Identity and violence - Ghazi Salahuddin - Sunday, October 10, 2010

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Again and again, terrorist attacks by religious militants, mostly to be identified as the Taliban and their fellow travellers, underline the limitations of Pakistan's identity as an Islamic state. Instead of binding the nation together, it is religion that seems to divide us. We have had so many bomb blasts in mosques and imambargahs.

Three months ago, two suicide bombings killed a large number of devotees in Lahore's Data Darbar, the most venerated Sufi shrine in the country. It was an exceptionally traumatic encounter for the nation with the barbaric impulse of the jihadist elements who seek to enforce their own vision of Islam. It also signified an alarming new phase in the terrorists' strategy. After the Shias and the security personnel, they are now going after Sunnis of the Barelvi persuation and Data Darbar is the very pinnacle of this school of thought.

We were so shaken by it that we thought it would be a turning point in our struggle against terrorism. There were expectations that the authorities would go after the culprits with full force and devise concerted plans to suppress groups known to be indulging in such activities. The Data Darbar attack was tantamount to the crossing of a line, signifying a serious threat to the very survival of the country.

But the evil brigades have continued to advance. On Thursday, they sent suicide bombers to the mausoleum of Karachi's patron-saint, Abdullah Shah Ghazi. Thursdays are revered days at shrines when larger crowds gather to meditate and pray for spiritual redemption and deliverance from pain and distress in their lives. Data Darbar was also attacked on a Thursday. This manifestation of the Sufi tradition in Islam is believed by many to be an antidote to the violent and intolerant jihadist mindset.

The point here is not to argue how our religion should be interpreted and practised. Nor has the assertion that Pakistan is an Islamic state set any definite path towards salvation or universally agreed principles to order our individual or collective conduct. If an agreement were possible over what our religion prescribes for us in its details, we would at least not have so many religious parties and so many deadly divides over matters of theology.

The crucial issue, then, is whether Pakistan is safe for Muslims who do not subscribe to the radical vision proclaimed by the likes of the Taliban. The disciples of our saints are mostly very God-fearing, simple and peaceable people. We had a large enough population of Muslims in South Asia to make Pakistan possible only because of the message that was delivered by Sufi saints like Data Ganj Baksh Hajveri and Abdullah Shah Ghazi. This means that attacks on the Data Darbar and the shrine of Abdullah Shah Ghazi constitute a defiance of the very idea of Pakistan.

Ah, but what really was the idea -- ideology, if you please -- of Pakistan? One question that we should be courageous enough to pose at this time, though it has always been relevant, is whether Pakistan can actually survive as a modern, democratic country of Muslims without separating religion from the state. Had we not been told at the very outset that religion is not the business of the state?

I realise that a meaningful and rational debate on this issue is not possible in the present conflict-ridden and somewhat anarchic situation. It also seems pointless to refer to the life and pronouncements of Muhammad Ali Jinnah, the man who founded this country. Nor does it matter that while the communists had supported the demand for Pakistan, the religious parties, precursors of the parties who now insist on defining our national sense of direction, were bitterly opposed to Jinnah's mission.

We now have a ruling establishment that has fostered an environment in which religious militancy has prospered. Consequently, the entire social, cultural and spiritual edifice of our society is beginning to crack up. Our situation is further complicated by the fact that it is not just the monster of terrorism that stalks this land. We are suffering from many other, apparently malignant, infections. Violence has become the currency of our social interaction. Intolerance is pervasive in the exercise of power and authority at all levels.

If we are so obsessed with religion, why has it not blessed our moral and institutional behaviour? Why are we not able to promote integrity and justice in a collective sense? It should be instructive to try to understand if our belligerently expressed religiosity has any bearing upon our conduct as citizens. We should take stock of what we are as a people and as a society.

As an aside, I was amused by a statement made by Federal Minister for Railways Ghulam Ahmad Bilour in the National Assembly on Thursday. He said: "I don't say that there is no corruption in my ministry, but the question is where it is not". So, if there is corruption all around, one has an excuse for not striving hard to deal with it in your own sphere of activity.

One way of looking at it is to compare Pakistan with Bangladesh, a country that was part of Pakistan and had shared the initial movement for what came into existence on August 14, 1947. It is, of course, a Muslim-majority country and portrays the dominant features of the Muslim communities of South Asia. We may also recall that when Bangladesh was founded in the wake of a terribly vicious civil war, it was seen as a 'basket case'.

Now, in many ways, it is doing better than Pakistan. Its social indicators, particularly in the domains of population growth, education and status of women, are very impressive. But the point I wish to underline is that in July of this year, the Supreme Court of Bangladesh struck down a constitutional amendment to restore the founding status of the country as a secular republic. It is politically secular at the same that it is religiously of a Muslim majority and culturally Bengali.

We have more compelling reasons to follow this example because we are more varied in our cultural, ethnic, linguistic and regional identities. Even when all citizens of a country profess the same religion -- and we have our religious minorities -- it is bound to be plural in many ways. People will have their own sectarian and doctrinal differences and will belong to contending political parties. They can live together only in a democratic dispensation that allows freedom of religion and faith.

As I said, a debate on this issue does not seem possible until the government is able to effectively control religious militancy and enforce rule of law to establish peace and security for all citizens of the country.

The writer is a staff member. Email: ghazi_salahuddin@hotmail .com

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