Fissures in the middle
The most convenient understanding of the phenomenon of Pakistani extremists that one hears being echoed from TV studios and their favourite ‘guests’ suggests that young Pakistanis turning into religious fanatics has something to do with illiteracy and unemployment.
Though not entirely incorrect, this notion, however, is a lazy explanation.
It fails to explain the emergence of young religious extremists such as Omar Shaikh, Shahzad Tanveer and Hasib Hussain, and Faisal Shahzad. Each one of these young men came from educated, middle-class families.
Saying they were products of the western societies that they were raised in is a weak retort.
This attitude simply refuses to seriously address the issue of educated, young Pakistanis falling for an extremely myopic and nihilistic brand of the faith — something that was once explained as a vocation only of the illiterate and the financially desperate.
Omar Saeed Sheikh, the British Pakistani who studied at prestigious educational institutions like Aitchison in Lahore and than at UK’s London School of Economics was involved in the kidnapping and beheading of US journalist, Daniel Pearl, by radical Islamist organisations in Pakistan.
There has been an alarming rise in the number of young, educated middle-class Pakistanis (here and abroad), embracing the most reactionary and anarchic strains of the faith, believing it to be a justified and logical portrayal of ‘true’ Islam.
During a recent seminar, TV anchor and journalist, Talat Hussain, pointed out a very interesting finding. During his visits to the United Kingdom, Hussain went around talking to various Pakistani families settled in the UK.
He was shocked to find that in spite of these families having access to a wide spectrum of education, employment and health facilities provided by the UK’s welfare system, a majority of young third generation British Pakistanis were drop-outs, involved in gang-related criminal activities, or had allowed themselves to be ghettoised within large pockets of Pakistani communities there.
In the last two decades or so, these communities have come under the influence of various religious outfits who exercise control over how UK citizens of Pakistani origin (especially the young) should think and behave.
Many of the more radical clerics and leaders of these outfits and thinking are UK citizens surviving on hand-outs that UK’s welfare system doles out to its unemployed citizens.
And yet, one of the main planks of these men includes indoctrinating Pakistani-British youth to view the British society as being ‘decadent’, ‘immoral’ and ‘working against the interests of the Muslims.’
This has consequently made a number of British-Pakistanis to limit their interaction with the British society in general in spite of the fact that most of them continue to accept the benefits offered by the British system.
While actors like the 7/7 bombers in London and Faisal Shahzad are an obvious embarrassment to Pakistan and to the Pakistani communities in the West, so are the growing number of rabid, tech-savvy young people floating around various social media sites mouthing the most reactionary ideas about Islam and politics.
There are websites out there glorifying some rather disturbed men and the most twisted conspiracy theories. And many of these sites are owned, run and frequented by Pakistanis who work and are comfortably settled in western countries.
Just as the sudden rise of certain crackpots (via TV) in Pakistan was keenly followed and supported by a chunk of young, urban middle-class Pakistanis, various cranks are happily catering to the already confused religious and ideological bearings of Muslim Pakistanis living abroad.
British-Pakistanis rallying for Shariah laws in the UK. Many such young men are directly influenced by organisations like the Hizbut Tahrir – an Islamist outfit that was recently involved in trying to inspire an Islamist military coup in Pakistan. It is ironic to note that Tahrir, though banned in Pakistan, continues to function as a legitimate organisation in the UK.
Much has already been written about Islamic evangelists who cleverly represent (and glorify) the increasingly chauvinistic mindset of the current generation of young urbanites.
A recent book on Farhat Hashmi’s organisation, Al-Huda, (written by a Pakistani woman academic), accuses her of spreading hatred against Christians, Hindus and Jews among Pakistani women living in Canada.
In the wake of the Faisal Shahzad episode in New York last year, the Muslim Canadian Congress (MCC) – a group of liberal Muslims living in Canada – accused American Islamic organisations of refusing to distance themselves from the doctrine of armed jihad.
The MCC goes on to state that many young Pakistanis living in the United States and Canada regard Pakistan as a safe haven for their preparation and training for waging wars against the West.
Organisations like the MCC have also come down hard on outfits such as Al-Huda, ridiculing their claim that they are on a mission to convert westerners to Islam.
A cleric sits beside Farhat Hashmi (left) lecturing young Pakistani women at one of Al-Huda’s teaching centres in Canada.
