Mullah Ki Puja walas

Dark farce

Dark farce

Terrorist attacks by extremist organizations and the usual knee-jerk reactions that one gets to hear from the media and society in general have become a dark farce.

The disgust of watching human beings blow themselves up in the presence of men, women and children soon converts itself into an anger that babbles its way across numerous fantastic theories about some imaginary villains.

In the process, the terrorists go blame-free.

We are a confused lot. And this is an understatement.

At least some of the roots of such confusion lie in the dilemma former Pakistani military dictator, General Ziaul Haq faced during his concentrated pursuit to ‘Islamize’ Pakistan.

By ‘Islamization’ he meant enforcing political legislation, moral laws and social practices mostly adopted from the concepts of Shariah and ‘Islamic state’ devised by various (both ancient and contemporary) Islamic scholars – mostly conservative and puritanical in orientation.

The above-mentioned pursuit becomes a dilemma in a society like Pakistan mainly due to three main reasons:

•        Pakistan was (and still is) largely populated by a majority Sunni Muslim population that follows a variation of faith which is loosely called, ‘Barelvi Islam.’ As a movement, it emerged in the region in the 19th century. It was a reaction to the many puritanical fringe movements that appeared among some Muslim scholars of the sub-continent. These scholars blamed the capitulation of ‘Muslim supremacy’ in the face of British colonialism on the ‘false and innovative’ religious practices and rituals that became widespread during the Mughal period.

They were perturbed by what centuries of engagement between the moderate and populist ‘Sufi Islam’ and various other religions of the region (such as Hinduism, Buddhism and Sikhism), had generated. ‘Barelvi Islam’ was one such product.

Though what emerged from this fusion was an Islamic variant that was moderate and socially liberal, it was seen as a weakness by the conservatives.

These conservatives (who would later become to be known as ‘Deobandis,’ ‘Salafis’ and the ‘Ahel-e-Hadiths’), insisted upon religious reform that advocated a more stringent, puritanical and (eventually) a more politically motivated strand of faith.

They were largely unsuccessful, though, especially in the face of the rise of Barelvi Islam (that became Pakistan’s populist majority creed). The Conservatives also floundered in the face of the popularity (among middle-class Indian Muslims) of the ‘modernist, rationalistic Islam’ advocated by the likes of Sir Syed Ahmed Khan.

•   Pakistan maybe a majority Sunni Muslim country, it is not entirely a homogenous society. Apart from the fact that it has a large Shia Muslim minority, there are sects within the country’s Sunni Muslim community as well.

According to estimates, between 18 to 20 per cent of Pakistan’s Muslims belong to various Shia sects.

Same sources suggest that about 70 to 75 per cent of Pakistan’s Muslim population is Sunni. Among the Sunni there are plentiful sub-sects.

About 55 to 60 per cent Sunni Muslims in Pakistan follow the largely moderate and populist (and indigenous) ‘Barelvi Islam.’ Most of the ‘Barelvis’ are centred in the provinces of Sindh (both urban and rural), and the Punjab (mostly rural).

About 15 per cent follow various shades of the more conservative ‘Deobandi Islam’ (also indigenous).

Most of the Deobandi Muslims are situated in the Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa (mostly rural and semi rural); in some parts of Balochistan (urban), and central Punjab (almost entirely urban).

About six to eight per cent of Sunni Pakistanis follow perhaps the most conservative and intransigent versions of Sunni Islam that include so-called ‘Wahabism/Salafi’ and those belonging to the ‘Ahel-e-Hadith (AH).’

Wahabism was ‘imported’ almost wholesale from Arab countries such as Saudi Arabia in the 1980s. The Ahel-e-Hadith too is largely influenced by ‘Wahabi’ and ‘Salafi’ strains.

Wahabi and AH followers among Pakistan’s Sunni Muslim population are mostly found in major urban areas of the Punjab and across the tribal belts in the Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa.

Around 15 to 20 per cent of Pakistanis (both Sunni and Shia) can be defined as ‘modern liberal Muslims.’ A majority of them have religious beliefs rooted in the many modernist and rationalist traditions in contemporary Islamic thought.

