“In the Islamic world, from the Palestinian Authority to Iran to Pakistan, democratisation has led to an increasing role for theocratic politics, eroding long-standing traditions of secularism and tolerance” — Fareed Zakaria, ‘The rise of illiberal democracy’, Foreign Affairs November/December 1997.
It was the early 1980s. The chatter around our dinner table was as varied as the menu each day. The topic of the infusion of Saudi-sponsored Wahabism in our national narrative would pop up every now and then, I vividly remember, and the usual suspects were Zia, his handful of generals and a bunch of civilian sympathisers. However, there is one more name that has been uttered quite loudly of late, of one who has allegedly sold mainstream extremism to Pakistanis. Imran Khan has been charge sheeted by his critics for sugarcoating Talibanism to his gullible supporters and the like. Has extremism crept into our mainstream politics because of him or is there more to it than meets the eye? Does extremism not actually have the tendency of creeping in as the state weakens in the hands of mainstream politicians?
In 1953, the anti-Ahmedi riots broke out. Pakistan was still very much a democracy with a representative parliament then. The state acted swiftly against the troublemakers and the riots were quashed. The same state, which had acted rather than reacted earlier, declared the very religious group being retaliated against as non-Muslims in 1974. Mind you, it was done unanimously by an elected parliament and not by some general’s executive order. Some would argue that the state had capitulated in the face of the religious right after a little over 20 years. Therefore, extremism does not stay on the margins; it creeps in when the state wilfully abdicates its most primary functions in favour of extremism. The die was cast — extremism crept in on the eve of September 7, 1974.
The state buckled under pressure again on April 13, 2009, when the Nizam-e-Adl Regulation for Swat was hurriedly passed through parliament. It established sharia law in Malakand division as the Taliban had demanded. The Taliban, through Sufi Muhammad, father-in-law of the present chief of the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) Maulana Fazlullah, gained virtual control of the lives of Pakistanis living in the Malakand division. That it was Asif Zardari, the son-in-law of Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, and the president of Pakistan who signed the regulation, must be a sheer coincidence then.
For illustrating how the state has predictably abdicated its authority in favour of the lunatic fringe at regular intervals, it is worth mentioning here that earlier, on October 22, 2008, parliament adopted a 14-point resolution on combating the rise of extremism and terrorism. The resolution however failed to define either ‘extremists’ or ‘militants’. The then information minister, Sherry Rehman, hailed it as a “major signal for terrorists that our nation rejects their agendas”, though failing to point out who those terrorists were. The resolution adopted by no less than 16 political parties was long on calls for negotiations, and short on calls for action. It was perhaps in the same spirit that the April 2009 regulation was signed by the same government.
One conclusion that we may draw from this is that the extremist fringe has prospered more under PPP regimes, touted to be those of the most secular-liberal political parties in Pakistan, than any other political dispensation including of the khaki variety. But that would be unfair. Signatories to the abovementioned resolution included, in addition to the PPP ministers, Chaudhry Nisar Ali Khan, Syed Haider Abbas Rizvi and others. Lest we forget, it was none other than Asfandyar Wali Khan who defended the imposition of the Nizam-e-Adl regulation. All were mainstream politicians.
Further incidents of the state’s capitulation occurred in Gojra, Faisalabad and Joseph Colony, Lahore, where Pakistani Christians were killed, injured or looted by a religious frenzied mob. To date, the culprits have not been brought to justice. Suspended police officers were later reinstated on more attractive positions. For Mumtaz Qadri, Salmaan Taseer was a kaafir (infidel), and hence he shot him dead. On his first appearance in the court, he was draped with garlands of flowers. Huge posters of him decked with Quranic verses could be found plastered on the walls of major cities. The civil administration failed to take them down. Whatever his exalted religious stature, he has not been punished for committing a heinous criminal act in broad daylight, despite being sentenced. Some say the government is afraid of the backlash that might ensue in the wake of Qadri’s capital punishment.
The genesis of it all is that, in the fateful year of 1974, the single biggest act of extremism ever committed by the state of Pakistan came in the form of the second amendment to the constitution. ‘Taliban Khan’ was playing cricket for Oxford University then.
The writer is a lawyer by profession