Nevertheless, even in liberal countries like the US, UK and Canada, organisations like the MCC are coming under direct attack and threats from their more myopic contemporaries who, it seems, are free to peddle away hatred and confusion to Muslims living abroad.
Not surprisingly, it is now not just right-wing, non-Muslim lobbies in the West who are asking their governments to revisit their policies based on the egalitarian and pluralistic notions of ‘multiculturalism,’ but even organisations like the MCC and others representing liberal Muslim Pakistanis living abroad are demanding the same.
They claim that radical Muslims are misusing these policies and/or only producing intolerant young Muslims thanks to the tolerant attitude of Western governments.
The Muslim Canadian Congress (MCC) protesting in Toronto against the growing influence of radical Islamist groups in Muslim schools in Canada.
But, of course, the situation is more alarming in Pakistan.
Political Islam – a mid-20th century philosophy that advocates the creation of a theocratic government and state through the ‘Islamisation’ of society –was once the vocation of conservative scholars and established political parties such as Abul Ala Mauddudi and Jamat-i-Islami (in Pakistan).
However, ever since the late 1980s it has rapidly disintegrated into becoming a bare but populist entity with two prominent strains.
One strain has striped off this philosophy’s more scholarly aspects and left only its violent jihadist facets intact. This strain can now be found in the barbaric ways of extremist organisations like the Taliban and many of Pakistan’s once state-approved sectarian outfits.
The other strain has been working to turn Political Islam into a populist set of easy-to-digest ideas through which elections can be fought or the military-establishment be infiltrated and used as a patron.
JI tried flaunting the populist aspects of Political Islam during the 1977 and 1993 elections, but failed.
Nawaz Sharif’s PML-N did so throughout the 1990s and somewhat did succeed – but only with the help of the military-establishment and before he was chucked out in a military coup in 1999.
Political Islam’s historical drubbing in elections in Pakistan has increasingly made this philosophy the prerogative of certain powerful sections of Pakistan’s military and its many mouthpieces in the popular Urdu media and in so-called Islamic evangelist movements.
Its most recent advocate is cricketer-turned-politician Imran Khan.
Though, quite like Imran, most of his followers’ lifestyles too are rather ‘westernised,’ these are no liberals believing in concepts like democratic pluralism or in the importance of tolerating and promoting religious, sectarian and ethnic diversity.
By the looks of it, they see democracy to be a threat to Pakistan’s imagined existence as a monotheistic state and society based on a single (state-sanctioned and clergy-approved) strain of the faith.
Most Imran fans (if not Imran himself), like the pro-Musharraf ‘moderates,’ have, at best, sounded like modern 21st century versions of former right-wing Pakistani military dictator, Ziaul Haq.
Instead of a shervani and a stern frown, they can be seen in modern, western clothing and designer shalwar-kameez, spouting the most worn-out rhetoric and narrative that first started to be built up by the state under Zia and his politico-religious sidekicks.
It’s the usual beat: Pakistan and democracy are not compatible; democratic pluralism promotes ethnocentricity; secularism is akin to atheism; religious extremism and violence is the handiwork of the ‘anti-Pakistan’ and ‘anti-Islam’ elements (mainly foreign) …
Also, to these social media savvy ‘revolutionaries’ there is only one correct version of Islam but most Pakistanis follow a corrupted and adulterated version because they are illiterate and superstitious.
Anyone questioning these assumptions is a traitor, and that we need a strong leader who cannot come through democracy because most Pakistanis are ignorant.
Furthermore, anyone questioning the padded extremism and soft authoritarianism peddled by the bopping Imran fans is a ‘liberal extremist’ who is undermining religion and promoting ‘corrupt politicians’.
Much is spoken, written and lamented about ‘Islamophobia.’ It’s a propensity found in some people (mostly among the non-Muslim in Western countries), who question and discriminate against the so-called ‘Islamic attire’, look and beliefs.
But those who speak the loudest against ‘Islamophobia’ have little or nothing to say about another social bend that is haunting their own societies: Islamomania.
I would like to describe Islamomania as a rather unhealthy obsession with religion.
It’s a fixation that is reactively and at times, systematically used to not only inflict bodily harm on those considered to be infidels or ‘bad Muslims,’ but by also those who attempt to maintain a shady moral ground and dominance over those considered to be spiritually flawed and inferior.
This tendency is also flexed to describe ones own professional, social and political shortcomings as being something that is due to the intrigues of those who are against Muslims.
