VIEW: Fighting fanaticism —Elf Habib - Tuesday, February 22, 2011

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The media has been lending almost tacit support to the currency of intolerance. The country, already battered by bloody terrorist onslaughts, is being further forced to fend off the fury and fanaticism of some hitherto apparently silent segments that have infiltrated into the most treasured security shields

The shock, sorrow and anger that stormed the nation after Salmaan Taseer’s assassination brought home stark realities to highlight the unbridled intolerance, fanaticism and obsession that seems set to obliterate the slightest dissent from the obscurantist notions of faith, conduct and behaviour. The widespread condemnation, mourning, memorial messages, vigils, candle-lighting, processions and protest rallies to vent love, reverence, grief and concern were in perfect order. However, far more potent and concerted steps are needed to reorient the maverick mindset and the attitudes that have abysmally sunk into some circles to enable them to act as self-styled vigilantes, judges, jurists and executioners. Salmaan had committed no crime, but even if someone felt the contrary, the legal recourse for redress would have been the lawful option. Yet his assassin’s reported outburst where he touted a premeditated, brutal murder as a holy feat and the tumult and bravura sweeping his congenital hordes, reflects the dread and design of a fanatic minority to derail the development of a tolerant and pluralistic society. A fatwa, for instance, was flung against Sherry Rehman, merely for suggesting some changes to the blasphemy law. The government and political parties, including some rather avowedly progressive ones like the ANP, have cowered under the hysteric outburst of some skeletal yet supercharged bigoted breeds. The media has been lending almost tacit support to the currency of intolerance. The country, already battered by bloody terrorist onslaughts, is being further forced to fend off the fury and fanaticism of some hitherto apparently silent segments that have infiltrated into the most treasured security shields. The widening gory gyre thus creates new challenges not only for the government but for all democratic forces, rights activists, intellectuals and commoners espousing a tolerant, interactive, pluralistic, peaceful and stable polity devoted to its industrial, economic and social development.

The government, political parties and judiciary in established democratic polities provide the mainstay, shield and stimulus to the diversity of thought, belief and harmonious debate and dialogue, leading to a broader multicultural and multi-faith spectrum. No attitudes, phenomena, beliefs or institutions in any democratic polity are precluded from the ambit of query, question, debate, review, revision and improvement. The repeated dictatorships here, however, stifled this surge, interrupted the political process and drove deeper divisions and distrust into various parties and regions spawning several regional, ethnic and sectarian outfits. Even our principal parties are now forced to stitch some quite disparate and cantankerous coalitions and submit to silly compromises even with the most dogmatic lobbies, hence sacrificing the most rudimentary steps to stem intolerance or promote debate and dialogue. The judiciary is also stymied by several similar constraints. Yet the government can certainly improve intelligence, the security apparatus, training and monitoring. Qadri’s elite corps, evidently, was neither trained to sift and separate personal feelings from professional duties nor vetted for its emotional stability. The absence of an in situ reflex or rapid response from Qadri’s companions to thwart his attack was an even more glaring professional failure. Such security lapses in a country where more than half the federal and provincial revenues are spent on the security sector cannot be condoned.

The security organs must strive to foster an essential professional ethos, extirpating the slightest propensity for fundamentalist notions and the cliques clamouring for vengeance against opponents, and must stop patronising the extremist factions. The other state organs, similarly, also have to cease appeasing intolerant thought or activities and work for the prevalence of an all-inclusive and all-enfolding sufi spirit and pluralism in line with thought and tradition in Islam. The existing legal recourse relating to the incitement of hatred and bigoted appeals to incriminate and annihilate individuals, apparently deemed to be deviant by some self righteous vigilantes, be faithfully implemented. The relevant rules required to mend the drawbacks must be explicitly formulated. The state can similarly initiate several effective steps to regulate the training and certification for various imams and preachers. This is actually an integral aspect of re-educating and re-orienting the mind, skill and outlook of our adult population and, evidently, also necessitates the revamping of the entire approach and mechanism of our religious instruction in schools and seminaries. Respect and tolerance for dissent, dialogue and pursuance, the poise and patience to pocket even the most provocative invectives or preferring a cool methodical legal procedure for redemption by curbing the instinctive impulse for instant vengeance have to be urged and imbibed at the earliest stages. This becomes unavoidable as the world rapidly shrinks to become an inevitable intermix of innumerable faiths, cultures, communities and ideas.

The state can certainly lead and stimulate these endeavours to a large extent but combating the intolerant mindset is more of a collective social responsibility involving efforts by institutions and organisations devoted to impart formal and informal education, influence and outlook. This necessitates the revamping of the syllabi and the mode of formal and informal instruction. But indirect impact and inspiration from the media, movies, theatre and literature is even more crucial. European societies have made some resplendent efforts in taming the fury, fire and free flow of the blood that soaked the Reformation and French Revolution The reaction to Darwin’s iconoclastic theory and Marxist ideas was quite chaotic and contentious, yet it lacked those antecedents of violent, gory feuds. In the US, the state braced a protracted struggle to stem slavery and secession while visionaries, reformers, media and movie magnates orchestrated some really remarkable themes and crusades to transcend racial barriers and expose the futility of clinging to the bygone cotton culture. Now, even video games have joined the genre in tearing down totalitarian dogmatism. Even some African states have swamped the stranglehold of apartheid and racial superiority.

Our media, unfortunately, has miserably failed in exposing the futility of the force and fanaticism for the imposition of any particular idea. It has never portrayed the ravages of morbid monolithic passions and has persistently spurned literature, movies and documentaries, historic evidence, debates and analyses illumining the instructive fate of the ideas that were once considered celestial and immutable. Accounts of societies swallowed by the schism and the strife riled by their stubborn insistence on the supremacy and enforcement of obscurantism are scrupulously ignored. So are the realities to realise the receding role and limitations of religion in the state and global affairs. The enthusiasts and proponents of liberal, logical and realistic thought have a far greater onus to disseminate a dispassionate understanding of the diversity of human thought, rites and the consequent need for tolerance and reconciliation.

The writer is an academic and freelance columnist. He can be reached at

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