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Fault lines of a nation

By Irfan Yusuf - posted Friday, 4 January 2008

Earlier this year, my mother adopted the television viewing habits of her many South Asian friends. Since installing the "dish", she's replaced Dr Phil with Indian and Pakistani movies, TV dramas, songs and cooking shows. But since early Friday morning, just after midnight, PTV (Pakistan's official public broadcaster) has shown nothing but news and analysis of the assassination of former prime minister Benazir Bhutto. My parents have been watching live reports of rioting and looting in cities across Pakistan, hoping no relatives are caught up in the violence.

Pakistan turned 60 this year. It hasn't been the most pleasant of years for this Muslim nation, one of only two modern nations (the other being Israel) established on the basis of ethno-religious identity.

The founding fathers of Pakistan regarded Indian Muslim ethno-religion as the force that would hold this disparate nation of various tribal and linguistic groups together. Yet by 1970, language and ethnicity proved much stronger than ethno-religion. The Pakistan People's Party under Bhutto's father, Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto, won a majority of seats in West Pakistan. Critics say his refusal to compromise on Bengali autonomy led to East Pakistan breaking away to become Bangladesh.


Culture warriors would have you believe that there is only one Islam, which is represented by the likes of Osama bin Laden and Ayman al-Zawahiri. But most culture warriors haven't spent time in Pakistan or other Muslim countries. Certainly few have travelled through conflict zones in the nominally Islamic world as much as British journalist Jason Bourke.

Towards the end of On the Road to Kandahar: Travels Through Conflict in the Islamic World, Bourke wonders how "anyone, particularly a Western author, could have the temerity to generalise … about 1.3 billion people across half the planet of a dozen different racial and several score different national backgrounds in a way that would have been entirely laughable … if they had been referring to Christians".

At least one in five Pakistanis belongs to one of numerous Shiite sects. Pakistan's Sunni majority is divided between Deobandi and Barelwi movements, built upon different understandings of Sufi terminology unique to the subcontinent.

Pakistan's "folk Islam" consists of devotion to local patron saints. During my last visit, I stopped at the shrine of Imam Syed Ali Hujwiri, Lahore's patron saint. Islamic scholars know Imam Hujwiri as the author of one of the oldest books on Islamic spirituality in the Persian language. But for the average Punjabi villager, he is Data Ganj Bakhsh, the saint who grants their wishes.

Pakistan's religious pluralism is increasingly eroded by an Islamic hard right, a coalition of remnants of Arab forces involved in various Afghan conflicts (including those loyal to al-Qaida) with a small number of anti-Shiite sectarian groups.

This force has begun to flex its muscle. In June and July this year, a quiet middle-class suburb in Pakistan's capital, Islamabad, was transformed into a war zone. More than 1,000 theology students and their instructors turned the Lal Masjid (Red Mosque) and adjoining religious college into a fortress, kidnapping foreign nationals and enforcing a vigilante brand of Islamic law. They smuggled in heavy weapons and took over adjoining state-owned buildings.


Eventually, soldiers and police stormed the mosque. Many students and at least one prominent imam died. For many Pakistanis, the storming of any mosque or religious school is sacrilege. Virtually all opposition leaders condemned the assault. The only exception was Benazir Bhutto.

These events gave Pakistan's religious far right a popular cause for recruitment. The result has been open rebellion in many parts of the country. Najam Sethi of Pakistan's Daily Times reminds us that Bhutto was just one of numerous targets of the far right; others include Pervez Musharraf, outgoing prime minister Shaukat Aziz and outgoing interior minister Aftab Sherpao.

What distinguishes Pakistan's religious far right from mainstream religious parties is its refusal to engage with the political process. They know that Pakistanis have rarely shown much support to religious parties at the ballot box. Indeed, religious parties perform well only when the military wants more secular parties locked out.

Still, bringing religious parties into the democratic process is no guarantee they will behave in a civilised manner. Indian experience shows that extremism can use democracy as a means for spreading hatred.

In the Indian state of Gujarat, ancestral home of independence leader Mohandas "Mahatma" Gandhi, political forces closely linked to Gandhi's Hindu extremist assassins have snatched victory in recent elections. Gujarat's re-elected Chief Minister, Narendra Modi, of the far-right Bharatiya Janata Party, was the architect of the 2002 massacre in which Hindu extremists used government records to attack Muslim-owned businesses and murder some 2000 Muslims. In other Indian states, Modi's political allies threaten Catholic priests and church properties.

Perhaps what we now see in South Asia is not a clash between civilisations but rather, as Chicago University law professor Martha Nussbaum claims, "between people who are prepared to live with others who are different … (and) those who seek the protection of homogeneity, achieved through the domination of a single religious and ethical tradition".

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First published in The Age on December 31, 2007.

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About the Author

Irfan Yusuf is a New South Wales-based lawyer with a practice focusing on workplace relations and commercial dispute resolution. Irfan is also a regular media commentator on a variety of social, political, human rights, media and cultural issues. Irfan Yusuf's book, Once Were Radicals: My Years As A Teenage Islamo-Fascist, was published in May 2009 by Allen & Unwin.

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