"Pakistan is ready for a softer side of sharia": Mobarak Haider

February 23, 2014

TNS: There are strong indications that religious extremism is growing fast in the Pakistani society. How do you look at it?

Mobarak Haider: It is an ostrich-like attitude to hide your head into the sand and think you are safe. This phenomenon is so open and now it seems to have reached a decisive point.

There is something ingrained in the Muslim psyche, having ruled for more than a thousand years, that they are still dominating. We do not look at the modern civilisation as non-religious; we look at it as the continuation of crusades against the Muslims. The west overthrew Christianity but we are insisting that it is an anti-Muslim civilisation. Feudal and tribal classes among Muslims cleverly manipulate the crusades psyche of the Muslims. There are gradual phases of this psyche. Take India, for example. After the colonial power overthrew the Muslims, the Hindus in India saw in it signs of freedom but did not reject the new lessons of civilisation and democracy. The Muslim feudal classes and mullahs termed it as evil; an overthrow of the great Muslim empire.

In 1857, when the Muslims fought against the British, they did not fight for freedom but for the restoration of their empire, from their own ancient medieval premise. We have a continuous history of revolt against modern civilisations on the pattern of medievalism. Soon, we started considering the possibility of a separate homeland. The British and later the Hindus including Jawaharlal Nehru encouraged it. The Hindus believed this unmanageable load of ‘angry’ Muslims must be shed as much as can be shed.

The seeds were laid in the old movements. But after WW2, everywhere in the world, we were trying to revive Muslin Empire. Arabs revived it only as Arab states. In Pakistan, we restored it ideologically. None of the Muslim nations accepted modern democracy as an independent political system on intellectual level. So it is natural for the Taliban or any Muslim extremist group to demand charge of the state in a medieval way. When we profess revival of the Muslim empire, they can legitimately claim to be the real rulers, being fully medieval. Maulana Maududi, Ahrar, Maulana Mufti Mehmood, Deobands and Khaksars, all follow more or less the same pattern. Whatever the name, the spirit is the same: to restore "Khilafa" which is nothing but medieval Muslim Empire.

Thinker, writer and activist, Mobarak Haider has had a long association with the Left culminating in an association with the Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP). In the decade of 1980s, he became a kind of recluse and stayed engaged in reading and writing. His intellectual pursuits have taken the shape of three books, Tehzeebi Nargisiyat, Mughaltey Mubalghey and Taliban -- Tip of the Holy Iceberg. These books discuss the conditions of the Muslim world, Muslims’ narcissism, their misconceptions and their armed organisations becoming a threat to global peace and freedom.

His immediate worry is the threat of religious extremism faced by the world at the hands of Pakistan, a country made in the name of Islam.

Having roots in district Sargodha in central Punjab, Haider did his Masters in English Literature and later taught in colleges of Lahore for some years. In his student life, he had met the "charismatic" Zulfikar Ali Bhutto and joined him in 1967. He quit the PPP in late 1980s after his disagreement with the policies of Benazir Bhutto.

Following a 10-year stint (from 1992 to 2002) in countries that were a part of the former Soviet Union and doing research, in 2002 he decided to come back and start his academic and intellectual activities in Pakistan. He held many meetings with the express purpose to counter the emerging extremism, especially in the light of 9/11. These days, he gives talks and lectures at different institutions and to the Muslim immigrants in the West.

Somewhere in his late sixties and enjoying excellent health, Haider believes "correct thinking" is the secret of his long and healthy life. He makes himself comfortable on a sofa in the spacious sitting room of his old house in Lahore’s Upper Mall area and talks about the different phases of his thought process.

His path-breaking book Tehzeebi Nargisiyat (Civilisational Narcissism), published in 2008, highlights the absence of an alternate intellectual movement in the Muslim world and urges the Muslims to break free of this false sense of ‘superiority’. In Taliban - Tip of the Holy Iceberg, he makes further efforts to arouse the intelligent people to talk about this thesis at greater length. His work reviews the Taliban phenomenon and philosophy in the light of civilisational narcissism and in the backdrop of their long continuing anti-civilisation attitude. His approach, considered new, is recognised as groundbreaking study on the Muslims psyche from a particular angle.

TNS recently had a chance to talk to Mobarak Haider about the growing religious extremism in Pakistan and its possible causes, the recent round of negotiations between the representatives of the government and Taliban, its possible results and impact on the society and state, and the way forward.

TNS: How did this pan out during different regimes in Pakistan?

MH: When the seeds are laid, the ground is fertile and there is intermediate rain, it will gradually sprout. From Jinnah to Ayub, in spite of all modernity, they kept harping on the same tune -- "we the Muslims; we will build with Islam as the guiding principle."

