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Wednesday August 17, 2022

Tackling a toxic legacy

April 29, 2022

One of the most toxic legacies of PTI chief Imran Khan is the weaponization of religion. Perhaps after Gen Zia, he is the second head of government who has employed religious connotations, symbols and terminologies excessively to achieve political objectives. This exploitation of religion for political purposes will not only tear down the social fabric of society but will also haunt the nation for decades.

Like Zia, Imran too tried to appease the regressive elements of society through his obscurantist policies and medieval mindset. Soon after coming into power, the former prime minister carried out cuts in development, a step that badly affected less developed federating units like Balochistan. However, he was mindful of clerics’ influence and was amenable to the idea of appeasing them.

Therefore, his Khyber Pakhtunkhwa government rewarded Darul Uloom Haqqania of Akora Khattak by pumping more than Rs577 million into the rehabilitation and construction of the seminary. Khan justified the generous grant on the pretext that the late Maulana Samiul Haq had extended a helping hand to the KP government during the polio immunization campaigns.

But detractors asserted that he extended this help to the seminary because Maulana Samiul Haq was an arch rival of Maulana Fazlur Rahman. Had the assistance during the polio campaign been the only criterion, then Maulana Fazlur Rehman should have claimed the biggest grant as out of more than 36,000 religious seminaries almost half of them belong to the JUI-F or have some sort of association with the group. It is also argued that other religious seminaries also extended help during polio immunization campaigns but no such financial assistance was extended to them.

Khan also asserted that such funding was necessary for mainstreaming religious seminaries so that they could impart modern education to the students of religious institutions but instead of mainstreaming religious seminaries he ended up imposing a syllabus through the Single National Curriculum on both government and private schools. Some critics have said that the imposition of this curriculum created more space for clerics in public life, helping them not only to indoctrinate the students of poor rural areas in the four walls of religious seminaries but mainstream educational institutions as well.

The PTI government also established a number of authorities which boosted the position of clerics besides undermining women and civil society organisations to appease right-wing tendencies. For instance, his minister for religious affairs openly adopted an anti-women approach creating hurdles in the way of events like the Aurat March.

Khan himself came up with a strange reason for the rise in sexual assaults, blaming victims for the ordeal that they went through. A strong public backlash forced him to retract his statement, compelling him to clarify his position over the issue. His attempt to trace a link between women’s clothes and sexual assaults reflects the approach of right-wing religious circles who have always blamed women for the crimes that are committed against them.

Khan claimed to be a follower of Mohammad Ali Jinnah, asserting that he subscribed to the ideas of the founder with regard to running the affairs of state. But Imran Khan chose to forget that Jinnah was a modern democratic who believed in the separation of religion and politics. His August 11, 1948 speech also lends credence to the claims of some historians that Jinnah wanted a Pakistan where all citizens of the country were equal before the law. He did not want the citizens of the newly created state to be discriminated against on the basis of religion, caste, creed or sect.

Jinnah strongly opposed Mahatma Gandhi when the latter employed religious symbols to attract the rural masses of India towards the movement of independence. The founder of Pakistan rightly sensed that the employment of religious symbols, connotations and terminologies would greatly harm the social fabric of Indian society.

Unlike Jinnah, Imran seized every opportunity to exploit religion and if one analyses his approach with regard to running the affairs of the state he is closer to Gen Zia than Mohammad Ali Jinnah. He appeared to be as vindictive against his political rivals as the brutal dictator. He seemed to be following the legacy of the dictator in curbing dissenting voices and stifling the freedom of expression.

While Gen Zia had only one Pakistan Television, Imran tried to transform several TV channels into sounding like state-run channels that peddled the propaganda of the PTI government incessantly. He proved to be very contemptuous towards the constitution and democratic traditions. Many critics believe that Imran Khan also followed the footsteps of the late dictator by encouraging the speaker and deputy speaker of the National Assembly to take unconstitutional steps. His hand-picked president and the governor of Punjab have also been accused of disrespecting the constitution.

While Gen Zia was not a popular leader and would not address large gatherings, Imran Khan is adroit at pulling crowds where he resorts to religious rhetoric. The pernicious tentacles of Zia’s indoctrination did not touch the upper strata of society but the religious bigotry that Imran Khan advocated reached all sections of society. Even the section of elite and upper middle classes are now using the religious card to condemn the political opponents of the PTI.

The recent torrent of criticism unleashed by PTI leaders against Miftah Ismail has appalled several sections of society. The attack on the finance minister on religious grounds clearly indicates that the religious rhetoric of the PTI has also affected the sections of a class that would otherwise be very liberal and secular in its approach.

However, the PTI should not be singled out for exploiting religion. In the past Ayub, Yahya, Bhutto, Nawaz Sharif, the PPP and other political parties have all exploited religion for political gains. But since the result turned out to be catastrophic, all political parties should enter into a contract obliging them not to drag religion into politics. This is the only way to put an end to this toxic legacy.

The writer is a freelance journalist who can be reached at: egalitarianism444@gmail.com

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