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January 11, 2015

Religion and the state


January 11, 2015


There should never have been any doubt about it but the terror attacks this week in faraway Paris have come as another flaming reminder that we fundamentally must contend with religious extremism and the violent Islamist narrative that has a global reach. So much of this narrative was cultivated in our own backyard.
And on Friday night, we were jolted by a powerful bomb blast outside an Imambargah in the garrison city of Rawalpindi. In this case, we must confront the monster of sectarian terrorism that poses a serious threat to our survival. Apparently, it was a suicide attack on a Milad. Would not this be an act of blasphemy in itself?
After that soul-destroying massacre of schoolchildren in Peshawar, we have repeatedly been assured that all the resources the state has at its disposal are being invested in combating terrorism in all its manifestations. A lot of time was spent devising a strategy on the basis of a political consensus. We have a 20-point National Action Plan that is quite comprehensive.
But excessive emphasis was placed on the establishment of military courts and on restoring death sentences for convicts guilty of terrorist acts. Military courts in a democratic dispensation demanded a constitutional amendment – and this was done in an exercise that has underlined the vagaries of our system of governance.
A touching, visual depiction of what the democratic approval of military courts entails would be the speech that Raza Rabbani made in the Senate. He was almost in tears when he confessed that he was voting against his conscience. The irony here is that the constitution itself dictates that the members of parliament must obey their party leadership on such crucial matters. A number of other leaders of the Pakistan People’s Party also reflected this ambivalence.
The point I am making is that it has been possible for our rulers to obtain what they deem necessary to pursue their objectives in an administrative sense. But there is

little evidence that they are also engaged in an intellectual discourse to find ways of dealing with the roots of this existential crisis of Pakistan. Perhaps this assignment is so overwhelming that they are afraid to even dip a toe in the water. After all, they – and we – need to challenge the very ideology we have dutifully professed.
One way of putting it would be to invoke the speech that the Quaid had made on August 11, 1947. Its gist was simple. Religion is not the business of the state. It is this relationship between religion and the state that we have to explore in the light of our own historical experience and the ideas that have emerged from the evolution of the modern world in which we must find our place.
A lot of deliberation has certainly gone into framing the National Action Plan and some of its points do indicate a shift in the policies that have been pursued so far. For instance, a pointed reference has been made to sectarian terrorism. Sympathisers and apologists of terrorists are also to be targeted. Banned organisations are not to be allowed to operate again in a new garb.
Yet, there are bound to be some barriers in the execution of these proclamations. How would those in the ruling establishment who were proclaimed sympathisers and apologists of the Taliban come to terms with this policy? Raza Rabbani’s predicament comes to mind, in a different version. We know that Peshawar was a game-changer. How far and how quickly it can change the mindset of the ruling class is something we cannot be sure about.
Against this backdrop, it may be wishful to expect that our rulers are ready to review the role of religion in the affairs of the state and in defining our national sense of direction. It may call for a reversal in policies that were the foundation of our doctrine of national security. Be that as it may, we stand today on the edge of a precipice and the mantra now in circulation is that extraordinary times require extraordinary decisions. It also amounts to saying that you cannot resort to business as usual in the midst of a crisis.
While the operation in North Waziristan and Khyber is continuing and the military, armed with the amendment, is setting the stage for speedy trials of terrorists and militants, the civilian leadership has not demonstrated much dynamism in mobilising its forces and putting them into action. Friday’s sectarian attack certifies the impression that the authorities have not gone after outfits that are known to be targeting Shias. What are they waiting for?
It is true that Pakistan has been too deeply infiltrated by religious passions and biases. I have, as is my practice, mainly cited events that have taken place this week. Hence the focus on the constitutional amendment and Friday’s bomb attack and the spectacle of terror in Paris. I will not include Imran Khan’s wedding in this list, though the media has gone to town on this human interest story. Overall, we are still breathing under the shadow of Peshawar.
Still, there was this incident this week that I feel is a true reflection of our maladies. Such are our distractions that the murder of a blasphemy accused who had been released from jail was not adequately registered by the media. Or have such murders become as mundane as a dog biting a man? The tragedy is that the man, arrested in late 2011, was judged to be mentally unstable and was finally released some days ago.
On Tuesday, some masked men took him from his house in Taxila and his bullet-riddled body was found the next day in a deserted area. The people of the village did not allow the body to be buried in the local graveyard and he was buried in the courtyard of his own house. Think about this ignored tragedy that happened in a forlorn place in Pakistan in the context of what happened in Paris and became a major headline across the world and decide how we should deal with these primitive passions.
Will the rulers do the same? It would be hard for them to do this. But circumstances do dictate a review of how religious extremism has flourished in Pakistan and in some other parts of the Muslim world. It will take time for us to be able to contemplate the realities of our existence. Meanwhile, though, the rulers should attend to the war they have declared against terrorism – on a war footing.
The writer is a staff member.
Email: [email protected]




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