Current wave of extremism in Pakistan

Statistical ambiguity society

Just how some recent events of our surface politics offer an interesting study of the deep politics

By Dr Ahsan Wagha

It started with the worst ideological polarisation promoted by the military generals in the 1970s when Zulfikar Ali Bhutto was forced to invite Saudi ambassador Riaz Al-Khatib to mediate between him and the opposition, a practice that was reverberated during the Musharraf-Nawaz conflict and has almost culminated into becoming one of the basic features of our foreign policy. The phenomenon can be investigated in the background of the history of Arab colonisation of this region.

The urban mercantile classes of this region have always looked up to foreign intervention to avail the endless trade liberalisation. A quote from a brilliant work on the Arab rule of Sindh will suffice as to how the urban traders of the 8th century Sindh, pitched against the country-based agrarian ruling class of Brahmins, emerged as a section of society willing to welcome the Arab takeover:

“After the Arab conquest, the major merchants of Sindh belonged as well to the larger cosmopolitan Muslim bourgeoisie. While ordinary Muslims in Sindh dressed like their compatriot non-Muslims, the merchants followed the fashion of Iraq and Fars (Istakhri..). This suggests that they were either drawn from these regions or, as is more likely, accepted the cultural dictates of the larger pan-Islamic mercantile community as their exemplar. They were in Sind but not really part of it. To participate in the new inter-regional trade, was in many ways to become Arab, and if Arab then necessarily Muslim.”

The Arabs were least interested in the conversion of people to Islam and more in the safe collection of revenues. The trading class of Buddhists were allowed to convert in pursuit of market interests and the Hindus were permitted to continue with their way of life.

We upload from history only that what soothes our egotism and suits our established biases. About Mohammad bin Qasim, we are taught as to how this young general of Al-Walid — on the call of a few Muslim women reported as forcibly held by the officials of Raja Dahar — had led a great army to Sindh to deliver justice. In the same episode, the Hindus take comfort in memory and praise of the mythical characters of Pramil Devi and Suriya Devi (recorded by Farishta, a historian, as Sarla Devi), the two daughters of the Raja Dahar who were sent by bin Qasim as booty gift to the Caliph in Damascus. The girls but managed to avenge defeat and murder of their father by seeding jealousy in the mind of the Caliph against bin Qasim which resulted in the eventual murder of the latter, as per the story.

What followed was a satellite Arab rule over a major portion of present day Pakistan with the struggles between the competing factions of the Abbasids and Umayyads, coded in the religious divide of the Sunnite and the Shiite. The Islamised but still alive diehard nationalism of the defeated Persia kept cementing the weaker internal opposition of the Arab rule gathered around the great legacy of Hazrat Imam Husain and the Ahl-e-Bait which touched its height by establishing a Fatimid Caliphate of its own in Egypt and replacing the pro Baghdad governorship of Multan and Sindh with a relatively localised rule of the Ismaili Da`is, a new state which lasted from 965 to 1010 leaving far reaching impact on evolution of the local Muslim aristocracy.

Where people of this region had little concerns with the Arab world in terms of production, economics, or in real socio cultural domains, the alien Arab rulers and the power elite that succeeded them looked most of the time for interventions and approvals to the power centres of Egypt and Basra, or Baghdad, Damascus and Makka Sharif alternately.

What is to be scrutinised are the traces of the colonial aspirations of the Arabs and the Iranians in their competition in strengthening their respective allies in Pakistan recognised by them on the basis of the Sunnite and the ‘non-Sunnite’ divide.

Some recent events of our surface politics offer an interesting study of the deep politics of the country. The action taken on the Haj scam in the Ministry of Religious Affairs resulted in sacking of two federal ministers belonging to the PPP and the JUI. The episode was explained in terms of parliamentary governance and was received accordingly. A look at the deep structure of politics, however, points to some additional factors in the domain of “may be”. The management of Haj by the ministry was as corrupt as always, or less this time as per the statement of the Minister of Religious Affairs before the superior court. The investigation was triggered mainly by a letter written by a respectable Saudi prince to the Chief Justice of Pakistan probably directly. The Saudi government which has to its credit the longest record of generous and flawless hosting of the world’s largest annual pilgrimage without any discrimination on sectarian lines or any other divide could not tolerate mismanagement on the part of one participating country i.e. Pakistan.

The between the line reading of the event, however, brings a few related facts to the focus. The majority of the people of Saudi Arabia and the dynasty are followers of the Maliki creed of Islam seen in Pakistan as more close to certain schools of thought such as the Ahl-e-hadith and the Deobandi, and less to others such as the Barelvi and even far removed from others such as the Shiite school. The minister of Religious Affairs belonged to the largest but politically weak Barelvi school of thought. He was the only federal minister to have been targeted by terrorists and removed from the cabinet a year after.

It remains a statistical ambiguity how an organised and articulate religious groups with a total strength of not more than twenty percent claims to represent all the Muslims. Along with them there is the diversity of those who are able to recite bits from the holy scriptures, those casual sayers of prayers, those countless visitors of all kinds of shrines and those who fasten coloured flags on branches and build seats around trunks of every old tree, those who feed birds and insects, and care for green plants as living and feeling beings — unknowingly observing the cultural residues of Islam, Buddhism, Jainism and other cults of the past settled deep into their souls.

The disunity stemming from social factors like ritualism, linguistic and cultural diversity and tolerance for religious multiplicity has a strong causal relation with democracy. In other words, we live in a social reality which can not be wished away, and which can not go along with any other mode of government except democracy. It is the social diversity of cast and cultures that has sustained the world’s largest democracy i.e. India.

The unique national and cultural homogeneity of Arabs, on the other hand, is counted as one of the factors behind the prolonged dynastic rules in Arab kingdoms. The other defense that some Arab dynasties seek for this continuity is the warm approval from the Muslim world. Hence it isn’t a surprise if they prop up in Pakistan those religious parties who resist the culturally adjusted form of Islam, the majority and democracy.

The fact that majority of the politically powerful Pirs (the saintly families) including the prime minister belong to the Barelvi school of thought and the parties that promote fundamentalist Islam like Jamaat-e-Islami and JUI are supported by the rich Arab friends of Pakistan offers some insight into the political problem of Pakistan.


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