It is the frightful institutions General Zia-ul Haq promoted and the retrograde educational systems he erected that have polluted the intellectual atmosphere of the land and given birth to today’s bigoted, obscurantist political culture
It is the month we in this part of the world have known for centuries as ‘Ramzan Sharif’, but which we now find corrected to ‘Ramadan-ul Kareem’. The prayer-time congregations at the big mosque near my home, which comprise numerous members of Karachi’s uber-bourgeoisie alongside more ordinary mortals, are significantly larger than usual.
The frequent discourse of the Pesh Imam who leads the prayers here concerns the Houris in Paradise, in praise of whom he becomes quite ecstatic, extolling their various charms in terms that are vividly physical. His other pet topic relates to the valiant warriors in Swat and Waziristan who are battling against the forces of Evil (he is not, let it be noted, referring to the armed forces of our Islamic Republic). He also sometimes speaks of a certain “tall Ghazi” in the mountains, on whom he invokes the Almighty’s blessings.
Some among the regular congregation at this particular place of worship do find these perorations excessive. But the mosque in question was set up by a certain friendly Islamic country (one known to give royal welcomes to former dictators) and is managed by their Consular Office. Its affairs are therefore beyond intervention by mere members of a congregation. Or is it merely the superstitious guilt of our tax-evading, bribe-negotiating elite that ensures the passive silence of the congregation?
This holiest of months also brings to my mind a certain exceedingly pious gentleman of my acquaintance. More than pious, he is regarded by his friends as something of an authority on matters to do with the Faith. Knowledgeable and especially well read, he greatly admires Hazrat Maulana Rashid Gangohi, the outstanding scholar who was one of the founders of the Deoband madrassa. The gentleman to whom I refer is a kindly soul, who can be depended upon for help by others. However, when in the course of conversation I chanced to remark that the most basic virtue lay in kindness towards others, he contradicted me. Kindness, he contended, was reserved for “pious, practicing Muslims”. As for others, they should be given a chance to mend their ways, after which “they would be Wajibul Qatal”.
Another person I chanced to meet — a finance man, no less — feels that people who do not attend Friday prayers “should simply be killed. Slit their throats!”
Now, this kind of sanguinary verbal ferocity is very different from the traditions of quiet piety and gentle acceptance in which most Muslims were brought up. I claim no expertise to suggest whether this or the other is the ‘correct’ version of Islamic thinking. However, there are certainly many scholars who hold that this aggressive literalism, popularly but incorrectly referred to as ‘fundamentalism’, is a doctrinal innovation of relatively recent origin. It is very much a product of the linear, pseudo-logical thinking that has characterised our violent and intolerant age — an age that began with the full flowering of modern imperialism in the nineteenth century and whose baleful cultural and psychic responses have long outlived their origins.
With this kind of intellectual legacy as a backdrop, what kind of political discourse is possible in Pakistan?
Well, as I pointed out in an earlier offering in these pages, the first political statement of the new Pakistani nation, as expressed by its founder addressing the first session of the new parliament, revolved around policy statements on law and order, black-marketing, corruption and nepotism without reference to any kind of ‘religious’ perspective. The latter was dismissed by the Quaid, stating that “All these angularities of the…Hindu community and the Muslim community…will vanish… not in the religious sense, because that is the personal faith of each individual, but in the political sense as citizens of the State.”
In the three decades between the Quaid’s death and the overthrow and murder of Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, the political debate, one of sometimes cyclonic intensity, revolved around perfectly worldly preoccupations, such as land reform, economic growth, adult franchise, constitutional rule, human rights and the rights of the federating units. Whether Nazimuddin or Ayub or Bhutto was in power, whether he was opposed by Suhrawardy or Mujib or Wali Khan or Bhashani, no specifically ‘Islamic’ nostrum was proposed by way of a solution to national problems. The key political actors all proposed alternate paths to modernisation and propounded contemporary ideologies.
It seems that this kind of ‘Islamic’ thinking was simply not a part of the Pakistani frame of reference, except among a tiny minority. More important, no one accused the other of being a ‘bad’ Muslim, or even thought to suggest that any person was Wajibul Qatal. The Islamic preoccupation (that so seems to obsess us today) was simply not one of the terms of the debate.
But something changed on the July 5, 1977, when we first heard the usurper of the day snarling on the media about his preference for what he called ‘an Islamic system’. It is the frightful institutions he thereafter promoted and the retrograde educational systems he erected that have polluted the intellectual atmosphere of the land and given birth to today’s bigoted, obscurantist political culture and its poisonous fallouts of violent insurgency, terrorism and cold-blooded mass murder.
Now, I am not suggesting that the Pesh Imam I described or any of the well-heeled members of his congregation are even remotely responsible for the horrific waves of violence and destruction continually convulsing the land. But is there not a kind of philosophical connection, a tacit acceptance that such acts of violence, and the war being waged against the state of Pakistan by these elements, are regrettable but somehow ‘understandable’?
While no comparison is being made or even suggested, is it far-fetched to see a kind of rhetorical-philosophical continuum connecting the fulminations of Maulvi Sufi Mohammed to the khatibs of Lal Masjid and still further on to the Pesh Imam I have written about here? Still more disturbing is the silence with which this Pesh Imam’s sermons are greeted by the genteel members of his congregation. Is their/our silence indifference or consent? Certainly, it is a key part of the enabling environment of terror.
To return to 1977, General Zia-ul Haq’s seizure of power was a pivotal point in our history. That seizure was ‘legitimised’ by the courts of this tragic land. The judges who were unwilling to oblige him (and even some like CJ Anwarul Haq of the Doctrine of Necessity fame, who perverted their oaths in his behalf) were removed through a Provisional Constitution Order. Sound familiar? His appalling constitutional innovations and the barbaric laws he promoted were enacted into statutes by the hand-picked, rubber stamp parliament he conjured into being…and then himself dismissed. He promoted and funded the massive multiplication of terrorist-factory madrassas. Even the ‘normal’ educational institutions suffered distortion of their syllabi, toxic textbooks and a total rewriting of the very history of this land of ours.
Finally, there are two points I would invite my reader to note. The first is that this usurper did all that he did against a popular, constitutionally empowered prime minister and parliament and under the shadow of the recently enacted Article 6. Please observe that all proved powerless to stop him.
The second point is that this most retrograde of dictators ruled virtually unshaken for over eleven years…challenged only, but without any diminution of his tenure or his power, by the Bhutto family and the women of this country. It seemed as if he could have been ruling for the rest of our lives. His death was an unexpected, unearned release for the people.
The writer is a marketing consultant based in Karachi. He is also a poet. (Daily Times)