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How to cure Pakistan of its Islamist cancer - Michael Nazir-Ali

How to cure Pakistan of its Islamist cancer

By Michael Nazir-Ali
May 9, 2011

The country has lost touch with its founding beliefs. There are ways to restore that link

As children in Pakistan in the 1960s we were brought up with many Muslim friends, neighbours and relatives. At my Christian school, 90 per cent of the pupils were Muslim but there were also Hindus, Parsis and even Pakistani Jews. From time to time, there were communal and religious tensions but these were usually resolved. Guns were hardly ever seen, except, perhaps, with security guards at banks. Such a society broadly reflected the view of its founder, Muhammad Ali Jinnah, that religion had little to do with the business of the State.

Women were free to move around and to wear what they liked. Although forbidden to Muslims, alcohol was available for those who wanted it. Karachi was a cosmopolitan city that attracted a great variety of overseas visitors. Non-Muslims could be prominent in public life and were represented in the Civil Service and the Armed Forces. There was a general spirit of give and take.

Today Pakistan has become a cockpit for radical Islamism and its terror offshoots. So with Osama bin Laden dead, now is the time for it to look closely at itself. What can be done?

The prominence of what has come to be called Islamism can be traced to the insecurity that Pakistan feels about its borders. Its cultivation, for example, of Afghan Islamist militants dates from before the Soviet invasion and was designed to contain Afghan ambitions in the North West Frontier Province. Islamist militancy has also been used to further Pakistan's interests in Kashmir and, more widely, in achieving a balance of power with India. The success of Islamist groups in the North and West led to the nurturing of the "Lashkars", militias who wished to infiltrate Indian-held Kashmir.

In Pakistan Islamist extremism has two heads; the Taleban in Afghanistan and Pakistan, and the Lashkars. Such militancy has created a "Kalashnikov culture" and an appalling tradition of political murder, as well as a sense of insecurity for ordinary people. Alongside these developments, the regime of the military dictator, Zia-ul-Haq, who seized power in 1977, sought legitimisation by aligning itself with the religious parties. One of the features of this alliance was a programme of Islamisation that included the introduction of the Sharia, its penal law, discrimination against women, restriction on the freedom of religious minorities and the strengthening of the blasphemy laws that have now become so notorious.

For the first time, the regime began ruthlessly to propagate the Wahhabi- Salafi form of Islam. There was also a determined attempt to withdraw from the international community and to emphasise Pakistan's distinctiveness as an ideological state. It is true that successive civilian governments have tried to halt this ideological march, but as President Zardari has said, the cancer has gone deep and is widespread.

After the murder of Salman Taseer, Governor of the Punjab, because he had advocated an amendment to the blasphemy laws, a senior government figure told me that what shocked him most was the tacit approval of the murder by a large section of the lower and middle classes. We are no longer talking about a few extremists holed up in caves in the lawless areas of the Pakistan-Afghanistan frontier but of a widespread and deeply rooted change in the mindset of many ordinary people.

If Pakistan is to hold its head high once again among the nations, a great deal has to be done and quickly. Pakistan's friends and neighbours must do all they can to secure its borders. Both India and Pakistan should be brought to the table for a final settlement of the Kashmir dispute. This is no longer, if it ever was, a bilateral matter. Radical Islamist militancy cannot be wholly checked in Pakistan as long as Kashmir is such a central issue. With Afghanistan much could be achieved by the international community guaranteeing that Pakistan will not be outflanked there and that its territorial integrity will be safeguarded.

There is plenty to do, however, in the country itself. The media have a role to play in setting out an open and progressive vision for the nation. There should be rigorous monitoring of what is being said in the media in the name of religion. Vigilance is also needed about the teaching of hate towards people of other faiths, neighbours and the West in school and college textbooks. The tripling of British aid for education in Pakistan is a splendid opportunity for tackling some of these issues. It cannot just be about the number of schools or pupils; there must be due attention given to what sort of education such children are receiving.

Violence against Christians and even against rival Muslim groups is often caused by inflammatory sermons from mosques and other public places. The reform of education in the madrassas, in the training of imams and in the regulation of mosques must be a top priority if there is to be communal peace in Pakistan.

I have for long argued for a programme of interfaith dialogue and research sponsored by the government of Pakistan and its friends. It would maintain a centre of excellence, organise conferences and make sure that all Pakistan's faith communities are represented at international gatherings that tackle relations between the different faiths.

There is a great opportunity at this time to have it named after Shahbaz Bhatti, the assassinated Christian government minister and activist for fundamental freedoms, with whom I had been working on such a project. Bhatti, it seemed, was assassinated because he had been named chair of a committee to review the working of the blasphemy law. It is clear that this is not acceptable to Islamist opinion.

There is a significant diaspora now of Pakistanis in Britain and in many other countries. We need to hear a clear voice from Pakistanis living abroad for an open, tolerant and progressive nation. That is what those who founded it wanted. Let us work towards it.

----Michael Nazir-Ali is a former Bishop of Rochester and president of Oxtrad

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