Societal harmony and state stability cannot be ensured in an environment of religious and cultural intolerance and the attempts by some individuals or groups to impose their religio-cultural choices on others by the use or threat of violence and intimidation.
Religious and cultural intolerance and terrorism are the most destructive threats to Pakistani state and society that has ethnic, linguistic, regional and Islamic-sectarian diversity. Any attempt to steamroll these differences for any reason undermines the prospects of the Pakistanis developing a sense of community based on the notion of the nation-state and the constitution. They need to practice religious and cultural pluralism in a participatory democratic framework. The state system must stay above societal and religious discontinuities and treat all as equal citizens.
Pakistans societal idiom and interaction is more dominated now by Islamic orthodoxy with greater emphasis on ritualism and public display of religiousness than was the case in the early 1970s. This shift has made Pakistani society less tolerant, although most people talk of tolerant and compassionate nature of Islamic teachings.
Two trends are quite prominent. The ordinary people have become more conservative-Islamic and their idiom and discourse are dominated by Islam-orthodoxy. All human interaction in the domestic and international contexts is viewed invariably as a function of religion and there is talk of a global conspiracy against Islam and Muslims. Their focus is on the conflict between the Muslims as the oppressed and the believers of other faiths, especially the West, as the oppressor and tormenter.
This religion-based worldview has two implications for the Pakistani society. First, the focus on the notion of the oppressed versus the oppressor in religious backdrop has led many people, especially the youth, to evade weaknesses in the society and the need for their rectification. As all injustice to the Muslims is perceived to be inflicted by others and non-believers, the need of self-analysis is replaced by the demand to the world to put an end to its injustices to the Muslims. Second, a large number of Pakistanis are more interested in Muslim causes outside of Pakistan than focusing on improving the situation within Pakistan. The transnational outlook reduces the importance of Pakistan as a focal point of their loyalty. For most of them Pakistan has instrumental relevance, i.e., provision of basic facilities to them, serving as an instrument for pursuing their transnational vision or agenda and for asserting identity vis–vis India. Only limited, if any, attention is paid to the citizens obligation towards the state. The orthodox Islamic view of the state views non-Muslims as lesser citizens.
Another implication of Islamic-orthodox political discourse is the emergence of Islamic vigilantes who develop an aura of self-righteousness and coerce people into accepting their view of Islam and how to manage individual and societal affairs. We have seen vigilantes in action during the MMA rule in the Frontier Province (Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa), 2002-2007. The situation becomes more problematic if such groups use coercion and intimidation to impose their vision of Islam.
One manifestation of Islamic vigilante disposition is Islamic radicalism that implies the advocacy of drastic changes in the society and the political system based on their interpretation of Islamic religious scripture and traditions. These individuals and groups are literalist and uncompromising in their interpretation of Islamic sacred writings and traditions, and thus, intolerant towards other versions of the same text and traditions or visions of the state and society.
They are favourably disposed towards using coercion and force to pursue their narrow religious agenda, often projected as their sacred mission. The self-cultivated dogmatic view of what is genuine Islam perceives all those as misguided and un-Islamic who do not share this particular view of Islam. This provides them with a self-created justification to use violent means against them; that such people can be killed in order to eliminate evil from the earth.
Almost all Afghanistan and Pakistan based radical Islamic groups that are engaged in violence in the name of self-proclaimed Jihad fall into this category. These include Al-Qaeda, various Taliban groups and Pakistan-based sectarian groups and their breakaway factions that subscribe to the Deobandi, Wahhabi or Salafi Islamic tradition. The Lashkar-i-Tayyaba and Jamaat-ud-Dawa subscribe to the Ahl-e-Hadees Islamic tradition.
The Jihadi movement in Afghanistan and Pakistan is thus sectarian in character. Most Islamic parties sharing Islamic-denominational perspectives with the militant groups publicly or tacitly support them. The Jamaat-i-Islami and various factions of the Jamiat-e-Ulema-e-Islam and the religious seminaries publicly support them. Their workers overlap with each other. Even in flood relief work some of the militant groups and religious parties worked together.
The aforementioned Islamic parties serve as the political front for the militant and violent Islamic groups, defending them by criticizing and condemning the American role in Afghanistan. The criticism of the US is often code for supporting militancy and their narrative is simple and straight, i.e., there was no militancy until the US attacked Afghanistan and that these groups are targeting Pakistan because of its pro-US policy and that if the US withdraws, there will be peace in the region. These groups also claim that suicide attacks and other violent activities are done by the paid agents of the US, Israel and India rather than the genuine Taliban who are friends of Pakistan.
The nave and self-serving arguments cannot cover up the reality that extremist groups are engaged in inhuman and anti-Pakistani activities. They create a theoretical justification for their activities by a distorted interpretation of Islam. The suicide attacks and bomb blasts in mosques, imam-bargahs, girls schools, increased conflict between the Deobandi/Wahhabi groups and the Barelvi groups, and attacks on Sufi shrines can be explained only with reference to a sectarian-Islamic narrative and the desire of a small group to challenge whatever they think is un-Islamic. Their societal allies, sharing Islamic-denominational ideology, are protecting those who are out to destroy Pakistans state and society. Religious and cultural intolerance will destroy the fabric of Pakistani state and society, no matter who engages in it on whatever ground. There is a need to think on these issues dispassionately.
The writer is an independent political and defence analyst.