Roots of our intolerance -by Khaled Ahmed

Pakistan is worried about the rising intolerance in its society. It is a collective version of hate, but is a natural human instinct at the level of the individual. If someone hurts you, it will be your natural response to hate him. At the collective level, however, you can hate someone without first being hurt by him. As an individual, you might hurt the man back; but as a part of the collective identity, you might even kill someone who has done you no harm.

Intolerance worries because it carries violence in its wake. It concerns identity and targets those who seem different, just like animals. In his seminal work Identity and Violence: The Illusion of Destiny (WW Norton 2006), Amartya Sen says tolerance of an identity different from your own, is possible if you cultivate many identities within yourself.

But some states cultivate an intense single identity under nationalism and open the door to what is called exclusion — exclusion of those who are different, like non-Muslims in the Muslim state. The non-Muslims are ‘separated’ on the Pakistani flag by their placement in the white patch, a kind of symbolic ghettoisation. States have been damaged by their intense single identity and have learnt to practise pluralism, which means the state treats all its different inhabitants alike.

But intolerance springs from other sources as well. One source is the traditional society where conservatism, as opposed to modernism, is the natural instinct. A traditional society seeks to interpret the present as an extension of the past; a modern society will connect the present with the future. The conservative person, dwelling on the past, will cultivate certitude as his basis of argument; the modern man, uncertain about the future and accepting social change, will cultivate uncertainty or doubt as the basis of his argument. It is self-doubt and questioning that causes one to accept someone who is different.

An Islamic state will nurture a conservative society to ensure its survival and to keep its central dogma from being altered in the light of changing circumstances. To ensure the linkage with the ‘ideal past’, it will describe a trajectory that tightens rather than loosens the state’s laws. The Muslim mind inclines to a ‘hardening’ of the trajectory of evolution to achieve perfection; the idea of perfection in the modern world is couched in a ‘softening’ trajectory. Pakistan’s evolution is described by a hardening of its religious ideology, from the Objectives Resolution in 1949 to the Blasphemy Law in 1991.

In the modern state, the constitution is usually tough followed by ‘softening’ amendments. In Pakistan, the constitution was soft to begin with; then the amendments took away rights instead of bestowing more of them. Intolerance is embedded in the evolution of the Islamic state. After General Zia’s Islamisation, the next stage in Pakistan’s evolution is signalled in the ideology of the Taliban, who want the country converted to an emirate.

Certainty is at the root of intolerance because it makes you judgemental, that is, judging those unlike you. The habit of doubt and questioning causes tolerance of that which is different. Certainty closes the mind and gives rise to two tendencies: Rejection of the variant point of view and the forcible imposition of one’s own view on others. Both these traits are contained in the personality of the ideological state.

Certainty closes the mind and makes religion redundant. Reading the Holy Quran with a closed mind can be dangerous. A Barelvi reading it will identify his Barelvi world view in it; the Deobandi reading it will extract anti-Barelvi lessons from it. The Muslim mind is closed by certainty.

Originally published in The Express Tribune, May 22nd, 2011.