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October 22, 2017

Obscurantism and extremism


October 22, 2017

Ibne Insha in his famous book ‘Urdu ki aakhri kitab’ explained the state of affairs in Pakistan through the metaphor of a circle. He thinks that there are various circles, including the circle of Islam. Previously, people were welcomed in this circle. Now entry into Islam is prohibited and people are expelled from it.

There is another circle – the circle of the brain – which seems to be bereft of knowledge and full of ignorance. Today we are reaping the fruits of ignorance in the shape of religious intolerance and violence in Pakistan.

The kind of mindset we are now witnessing in Pakistan is an outcome of various cultural, psychological and ideological factors. Such an exclusivist mind does not mean that it is a phenomenon occurring in isolation in the religious domain only. Rather, it is a manifestation of the mindset that informs our attitude towards other dimensions of life and society. An idea or ideal that is reflected through this mindset will be ersatz of genuine ideas.

It has become common practice in Pakistan to become owners of religion, and use it to fulfil personal interests and whims – hence, the general tendency to search for scapegoat for our own shortcomings. Karen Armstrong in her book ‘Fields of Blood: Religion and the History of Violence’ shows the religious origin of ‘scapegoating’ in ancient times. According to her, when a goat was sacrificed to expiate the sins of the community, the high priest laid his hands on the other goat, “transferring all the people’s misdeeds on to its head, and sent the sin-laden animal out of the city, literally placing the blame elsewhere.” We are following the same ancient ritual in modern times as minority community in Pakistan are burdened with the sins of the majority, and expelled from their homeland as traitors.

Captain Safdar’s recent tirade in the National Assembly against Ahmadis is symptomatic of the morbid psyche that forms people’s opinion about religious and social issues. Owing to this, there is a general aversion to change and diversity, and rejection of alterity – whether religious, ethnic or political. This shows a breakdown of the social contract that is supposed to harmonise political, religious, social and psychological dimensions in society. It is, therefore, important to diagnose the underlying factors that have contributed to the prevalence of an exclusivist mentality in the society of Pakistan. Captain (r) Safdar is speaking in the National Assembly not because of his lifelong engagement with politics but because of the virtue of belonging to a political dynasty that exclusively retains the reins of power within the family. Though they use election as a means to attain power, they do not allow democracy within the party. The same holds true for the PPP and ANP.

The history of Pakistan clearly reveals that we have been excluding the very people and communities that have contributed to the creation and development of Pakistan. Captain Safdar’s statement against Ahmadis is diametrically opposite to the values held and practised by the founding father of Pakistan. It was the All-India Muslim League which founded Pakistan. Its founding president Sir Sultan Muhammed Shah was also the spiritual leader of the Ismaili community. Even Quaid-e-Azam Muhammed Ali Jinnah hailed from the Ismaili sect. Today the Ismaili community is looked upon with suspicion, and a negative narrative is developed by right-wing parties against them.

Similarly, Sir Zafar Ullah from the Ahmadi community was one of the leaders of the Pakistan movement. Quaid-e-Azam himself chose him as the first foreign minister of Pakistan, and appointed a Hindu, Jogendra Nath Mandal, as the minister of law. Mandal’s secretary was a Christian,         Alvin Robert Cornelius, who later became         the chief justice of Pakistan.

Today, we have religious scholars issuing edicts declaring Muslims as kafirs, and ‘religious’ factories that produce foot soldiers to implement their dark vision.       The question is: why is Islam threatened more by minorities, though it has complete dominance over the state and society of Pakistan? Our clergy have the oft-repeated argument that Islam has been weakened and corrupted because of the presence of others among us. The natural course of action for this mindset is to purge elements within. Hence, we have narratives that scapegoat different sects within Islam as well as other religious groups for the decline of Islam and abject conditions faced by Muslims.

This exclusivist mentality in Pakistan is the product of a deeply insecure self and society. That is why we feel insecure of moving pictures, dish antenna, mobile phone, women’s smoking, women in the public space and changes in values and worldviews. Our attitude towards minorities and other religious communities has been formed in the abyss between the ideals we have imbibed from religious milieu and our reality. In other words, our ideals of past Muslim history are supernatural beings, but our real position in these modern times is that of pygmies. Our minds have been inculcated with giant heroes from Arabia and Central Asia who had religious zeal and the strength of the sword to subjugate infidels. After the disintegration of the Mughal Empire, we have been gnawed within by the unconscious thought of being impotent. That is why society has developed an attitude that compels people to make themselves giant-like by crushing their own brethren who share the same culture, language, space and time.

The basic problem stems from the anachronism between our mind and modern reality. We inhabit an age which is a product of modernity that has created a rupture in the vicious cycle of tradition. Instead of adapting itself to the linear mode of history, our cyclical mind tries to protect itself from mutations without by confining itself within the cocoon of the circle created exclusively for ourselves. Thus, we are fearful of change and our failure to accommodate religious diversity. Ibn-e-Insha’s humorous comment has become a grave prognosis.

Centuries ago, renowned Muslim philosopher Ibn-e-Rushd founded the equation and foresaw the fate of a society whose whole edifice rests on ignorance and fear. He thinks that “Ignorance leads to fear, fear leads to hate, and hate leads to violence. This is the equation.” To break the prison of our exclusivist mind, we ought to develop critical reasoning that enables us to create an open society where thousands of flowers can bloom, and myriad melodies and beauties can emerge to fill the grey landscape dominated by obscurantist forces.

This can be possible if we get rid of the narrative that stems from fear and ignorance, and emancipate ourselves from obscurantism. In this regard, knowledge plays a crucial role. For Ibn-e-Rushd “Knowledge is the conformity of the object and the intellect.” Unfortunately, we are people who are incongruent with the modern world, knowledge and others. That is why we witness eternal recurrence of ignorance, hate and violence in our society. It is high time we rejected the cyclical and exclusivist mind that has accumulated more unthought than thought in contemporary Muslim thought.


The writer is a freelancecolumnist based in Gilgit.

Email: [email protected]

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