Pakistani society in the throes of tectonic change?

January 14, 2009

Pakistan is dealing with multiple challenges all at once – its sovereignty and its very idea of itself as an independent nation state are tested in the northwest by both the Islamist militants and U.S. forces hunting them. To its east, the old hostility with India is back in full force following the Mumbai attacks. Then above all, some think the economic meltdown is a more serious risk to Pakistan’s survival than the threat of a conflict with India.

Where does a proud nation turn to for deliverance, faced with almost daily prognosis of its imminent demise?

To religion, going by the rise and rise of the mullah in Pakistani society according to a couple of articles in Pakistan’s Newsline magazine. Time was when the village mosque imam was one  of the most powerless men in the community whose social functions were limited to being present at  births, deaths and weddings, recalls author Mohammed Hanif .

The imam also led the prayers, but it was a different time then. There would be people loitering around the  mosque but it never occurred to him to ask them to join the prayers; nor were those hanging outside  the mosque embarrassed about sitting them out.

What was there to discuss? Faith was your personal  business, between you and your god. So a tiny majority went to the mosque regularly and another  opened “a bottle of something” in the evening, and they all lived on the same street.

Forty years later, the imam has metamorphosed into a television evangelist who preaches 24/7 on his own satellite channel, or goes around the nation building madrasas while some others are engaged in jihad. But each is flaunting an influence that they never had, according to Hanif, author of the book  “The Exploding Mangoes”.

“The mosque imam, who served an essential social function, has given way to another kind of mullah:  the power mullah, who drives in a four-wheeler flanked by armed guards; the entertainer mullah, who hogs the airwaves; and the entrepreneur mullah, who builds networks of mosques and madrasas and spends his summer touring Europe. And then there is the much maligned mullah with his dreams of an  eternal war and world domination,” he writes.

A pulpit in every living room across the nation? Do you agree or is it overdone? Hanif says there are 
frequent warnings in Karachi about the Taliban heading that way, with leaders like Altaf Hussain 
thundering about it. 

“But nobody seems to warn us about the preachers who are already here: the ones wagging their 
fingers on TV always tend to precede the ones waving their guns, smashing those TVs and bombing 
poor barbers,” Hanif says.

Last week bombs ripped through theatres in Pakistan’s cultural capital, Lahore, an attack that 
authorities linked to blasts in the city a few months ago aimed at scaring people off from such places where ”obscene” plays were being staged. A small group of extremists was targeting cinemas and theatres,  local police said.

So is the battle against the hardline Islamists that is being fought in the northwest especially the 
Federally Administered Tribal Areas and parts of the North West Frontier Province inching closer 
to home?

Pervez Hoodbhoy in a companion piece for Newsline said it was wrong to think Islamic radicalism was a problem only in the FATA and that madrasas are the only institutions serving as “jihad factories”. Extremism was breeding at a ferocious rate in public and private schools within towns and cities across Pakistan, which left unchallenged, would produce a generation unable to live with anyone but of its own kind

Hoodbhoy, who teaches physics at Quaid-e-Azam University in Islamabad, says Pakistan is in the throes of tectonic change at the cultural level, one that is tearing it away from South Asia and driving it toward the Arabian peninsula.

“Grain by grain, the desert sands of Saudi Arabia are replacing the rich soil that had nurtured a magnificent Muslim culture in India for a thousand years. This culture produced Mughal architecture, the Taj Mahal, the poetry of Asadullah Khan Ghalib, and much more. Now a stern, unyielding version 
of Islam (Wahhabism) is replacing the kinder, gentler Islam of the Sufis and saints who had walked on  this land for hundreds of years,” he says in the article headlined The Saudi-isation of Pakistan.

How did it happen? It happened because 25 years ago the Pakistani state turned to Islam as an instrument  of state policy. Prayers in government departments were deemed compulsory, floggings were carried out publicly, punishments were meted out to those who did not fast in Ramadan, selection for academic posts in universities required that the candidate demonstrate a knowledge of Islamic teachings and jihad was declared essential for every Muslim, he says.

“Today, government intervention is no longer needed because of a spontaneous groundswell of Islamic zeal. The notion of an Islamic state – still in an amorphous and diffused form – is more popular now than ever before as people look desperately for miracles to rescue a failing state,” he says.

