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]

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