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On Elections, Extremism, and Science


Prominent scientist and political commentator Dr. Pervez Hoodbhoy speaks to Dawn.com about the upcoming general elections, the performance of the previous government, minority and sectarian issues, and secularism, following a meeting with members of Pakistan’s expatriate community in Las Vegas:

Pakistan stands at a point in time where tomorrow, history may claim that this was the time when everything changed. Do you feel that change is imminent with the upcoming elections? If yes, what realistic change should we expect, if any at all? From your viewpoint, do you feel that the ‘Voice of reason’ stands a chance or do we need to expect change through the vision of conservatism only? 

These elections will not be a game changer. Initially we are likely to see a somewhat efficient and less corrupt government. This may come as a relief after five years of serious mis-governance and ubiquitous corruption, but once the government settles it will be business as usual.

The fact remains that a country’s politics reflects the underlying distribution of economic power and social relations, and there are no indicators to suggest that these fundamentals are about to change, or that there is an effort to create a more open and tolerant society. I feel that Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP) will be seriously weakened because of its current performance but will nonetheless keep at least a third of its current assembly seats.  Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) is likely to win nationally and will be challenged by PTI, we will therefore see a coalition government with the weaknesses that such arrangements bring with them. This newly- elected government will be competing for power against the military, judicial, and religious establishments, a factor to be considered.

As for social attitudes we will continue to regress in the short term. The mullah and media hold our society hostage, leaving little room for reason. Their lack of outrage when little girls going to school are shot, when schools are blown up by anti-education religious fascists, polio workers are massacred and politicians are assassinated unless they belong to Taliban-friendly parties is a reflection of their attitude. Will the targeting of Shias, Hindus, and Ahmadis stop after the elections? Or the daily abduction, torture, and killing of Baloch nationalists cease? If the answer is yes, then surely we’ve gained something.

Relatively speaking what is the biggest deception that we live under as a nation, as a people, as a society, and what is that one thing we can practically change with personal introspection to evolve as a whole?

We deceive ourselves that Pakistan can thrive as a religious state. At best it can survive and that too for the short term. When the state stands silent to the murder of its citizens just because their particular variant of Islam is not that of the majority, it is the beginning of the end.  The military is calmly watching Shia neighborhoods being devastated by suicide attacks, and men identified by Shia names are dragged from buses and executed Gestapo style. The police shrug aside the murder of Ahmadis, or when their graveyards are dug up and desecrated by the local powers-that-be. Although Sindh was traditionally much more tolerant than Punjab, Hindus have fled Sind en masse. We are witnesses to religious fascism, plain and simple.

Is there a solution? Yes, we need to redefine Pakistan. The Two-Nation Theory brought the country into existence, but it cannot hold the country together, not any more. What we need now is a constitution that gives exactly the same rights and opportunities to all of its citizens independent of their ethnicity or religious affiliation, and a mechanism that can enforce the laws that matter most, those of life and personal security to its citizens.

This equality of rights and opportunities is so attractive that, although most are strongly against secularism, almost every Pakistani wants a visa or green card to go to the United States. The late Qazi Husain Ahmad would fulminate against America but his family lives in the US, and during a visit to the Brookings Institution in WashingtonDC in 2000 he declared that “I feel that I’ve come to my own country.” Search it up on Youtube. Why did he say it? Because although he opposed giving Pakistani non-Muslims the same rights that Muslims possess, he was treated respectfully and equally by the Americans, and the truth is that equal treatment appeals to everyone’s sense of natural justice. Therefore we must have equality for all in Pakistan.

You are a man of science. The fundamentals of religion and science address two entirely different principles. What role can secularism play in aiding to heal a religiously extremist society into progressing without creating conflict, while also integrating science and belief into answering the questions of the universe. As individuals is it possible for us to carry both burdens without a personal struggle?

