Pakistan’s ideological vacuum

Pakistan’s ideological vacuum
by Dr Manzur Ejaz
An independent judiciary seems to be taking root in Pakistan, but it is just one institution of many, and cannot induce societal balance on its own. Furthermore, an isolated institution cannot survive for long unless a more modern and progressive political force takes the reins of the state.

A few years ago, I visited Tharparkar, supposedly the most traditional and poorest part of Sindh. Travelling on a brand new road from Mithi to Nagarpar, on the border of the Indian state of Gujarat, my guide opined that with these new roads, mullahs and madrassas are also coming to this area.

Therefore, I was not surprised when I heard that a religious party pressured a group of dancing girls to leave a festival in Sindh. It is becoming clearer that religious fundamentalism is somewhat associated with urbanisation as well.

Our Sindhi and Seraiki friends have been claiming that their areas are lands of the Sufis that extremism cannot penetrate. Implicit in the characterisation has been that Punjab lacked the Sufi thought process and therefore has been more vulnerable to extremism. This was a voodoo ideological explanation for a complex phenomenon.

The fact of the matter is that Punjab, particularly its central region, produced the most potent Sufi poets like Farid, Nanak, Shah Hussain, Sultan Bahu, Bulleh Shah, Waris Shah, Mian Mohammad Bakhsh and many others. Traditional Sufi thought was prevalent and religious extremism had not started casting its shadow in Punjab till the 1960s.

It was rapid urbanisation and mechanisation of the agricultural sector that interjected religious extremism in Punjab. It is the same process that caused Sikh and Hindu extremism in the northern India. Even the extremism in the northern parts of Pakistan has sprung with modernisation, caused by the flow of migrant workers abroad and to Pakistani urban centres.

What is the connection between urbanisation/modernisation and religious extremism?

On the level of belief systems, traditional ideologies are based on spiritualism along with superstitions. Modernisation requires more objective and rational ideological forms: a belief system based on peeri-mureedi does not fulfil the requirements of becoming a rationalistic society. However, traditional society cannot abandon religion altogether and embrace secular ideologies. Therefore, it seeks religious versions in which traditional ideas are repackaged in rationalist terms.

The Jama’at-e Islami and some other religious parties have been able to provide such an ideology to uproot the traditional belief system. Maulana Maududi was a pioneer of reinterpreting religion in rationalistic terms for every aspect of life. Strangely enough, the Taliban’s Wahabi version of Islam, along with primitive practices, is rationalistic in many aspects.

Modernisation also challenges traditional state institutions and demands the upgrading of political parties, administrative agencies, the judicial system, economic management, and all other aspects of the state. If the state remains stick in the old mould, like Pakistan, a huge ideological vacuum is created which, sooner or later, is filled with all kinds of ideologies. Some of these ideologies are bound be extreme and destructive.

The Pakistan People’s Party was also an effort to fill this vacuum with a more progressive ideology, incorporating traditional, spiritualistic cultural practices in a modern and rationalistic framework of the state. The PPP’s overwhelming of all other political parties in Punjab, Sindh and the NWFP showed that the masses prefer to embrace a more progressive ideology to replace their old belief system.

However, with the passage of time, the PPP started losing its edge under the pressure of traditional interest groups and the ruling elites. The new emerging political force in Punjab, Mian Nawaz Sharif’s PMLN has not been able to provide an alternative ideology despite its modernistic approach to economic issues. PMLN leaders have been conservative in their belief system and therefore cannot substitute the PPP in many ways.

Therefore, the expanding ideological vacuum has been filled by retrogressive religious forces across Pakistan. The burning of music shops in the tribal areas and the NWFP and the exiling of dancing girls from Sindh are part and parcel of the same phenomenon.

In this context, the state’s coercive force (military, police etc) cannot fully contain extremism in Pakistan. Basic, necessary institutional reforms along with the emergence of a modern political formation are prerequisites for a new healthy balance in Pakistani society. An independent judiciary seems to be taking root in Pakistan, but it is just one institution of many, and cannot induce societal balance on its own. Furthermore, an isolated institution cannot survive for long unless a more modern and progressive political force takes the reins of the state.

The PPP had the potential to keep that vacuum filled, but it has taken a retrogressive route. Rehabilitation of the PPP does not seem likely, despite the desire of many within the party. Therefore, either the formation of a new political party or the PPP under a very different kind of progressive leadership is inevitable. If such a party does not emerge in the coming months, no one can save Pakistan from destructive forces of extremism.
The writer can be reached at
April 14th, 2009


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