Most liberal/secular Muslims can usually be found in Sindh (especially Karachi); in Peshawar (Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa); Balochistan (in tribal areas where Baloch nationalism is the strongest), and in some urban centres of the Punjab (even though their influence in the Punjab has been fast receding).

•    Pakistan also has a vibrant non-Muslim population. About two to three per cent of its population is Christian; about one percent is Hindu; while the rest are Sikh, Zoroastrians, and some Buddhists.

Almost every Muslim sect and sub-sect has its own set of thoughts and concepts about the Shariah.

Now, imagine what happens if the state attempts to impose Islamic laws and practices mainly derived from conservative sources whose idea about Islam and an Islamic society are at odds with the ideas in this context of a majority of Pakistani Muslim sects and sub-sects, and non-Muslims?

This is exactly what was attempted by the Ziaul Haq dictatorship. For example, traditionalist ideas about the Shariah found and frozen in the thoughts and writings of ancient Muslim were complimented with the conservative and politically-driven ideas of such 20th century Islamic scholars as Abul Ala Mauddudi (1903-1979), Hassan Al-Banna (1906-1949) and Syed Quab (1906-1966).

The initial idea behind such political-religious concoctions (beginning in the 19th century) was to stem the growth of western colonialism and the post-French Revolution secular thought that it brought with itself when it took over Muslim regions.

However, interestingly, conservative Islamic reactions in this respect failed to make much of an impact. The majority of anti-colonial movements that took place in Muslim countries in the early and middle parts of the 20th century were enacted by Muslim nationalists steeped in secular notions of modern nationalism.

Equally interesting is the fact that after most of these secular nationalist movements had led their respective Muslim countries towards achieving independence from western colonialism, the failed conservative Islamic forces converted themselves as an opposing entity against the nationalists.

On numerous occasions forces representing such entities, though still a minority in their countries, were used by and sided with the United States and Saudi Arabia (during the Cold War), especially against Muslim nationalist governments that were either leaning towards the former Soviet Union, or had integrated certain socialist ideals into their respective nationalist set-ups.

At the collapse of the secular Muslim nationalist phenomenon in Muslim countries (mainly due to the wars lost to Israel; infighting, authoritarianism and corruption), the conservative political-religious fringe began filling the consequential void.

This fringe really came to the forefront when it was used by the US, Pakistan and Saudi Arabia to generate and sustain a ‘jihad’ against Soviet occupation of Afghanistan.

For example, in Pakistan, the state and government facilitated the spread of the most reactionary strands of Wahabi/Salafi faith to not only convert Pakistan’s largely moderate (Barelvi) population towards the ‘pearls of armed jihad,’ but to also neutralise the country’s Shia sects whom the dictatorship began looking with suspicion after the 1979 Islamic Revolution in the Shia dominated Iran.

The political implications of the above-mentioned scenario have been stark and on-going. These include the proliferation of monstrous entities like the Taliban, sectarian organizations and violence, and also the building up of certain conservative political-religious dogmas that have seen democratic governments and the judiciary in Pakistan struggle to overturn these dogmas through legislation and reform.

What was once a fringe now has enough clout to impede and label such a reform as being ‘secular’ and part of ‘western agenda to erode Islamic laws in Pakistan.’

The reason for this have also to do with the kind of radical transformation the Pakistani society went through from the early 1980s onwards.

The ‘Islamist’ fringe that became the mainstay behind the legislation and policy under the Zia dictatorship began to grow – especially after it moved in to cultivate roots among the masses. The following is how it did this:

•        Proliferated madressas, mosques and the streets with literature (books, pamphlets and posters) glorifying militancy and suggesting that it was the duty of every ‘true Muslim’ to undertake jihad against atheists, secularists, ‘liberal Muslims’ and Islamic sects that did not fall in line with the Islamic narrative of the radicals.

•        Set up ‘charity organizations’ which, on the pretext of gathering funds for mosques, madressas and the poor, actually worked as front organizations to generate fresh recruits and funds for militant action.

