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‘Blasphemy’: “There is a crisis of trans-cultural understanding”

October 3, 2012

The political leadership has learnt one lesson: if the cleric takes to the street, back out, says Dr Mohammad Waseem, Professor of Political Science at LUMS. Interview by Farah Zia in The News on Sunday (TNS) Special Report on ‘Understanding 9/21’, September 30, 2012, reproduced below:

The News on Sunday: Historically, it appears as if the failure of mainstream secular progressive politics in Pakistan has been simultaneous with the rise of political Islam. Do you see a connection there and whether one has led to the other?

Dr Mohammad Waseem: I don’t think so. I think Islamism came in three or four major stages. First was independence itself; partition was carried out in the name of Islam. So the state was obliged to look for legitimacy in religion all the time; otherwise it felt there was no justification for creating a separate country. So religion came on top of all other political elements.

Secondly, in post-partition India, there was an emphasis on language as the instrument of addressing the question of identity and thus unifying the nation by creating new provinces. So, a whole new project of reorganisation of provinces took place on the basis of language. In India, they discounted religion as a political entity. In Pakistan, it was the other way round; language was out and religion was in. That has been our basic dilemma.

TNS: Was this despite the secular posturing of Jinnah?

MW: Let’s not use the word ‘secular’ because Jinnah and Liaquat Ali Khan never claimed to be secular. It is only now, when we look back fifty years, that some have started calling them secular because of the stark contrast they present now vis-à-vis the clerics of today. In fact, the Indian Congress claimed to follow secularism and called the Muslim League leadership religious. The latter never denied that or said that it was pursuing secularism. However, by today’s standard, the makers of Pakistan were very liberal and progressive and practised separation between religion and politics. Thus, while the independence generation kept religion and politics separate after partition, the later generations mixed and blurred the two.

TNS: The protests against the blasphemous film have been deadlier in Pakistan than elsewhere in the Muslim world. What makes Pakistan so peculiar when it comes to response to a religious cause? What do we have or lack that makes us so fiery compared to other Muslim countries?

MW: The government in Pakistan is much weaker than, say, the government of Saudi Arabia. The government in Saudi Arabia has the initiative in its own hands. In Pakistan, the PPP government does not have the monopoly over political initiative, because a)the religious elements have grown totally out of the government’s control; b)the opposition wants to make an issue out of it; and c) the army is understood to be playing an undefined role vis-a-vis Islamists. The army sponsored the Taliban in the 1990s; it is still pursuing a policy in Afghanistan that favours the Taliban.

So, to say that the government failed in implementing law and order is simplistic. We have to understand the framework in which the government operates. There are formidable powers operating from outside the political framework.

TNS: Was it a correct decision to declare Friday a holiday for demonstrations?

MW: No, it was a wrong decision. There was an all out competition among the party leaders and demonstrators for being louder than others in condemnation of the film. Obviously, the religious parties became the loudest. They appropriate the issue more than anyone else. You have to understand that you can never take the lead on religious issues. Therefore, you should not try.

In the Middle East, the religious elements operate within a very constrained space. In Pakistan, there is a lot of political space available because of democracy. Therefore, the religious elements incited people to violence claiming to transform fatalities into immortalities. Commitment to shedding blood of one’s own or of others has taken the place of the cold black-letter law. That is something we lack. There is very little or no legal socialisation. Children are not internalising the law. So, if there is a heinous crime (like this film), the punishment is the duty of the state, and not the society.

TNS: How do you look at the growing influence of these religious groups and how have they affected Pakistan’s chances of democracy and pluralism?

MW: Adversely. They have an adverse impact on democracy. Democracy is defined in terms of its source of legitimacy which is the mass mandate. The religious elements thrive on a divine source of legitimacy. The two forces clash straightaway. The religious people are trying to put divine legitimacy on top of the mass mandate that is the constitutional source of legitimacy, and they are almost winning. The government’s fear of alienating the religious elements and getting the backlash has tarnished the image of every public force from the police to the state itself.

In the 1953 anti-Ahmadiyya riots, the government was toppled in Punjab, that led to the toppling of the federal government in Karachi. From that time onwards, the political leadership has learnt one lesson rightly or wrongly: If there is a religious agitation out there, you lose. Do not let the cleric take to the street. If he does, just back out. So, when there were anti-Ahmediyya riots twenty years later, ZAB backed out.

TNS: You have also looked at the role of bazaar/traders in the rise of political Islam in Pakistan. How do you see it affecting the Hurmat-e-Rasool and other such causes in recent times?

MW: The role of the Big Business (BB) emerged in 1977 when there was a protest against Bhutto — conceived as a socialist leader who had nationalised much of the industry. Ninety per cent of the businessmen are anti-PPP, from the top industrialists to small shopkeepers. PPP has no constituency in the trading community.

