Pervez Amir Ali Hoodbhoy


Physicist Pervez Hoodbhoy traces the evolution of fundamentalist culture in Pakistan and its consequences to the  very survival of his country.


State and society in Pakistan today:  For 20 years or more, a few of us in Pakistan have been desperately sending  out SOS messages, warning of terrible times to come. Nevertheless, none anticipated how quickly and accurately  our dire predictions would come true. It is a small matter that the flames of terrorism set Mumbai on fire and,  more recently, destroyed Pakistan’s cricketing future. A much more important and brutal fight lies ahead as  Pakistan, a nation of 175 million, struggles for its very survival. The implications for the future of South Asia are  enormous.


Today a full-scale war is being fought in FATA (Federally Administered Tribal Areas), Swat and other “wild”  areas of Pakistan, with thousands dying and hundreds of thousands of IDPs (internally displaced people)  streaming into cities and towns. In February 2009, with the writ of the Pakistani state in tatters, the government  gave in to the demand of the TTP (Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan, the Pakistani Taliban Movement) to implement  the Islamic Sharia in Malakand, a region of FATA. It also announced the suspension of a military offensive in  Swat, which has been almost totally taken over by the TTP. But the respite that it brought was short-lived and  started breaking down only hours later.


The fighting is now inexorably migrating towards Peshawar where, fearing the Taliban, video shop owners have shut shop, banners have been placed in bazaars declaring them closed for women, musicians are out of business, and kidnapping for ransom is the best business in town. Islamabad has already seen Lal Masjid and  the Marriot bombing, and has had its police personnel repeatedly blown up by suicide bombers. Today, its  barricaded streets give a picture of a city under siege. In Karachi, the Muttahida Quami Movement (MQM), an  ethnic but secular party well known for strong-arm tactics, has issued a call for arms to prevent the Taliban from  making further inroads into the city. Lahore once appeared relatively safe and different but, after the attack on  the Sri Lankan cricket team, has rejoined Pakistan.


The suicide bomber and the masked abductor have crippled Pakistan’s urban life and shattered its national economy. Soldiers, policemen, factory and hospital workers, mourners at funerals, and ordinary people praying in mosques have been reduced to hideous masses of flesh and fragments of bones. The bearded ones, many operating out of madrassas, are hitting targets across the country. Although a substantial part of the Pakistani public insists upon lionising them as “standing up to the Americans”, they are neither seeking to evict a foreign occupier nor fighting for a homeland. They want nothing less than to seize power and to turn Pakistan into their version of the ideal Islamic state. In their incoherent, ill-formed vision, this would include restoring the caliphate as well as doing away with all forms of western influence and elements of modernity. The AK-47 and the Internet, of course, would stay.


But, perhaps paradoxically, in spite of the fact that the dead bodies and shattered lives are almost all Muslim ones, few Pakistanis speak out against these atrocities. Nor do they approve of military action against the cruel perpetrators, choosing to believe that they are fighting for Islam and against an imagined  American occupation. Political leaders like Qazi Husain Ahmed and Imran Khan have no words of kindness for  those who have suffered from Islamic extremists. Their tears are reserved for the victims of predator drones,  whether innocent or otherwise. By definition, for them terrorism is an act that only Americans can commit.


Why the Denial?: To understand Pakistan’s collective masochism, one needs to study the drastic social and  cultural transformations that have made this country so utterly different from what it was in earlier times. For  three decades, deep tectonic forces have been silently tearing Pakistan away from the Indian subcontinent and  driving it towards the Arabian peninsula. This continental drift is not physical but cultural, driven by a belief that  Pakistan must exchange its South Asian identity for an Arab-Muslim one. Grain by grain, the desert sands of  Saudi Arabia are replacing the rich soil that had nurtured a rich Muslim culture in India for a thousand years.  This culture produced Mughal architecture, the Taj Mahal, the poetry of Asadullah Ghalib, and much more. Now  a stern, unyielding version of Islam – Wahabism – is replacing the kinder, gentler Islam of the sufis and saints  who had walked on this land for hundreds of years. This change is by design. Twenty-five years ago, under the  approving gaze of Ronald Reagan’s America, the Pakistani state pushed Islam on to its people. Prayers in  government departments were deemed compulsory, floggings were carried out publicly, punishments were  meted out to those who did not fast in Ramadan, selection for university academic posts required that the  candidate demonstrate knowledge of Islamic teachings, and jehad was declared essential for every Muslim. Villages have changed drastically, driven in part by Pakistani workers returning from Arab countries. Many village mosques are now giant madrassas that propagate hard-line Salafi and Deobandi beliefs through oversized loudspeakers. They are bitterly opposed to Barelvis, Shias and other Muslims, who they do not consider to be proper Muslims. Punjabis, who were far more liberal towards women than Pashtuns, are now also beginning to take a line resembling the Taliban. Hanafi law has begun to prevail over tradition and civil law, as is evident from recent decisions in the Lahore High Court.