•        Cultivated ties with conventional political-religious parties and conservative democratic parties.

•        Aggressively used the internet to manufacture a political, social and religious narrative that appealed to the already conspiratorial mindset of the Pakistani people.

•        Cultivated relations with certain personnel in the electronic and print media most of whom now sympathetically dot their televised (or published) political discourses with strokes of the manufactured narrative.

•         Cultivated ties with some sections of Pakistan’s intelligence agencies, who in-turn have links with certain media personnel, and this makes the manufactured narrative become an everyday national consensus on issues like politics, terrorism and religion. This narrative is mostly based on theories and flaky assumptions that are largely aired to make Pakistan look like a country besieged not by its own monsters, but by ‘agents’ of outside forces who would like to see Pakistan [and thus Islam] destroyed).

•         Supported the (albeit apolitical and non-militant) Tableeghi Jamat to penetrate the ‘common masses’ and wee them away from ‘Barelvi Islam.’

•         Maintain links with non-political social and cultural Islamic circles that indirectly facilitate the ‘Islamization’ of the society by advocating ‘true Islam’ through airy sound-bytes; such a advocating the usage of ‘Allah-hafiz’ (instead of Khuda Hafiz); saying masjid instead of mosque; jazzakallah instead of shukriah; importance of keeping a beard and adorning a hijab/burqua, etc.


Though most Pakistanis now seem repulsed by the naked violence used by sectarian organizations and the Taliban (their disapproval ratings rising from 38 per cent to more than 70 per cent), the apolitical social network and circles working (ever since the mid-1990s) continue to facilitate the radicalization of the society.

This has impeded the society to fully utilize the recent consensus reached against the Taliban and militancy. Thus this largely unused consensus has seen ‘moderate forces’ and the government to fully undo the extremists’ pockets of sympathy from where they undertake some of the most devastating attacks; This failure has also manhandled so much else that is taking place in the name of faith and ‘instant justice’ in this society.

It is from these social Islamic circles most of the drawing-room and TV preachers have emerged. Their target audiences have been the middle-class who by the early 1990s saw themselves in a limbo, hanging between the collapsing edifice of quasi-secular Muslim nationalism and the rising radical Islamist narrative.

These preachers (such as late Ahmad Deedat, Farhat Hashmi, Zakir Naik, Dr. Israr Ahmed, Babar Chaudhry, and many others) began becoming popular among young urban middle and upper middle class Pakistanis from the late 1980s. But their true rise can really be detected from the mid-1990s onwards.

Their main theme has always been to help sustain in the society the puritanical and radical-conservative Islamic narrative constructed in the 1980s. They are also good at turning what is really a persecution complex (in which Pakistanis are said to be victims of numerous Zionist/Hindu/Western plots), into an automatic national narrative.

From this set of evangelists have emerged second string preachers who have helped the social Islamic circles further penetrate the once modern and rationalist Muslim middle-class mind-set.

These usually come from well-to-do middle and upper middle class backgrounds. They are educated and most interestingly, were once (or some still are) either associated with the local pop music scene, the ‘fashion industry,’ cricket circles, and assorted show-biz tit-bits.

This occurrence regarding is not a fringe or ‘underground’ activity. Instead it has been unfolding right in front of our eyes under the glaring and full light of the mainstream (electronic) media that aggressively promotes them (for rating’s sake). Some ‘leading lights’ in this case have included former pop poster boys such as Junaid Jamshed , Ali Haider, Najam Shiraz and Ali Azmat; actors like Farhan Ali Agha and (former fashion model), Atiya Khan; and fashion designer, Maria B, and cricketers such as Inzimamul Haq.

It should be noted that on most occasions than not, these gentlemen and ladies have usually come out sounding extremely naïve and cringingly ill-informed. But they remain to be ‘stars’ (albiet now in hijabs and beards).

Thus, is it any wonder that the current generation of Pakistani youth may as well be the most conservative, intransigent and pro-establishment?

Nadeem F. Paracha is a cultural critic and senior columnist for Dawn Newspaper and

The views expressed by this blogger and in the following reader comments do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of the Dawn Media Group.

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