In the 1977 movement, the ulema would give prayer calls (azaan) against Bhutto at midnight. They said Bhutto was the greatest infidel on earth. That led to the joining of hands between BB and madrassa. So, when thousands of religious activists filled the jails, their families were supported by industrialists/traders. They supported the movement in the name of religion.

TNS: What if there was no PPP? How about taking the PPP out of the equation? How would the traders react to religious causes in that scenario?

MW: I think the traders started their political career through anti-Bhuttoism. That is how Nawaz Sharif emerged because his industry was also nationalised. Thereafter, the moneyed right moved towards the religious right and they embraced the moral right (the Imran Khan type). All three rights together have the initiative now in their own hands and the PPP is out of all these three rights. But this has caused one major problem — the property. The moneyed right has a property to safeguard. That property, public or private, the belief in property, the individual property that is the essence of bourgeois-liberal democracy, the legally-defined property can be under attack from the religiously defined agenda.

In the long run, the business class is going to suffer. It wants security more than anything else. The historical West passed through this stage where the bourgeoisie smashed religion. It was the other way round. From French Revolution onwards, the commercial elements destroyed the clergy, the dynasty and the aristocracy. Here there is a jumble in Pakistan. The middle class-based state apparatuses — the army and the bureaucracy — are hands in glove with the trading community and, together, they have been promoting the religious community/causes either directly or indirectly. They are trying to prove history wrong.

TNS: Have you analysed the composition of the protestors and the dominating youth elements. Who are these people, and what is your analysis?

MW: There were three kinds of protestors. First, there were those straight from the Islamic groups. This formed a huge chunk. Second, there was the usual cannon-fodder, including those who are not propertied, the unemployed, city-based boys who hail from villages thrown to urban insecurities, moving from shrine-based Islam to assertive Deobandi or Salafi Islam. The third element is critical. This is an element that was not there on the streets but that provided all the legitimacy — the educated middle class. Many from this class are bigoted. The education system of Pakistan has created a generation that is somewhat caught into schizophrenia. The exterior is modern and the substance is extremely traditional. The reason why their education has transformed them into potential instigators of the protest is that they believe in a dichotomous world — Islam and the West. They understand the world in terms of a contradiction, an adversarial framework of thought. It is ‘us’ versus them’. As opposed to this, the independence generation looked at the world in an open-ended way, not in a bounded dichotomous way. The educated middle class of today is constantly interacting with a perceived ‘devil’. This class provides the intellectual strength to this kind of street action even as they condemn the burning and looting of property as uncivilised behaviour.

TNS: Every few years, we see some such provocative attempt originating in the West that sets the Muslim world ablaze. What, in your opinion, is the solution? Is an international law against blasphemy the solution?

MW: The issue is that blasphemy doesn’t sell in the West. There, people find it to be an antiquated doctrine, because they daily ridicule their own prophets and gods. For them, religious symbols and icons have lost their innate significance. Now they are confronted with a world outside the West, in a framework of global village. They find that there is a Muslim world that is reacting to something which they do not care about with reference to their own sacred figures. So there is a crisis of trans-cultural understanding. This is the real issue. We cannot accept this because we are believers, the way they were till the eighteenth century and many still are. So there is not just a clash of civilisations perceived by us. It is a clash between those who uphold religion and those who do not.

TNS: So what is the way forward?

MW: I think there are a few factors which may not turn the tide but can at least contain the situation. One is a longer term perspective — education. The discourse which we are spreading is based on hatred against the believers of other religions. There is need for study of comparative religions.

Second, legal socialisation or even civics is absent from our curriculum. We must prepare our youth along the legal patterns of behaviour and thought. That will bring the whole thing down to a matter of crime and punishment. We should discourage the society from taking adjudication into its own hands. Third, we should prepare our citizens as members of the larger society and owning the wealth of the nation as a whole. The target in all such cases is the public property. This is because ‘publicness’ is not there. Nobody owns the public property. It is something out there to smash.

Fourth, the media in Pakistan is the villain of peace. While it was covering the violence on September 21, there were such aggressive couplets being shown from poets that seemed to justify violence. This was very unfortunate. The electronic media showed selective bias in their coverage. Besides, the talk shows have ulema every day on prime time TV. In this way, the media over-represents the relatively unrepresentative elements of the society, giving them power and a larger than life profile. If the media decides that the authentic voices of the public have the prior right to speak for the public, then the current imbalance in favour of the unelected as makers and shapers of public opinion could be set right.

One Comment leave one →
  1. Hamid H. Siddiqui permalink
    April 7, 2013 10:41 am

    A very informative interview which could educate our people especially the younger generation. Hopefully it will enable them to react to the blasphemous material in a more intelligent manner.

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