This Islamomania in Pakistan is mostly found and flaunted in the urban middle and lower-middle classes.
It is an outcome of the careless and selfish socio-political experiments that the state and some governments began to conduct using religion as the main component (some 35 years ago).
More squarely put, this obsession with faith is the result of these experiments going horribly wrong.
Though, it emerged from the state’s disastrous experiments conducted to socially engineer a society that would be blindly obedient to a state-sanctioned, individuality-stripping and dystopian version of collective faith, ever since the mid-1990s, it has become a project of the society itself.
Such experiments that first began to take place in the mid-1970s and went on across the 1980s, till about the early-1990s as a state-backed project, finally spawned a social mindset and milieu that did not require policies from above anymore.
From the mid-1990s, the Pakistani society had well understood the economic, political and social benefits that came with things like overt religious exhibitionism.
As mentioned earlier, the classes that were in the forefront of recognising the above were the urban middle and lower-middle-classes. It was among these classes that most of the self-motivated Islamic evangelical movements emerged.
These movements and outfits peddled Islam as a way to bypass and reject an identity based on ethnicity or any secular ideology. It’s main underlining emphasis, however, remains to be about how to use religion as a way to gain economic success and social status.
Consequently, unable to succeed in electoral politics or walk the corridors of the country’s power politics, the Islamised urban, bourgeoisie and the petty-bourgeoisie began to invade, take-over and transform economic, cultural and social spaces that were inherently secular or at least non-religious.
Though it was the secular regime of Z A. Bhutto in the 1970s that is believed to have first sown the seeds of state-sanctioned Islamisation of Pakistan, it was military dictator, Ziaul Haq, in the 1980s, who is considered to be the main architect of state-sponsored and imposed ‘Islamisation’ in Pakistan.
The state in the past (especially in the 1980s) was the one imposing certain ‘Islamic policies’ upon a bewildered society; but from the mid-1990s, it is society (rather the middle and lower-middle class sections of it), that seems to be enforcing religious dictates and behaviorism in public space.
This has seen the proliferation of praying areas in offices, parks and airports, and/or the availability of praying areas outside the traditional praying centres such as the mosque; the overt display of scriptural verses on buildings and billboards; calls to pray (azaan) in shopping malls; the growing number of Arabic/religious expressions in everyday language; the explicit display of what is described and understood as ‘correct Islamic clothing and look’; religious gatherings in posh drawing rooms and in TV studios; sharing of sermons and religious quotes, and images on social media, etc.
It was a conscious and concentrated effort to display religiosity in public.
This is so because all this and more is treated and celebrated as symbols of the kind of social power that these classes have attained.
There are many among these classes who see these developments as a ‘good sign.’
But, of course, very few of them are willing to ask exactly why things like extremist violence, crimes (especially against women and children), drug addiction, the rise in psychological/psychiatric ailments, and political and social corruption have managed to not only grow but actually thrive at a time of this great Islamisation from below?
True to form the dynamics of Islamomania are such that the blame for all this is conveniently put on politicians, ‘foreign hands’ and the ‘illiterate masses.’
Questioning or even discussing such issues is more likely to get one labeled as an Islamophobe.
It is not the doctrines of faith that are put in danger by such discussions and questions.
It is the urban middle classes’ growing dependence on religious exhibitionism as a way to retain the economic and social benefits that they have enjoyed from the mid-1980s onwards, which comes into focus.
This form of obsessive exhibitionism has increasingly been indentified by these classes as an expression of the influence that they are gaining outside the airtight confines of conventional power.
But the most disturbing thing about this obsession (in the context of its middle class social expression) is that, even when its more violent and extremist expression brutalises minority religions, different Muslim sects, law enforcement agencies and the ‘liberals,’ Islamomania forces the Islamised middle classes to either limit their critical response to such madness, or worse, remain quiet.
It is as if they believe that they’re akin to unwittingly let go of the social ground they have gained even if they condemn the bloodiest of acts partaken in the name of faith.
But then, though the main reasons of such a gain are almost entirely economic and to do with carving out a social niche, status and identity for oneself, it too is something partaken in the name of faith.
It’s a thin red line now between what constitutes open terror unleashed in the name of religion, and religiosity imposed with the help of overt religious exhibitionism and symbolism.
Nadeem F. Paracha is a cultural critic and senior columnist for Dawn Newspaper and Dawn.com
The views expressed by this blogger and in the following reader comments do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of the Dawn Media Group.