If you regard religion and science as belonging to separate domains, then they can be pursued separately without creating a conflict. Scientists may hold any faith, or no faith, and yet the work of a scientist in Japan or India is judged exactly on the same criteria as of scientists in America or France. Unfortunately no Pakistani leader has publicly called for separating science from religion. Instead, the government has supported scientific embarrassments like the ‘water car’, a downright deceptive act that occasioned three cabinet meetings last year. Then there are the solutions and remedies suggested in religious TV programs in matters related to personal health. One can’t help but question the century we live in, is it the middle ages or the 21st century?

But all Muslim countries are not living in the past. To give an example, Iran has a superior educational system that actually works. Pakistan has seen numerous absurd attempts to marry science with Islam, but Ayatollah Khomeini was quite content with keeping the two separate. He once remarked that there is no such thing as Islamic mathematics. Nor did he take a position against Darwinism, as we have in Pakistan. In fact Iran is one of the few Muslim countries where the theory of evolution is taught. Moreover, it is a front-runner in stem-cell research, a concept George W. Bush and his neo-conservative administration had sought to ban in the United States.

As an intellectual observer and commentator you hold a vision for a 21st century Pakistan. What responsibility does our generation have towards the youth of Pakistan, and what is that one thing that the Pakistani diaspora can collaborate on with local Pakistanis that may benefit in evolving the thought process of youth, resulting in a progressive Pakistan?

The Pakistani diaspora has been content with doing charity work such as financing schools and hospitals, sending relief materials to disaster hit areas, and so forth, but it does not address Pakistan’s need to cure itself of a xenophobic, conspiracy driven mindset. The local Pakistanis are convinced that the Western world is against Islam and Muslims, and that all issues in Pakistan can be traced back to some Western conspiracy. A prominent Pakistani scientist Dr. Atta-ur-Rahman, claimed that the 2005 earthquake in Pakistan and the 2010 floods were caused by America through its scientific facility called HAARP. A huge number of Pakistanis think that Muslims in the West are fiercely discriminated against. This absolute untruth must be challenged and rejected by those members of the Pakistanis diaspora who benefit from their adoptive homes in countless ways.

Of course nothing is perfect. So, for example, the bombing of the Boston marathon race last week had some American Muslims concerned that they might be needlessly investigated. These are legitimate fears and hint at discrimination that must be challenged. But what would Muslims have done to Hindus or Christians if something similar had happened in Pakistan? After 9/11, I’m told that Americans went to various mosques to assure Muslims that they had nothing to fear, and even though President George W. Bush was preparing for the invasion and destruction of Iraq, ordinary Americans were evolved in understanding the plight of the Muslim Americans.

Compare this with what happened a couple of months ago where a mob of 2000 Muslims went on a rampage against Christians in Lahore after one young Christian man allegedly said something blasphemous. They burned down a hundred or more houses. Similarly, in Gojra the mob destroyed 50 houses and burnt 7 Christians to death, including women and children. The entire village of Shantinagar had been destroyed by a Muslim mob in 1997… and recently a Christian man had been beaten to death in Gujranwala for eating at a restaurant in spite of a   No Christians Allowed sign displayed outside the establishment. What is tragic is the silence of the local Muslims and the Pakistani diaspora, since in a protest demonstration by Christians against the recent massacre I am told there were no Muslims protesters.

It is also deeply troubling that the Pakistani diaspora remains silent as we burn churches and blow up mandirs in Pakistan. Every American Muslim witnesses that mosques are flourishing in America and that their numbers have dramatically increased. Do we ever reflect on how differently we behave? Speak on it?

For democracy to flourish all citizens must vote. One’s ideological and political views may be entirely in conflict, or somewhat different with the manifesto of parties presented, but if you had to pick a side who would you support in the upcoming Pakistani elections, and why?

This is a tough question since none of the parties running in this election seek to build a Pakistan that treats all its citizens in exactly the same way. Some parties emphasize their brand of religion, while others are built around ethnic origins. Therefore when voting next month, I shall measure which local candidate is relatively the least corrupt and dishonest, and then vote for the lesser evil. If nothing else I’m decisive on not voting for any pro-Taliban party candidate belonging to Imran Khan’s PTI, Jamaat-e-Islami, and PML-N. 

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