Pakistan – The State Bows To The Mullah

Once upon a time the mullah in Pakistan was far down in the food chain. This poor and largely harmless cleric was sought only for funerals and Friday prayers, eking out an existence by teaching the Qur’an to children and the butt of many a joke. But that same man is now driven around in an SUV, commands a militia, screams prayers through multiple turbo-charged loudspeakers, and determines what can or cannot be taught in public schools. While frequently and ferociously differing among themselves, his ilk is unified in demanding that religion must determine economics, politics, and family laws as well as govern lifestyle issues such as dress, food, personal hygiene, marriage, family relations, and even daily routine.

The change came after the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979, and the subsequent efforts of the US-Pakistan-Saudi grand alliance to create and support the first international jihad of history. A toxic mix of American imperial might and Islamic fundamentalism ultimately defeated the Soviets. But the network of Islamic militant organizations, relying critically on the mullah and madrassa (seminary), did not disappear after its massive success. By now the Pakistani military had realized the power of jihad as an instrument of foreign policy, and so the network grew from strength to strength.

But for two decades, the state has been in conflict with some of its progeny. The once hapless mullah is no longer interested in playing second fiddle. Instead he is intent on seizing control from his former masters. A recent episode – one which is not quite over – illustrates the retreat of the state as the mullah becomes increasingly aggressive and determined to protect the base of his power, the madrassa.

When information and communications minister Parvaiz Rasheed spoke at the Karachi Arts Council on May 3, he actually stated the self-evident. Without explicitly naming madrassas, he said large numbers of factories mass-produce ignorance in Pakistan through propagating “murda fikr” (dead knowledge). They use loudspeakers as tools, leaving well over 2 million young minds ignorant, confused, and confounded. The early tradition of Muslim scholars and scientists was very vibrant and different, he said. But now blind rote learning and use of books like maut ka manzar – marnay kay baad kya hoga? (Specter of death – what happens after you die?) is common.

That last reference made me sit up. A best-seller in Pakistan for decades, I had bought and read my copy some 40 years ago and have since re-read it from time to time. My fascination with it, as with Dante’s Inferno, comes from the carefully detailed, blood curdling horrors that await us in the grave and then beyond. One part of the book reports upon conversations between the inhabitants of heaven and hell. Another section specifies punishments for grave dwellers guilty of treating one of two wives unequally, disobeying one’s mother, owning more houses than necessary, or urinating incorrectly. While doubtless of grave importance, the minister’s point is easy to see.

The speech was extempore, and the minister rambled. Yet he set off a firestorm. Accused of making fun of Islamic books and Islamic teachings, clerics across Pakistan competed to denounce him. Authored by an extremist sectarian party, the JASWJ, banners appeared on Islamabad’s roads. They demanded that Rasheed be publically hanged. Taken down by the police, they reappeared elsewhere. The police accosted those putting them up, but withdrew after being confronted by youthful stick-bearing students from an illegally constructed madrassa in a residential area in Islamabad – one of the scores of other such madrassas in the city. The police chief expressed his views frankly: he was not equipped to take on religious extremists and suicide bombers.

The story gets curiouser. Mufti Naeem – the powerful cleric of Karachi’s Jamia Binoria madrassa who had issued the fatwa of apostasy on Mr. Rasheed – was a guest on a TV talk show broadcast live on 24 May. He reaffirmed his fatwa at the outset of the conversation. The two other guests were the law minister, Rana Sanaullah, and myself. One might have expected the law minister to insist on the rule of law, and to challenge the extra-judicial sentence passed against a colleague who sits with him in the cabinet. On the contrary, Mr. Sanaullah expressed his high regard for the mufti and the mufti duly returned the compliment, expressing his delight at the minister’s recent reappointment.

The pressure on Rasheed was unbearable. Many, including the minister of defence, rushed to offer explanations and excuses for his May 3 speech. Privately they agree with him but taking a public position is another matter. Mr. Rasheed too has retreated since and apologized, claiming he has been misunderstood. He was later seen at a dastarbandi (graduation) ceremony at the Al-Khalil Qur’an Complex in Rawalpindi where he distributed prizes to madrassa students who had memorized the Qur’an. By doing so, he showed his lack of keenness in following Governor Salman Taseer into martyrdom. Taseer has challenged Pakistan’s blasphemy law, and was pumped full of bullets by a security guard as the other guards watched.

Irrespective of the final outcome, or the personality of the individual, the Parvaiz Rasheed episode starkly illustrates the present condition of state, society, and politics in Pakistan today. One takes from it some important conclusions.

First, the urban-based clerical establishment grows bolder by the day, believing it can take on even sitting ministers or, if need be, generals. They have many tanks and nuclear weapons but didn’t Islamabad’s Lal Masjid – now grandly reconstructed – finally triumph over the Pakistan Army? Even though the clerics lost 150 students and other fighters, the-then army chief sits in the dock, accused of quelling an armed insurrection against Pakistan and killing one of its ring leaders. Thus chastened, the establishment now seeks to appease the mullah. Not a single voice in government defended the information minister. Like the brave Sherry Rehman, who was also abandoned by her own party in a similar crisis situation, he was left to fend for himself.

Second, by refusing to own its information minister’s remarks, the government has signaled its retreat on a critical front – madrassa reform. This part of the National Action Plan to counter terrorism involves financial audits of madrassas, revealing funding sources, curriculum expansion and revision, and monitoring of activities. Some apparent urgency was injected after interior minister Chaudhry Nisar’s off-the-cuff remark earlier this year that about 10% of madrassas were extremist. Even if one third of this is true, this suggests that there are many hundreds of such seminaries. Plans for dealing with them have apparently been shelved once again.

Third, one sees that open television access was given to clerics and other hard-liners who claimed that Mr. Rasheed had forfeited his right to be called a Muslim. This is clear incitement to murder since a good fraction of society believes that apostates need to be eliminated. Such ideological extremism on TV is far too common these days to deserve much comment. Still, it is remarkable that a serving minister – and that too of information and communications – was allowed to be targeted. Has PEMRA, the government’s media censor board, also fallen in the hands of extremist sympathizers?

For a while the Peshawar massacre had interrupted the deep slumber of Pakistan’s military and civil establishment. That those who slaughtered children at the Army Public School were not agents of India, Israel, or America came as a shock. The awful truth was that the killers were home-grown religious fanatics who saw their acts as paving their path to heaven. But dealing with this disturbing reality requires more wisdom and courage than Pakistan’s establishment can presently muster. It is lulling itself back to sleep by tossing more bombs into Waziristan, and lazily blaming 5 subsequent massacres upon India’s hidden hand. This is infinitely easier than dealing with the enemy within. Unfortunately it cannot work.

The author teaches physics in Islamabad and Lahore

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