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Pakistan's Westward Drift

By Pervez Hoodbhoy

08 September 2008

‘Alif’ is for Allah
‘Bay’ is for bundooq (gun)
‘Hay’ is for hijab
‘Jeem’ is for jihad
‘Tay’ is for takrao (collision)
‘Zal’ is for zunoob (sin)

For three decades, deep tectonic forces have been silently tearing Pakistan away from the Subcontinent and driving it towards the Arabian Peninsula. This continental drift is not geophysical but cultural, driven by a belief that Pakistan must exchange its Southasian identity for an Arab-Muslim one. Grain by grain, the desert sands of Saudi Arabia are replacing the alluvium that had nurtured Muslim culture in the Indian Subcontinent for over a thousand years. A stern, unyielding version of Islam – Wahhabism – is replacing the kinder, gentler Islam of the Sufis and saints.

This drift is by design. Twenty-five years ago, the Pakistani state pushed Islam onto its people. Prayers in government departments were deemed compulsory; floggings were carried out publicly; punishments were meted out to those who did not fast during Ramadan; selection for academic posts required that the candidates demonstrate knowledge of Islamic teachings, and the jihad was emphasised as essential for every Muslim. Today, such government intervention is no longer needed due to the spontaneous groundswell of Islamic zeal. The notion of an Islamic state – as yet in some amorphous and diffused form – is more popular than ever before, as people look desperately for miracles to rescue a failing state. Across the country, there has been a spectacular increase in the power and prestige of the clerics, attendance in mosques, home prayer meetings (dars and zikr), observance of special religious festivals, and fasting during Ramadan.

Villages have changed drastically, driven in part by Pakistani workers returning from Arab countries. Many village mosques are now giant madrassas that propagate hard-line Salafi and Deobandi beliefs through oversized loudspeakers. They are bitterly opposed to Barelvis, Shias and other Muslims who they do not consider to be Muslims. Punjabis, who were far more liberal towards women than were the Pashtuns, are now beginning to embrace the line of thought resembling that of the Taliban. Hanafi law (from one of the four schools of thought or jurisprudence within Sunni Islam) has begun to prevail over tradition and civil law.

Among the Pakistani lower-middle and middle classes lurks a grim and humourless Saudi-inspired revivalist movement (which can be called ‘Saudi-isation’) that frowns upon every form of joyous expression. Lacking any positive connection to culture and knowledge, it seeks to eliminate ‘corruption’ by strictly regulating cultural life and seizing absolute control of the education system. “Classical music is on its last legs in Pakistan; the sarangi and vichtarveena are completely dead,” laments Mohammad Shehzad, a student of music. Indeed, teaching music in public universities is vehemently opposed by students of the Islami Jamaat-e-Talaba, religious fundamentalists who consider music haram. Kathak dancing, once popular among the Muslim elite of India, has no teachers left in Pakistan, and the feature films produced in the country are of next to no consequence. Meanwhile the Pakistani elites, disconnected from the rest of the
population, comfortably live their lives through their vicarious proximity to the West.

School militarism

More than a quarter-century after the state-sponsored Islamisation of the country, the state in Pakistan is itself under attack from religious militants, and rival Islamic groups battle each other with heavy weapons. Ironically, the same army – whose men were recruited under the banner of jihad, and which saw itself as the fighting arm of Islam – today stands accused of betrayal, and is targeted by Islamist suicide bombers on an almost daily basis. The militancy that bedevils Pakistan is by no means confined to the tribal areas; it breeds feverishly in the cities as well. Pakistan’s self-inflicted suffering comes from an education system that propagates the jihad culture, which ceaselessly demands that Islam be understood as a complete code of life, designed to create in the minds of the school child a sense of siege and embattlement.

The process begins early. For example, the government-approved curriculum of a Class V Social Studies textbook prescribes that the child should be able to “Make speeches on Jehad and Shahadat”, and “Understand Hindu-Muslim differences and the resultant need for Pakistan.” The material placed before the Pakistani schoolchild has remained largely unchanged even after the attacks of 11 September 2001, which led to Pakistan’s abrupt desertion of the Taliban and the slackening of the Kashmir jihad. Indeed, for all the talk of ‘enlightened moderation’, then-General Pervez Musharraf’s educational curriculum, passed down with some dilution from the time of Zia ul- Haq, was far from enlightening. Fearful of taking on powerful religious forces, every incumbent government has refused to take a position on the curriculum. Thus, successive administrations have quietly allowed the young minds to be moulded by fanatics.

As such, the promotion of militarism in Pakistan’s schools, colleges and universities has had a profound effect on young people. Militant jihad has become a part of the culture in college and university campuses, with armed groups inviting students for jihad in Kashmir and Afghanistan. The primary vehicle for ‘Saudi-ising’ Pakistan’s education has been the madrassa. During the war against the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan, madrassas provided the US-Saudi-Pakistan alliance that recruits needed for fighting a ‘holy’ war. Earlier on, this role had been limited to turning out the occasional Islamic scholar, using a curriculum dating back to the 11th century with minor subsequent revisions. The principal function of the madrassas had been to produce imams and muezzins for mosques.

The Afghan jihad changed everything. Under Zia, with active assistance from Saudi Arabia, madrassas sprang up across the length and breadth of Pakistan, and now number about 22,000. The free room, board and supplies provided to students has always constituted a key part of the appeal to join these madrassas. But the desire of parents across the country for their children to be ‘disciplined’, and to be given a thorough ‘Islamic’ education, is also a major contributing factor.

One of the chief goals of the Islamists is to bring about a complete separation of the sexes, the consequences of which have been catastrophic. Take the tragic example of the stampede in a madrassa in Karachi in April 2006, in which 21 women and eight children were crushed to death, and scores more injured; all the while, male rescuers were prevented from assisting. Likewise, after the October 2005 earthquake, as this writer walked through the destroyed city of Balakot, a student of the Frontier Medical College described how he and his male colleagues were stopped by religious elders from digging out injured girls from under the rubble of their school building.

The drive to segregate the sexes is now also influencing educated women. Vigorous proselytisers of this message, such as Farhat Hashmi – one of the most influential contemporary Muslim scholars, or ulema, particularly in Pakistan, the UK and the US – have become massively successful, and have been catapulted to heights of fame and fortune. Two decades ago, the fully veiled student was a rarity on any university or college campus in Pakistan. Abaya was once an unknown word in Urdu, but today many shops in Islamabad specialise in these dreary robes, which cover the entire body except the face, feet and hands. At colleges and universities across Pakistan, female students are today seeking the anonymity of the burqa, outnumbering their sisters who still dare to show their faces.

The immediate future of Pakistan looks grim, as increasing numbers of mullahs are creating cults around themselves and seizing control over the minds of their worshippers. In the tribal areas, a string of new Islamist leaders have suddenly emerged – Baituallah Mehsud, Fazlullah, Mangal Bagh and Haji Namdar among others – feeding on the environment of poverty, deprivation, lack of justice, and extreme
disparities in wealth.

In the long term, Pakistan’s future will be determined by the ideological and political battle between citizens who want an Islamist theocratic state, and citizens who want a modern Islamic republic. It may yet be possible to roll back the Islamist laws and institutions that have corroded Pakistani society for over 30 years, and defeat the ‘holy’ warriors. However, this can only happen if Pakistan’s elected leaders acquire the trust of the citizens. To do this, political parties, government officials and, yes, even generals will have to embrace democracy, in both word and deed.

Pervez Hoodbhoy is a physicist at Quaid-e-Azam University in Islamabad.

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