“What ails our society?”
“In one sentence, it’s the discrepancy between words and thought, desire and action. We want peace and security but promote violence and fanaticism. We talk of reason and sanity, of logic and moderation but enthrone sentimentalism and sensationalism and extol belligerency and bigotry. Little wonder, then, that gruesome gangs, malevolent mafias and blood-thirsty terrorists rule the roost. Remember what William Shakespeare said in Hamlet: “Words without thought never to heaven go.” “But ours is not the only society in which such discrepancy exists.”
“Yes, of course. This is universal. But there are few other societies in which the discrepancy between words and thought, desire and action is that glaring. And look what’s happening in ours: Killing and molestation, loot and plunder are becoming our favourite pastime. The people are increasingly taking the law into their own hands. The entire society is swept by emotionally charged, high-sounding words of demagogues wearing different garbs here and there. They pass some nasty remark and scores of lives are lost in no time. The very next day they retract their statement but the damage can’t be undone.”
“Isn’t the government responsible for this state of affairs? All said, it’s for the authorities to ensure the rule of law and respect for human rights.”
“Yes, the governments, past and present, are partly responsible for the mess we’re in. They injected religion into politics, not for some moral end but only to save themselves. They mismanaged the economy and squandered and plundered national wealth. They wittingly perpetuated the culture of poverty and illiteracy and befooled the people in the name of Islam or democracy. But, as 19-century English philosopher John Stuart Mill once noted, the most serious threat to civic liberties stems not from the government but from society itself, which cannot bring itself to accepting diversity of views. This astute observation is perfectly applicable to us – a multi-ethnic society composed of people professing different creeds and speaking different languages. The edifice of such a society must rest on the pillars of a pluralistic philosophy, which accepts diversity of beliefs and ideas, practices and codes, and languages and cultures, without trying to reduce the diversity to a unity.
However, in our case religion and politics have increasingly been used as instruments of hatred and animosity, violence and disruption. The political parties which claim to have a nationwide character have no qualms about playing the ethnic card when they find that to their advantage. Religious parties and scholars deliberately promote religious bigotry and fanaticism. To them, the root cause of all our problems is the existence of more than one sect or creed and the panacea for all problems is simply the elimination of all rival sects and creeds and the establishment of a monolithic society. To them, the state, instead of grappling with such pressing problems as poverty, unemployment and deteriorating law-and-order situation, should devote all its energies and use all its resources to accomplishing a single task – establishing the supremacy of one sect or creed in the name of Islamisation. And if the state is not willing to do so, the clergy will do it on their own.”
“I object. The connection between religion and politics exists all over the world. Why, then, you’re castigating it in our case?”
“I don’t disapprove of a connection between religion and politics, per se. Religion can provide a moral basis to politics. Unfortunately, in our case religion has been abused for political purposes and given a militaristic interpretation. In the eyes of many religious outfits, killing innocent non-Muslims or Muslims of another sect is jihad if it helps promote the cause of their creed. A society where poverty, unemployment and ignorance are endemic and an analytical, rational approach to problems is lacking and where lethal weapons are easily available, it is not much difficult to use people as a tool for committing violence in the name of religion. Religious extremism, apart from sharpening differences among the followers of various schools of thought, has taken a toll on the economy. Nothing is more fatal to investment, domestic or foreign, than an environment of death and destruction. Even the best investment packages offered by the government are of little help in investment promotion if the law-and-order situation is bad.”
“But there can be a dialogue with the militants, don’t you think?”
“I’m not against a dialogue with the militants. But the failure of the Swat deal in the recent past reminds us that the jihadi ideology precludes tolerance of any dissent, difference or opposition as, they believe, tolerating any antithesis would constitute kufr. Thus, according to that ideology, democracy and parliament are illegitimate, being a Western concept and a Western institution and thus an antithesis of the Islamic political system. The constitution, the legal system and all subordinate institutions which are based on democratic ideals are likewise branded as un-Islamic. Those who profess a different creed or have a different moral standard are looked upon as an evil. Women who do not put on the veil or men who do not have a beard are considered impious. Men and women who mix with one another are regarded as essentially wicked. Those who listen to music commit a grave sin. All such wicked or impious people have to be reformed – by the use of force, if need be.
“Based on this ideology, in recent times, the Taliban established a monolithic, retrogressive society in Afghanistan, where even a slight departure from the enforced code of conduct was severely punished. Such a society was nearly established in Swat by the Sufi Muhammad-Fazlullah combine and is the goal of Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan and allied movements. Such an ideology is obviously incompatible with modern society, which is multiethnic, multicultural. In such a society, social order has to be based on a pluralistic philosophy – tolerance of religious and cultural differences within society permitting the various groups to practise their distinctive cultures while cooperating in larger social, economic and political life.”
The writer is a freelance contributor based in Islamabad. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org