Pakistan awaiting the clerical tsunami

In an interview with Viewpoint, Dr Pervez Hoodbhoy discusses the situation in Pakistan. Hoodbhoy received his undergraduate and PhD degrees from MIT and has been teaching nuclear and high-energy physics at Quaid-e-Azam University in Islamabad for 37 years. He also lectures at US universities and laboratories, and is a frequent commentator, on Pakistani TV channels as well as international media outlets, on various social and political issues. [via 3quarksdaily]

The murder of Governor Salman Taseer, who opposed Pakistan’s blasphemy law, has shocked the world. But in Pakistan the killer has become a hero for a sizeable section of society. Why?

In a society dominated by traditional religious values, heroism often means committing some violent and self-destructive act for preserving honor. Although Governor Taseer was not accused of blasphemy, his crime was to seek presidential pardon for an illiterate peasant Christian woman accused of blasphemy by some Muslim neighbours. Taseer’s intervention clearly crossed the current limits of toleration. With no party support, he went at it alone.

Malik Mumtaz Qadri – the official security guard who pumped 22 bullets into the man he was deputed to protect – is not the first such hero. The 19-year old illiterate who killed the author of the book “Rangeela Rasool” in the 1920’s, and was then executed by the British, was held in the highest esteem by the founders of Pakistan, Muhammad Iqbal and Muhammad Ali Jinnah. It is reported that Iqbal, regarded as Islam’s pre-eminent 20th century philosopher, placed the body in the grave with tears in his eyes and said: “This young man left us, the educated men, behind.” Ghazi Ilm-e-Deen is venerated by a mausoleum over his grave in Lahore.

In his court testimony, Taseer’s assassin proudly declared that he was executing Allah’s will. Hundreds of lawyers – made famous by the Black Coat Revolution that restored Pakistan’s Chief Justice – showered him with rose petals while he was in police custody. Two hundred lawyers signed a pledge vowing to defend him for free. Significantly, Qadri is a Barelvi Muslim belonging to the Dawat-e-Islami, and 500 clerics of this faith supported his action in a joint declaration. They said that those who sympathized with Taseer deserved similar punishment.

Significantly most of these mullahs are part of the Sunni Tehreek and are supposedly anti-Taliban moderates. Indeed, one of their leaders, Maulana Sarfaraz Naeemi, was blown up by a Taliban suicide bomber in June 2009 after he spoke out against suicide bombings. But now these “moderates” have joined hands with their attackers. Jointly they rule Pakistan’s streets today, while a cowardly and morally bankrupt government cringes and caves in to their every demand.

Pakistani voters have always voted for secular-leaning parties but it appears that today the religious parties actually represent popular discourse. Do you concur?

Yes, I do. Those who claim that Pakistan’s silent majority is fundamentally secular and tolerant may be clutching at straws. They argue that the religious parties don’t get the popular vote and so cannot really be popular. But this is wishful thinking. The mullah parties are unsuccessful only because they are geared for street politics, not electoral politics. They also lack charismatic leadership and have bitter internal rivalries. However the victory of the MMA after 911 shows that they are capable of closing ranks. It is also perfectly possible that a natural leader will emerge and cause an electoral landslide in the not too distant future.

But even without winning elections, the mullah parties are immensely more powerful in determining how you and I live than election-winning parties like the PPP and ANP. For a long time the religious right has dictated what we can or cannot teach in our public and private schools. No government ever had the guts to dilute the hate materials being forced down young throats. They also dictate what you and I can wear, eat, or drink. Their unchallenged power has led to Pakistan’s cultural desertification because they violently oppose music, dance, theatre, art, and intellectual inquiry.

To be sure there are scattered islands of normality in urban Pakistan. But these are shrinking. Yes, the Baluch nationalists are secular, and so is the ethnically-driven MQM in Karachi. But these constitute a tiny fraction of the population. More:

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