Despite its wealth of intellectuals, higher education institutions, and rich arts tradition, Pakistan has become increasingly choked by violent extremist elements. Initially foreign in origin, these elements are now seen as “indigenous” violent fundamentalism.
Inadequate land reform, an ambiguous national ideology, and politically motivated Islamic nationalization efforts by both internal and external forces have separated Pakistan on many measures from its rival and socio-historical “cousin” India. The pockets of social and religious conservatism within Pakistan’s borders are foreign to a majority of regional historical narratives, but extremist influences are rapidly growing.
In June 2009, Asia Bibi, a Christian-Pakistani agricultural worker and mother of five, allegedly verbally insulted the Prophet Muhammad in an argument with Muslim agricultural coworkers in a rural Punjab village. Bibi was taken into custody and some called for her execution under the 1978 Blasphemy Law. This law, revised under the ultra-conservative military dictator Zia ul-Haq, was originally enacted in 1860 by the British. (For a concise history of the law see this BBC piece.) “To date, 34 people connected with blasphemy cases have been executed or killed in public since the law was hardened in 1986… The death toll includes those accused, their relatives, and even a judge.”
In November 2010, a few of Pakistan’s most prominent politicians called for the entire law to be abolished. In the past three months, two politicians have been assassinated for their outspoken defense of Bibi’s life and opposition to the law. Pakistan Minorities Minister Shahbaz Bhatti (a Christian) and the Governor of Punjab Salman Taseer (a Muslim) were both shot and killed. Taseer was killed by his own bodyguard in broad daylight, and the assassin has been praised by a sizable portion of the Pakistani population. Even some of the same lawyers that fought for judiciary independence in 2008 were present in demonstrations of thousands praising the assassin.
A consistently unstable political situation and uneducated populace make a potent recipe for implosion when mixed with any convenient ideology–political, religious, or otherwise. In Pakistan, that third ingredient happens to be “Islam.” Forces such as political parties, the ISI, the army, foreign countries, and others manipulate the populace with “Islamic” rhetoric. Zia ul-Haq–arguably the single most destructive force in Pakistan’s 63-year history–imposed extremist interpretations of Islamic law on society in the face of nationalist factions in the 1970s and 1980s. Saudi funding and its attendant neoconservative interpretation of Islam–Salafism/Wahhabism— supported Zia’s foundation, and billions of U.S. dollars supplied Pakistani madrassas preaching violent jihad against the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan.
Following the end of the 10-year Afghan-Soviet war in 1989, the western edge of South Asia was left hostage to an Islamicized populace with few opportunities. Financial support dried up from the U.S., but the Saudi-financed Wahhabi strand of Islam continued to wield its literalist interpretation over the traditionally Sufi-inclined Pakistani people. The traditional South Asian interpretations of Islam were directly challenged in a way unseen in centuries, and religiously inspired violence gained steam. In 2009, 2307 civilians were killed in terrorist-related activity within Pakistan, up from 140 in 2003.
In a society where illiteracy is high (approximately 12% of Pakistani girls and women can read and write), financial opportunities are low (17% of Pakistani children work to help support their families), and the concept of honor is entrenched in the psyche, brainwashing sizable segments of a population with an ideology is all too easy. In the case of modern-day Pakistan, the ideology grabbing hold of a growing minority is a socially intolerant, ultra-violent, literalist interpretation of Islam.
Let me be clear: the overwhelming majority of Pakistanis do not support violence against innocent civilians, whether or not it is “Islamically motivated,” but the number of people who passively tolerate gross injustices has dramatically increased. Young men aren’t lining up to martyr themselves, but when one does decide to kill civilians, he may now have thousands in the street supporting his actions.
The current trajectory of the Islamic Republic of Pakistan is far from the ideals and principles that the Prophet Muhammad sought to engender. He is said to have stated that “securing an education is an obligation for all Muslims.” The first word of God’s revelation to the Prophet Muhammad is said to have been iqra, meaning read, recite. The state and its institutions have not given the people of Pakistan the opportunity to meet the Prophet Muhammad’s standards, and in the same name (Islam), some people are squandering the little opportunity others have with intolerance, hatred, and violence.
In 1947, Muhammad Ali Jinnah, the founder of Pakistan, prophetically said, “education is a matter of life and death for Pakistan. The world is progressing so rapidly that without the requisite advance in education, not only shall we be left behind by others, but we may be wiped out altogether.” Pakistan will likely survive its current challenges, as it has weathered other catastrophes in years past. But previous threats to its existence–nuclear and natural disasters–are becoming less frightening than the current extremist interpretations of Islam that continue to gain influence.
What do you think of the growing support within Pakistan of a more literalist interpretation of Islam? What role, if any, does illiteracy play in the increasingly passive acceptance of extremism within the country?