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January 1, 2015

The power of the pulpit


January 1, 2015


It is hard to know the exact figures or ratios, but it seems from the anecdotal evidence available that at a significant number of the tens of thousands of mosques scattered around the country, there was only limited or no condemnation – during Friday sermons – of the Taliban for the attack on a Peshawar school. At some mosques tacit support was later expressed for Maulana Abdul Aziz, the Lal Masjid head who implicitly defended the Taliban action.
It would be interesting to get more detailed reports on precisely what was said and where. It would also be fascinating to have before us a full break-up of which mosques fall under the influence of which groups. It is known that some of the larger ones in both Islamabad and Lahore are controlled by hard-line outfits such as the Ahle Sunnat-wal Jamaat, formerly the fiercely anti-Shia Sipah-e-Sahaba Pakistan. Despite a ban placed in 2012, the ASWJ continues to operate, apparently with unlimited freedom, and spread its fierce message of hatred.
Other equally damaging messages are spread through mosques too. These are directed against women, minorities and ‘western elements’. What they do is nudge along the mindset that has created a deeply bigoted society. It is a mindset we have now discovered we must fight.
To do so successfully, we will have to use the mosque and its powerful pulpits. In other words, the imams who delivers their sermons every Friday to millions of worshippers have to be won over to the right side of the fence. This is the only way to swing opinion and make anything resembling real difference. How to achieve this is something the National Action Committee set up to combat terrorism must consider in some detail.
In other Muslim countries, ways have been found to incorporate clerics and religious scholars into key social battles. In Iran and Bangladesh, they have been used to help promote family planning and in Egypt to speak out against a variety of social problems including female

genital mutilation. We too have to follow this path and send out a strong message that militancy and the ideas that support it can simply not be permitted to permeate the thinking of people.
All this is also linked to other factors. Outfits spreading hatred against specific groups need to be acted against and removed from the sphere of the mosque. Right now, it is known that many of the clerics who run smaller mosques in towns or big cities fall under their broader umbrella. The mosques, especially in small towns where rates of unemployment are high, have also become a recruitment place where extremist groups pick up aimless young men for their own purposes.
Ajmal Kasab, aged 25 years when he was hanged in an Indian jail in 2012 for his role in the siege of Mumbai four years before that, is an example of the manner in which this process takes place. We need to bring it to a halt.
Somehow, the clerics delivering weekly sermons in mosques need to be brought over to speak against militancy. The key problem of course is the funding that comes in to too many mosques or groups linked to them in the country, in some cases from sources outside our borders.
Nations like Bangladesh have found it possible to begin schemes where mosque imams are paid to deliver the right kind of messages. We could replicate this model. But it would be possibly only if the government was able to surpass the scale of money provided by far richer agents who have become key players in the game of death in which we are pawns.
Spreading messages that alter the manner in which people think is nevertheless vital. The media of course could be a central player in this. Right now, we have clerics who go along with a particular code of thought taught to them at madressahs and by their own teachers. This suggests to them that they need to support hard-line views in various ways and inculcate more and more people into a specific mould. The mosque, notably since the Zia years, has played a key part in creating this mould. It must now play an equal part in breaking it.
Those who regularly attend mosques speak of the pamphlets distributed within many of them, promoting banned groups, or the attempts to collect funds for these organizations. In some cases, the clerics of the mosques may not even be aware of the nature of the groups they are collecting for. Many are, after all, only semi-literate themselves and some may believe they are truly serving a good cause. These men who hold significant influence in our society need to be re-educated and retrained. A massive scheme of some kind needs to be adopted for this purpose.
This has been achieved to a certain degree in countries like Egypt, mainly through the efforts of the Al-Azhar University in Cairo which stands at the centre of the more enlightened views on religion. It is possibly arguable as to why we should need to turn to religion in this fashion within our state. After all, it is no obscure fact that killing is wrong and the murder of children one of the worst offences possible under any rule of humanity or religion. But it appears we need to be reminded of this more forcefully than is currently the case.
Yes, the Peshawar episode has evoked a great deal of shock and horror. But, we need to move forward in a way that it is ensured it is not forgotten and never repeated. This can be possible only if we are able to alter a great deal about the kind of society we have become and remove certain elements that play such a big part in shaping it.
Linked to the mosque is the question of madressah schools. These have mushroomed primarily because of the collapse of the public sector education system. Only a few amongst them offer anything resembling actual training in militancy. But almost all pass on a particular pattern of thought which in the limited surveys conducted indicates learning to see India as an enemy nation and regarding women as being inherently inferior.
A large number of the clerics who run these mosques have themselves emerged from madressahs. These institutes then need to be looked at very carefully and policies adopted to at least offer people more options about where they can educate their children rather than keeping them within seminaries simply on the basis that there is no other place where they can be given education free of all cost and also provided food and shelter.
These are all matters we need to pay greater heed to. The action taken recently against specific clerics promoting hatred is welcome. The fact that the judges who wrote out arrest orders in these cases are in need of protection tells us just how difficult the task we face is. But the mosque and the pulpit need to play a central role in changing the face of our country – which has grown uglier by the decade. We should hear words of true wisdom once spoken from the buildings that symbolise our religion. It is sad this is not the case today.
The writer is a freelance columnist and former newspaper editor.
Email: [email protected]




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