WHICH WAY WILL PAKISTAN TILT?
Author : C.Uday Bhaskar
The publication of satirical cartoons
relating to the Prophet Muhammad by a French magazine (Charles Hebdo)
adds to the anger and widespread protests already simmering across many
countries and societies that espouse the Islamic faith.
From North Africa to West Asia and through South and Southeast Asia and
some parts of Europe, the number of countries that have reported
protests has crossed 20 and more than 30 people have died in the
violence that followed. The tragic fatalities include the US Ambassador
to Libya -- J. Christopher Stevens -- whose brutal killing in Benghazi
last week marked the beginning of the current spiral of death and
Specific to South Asia, Pakistan has witnessed the most intense street
protests and local right-wing groups have compelled the government to
declare Sep 21 as 'Love the Prophet Day' ('Youme-Ishq-e-Rasool') and a
national holiday. Similar protests and agitations on a smaller scale
have taken place in Bangladesh, India and Sri Lanka - though these have
been relatively less violent.
The entry of the French cartoons into the already roiled anti-Islam
waters is only likely to add to the prevailing turbulence and provide
more fodder to those constituencies that seek to sow discord and
bitterness between those of the Islamic faith and the "other" -
currently symbolised by the US led "west".
However, at a deeper level, the current tussle is also between the
larger global liberal order - which significantly includes millions of
Muslims who espouse a commendable degree of inter-religious tolerance
and respect for diversity, dissent, law and the tenets of modernity.
The tension and contestation between the liberal and tolerant
interpretation of the practice of Islam on one hand, and the more
inflexible and insular variant, goes back to the early decades after the
demise of Prophet Muhammad and has waxed and waned with the political
fortunes of the respective adherents.
In the South Asian context, the contrast between Mughal Emperor Akbar
and his grandson Aurangzeb is illustrative.
These are issues that are periodically re-visited in the internal
discourses of Islamic society and the current turbulence triggered by
the obnoxious video clip relating to the early life of Prophet Muhammad
and the more recent French satirical cartoons have reopened the debate.
Beginning with Salman Rushdie's "Satanic Verses" (1988) and the
controversy over the cartoons in a Danish newspaper (2005), the balance
between the freedom of speech and respect for the sensitivities of a
given constituency -- in this case Muslim -- have been differently
tested. The enormity of 9/11 and its bloody aftermath have added to the
complexity of the debate.
Pakistan, which, over the decades, consciously encouraged an exclusive
Sunni-oriented, Wahabi-Salafist preference in its domestic polity, is
now reviewing its short-sighted political-military choices with great
dismay -- and tentative objectivity. The recent display of candour is
encouraging and specific attention may be drawn to the case of Rishma
Masih, a young Christian girl afflicted with Down's syndrome who was
wrongly charged with blasphemy. Over a tense fortnight, the manner in
which the Pakistani state and civil society stood by her is the
proverbial silver lining to a dark cloud that hovers menacingly.
In this connection, a seminar organised by the Pakistan Institute for
Peace Studies (PIPS) in Islamabad this week on 'The Emerging Challenges
and the Responsibilities of Islamic Scholars' is opportune. With
participation from major Muslim nations, the seminar sought to promote
peace and harmony through such interaction between international Islamic
scholars and their Pakistani counterparts, so as to enable resolution
of the various issues and challenges confronting the contemporary Muslim
Speakers asserted that it was imperative that Muslims stop finding fault
in others for their own failures and focus on internal soul-searching
to redress emerging issues. It was reiterated that the commonalities
among the majority of humanity must be highlighted instead of focusing
only on differences - and Islamic religious scholars were exhorted to
promote peace and tolerance in society. The unstated sub-text is not to
spread poison through distorting religion and extolling 'jihad'.
Such normative articulation is very reassuring in the current ambience
of misplaced 'Islam versus the rest' bitterness and the Vice Chancellor
of the University of Peshawar, Qibla Ayaz, offered some useful cues
about the "way ahead". Noting that it was unfortunate that in the Muslim
world the right kind of education was not receiving the priority it
deserved, he added that, in the long run, religious extremism was bound
to fail. Therefore, he said, it was the responsibility of civil society,
informed members of the intelligentsia and religious scholars to come
forward and educate people about celebrating differences and maintaining
societal unity despite this diversity. Can this well-meaning rhetoric
translate into policy?
It is often averred that the liberal spectrum in Pakistan is confined to
a small minority that is shrinking. From the assassination of Governor
Salman Taseer two years ago and the intimidation that followed, to the
silver lining in the recent Rishma case -- it is evident that some very
deep churning is going on in Pakistan's internal discourses. The
political establishments in Pakistan and other parts of the Muslim world
have a choice -- of either playing to the gallery and stoking
anti-US/anti-west fervour or encouraging much deeper introspection and
restraint in the face of unseemly and distasteful provocation.
Self-regulation is a desirable virtue by all the interlocutors in the
current turbulence, but it has to come from within. In the interim,
dissent through debate, peaceful protests and recourse to law is the
preferred option. Mindless mayhem, however spontaneous and anguished,
must be eschewed. Friday will give a sense of which way Pakistan is
C Uday Bhaskar is a strategic affairs analyst. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org. This article first appeared in the Yahoo News on September 20, 2012.