Pakistan’s Ministry of Education estimates that 1.5 million students are getting religious education in 13,000  madrassas. These figures could be quite off the mark. Commonly quoted figures range between 18,000 and  22,000 such schools. Here, students at the Jamia Manzoorul Islam, a madrassa in Lahore. In the Pakistani lower- middle and middle-middle classes lurks a grim and humourless Saudi-inspired revivalist movement which  frowns on every expression of joy and pleasurable pastime. Lacking any positive connection to history, culture  and knowledge, it seeks to eliminate “corruption” by regulating cultural life and seizing control of the education  system. “Classical music is on its last legs in Pakistan; the sarangi and vichtarveena are completely dead,”  laments Mohammad Shehzad, a music aficionado. Indeed, teaching music in public universities is violently  opposed by students of the Islami Jamaat-e-Talaba at Punjab University. Religious fundamentalists consider  music haram. Kathak dancing, once popular with the Muslim elite of India, has no teachers left. Pakistan produces no feature films of any consequence.


As a part of General Zia-ul-Haq’s cultural offensive, Hindi words were expunged from daily use and replaced with heavy-sounding Arabic ones. Persian, the language of Mughal India, had once been taught as a second or third language in many Pakistani schools. But, because of its association with Shiite Iran, it too was dropped and replaced with Arabic. The morphing of the traditional “khuda hafiz” (Persian for “God be with you”) into “allah hafiz” (Arabic for “God be with you”) took two decades to complete. The Arab import sounded odd and contrived, but ultimately the Arabic God won and the Persian God lost.


Genesis of Jehad: One can squarely place the genesis of religious militancy in Pakistan to the Soviet invasion of  Afghanistan in 1979 and the subsequent efforts of the U.S.-Pakistan-Saudi grand alliance to create and support  the Great Global Jehad of the 20th century. A toxic mix of imperial might, religious fundamentalism, and local interests ultimately defeated the Soviets. But the network of Islamic militant organizations did not disappear  after it achieved success. By now the Pakistani Army establishment had realized the power of jehad as an  instrument of foreign policy, and so the network grew from strength to strength. The amazing success of the state  is now turning out to be its own undoing. Today the Pakistan Army and establishment are under attack from  religious militants, and rival Islamic groups battle each other with heavy weapons. Ironically, the same Army –  whose men were recruited under the banner of jehad, and which saw itself as the fighting arm of Islam – today  stands accused of betrayal and is almost daily targeted by Islamist suicide bombers. Over 1,800 soldiers have  died as of February 2009 in encounters with religious militants, and many have been tortured before  decapitation. Nevertheless, the Army is still ambivalent in its relationship with the jehadists and largely focuses  upon India.


Excerpts from the curriculum document, 1955: Prepared by the National Bureau of Curriculum and Textbooks,  Federal Ministry of Education. Social Studies: At the completion of Class V, the child should be able to: –


·      Acknowledge and identify forces that may be working against Pakistan. (page 154] –


·      Demonstrate by actions a belief in the fear of Allah. [page 154] –


·      Make speeches on Jehad and Shahadat. [page 154] –


·      Understand Hindu-Muslim differences and the resultant need for Pakistan. [page 154]


·      India’s evil designs against Pakistan. [page 154] –           Be safe from rumour mongers who spread false news. [page 158]


·      Visit police stations. [page 158]


·      Collect pictures of policemen, soldiers, and National Guards. [page 158]