So is the Talibanisation of Pakistan a creeping reality or just a myth, one more false warning? These are emotive issues and your comments are very welcome but let us debate positions, not attack people’s faiths, nor indeed the individuals themselves.

 {Reuters Photos of worshippers in Karachi and women protesters in Lahore]


Anup: I am not advertising or criticizing any religion here. I have genuine question, which everyone has and that should be encouraged. Please do not make a wrong sketch of my person. I did not say “To criticize another’s religion is ‘UnHindu” nor did I mean it. BTW I cannot even understand what it means. It is clear that each religion is different. You have to be careful in interpreting because putting in negatives, such as “Unhindu” can mean something “bad”, rather than saying it is “different. Well it is a useless exercise to focus too much on the jugglery of the words.

In my previous post, I have quoted Richard Dawkins in my attempt to point out that there are theists, atheists and agnostics. Did you read the book “God Delusion” or heard abot this guy? I personally do not fully believe what he says. My major point was to bring his rationale “Many of us saw religion as harmless nonsense. Beliefs might lack all supporting evidence but, we thought, if people needed a crutch for consolation, where’s the harm? September 11th changed that. Revealed faith is not harmless nonsense, it can be lethally dangerous”. That’s what we have been saying that terrorists are misinterpreting religion and spreading violence.” We are saying the same thing in our own words-“misinterpretation of religion” leading to killing of the innocents. Now if he has his own reasons to believe that “God almost does not exist”. I do not personally agree that he can prove that based on his rational approach, but then each one of us have our own ways of understanding a phenomenon or just believing without questioning.

Richard Dawkins agrees with you on “Many a Richard Dawkin’s (western scientists) discuss rationality & then you come across them on Sunday morning mass, kneeling devotedly in their local church…”. He also wonders about this problem. Anup you are assuming that all the scientists, like Dawkins, are atheists. That’s wrong to begin with. Needless to say Dawkins is not one of those people. Anyways, “hypocrites” who say they are THEISTS OT ATHEISTS can never be defended.

About his using the word “evil”, I looked at the etymology of the word. He has not fallen into the trap of the meaning of “evil”. Here is the quote from the Dictionary of Word Origins by John Ayto, “the original meaning of the English word “evil” has changed considerably over the last few hundred years. Not surprising. It seems theologians have had considerable influence upon shaping words to cause us to see according to their doctrines rather than what is plainly written.”

Anup, there is no denying that Jihad is considered a “holy war”, but depends on the interpretation of “war” again.

Have you seen the movie “The war within”? It is a pretty good movie-nothing at all like “Typical Victorian moral, good vs bad…”. Rather it is a good attempt at understanding the mind of a suicide bomber.

Posted by rajeev | Report as abusive

Oops! I got your 1st paragraph wrong. So ignore this from my previous post “I did not say “To criticize another’s religion is ‘UnHindu” nor did I mean it. BTW I cannot even understand what it means. It is clear that each religion is different. You have to be careful in interpreting because putting in negatives, such as “Unhindu” can mean something “bad”, rather than saying it is “different. Well it is a useless exercise to focus too much on the jugglery of the words.”

Again, I am not critizing, it is Dawkins. It is relevant since many people are atheists or agnostics–Nehru was agnostic.

Posted by rajeev | Report as abusive

prob. posting reply

Posted by anup | Report as abusive

Re: Kashmir.
The biggest mistake was Pakistan’s attack on Kashmir after partition. The clueless maharaja was tilting towards an Independent Kashmir or signing up with Pakistan, all that was required was patience on the part of Pakistan. Several rajput “kings” seriously considered joining Pakistan. There are a lot of “ifs”. The whole thing was poorly thought out .


Good article and i rather say well informed article but one mistake is ignorance. Islam was, is and will always be the in liveblood of every muslim in Pakistan whether he goes to mosque or not. Sanjee mentioned the blast in Lahore theater can he be more elaborate on BAL THAKRE activities in india, specially his threats to PAKISTANI celebreties in india.

Posted by Peace | Report as abusive

For God’s sake Sanjeev…havent you ever been to Pakistan? If anything its WAY MORE modern & Westernized now than it has ever been throughout its history

Im so sick of people having malicious aims when it comes to maligning Pakistan

Posted by Raza Shah | Report as abusive

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