What Pakistan needs to fight extremism
Nearly a month after Punjab province’s controversial governor Salman Taseer was gunned down by his bodyguard Mumtaz Qadri at an Islamabad café, Pakistani authorities are no closer to taking any real steps to punish the assassin. Just this week a Pakistani court deferred a scheduled hearing into the case, and crowds have gathered outside of ...
Nearly a month after Punjab province's controversial governor Salman Taseer was gunned down by his bodyguard Mumtaz Qadri at an Islamabad café, Pakistani authorities are no closer to taking any real steps to punish the assassin. Just this week a Pakistani court deferred a scheduled hearing into the case, and crowds have gathered outside of Qadri's prison clamoring for his release. A YouTube video of Qadri reciting a poem in the praise of Prophet Mohammad, known as Naat, has received over 69,000 views. The video was shot while Qadri was in police custody and it remains a mystery who helped shoot and disseminate the video.
Nearly a month after Punjab province’s controversial governor Salman Taseer was gunned down by his bodyguard Mumtaz Qadri at an Islamabad café, Pakistani authorities are no closer to taking any real steps to punish the assassin. Just this week a Pakistani court deferred a scheduled hearing into the case, and crowds have gathered outside of Qadri’s prison clamoring for his release. A YouTube video of Qadri reciting a poem in the praise of Prophet Mohammad, known as Naat, has received over 69,000 views. The video was shot while Qadri was in police custody and it remains a mystery who helped shoot and disseminate the video.
The rapid spread of the video and the showering of Qadri with flower petals as he made his way to the courtroom demonstrate worrying trends in contemporary Pakistan. On one side of the spectrum rests Pakistan’s liberal elite, who expressed strong disapproval of the heinous crime and many of whom supported Taseer’s efforts to reform the present blasphemy law. Yet much of the analysis of Pakistan in the time since the assassination has focused on Pakistan’s burgeoning groups of extremists and hardliners.
However, developments in the region have often contradicted such binary categorization. Take for instance Sufi Islam, which many scholars have tried to depict as a counter weight to combat more hard-line Islamic practice. Sufi orders, with their often liberal and less literal interpretations of Islam, celebrating tolerance and love, appear to some an effective antidote to the extremist tendencies of Islam, which were traced to other rigid interpretations of Islam, such as those promulgated by Deobandi or Ahl-e-Hadith adherents, rather than the Barelvis, whose Sufi-inspired practice is seen as more moderate.
Qadri’s recitation of poetry in praise of the Prophet would be considered heretical by South Asian Islamic scholars belonging to the Ahl-e-Hadith and Deobandi schools of Islam. So how does one explain Qadri’s instinct to kill someone for merely defending reforms in the blasphemy law?
No single factor can explain the present-day realities in Pakistan, a country that has faced myriad challenges in the last six decades, challenges including the failure of Pakistan’s political elite to come up with a cohesive national ideology since its birth, regional tensions with India, and its frontier becoming a launching pad for the Afghan jihad in 1979 (and home to millions of refugees as a result).
However, the present failure of the political leadership to counter religious zealots is directly related to the prevailing political structure in the country and lack of middle class participation in Pakistan’s polity. The Pakistani political leadership, like that in many other developing countries, does not emanate from the middle class. Democracy theorists describe this state as political clientelism, which is marked by conditions of low productivity, high inequality, and starkly hierarchical social relations. The feudal lords and their allies constitute only five percent of Pakistani agricultural households, yet they own 64 per cent of the farmland. The rest of the 95 percent are thus the feudal lords’ political vote-bank. The urban realities are no different than those in the countryside.
The political parties depend upon feudal lords in the country to get votes, which has led to the development of a client-patron relationship, where the elite have a vested interest in continuing the status quo.
There is qualitative evidence from other parts of South Asia demonstrating how the ruling political class emanating from middle class can be instrumental in checking the ascendancy of radical movements. In the early 1990’s, India saw the emergence of one of the most divisive and militant forms of Hinduism witnessed in the 20th century, a movement that challenged the idea of India as a pluralistic and secular entity. However the force that confronted the rightist movement came from political leaders who came from the middle and even lower middle class. They rallied the masses to defend the principle of secularism. As a result, the rightist forces became impotent in asserting their radical nationalist agenda to a large extent in most of the Indian states, despite still playing a significant role in some state governments.
The creation of political leadership centered in Pakistan’s middle class will not take place overnight, and will require major overhauls of Pakistan’s mostly agrarian economy, as well as legal changes and improvements in providing land to the rural poor. Still, the immediate challenge of religious extremism can be met by the civil society and human rights activists with strong middle class and lower middle class participation.
Pakistan certainly has all the societal ingredients from its middle class for fighting against religious zealotry; in the past, poets of progressive thought and humble background like Habib Jalib openly challenged the regressive ideology of dictators and asserted their right to express themselves freely. The masses identified with them, and they remain icons for ordinary Pakistanis. Even now, the elite Pakistani political leaders, such as the chief minister of Punjab Shahbaz Shariff, have to recite the work of poets like Habib Jalib to garner the support of the people in public rallies.
The growing importance of social media in Pakistan can be leveraged to engage with large but under-represented sections of society. There has been an accelerated growth in the number of internet users in the last two years. Pakistan Telecommunication Authority figures shows that there was an annual growth of 161 percent of internet users for the period ending in June,2010. And Pakistan has the highest mobile phone penetration in South Asian region with 64.2 percent by October 2010.
It is a safe bet that the main customer base of the internet users is the youth. According to a 2007 United Nations Development Program (UNDP) estimate, 65% of the Pakistan’s population is below the age of 25.
It is vital that the government ensure Pakistani middle class and youth participation as the country moves forward from the tragedy of Salman Taseer’s killing as well as the continued battle between the government and extremists, so that Pakistan can wage a social and political battle against obscurantism and medievalism with all its might.
Luv Puri is a political analyst, who has written two books on South Asian political and security issues. He recently published Across the Line of Control based on field work in Pakistan and Pakistan-administered Kashmir.
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