Religious extremism: Bomb with the fuse lit – by Zafar Hilaly

Once upon a time to get on in Pakistan religion did not matter. On the other hand, a criminal record did not help. Today, by the looks of it, one can have a criminal record and still actually occupy sensitive positions in government or industry. Religion, though, continues to be immaterial; mostly because there is only one religion in Pakistan, the others are extinct, except statistically. But what does count is sect, so much so that one’s livelihood, nay, life, may depend on it.

From courageous and outspoken publications that dot the media landscape, amidst much trash, we learn that there are as many as 269 sects and sub-sects in Pakistan. And that since 1989 sectarian disputes have thus far accounted for 5,400 killed. We owe this malady to the fundamentalism injected into our politics by Ziaul Haq and his Salafist backers. It is not only Shias and Sunnis killing each other but, more so, sub-groups within sects that are likewise engaged in slaughter.

Religious sects and their custom-designed versions of paradise have also proliferated because of the impotence or indifference of the authorities. So much so that their members roam armed and unmolested, no one caring what they may be up to, which is mostly murder and mayhem. Some consider such ideological laissez faire as our sovereign right and take umbrage when others protest. More foolishly, others think that a use can be found for such peddlers of hate.

But, then, violence is common to Muslim political culture. Fourteen out of 37 caliphs were assassinated from 755 to 1258 AD, which is often described as the “golden age of Islam.” In fact, according to a revealing article published in the Friday Times (March 26), “ninety years of Ummayyad rule witnessed hundreds of skirmishes between rival Muslim armies. These included the armed invasions of Medina and Mecca by Umayyad armies, when rocks and flaming arrows were rained upon the Holy Ka’aba until it collapsed”. The fact that such data has been collated by Muslim scholars bothers some, because otherwise they could have dismissed it as “infidel” cant.

Look no further than the condition of the Ummah today, where unity is a fantasy. Of course, the best example is Afghanistan where devastating civil wars among rival Muslim ethnic groups have pushed that area from the Palaeolithic to the Stone Age. And what is one to make of the report, published in Der Spiegel, that the Saudis are so keen that Iran not acquire nuclear weapons that they have consented to a Zionist entity overflying their territory and bombing an Islamic republic?

Having attended two Islamic summits of yore, where intrigue and hostility were rife and the final communiqués filled with pristine hot air, one can personally vouch for the phantom unity among the Ummah. And one learns from former colleagues that privately many delegates to these conferences view Pakistan as they would a schizoid with a loaded gun. Certainly, no one who has had the opportunity of trailing behind a Pakistani prime minister visiting Muslim monarchs and presidents and canvassing for support for a cause as morally just as Kashmir, can deny how excruciatingly difficult it was to persuade them to agree. But now, of course, in their neighbourhoods Pakistanis themselves can bear living witness to just how little love lost there is among Muslims, notwithstanding their common nationality.

Of course, intra-religious hostility is not a phenomenon confined to Muslims. Christians have an even bloodier history of such wars. As for Hindus the caste system is, in a sense, the institutionalisation of social hatreds. Therefore, why, one may ask, does one need to state the obvious? Because, in Pakistan the obvious is often overlooked or, when discovered belatedly, dismissed as hostile anti-Islamic propaganda.

With evidence staring us in the face that Punjab is riddled with terrorist outfits, some of which are actually fighting the Pakistani army in Waziristan and elsewhere, we nevertheless deny that decisive action against them, much like that against extremists in the Frontier, is the need of the hour. And that is mostly because closet fundos, like, for example, the Sharif brothers, are often blind to reality. It is impossible for them to accept that many of those who they claim are well wishers are actually of that species against whom they are sworn to protect the populace.

They prefer to believe that extremists are merely misguided overenthusiastic supporters who can be brought around by appeals to common sense and an offer of a dialogue and, when that fails, pathetic pleas for restraint on the grounds that they are essentially of the same ilk as themselves. Such grovelling by men, who would be atheists if they could be kings, is a sad reflection of the pass we have reached.

The time has come to act against extremists, wherever they may be located, with far greater determination than at present. And if the will is not there, for fear of the consequences, then a pause to examine the consequences will reveal that courage had better be summoned, or else the Pakistan that our parents traversed blood-soaked paddy and wheat fields to reach, with nothing but hope to urge them on, won’t survive.

For if truth be told, the rot that threatens to consume Pakistan has spread not exclusively from the foothills of the Hindu Kush to Punjab but also from the Punjab plains and deserts of Multan and Bahawalpur to the Himalayas and beyond. Tackling the challenge posed at the periphery of the country while ignoring that in the heart of the nation, is myopic. Eliminating the poison without shutting down the factories producing the deadly potion is asinine. It is worse than the labours of Sisyphus because he only had to contend with a stone that constantly rolled back; in our case it is a self-proliferating bomb with the fuse lit.

But lest the malaise of extremism spread, causing the plummeting economy to worsen, and more businessmen to relocate, capital to flee and joblessness and crime become endemic, it is perhaps best to bite the bullet. It would be a pity if we stood aside tilting at tribals and attempting to secure the edges of the country while the centre was left unguarded.

The writer is a former ambassador. Email:

Source: The News, March 31, 2010



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