·      Demonstrate respect for the leaders of Pakistan. [page 153]    


Education or Indoctrination?:


The commonly expressed view in Pakistan is that Islamic radicalism is a problem  only in FATA, and that madrassas are the only jehad factories around. This could not be more wrong. Extremism  is breeding at a ferocious rate in public and private schools within Pakistan’s towns and cities. Left  unchallenged, this kind of education will produce a generation incapable of living together with any except  strictly their own kind. Pakistan’s education system demands that Islam be understood as a complete code of life,  and creates in the mind of the schoolchild a sense of siege and constant embattlement by stressing that Islam is  under threat everywhere.  The government-approved curriculum, prepared by the Curriculum Wing of the  Federal Ministry of Education, is the basic road map for transmitting values and knowledge to the young. By an  Act of Parliament, passed in 1976, all government and private schools (except for O-level schools) are required to follow this curriculum. It is a blueprint for a religious fascist state. The world of the Pakistani schoolchild was  largely unchanged even after September 11, 2001, which led to Pakistan’s timely desertion of the Taliban and  the slackening of the Kashmir jehad. Indeed, for all his hypocritical talk of “enlightened moderation”,  Musharraf’s educational curriculum was far from enlightening. It was a slightly toned-down copy of that under  Nawaz Sharif, which, in turn, was identical to that under Benazir Bhutto, who inherited it from Zia-ul-Haq.


Fearful of taking on powerful religious forces, every incumbent government refused to take a position on the  curriculum and thus quietly allowed young minds to be molded by fanatics. What might happen a generation  later has always been a secondary matter for a government challenged on so many sides. The promotion of  militarism in Pakistan’s so-called “secular” public schools, colleges and universities had a profound effect upon  young minds. Militant jehad became part of the culture on college and university campuses. Armed groups  flourished, invited students for jehad in Kashmir and Afghanistan, set up offices throughout the country,  collected funds at Friday prayers, and declared a war without borders. Pre-9/11, my university was ablaze with  posters inviting students to participate in the Kashmir jehad. After 2001, this slipped below the surface.


The primary vehicle for Saudi-izing Pakistan’s education has been the madrassa. In earlier times, these had  turned out the occasional Islamic scholar, using a curriculum that essentially dates from the 11th century with  only minor subsequent revisions. But their principal function had been to produce imams and muezzins for  mosques, and those who eked out an existence as “moulvi sahibs” teaching children to read the Quran.


The Afghan jehad changed everything. During the war against the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan, madrassas provided the U.S.-Saudi-Pakistani alliance the cannon fodder needed for fighting a holy war. The Americans and the Saudis, helped by a more-than-willing General Zia, funded new madrassas across the  length and breadth of Pakistan. A detailed picture of the current situation is not available. But, according to the  national education census, which the Ministry of Education released in 2006, Punjab has 5,459 madrassas  followed by the North West Frontier Province (NWFP) with 2,843; Sindh 1,935; Federally Administrated  Northern Areas (FANA) 1,193; Balochistan 769; Azad Jammu and Kashmir (AJK) 586; FATA 135; and  Islamabad capital territory 77. The Ministry estimates that 1.5 million students are getting religious education in  the 13,000 madrassas.


These figures could be quite off the mark. Commonly quoted figures range between 18,000 and 22,000 madrassas. The number of students could be correspondingly larger. The free room, board and supplies to students, form a key part of their appeal. But the desire of parents across the country is for children to be “disciplined” and to be given a thorough Islamic education. This is also a major contributing factor. Madrassas have deeply impacted upon the urban environment. For example, until a few years ago, Islamabad was a quiet, orderly, modern city different from all others in Pakistan. Still earlier, it had been largely  the abode of Pakistan’s hyper-elite and foreign diplomats. But the rapid transformation of its demography  brought with it hundreds of mosques with multi-barrelled audio-cannons mounted on minarets, as well as scores  of madrassas illegally constructed in what used to be public parks and green areas. Now, tens of thousands of  their students with little prayer caps dutifully chant the Quran all day. In the evenings they swarm around the  city, making bare-faced women increasingly nervous.


