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Monday, 2 February 2009

Extremism is a thin line (and the menace of Taliban and Farhat Hshmi)

Extremism is a thin line

By Afiya Shehrbano

SEVERAL commentators have expressed their concern and disbelief in the media, over the growing violence and escalating socio-political changes observed in Swat in the past few months.

While one can understand the common citizen’s empathy and outrage against the injustices committed by the militants, it is surprising why social scientists who are writing in the papers are a) wondering why the militants are waging such a successful war beyond the tribal areas; and b) why the Muslims of Pakistan are not protesting enough against such a blatant misuse of the Islamic agenda.

Never mind the obvious critique of how the peripheries have been ignored by the federal centre with regard to development, basic necessities and complete disregard for national inclusivity or participatory autonomy. Also let’s leave behind the sheer number of years of absence of the northern areas from the collective conscience of Pakistanis. Some elites actually wax nostalgically about the loss of a tourist destination in the fall of Swat.

There is also a certain irony in the activism of those liberals who protest the bombing of schools in Swat but never before have been troubled enough to campaign against the fact that thousands of school buildings lie empty around the country in the absence of teachers or enforcement of a decent curriculum, some right outside the cities we live in. Most have also accepted gender-segregated schooling as a necessary ‘cultural’ requirement.

In other words, it is only when extreme action is taken that our social conscience awakens temporarily only to succumb to an apolitical death. Meanwhile, we pretend that this extremism has taken place in what was otherwise normalcy. Also ignored is the fact that such social change emerges within a broader political environment that either sanctions or prohibits the momentum of such movements.


Under the masquerade of a liberal dictatorship, the last decade has witnessed the blatant project of the MMA to promote their political Islamisation programme. In exchange for their collaboration with Gen Musharraf, they earned the freedom to change the very political landscape of the NWFP. This was not only through the political access given to them by Musharraf to operate as a ‘legitimate’ government in the province but through an aggressive campaign to change its very social culture.

The MMA government delivered no development but did implant a conducive theocratic environment that is reaping benefits today, albeit for another and far more radical force sympathetic to the Taliban cause. It is na├»ve then to hope that censure from the supposed ‘moderate’ mainstream religious parties will somehow convince and counter the Taliban offensive anywhere in the country.

So today the federal government appeals to the mainstream religious leaders (some for a price) to declare that suicide bombing and prohibiting girls’ education is not the preferable way to legitimately pursue the Islamic agenda. However, the very cultural agenda of such parties, demonstrated over the last few years in the NWFP, institutionalised prohibitively restrictive gender roles, domestication of women and dress/appearance codes for even men.

They also were complicit in campaigns pitted against female enfranchisement and the drive for the systematic removal of women from all public visibility (including female forms such as mannequins!). The intolerance for entertainment such as music and movies as un-Islamic has logically led to the destruction of CD shops and attacks against women artists and activists. It is imperative to understand that these Islamist parties are not following some archaic agenda but are very much the product of a modernist politics and hence pursuing their vision accordingly.

Given this chain of events it is unrealistic to call upon religious parties to condemn such acts of violence. Such a strategy merely gives opportunists, such as Fazlur Rehman and Sufi Mohammad, credence as legitimate voices for the cause of ‘authentic’ Islam as opposed to the allegedly perverted version practised by the Taliban.

Indeed, such demands from troubled liberals of civil society are merely reinforcing the state policy of appeasing and negotiating with the more ‘moderate’ Islamists to counter the radical ones. This parley between what are essentially two faces of the same coin is political mockery. That’s the problem with moderates too — they want the coin alright, just the right side up. The political reality is, however, that conservatism whether in the form of religion or politics, will challenge and can easily displace the tolerant, liberal and moderate values unless the state enforces its own liberal identity categorically and uncompromisingly and civil society organises secular resistance.

Finally, what and to whom are we protesting? When the imposition of the Hasba bill was attempted in the NWFP; when Zill-e-Huma was murdered for her visibility as a woman in public service (almost as a precursor for Benazir Bhutto’s assassination); when Farhat Hashmi and other women preachers promote their own brand of privatised religion; when women running marathons is considered an aberrance; when minorities are harassed and the media is censored — all under the guise of acceptable conservatism, then it is only a fine definitional difference that qualifies the Taliban’s acts as extreme.

This concept regarding ‘writ of the state’ may be understood legally. However, how does a writ enforce itself culturally and sociologically? Even if militancy was curbed in some way, form or manner, do we really believe that the political articulation of religion is not going to continue to influence and dominate in the absence of any secular resistance?

Forget the state, most liberals are squirmish about the word and connotations and discussion of secular alternatives in Pakistan today. There is little or no possibility that some moderate reformist socio-religious formula is going to undo the conservative backlash that has just taken on an extreme expression. The question remains for those anxious Muslim reformists and revivalists whether they honestly believe the thin line between moderate, conservative and extreme interpretations of religion will ever remain adequately balanced. (Dawn)

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