination in creating alternative ideological narratives that are easily comprehensible and can be acted upon. No wonder the Sufi-pop music beat has not caught up with ordinary people.

However, my lament is not just for Pakistan but for the rest of the world as well where labels and ideologies entrap people. Terms like ‘Islamophobia,’ ‘Islamofascism’ and others represent the absolute absence of imagination. Or perhaps this is an easier method to keep the ordinary population engaged and look the other way while the corporate world saps states and societies.

It is interesting to read blogs on the Internet or get email messages from ordinary folk who believe that the only problem with the world is Islam and its ideology.

Such emails are welcome because at least there are some who would like to engage rather than get enraged without communicating with those on the other side of the ideological divide. Their comments reflect ignorance of their own religious history.

The other Semitic religions (even others) have had their fair share of their own version of the Taliban. The Taliban, for example, would envy what transpired between the Catholics and the Protestants in Ireland.

It is not that one religious ideology is inferior or superior to others. But bloodshed becomes the fate of societies once religions are monopolised by the ruling elite or used to enhance the power of some versus others. The killing of Jews by those that converted to Christianity is another good example of the abuse of religion for the sake of power.

An understanding of their own religious histories by adherents of other faiths would perhaps help them sympathise with Muslims who are at the moment caught between an angry world and an unimaginative religious interpretation and discourse by their own priestly class. A religion that came about to bring a social transformation must not fall prey to those who don’t understand its basic spirit and use it for their narrow power interests.

At this time religion must be reinterpreted, not to make it acceptable to the rest of the world but to breathe life into the Muslim world itself. The fact that this will improve relations with other communities is something that will follow naturally. To present the current crisis as a Judeo-Christian onslaught against Islam or vice versa is criminal. States and societies must understand that such an argument is a trap which can only take the common people towards disaster. As for Pakistan, I hope my readers can empathise with my lament for a country that is receding very fast like the dim lights dotting a distant shore. I don’t see this one being rescued. However, a new one where there is room for all to coexist must be imagined.

The writer is an independent strategic and political analyst.

Friday, 11 Dec, 2009 – Dawn