Women – the Lesser Species:


Total separation of the sexes is a central goal of the Islamists. Two decades ago  the fully veiled student was a rarity on Pakistani university and college campuses. The abaya was an unknown  word in Urdu; it is a foreign import. But today, some shops in Islamabad specialize in abaya. At colleges and  universities across Pakistan, female students are seeking the anonymity of the burqa. Such students outnumber  their sisters who still dare show their faces.


While social conservatism does not necessarily lead to violent extremism, it does shorten the path. Those with  beards and burqas are more easily convinced that Muslims are being demonized by the rest of the world. The  real problem, they say, is the plight of the Palestinians, the decadent and discriminatory West, the Jews, the  Christians, the Hindus, the Kashmir issue, the Bush doctrine, and so on. They vehemently deny that those  committing terrorist acts are Muslims or, if faced by incontrovertible evidence, say it is a mere reaction to  oppression. Faced with the embarrassment that 200 schools for girls were blown up in Swat by Fazlullah’s  militants, they wriggle out by saying that some schools were housing the Pakistan Army, who should be targeted  anyway.


The Prognosis:


The immediate future is not hopeful: increasing numbers of mullahs are creating cults around  themselves and seizing control over the minds of worshippers. In the tribal areas, a string of new Islamist leaders  have suddenly emerged: Sufi Mohammad, Baitullah Mehsud, Fazlullah, Mangal Bagh…. The enabling  environment of poverty, deprivation, lack of justice, and extreme differences of wealth is perfect for these  demagogues. Their gruesome acts of terror and public beheadings are still being perceived by large numbers of  Pakistanis as part of the fight against imperialist America and, sometimes, India as well. This could not be more  wrong.


The jehadists have longer-range goals. A couple of years ago, a Karachi-based monthly magazine ran a cover  story on the terrorism in Kashmir. One fighter was asked what he would do if a political resolution were found  for the disputed valley. Revealingly, he replied that he would not lay down his gun but turn it on the Pakistani  leadership, with the aim of installing an Islamic government there.  Over the next year or two, we are likely to  see more short-lived “peace accords”, as in Malakand, Swat and, earlier on, in Shakai. In my opinion, these are  exercises in futility. Until the Pakistan Army finally realizes that Mr. Frankenstein needs to be eliminated rather  than be engaged in negotiations, it will continue to soft-pedal on counter-insurgency. It will also continue to  develop and demand from the U.S. high-tech weapons that are not the slightest use against insurgents. There are  some indications that some realization of the internal threat is dawning, but the speed is as yet glacial. Even after  Mumbai-II occurs, India’s options in dealing with nuclear Pakistan will be severely limited.


Cross-border strikes should be dismissed from the realm of possibilities. They could lead to escalations that  neither government would have control over. I am convinced that India’s prosperity – and perhaps its physical  survival – demands that Pakistan stays together. Pakistan could disintegrate into a hell, where different parts are  run by different warlords. Paradoxically perhaps, India’s most effective defense could be the Pakistan Army,  torn and fractured though it may be. To convert a former enemy army into a possible ally will require that India  change tack. To create a future working alliance with the struggling Pakistani state, and in deference to basic  democratic principles, India must be seen as genuinely working towards some kind of resolution of the Kashmir  issue. It must not deny that the majority of Kashmiri Muslims are deeply alienated from the Indian state and that  they desperately seek balm for their wounds. Else the forces of cross-border jehad, and its hate-filled holy  warriors, will continue to receive unnecessary succor.


I shall end this rather grim essay on an optimistic note: the forces of irrationality will surely cancel themselves  out because they act in random directions, whereas reason pulls in only one. History leads us to believe that  reason will triumph over unreason, and humans will continue their evolution towards a higher and better species.  Ultimately, it will not matter whether we are Pakistanis, Indians, Kashmiris, or whatever. Using ways that we  cannot currently anticipate, people will somehow overcome their primal impulses of territoriality, tribalism,  religion and nationalism. But for now this must be just a hypothesis. 


(Pervez Amirali Hoodbhoy is Professor  and Chairman of the Physics Department at Quaid-e-Azam University, Islamabad.  He is a former co-editor of  INSAF Bulletin.)


(Frontline Cover story, March 14-27, 2009

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