In spite of the gradual infiltration of ubiquitous religious symbolism and mentality in the social spheres of everyday life, Pakistan has managed to remain afloat as a dynamically pluralistic society comprising various ethnicities, religions and Islamic sects.
However, starting in the late 1970s, an anti-pluralistic process was initiated by the Zia-ul-Haq dictatorship that soon spiralled beyond mere posturing and sloganeering.
With the ‘Afghan jihad’ raging against the former Soviet Union, Zia, his intelligence agencies, and parties like Jamat-i-Islami and Jamiat Ulema-i-Islam started embracing a narrow and highly political version of Islam.
This was done to radicalise large sections of the Pakistani Muslims who had historically been a part of more apolitical strains of the faith — the kind that over the centuries had evolved within the largely pluralistic milieu of the subcontinent.
Most Pakistanis were historically related to the mazaar and sufi traditions of the subcontinent, and thus, were least suitable to fight the ‘jihad’ that Zia was planning to peddle in Afghanistan. Their beliefs were not compatible at all with Zia or Abul Ala Maududi’s version of Political Islam.
To compensate this ideological ‘deficiency’, the Zia regime sprang up indoctrination centres in the shape of thousands of madrassas. Almost all of them were handed over to radical puritans. These were preachers and ‘scholars’ who had become critical of those strains of Islam that most Pakistanis adhered to. After accusing these strains of being ‘adulterated’, they fell instead for the assertive charms of the Political Islam of the likes of Maududi, Syyid Qutb and Khurram Murad.
What was worse was the eventual degeneration of this Political Islam which, by the late 1980s, had steadily regressed to become the kind of totalitarian dogma we now associate with monsters like the Taliban and al Qaeda.
The impact this process had on society was catastrophic. The dividing lines between various Muslim fiqh (sects) in Pakistan had for decades remained blurred due to a vague consensus of tolerance between the sects. But these divides became politicised when they were exploited to put forward a prejudiced line of thought. This thought now propagated ‘real Islam’ to mean violent jihad, xenophobia, isolationism, coercion, and at times sheer barbarism that was proudly explained as acts replicating the mythical ways of ancient Muslim heroes.
Since this new meaning of the faith did not exhibit any tolerance whatsoever for any debate or self-critique (scholarly or otherwise), the tradition of meaningful debate on matters of religion too got lost. The open debate culture was now labelled as ‘a conspiratorial secular tool to defame Islam’.
Pakistanis eventually gobbled up a myopic and unthinking brand of religious logic. So much so, that today the overall intellectual faculties of critique in the society have been overpowered by loud discourses that are incapable of ever venturing outside the jaded clichés about the faith that has been fed to us since the 1980s.
These clichés and notions were cleverly engineered into our system by years and years of misinformation on the subject. That’s why most Pakistanis today, both young and old, become like social time bombs, always going off the moment anyone dares question these notions. The truth is, these retaliatory sparks are nothing more than what has been uncritically lapped up as Islam and Islamic history.
Political Islamists and their followers have a habit of invoking events and memories from the early Islamic history, but none of their listeners bother to realise that this history that is taught to us in schools and via the TV is mostly derived from documents written by men who were writing this history as a way to guard the political and dynastical interests of the caliphs that these men were serving.
In such a distorted scenario, when certain disturbing events start taking place in the name of faith, how can one expect Pakistanis to react accordingly? Most of us just distract ourselves by blaming the ‘enemies of Islam’.
By continuing to tolerate a rabid fringe for so long, we have actually helped it metamorphose into an unrestrained monster that has zero tolerance for what most of us think or do.
To tackle and face it, we will have to liberate our minds from the concoctions we’ve been fed in the name of faith and history. We need to become critical again, so we can escape the unfounded guilt many of us feel in responding rationally to anyone calling for the implantation of ‘divine laws’ and ‘holy writ’.
Today this insecure, uncritical and yet arrogant thought has only created grave social and political dichotomies between not only the Pakistani Muslims and other religions, but among various Muslim fiqh and sects as well.