Zulfikar Ali Bhutto gave it form and shape through a religious constitution. He was making compromises -- trying to be a modernist and revivalist at the same time in the tradition of Quaid-e-Azam, Nasser, Sukarno, Ben Billah and Gaddafi. But let me state that any compromise with Islamist politician will ultimately take you to the mullah because he is the ‘authority’. Our political rulers are neither expert on religion nor clear secularists. They are apologetic because of their ignorance of Islam. Over and over again, they have apologetically concealed their ignorance and went to the maulanas to appease them. This is where the fundamentalist mullah, whose profession it is to use Islam, will exploit you. Whenever you try to be modern, he will hold you by the neck.

Bhutto was playing Islam. He needed quick Arab money, thus admitting the camel in the camp. He had to submit also because he was ignorant of Islam. Then came Ziaul Haq. He naturally made it more explicit; he said it had to be simple Islam which has nothing to do with constitutional democracy or socialism. This suited American opportunism in their war. Thus the movement of revival further deepened.

Later, al-Qaeda and Taliban emerged because they had to. Whether America helped it to happen in the Cold War context or not is irrelevant. They are not products of Jihad in Afghanistan. Hizbut-Tahrir was already there and so was the revivalist movement. Saud and Ibn-e-Wahab in Saudi Arabia had signed a pact two centuries earlier. The United States only used this Muslim extravagant emotion which was available. It is not that they have created it. The relevance of Afghan war is limited:  the revivalists had no experience of war against the world and no confidence to challenge a modern power before this war; this war provided both.

The Muslims were immediately available against socialist Russia because the latter made the mistake of coming close to the Muslim world physically, by occupying Kabul.

Later, Pervez Musharraf played in the hands of America’s Bush administration. He was playing mischief with either side. He sided with America at the wrong time. Preparation of the Arab imperialist design was complete in 2001 when Musharraf came to play his role which was the wrong role to play. The days of Ayyub Khan were long gone when state and forces were stronger than sectarian politics. Pakistan was replete with Madrasas and organised centres supporting Taliban. An anti-reason anti-national movement was ready which rejected all contemporary systems and laws and strongly supported Arab hegemony to replace American hegemony. An elaborate and well-planned movement of correct national concepts was required before anything effective could be done against the emerging lawlessness. Musharraf’s "enlightened moderation" provided deeper sting to the anti-state elements and created greater support for Taliban.

TNS: Against this backdrop, how do you see the current round of negotiations between the government and the Taliban? What can possibly come out of these talks?

MH: The future is not clear. But let me say there is a clear pattern the Pakistan’s establishment is following. This pattern is of bilateralism -- you do not tow one country’s line and try to build your sovereignty on the basis of bilateral relations. This establishment, since ZAB’s time, has very clearly formed a bilateral policy and ZAB was its architect. Indian model of non-alignment and bilateralism are two realities that resemble each other.

What is desirable is that the extremists become tolerant; not that the tolerant becomes violent. 
Pakistan’s establishment is trying to maintain relations with Russia, America, China and Saudi Arabia. We ask for allowance from one while we appease another. You may call it multilateralism. Everyone has some interest in Pakistan. While we are playing talks, Taliban believe they should be taken into the mainstream. While keeping our image of bilateral sovereignty, the establishment wants to suck them into the mainstream and create a peaceful state which has good relations with India; which allows China to pass through its mainland to Gawador and use it; allows America to remain safe because if Taliban come into our mainstream they will not attack America and the West, so we believe it can be a win win.

TNS: You seem to be suggesting as if talks are not a compulsion for the state/establishment but a strategy? Is that so?

MH: It is a strategy as well. There is never a compulsion and there is never full freedom. We live in a world where things are not completely black and white. Even Americans have to accept influence of other powers over them. In our present situation, it is not only compulsion but a freedom. The choice we have is that we can suck them in [the militants] and make us a peaceful country, developing our trade with the world and becoming comfortable.

Pakistani army still has designs but they have changed fundamentally because of repeated defeats. It has been so deeply "humbled" that it seems to revisit many of its earlier stances. It is no more thinking of annexing Afghanistan as its province. If the Taliban accept peace, they will be part of a Sharia-oriented society where they have the benefits plus part of the cake (influence).

That is the first option for our establishment but there are risks. It is quite possible that the criminal side of Taliban which is distinct from their ideological stance can play mischief. If their criminal interests clash, they may refuse to come into the mainstream. But they are a weaker power and the main power goes to the ideological demand of sharia. It is possible to take them into the mainstream because Pakistan has no objection to sharia. Pakistan is ready for a softer side of sharia.

TNS: Is there any chance of fighting back with them? 

If you do not hurt each other physically and do not go beyond the limits of civilised behaviour, both can exist. You can have a strong religious bias and another can have strong atheistic bias but we can coexist. 

