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Pakistan: State and religion

Thursday 30 January 2020


Mired in extremism

Muhammad Amir Rana

January 26, 2020

THE clumsy uproar of a religious group on filmmaker Sarmad Khoosat’s film Zindagi Tamasha and an appeasing response by the government reveal only a part of the extremism problem facing Pakistani state and society.

The censor boards had already cleared the film. But a religious group, the Tehreek-i-Labbaik Pakistan, made it controversial a day after an anti-terrorism court in Rawalpindi sentenced 86 workers and supporters of the TLP, including its chief Khadim Hussain Rizvi’s brother and nephew, to 55 years in prison each, in a case pertaining to rioting and resisting the police. The TLP also announced protests against the movie on the day the Bangladeshi cricket team would be playing a match in Lahore. One can easily understand the context of the TLP’s motive, but a film has become the victim of its campaign of hatred at a time when Pakistani cinema is already under crisis. The government has made the movie’s release conditional to the approval of the religious clergy, while the Council of Islamic Ideology has also become involved.

The CII was created to advise parliament in religious terms on aspects of lawmaking, but the state has apparently converted it into a centre for issuing religious decrees, and ‘religious authority’ that is even used to issue clearance certificates for films and dramas. The CII was a time-bound constitutional initiative, which has almost completed its task and reviewed all the laws of the country. During the chairmanship of Dr. Khalid Masud, the body had declared that 96 per cent of laws in Pakistan were not contradictory to Islamic jurisprudence and the Sharia. However, the governments kept this institution intact to bribe the religious clergy for political purposes and used the CII for face-saving on critical religious issues.

It is a fact that religion is the weakest link of the power elites in Pakistan; the religious clergy knows this very well and manipulates it for the protection of its own interests. Power elites’ compromises create more space for the hardliners. The power elites also use them for political purposes, and their weakness is one of the significant sources of extremism in Pakistan because it encourages hardliners to encroach into the private lives of the masses.

[( It’s too early to say the state’s doctrinal approach towards nationalism and religion has completely transformed.

The state is also conscious of its weakness. For the last couple of years, it has been trying to give the impression that it has taken a divergent approach to religion and religious institutions from its previous position. Army chief Gen Qamar Bajwa’s frequent interaction with religious leaders, including for convincing them on madressah reforms and other issues related to countering terrorism, the security institutions’ efforts to promote Paigham-i-Pakistan, a state-sponsored religious decree against extremism and religious intolerance, and how the government dealt with the TLP protests against the acquittal of Aasia Bibi of blasphemy charges are examples of the state’s apparently changing approach.

However, it is too early to say that the state’s doctrinal approach towards nationalism and religion has completely transformed. At least, the movie controversy has revealed that the government is still nervous about religion, scared of the street power of the hardliners, and continues to believe in the political utility of extremist groups.

However, the power elites’ somewhat changing behaviour about religious actors has few obvious reasons. The first one is linked to internal compulsions — religious groups had gradually become too independent and thus started dictating to state institutions. The story of the love-hate relationship between non-state and state actors is not a secret anymore and reveals that managing the former was becoming difficult for the state. The state often felt helpless when its ‘co-opted religious actors’ used religious arguments for their ‘legitimacy’ and actions, which often conflicted with the state’s interest. This turf war between state and non-state actors has been going on since 2002 when angry elements within the militant groups started challenging their leadership and the state. The same story can be found behind the establishment of the Tehreek-i-Taliban Pakistan and its rise.

Another factor has been the external pressure, especially in the form of the Financial Action Task Force, and an urge to provide a conflict-free environment for CPEC projects. The rising Hindutva and Hindu hyper-nationalism in India also contributed to the changing mindset of the state, and it found the opportunity to rebuild its image.

It is interesting how the identity issue is deep-rooted in the ideological, political, and strategic rivalry between India and Pakistan. Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi claimed in a public rally that the amendments in the Indian citizenship law have made the world take notice of the persecution of minorities in Pakistan; this was a lame excuse to veil his government’s pro-Hindutva polices. But it also highlighted the source of the Hindu supremacist mindset, which identifies itself ‘other than Pakistan’. Pakistan is a Muslim state in India’s neighbourhood and the latter considers its minorities, especially Muslims, as part of others. It is also interesting that the debate on nationalism in Pakistan is also always dominated by an argument of difference from India. So if India is reconstructing its identity on religious grounds, Pakistan should have opted the other way.

Though a chronological order in the changing behaviours of India and Pakistan cannot be established, a particular mindset that exists on both sides is at play. Pakistan had agreed to opening the Kartarpur Corridor before the Indian government moved to revoke the special status of India-held Kashmir and make amendments in the citizenship law. However, Pakistan’s resolve to protect its religious minorities has been strengthened after the anti-minority citizenship law amendments in India, which was reflected in a statement of Prime Minister Imran Khan after the attack on the Sikh shrine in Nankana Sahib early this month. He ordered ‘zero-tolerance’ for the people who attacked the shrine.

However, the challenge of extremism is not as simple as imagined. A moderate image cannot be manufactured; it needs societal transformation, which in turn requires a humanisation process. The dehumanisation of others cultivates the ­tendencies of extremism, and state- or society-run strategic communications or counter-narratives slowly impact the dehumanisation tendencies of the people in this perspective. Equal ­citizenship rights can cultivate humanisation ­tendencies in society.

The writer is a security analyst.