MH: If the establishment does not succeed in talks, there has to be an immediate very strong action against the Taliban. So now the two possibilities are either peaceful transition of Taliban into the mainstream quotient of Pakistani society or a very decisive action against the Taliban in the form of an operation which will be participated by the Americans from the north and the west, Afghan forces will participate, even Iranian forces can participate. If they are taken from all sides, I say it will be the Warren Hastings type of operation which was launched against Pindari Power by the British.

TNS: Do you think the Taliban will agree to this softer sharia? What type of particular softer side of sharia do you predict? What will be the give and take?

MH: They can agree to it. The fundamental ideological groups can always come to terms because you give them some leverage and they believe that now they have time and greater space so they should move forward. It is quite possible that you can postpone the imposition of sharia. You can always say you have to educate people; that when we are ready, we will make laws. When they come into the mainstream, they will be optimistic -- they will have more ideological participation, more of their nominated people will get placements, their prisoners will be released, all cases will be withdrawn, there will be complete amnesty. They may have huge financial benefits; partially allowed all kinds of criminal and drugs trade activity.

The state and the government will keep a low profile and let them keep their trading, smuggling and other things going on. It will give them political public positions. These are the possibilities, the simple concessions that you give them. And they allow you to temporarily keep your democracy the way it is and they will come into the mainstream and make fresh efforts through all the madrassas which will not be touched.

TNS: Will that not mean submission on the part of the state and what will be its impact, especially on different sections of society including women, minorities etc?

 Today, our government is afraid of hanging Mumtaz Qadri. Our state is committing suicide. This establishment thinks it is being clever but it is not.
MH: Yes it is gradual submission of the state. In the coming years, you have to go to a perfect Saudi Islamic form or fight. There are no two choices. You will see they will take you by the neck.

First of all, women will be the victims and then minorities will follow. "Minorities" within the Muslims will also be affected. Members of some sects will have to be killed. Art and culture will have to be destroyed.

TNS: Do you see this situation coming gradually or will the state fight with them at some point?

MH: I foresee an international interference in Pakistan. It may come soon and there is no alternative other than foreign intervention. The Taliban and revivalists will gradually expand into a larger and stronger nuisance against the world and the world will be ready to take action. It is possible that they become more irresponsible and start tampering with the Western world and Russia, which they will not be able to avoid because Uzbeks and Chechens are part of their network.

TNS: You say we are gradually submitting. But this seems a bit contradictory since the rulers and the society in general accept the rule of sharia. What is the role of state in it?

MH: The establishment desires to remain sovereign and independent of the West and the world, by incorporating the Taliban into the mainstream. They would love to give them all kinds of leverage and space in order for them to become peaceful. This is extreme slackness of our establishment, lack of resolve. Our state vacillates between the modern world and medieval mentality. They are always ready to accommodate the authority of the ‘Ulema’ along with their desire to have freedom and rights. We are a people who desire everything of the modern world but with deep guilt. We believe that we are doing something very evil when we desire something modern. So when the maulana snubs us, we bow in shame and say "Sorry. Please give me time and I will be okay".

TNS: So where is the clarity then?

MH: Clarity is not easy. We have become kind of schizophrenic. The state is biased towards the killers. They have been killing thousands of our people, our armed forces and servicemen. The state seems to side with the killers to give them amnesty. During the British rule in India, ten thousand white men ruled over several hundred million people. The British had ability to administer law. They had ability to hang Ghazi Ilam Din Shaheed in just a few months of trial and bury him without an apology. They allowed his funeral with the guarantee that there will be no mischief. That is what is called law with confidence; law with a clear mind; law which says we do not care who is angry.

Today, our government is afraid of hanging Mumtaz Qadri. Our state is committing suicide. This establishment thinks it is being clever but it is not.

TNS: What are the possible solutions by the state and society?

MH: There are millions of people with a clear head in Pakistan and they can educate people only if there is a protection that nobody will hit them. When you know anybody can hit you with a bullet and the state or the world does not protect you, you are intimidated. Allow the people here to educate the people around them and you will see millions of people coming out with correct ideas about a very moderate Islam. The moderate Islam is simple -- I will keep my religion; will not interfere with other’s belief. What is desirable is that the extremists become tolerant; not that the tolerant becomes violent. The difference is that we oppose them but do not kill them while they oppose us and kill us. Let them be like us -- keep opposing us without killing us. If you do not hurt each other physically and do not go beyond the limits of civilised behaviour, both can exist. You can have a strong religious bias and another can have strong atheistic bias but we can coexist.

At the moment, it is hard to make a movement because the state and establishment are the sections who believe in the Taliban position. They do not believe what educated people believe. The establishment is more opportunist; either it is ashamed of its guilt or it comprises of crooks who are manipulating the world for their petty motives. There is no remedy yet. Without the interference of the world powers, we are doomed to suffer for several long decades. But let us hope my fears are totally wrong.

"Pakistan is ready for a softer side of sharia": Mobarak Haider