During my visit to Pakistan in February 2004, one of the disturbing social phenomena I observed was the rise of religious intolerance. I found that it was difficult if not impossible to have an honest, open and frank discussion with people about life in general and religion in particular. Whenever I tried to have an intellectually stimulating dialogue, the atmosphere became tense, as people were not willing to listen to opposing views. In response to my genuine questions I had to listen to lengthy monologues about the benefits of religious faith and criticisms of secular views and humanistic philosophy. When I asked some of my friends and relatives who had recently returned from their pilgrimage to Mecca and Medina why those cities were not open to people from all religious and cultural backgrounds, I was told that unholy non-Muslims and impure non-believers were not allowed to enter those holy places. When I pointed out that holy places belonged to all people I was told that it was written in Holy Quran and to question the teachings of Quran was a sin. At such points in the conversation I kept quiet, as I thought that further questioning might provoke anger and violence.
While I was walking and driving on the busy streets of Lahore, I was intrigued to see dozens and dozens of young men walking in groups, wearing black, brown or green turbans. When I asked my friends about the significance, they informed me that those young men belonged to different religious groups. It seemed as though different religious sects of Muslims, whether Sunnis or Shiites, Devbandis or Brelvis, Ahl-e-hadees or Ahl-e-Quran, were all becoming members of religious armies with distinct uniforms.
The more I talked to religious people, the more I realized that on one hand they were quite devoted to their own sect and on the other hand quite critical of all others. Each religious sect had some fanatic members who declared followers of other sects to be non-Muslims and were willing to wage a holy war against them. Each group wanted to promote their own brand of Islam and suppress the others, as each sect believed that they were the “true” followers of Islam. I was shocked to see local police guarding mosques and religious centers, as if they were religious army camps rather than houses of prayer. People told me horror stories about innocent men, women and children being killed and massacred while offering prayers.
During this visit to Pakistan after an absence of several years I was surprised not only by the increase in the number of mosques but also by the number of loud speakers in each mosque. One could hear azan, the call of prayers, five times a day and special lengthy sermons on Fridays. The azans and sermons were so loud and frequent that students could not study and patients could not sleep day or night. The sermons offered by different religious clerics focused more on rituals than helping poor and the needy, and emphasized prayers more than a peaceful and spiritual lifestyle. It seemed as if mosques had become training grounds for religious armies where young minds were brainwashed by blind faith. Because of such sermons many young men were eager to enter military training and join a holy war to propagate Islam in all four corners of the world. The newspapers were full of incidents where the police had caught religious gangs with ammunition and weapons to blow up mosques and religious centers of other sects. Religious intolerance was spilling over into violence.
During my stay I met a number of Sunnis who were angry with Shiites and a number of Shiites who were resentful of Sunnis. It seemed that in the last few decades, mutual conflicts had escalated. Because it was the month of Moharram, a holy month for Shiites, the tensions were becoming violent. It was sad to see Pakistani communities on the verge of religious civil war. It seemed that the whole country was sitting close to a sleeping volcano of religious fanaticism and violence.
During my trip in Pakistan I recalled the time when Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto had appeared on the political scene with his political slogans of:
Islam is our religion
Democracy is our politics
Socialism is our economics
and won elections. Unfortunately over the years democracy and socialism faded into the background and Islam had come to the fore-front especially when Bhutto had proclaimed Friday as the weekly holiday, banned consumption of alcohol and declared Ahmedis as non-Muslims. That was the beginning of the nightmare of religious intolerance. The nightmare worsened during the reign of Zia-ul-haq when he tried to Islamize all aspects of civil life from schools to hospitals to government offices. He introduced Sharia law which resulted in public whippings and the undermining of women’s rights. He also introduced the Blasphemy Law which led to hundreds of innocent people being jailed on false premises. It created an atmosphere where religious tolerance declined. Religion became such an integral part of society that professionals were fired from jobs because they were not praying regularly. All the religious minorities, including atheists and humanists had to suffer and pay sacrifices as they were unfairly treated. They were deprived of their human rights but they had no place to seek justice. Zia-ul-Haq’s involvement with Afghanistan and the support of a holy war against Communism through supporting the Mujahedeen did nothing to create a peaceful society. Young people picking up arms to kill and die for the sake of Islam was encouraged rather than discouraged.
When I think of the factors that played a role in increasing the religious intolerance and violence in Pakistan in the last few decades the following factors come to mind:
1. The social conditions have deteriorated. The class differences between the rich and the poor have increased The literacy rate has remained lower than twenty percent.
2. There has been no law and order. Even in traffic nobody follows the rules.
3. There has been no respect for human rights for the poor, women, children and minorities
4. Religious leaders have gained power through media and mosques and have been brainwashing young minds preparing them for holy wars. Religious identity is becoming more important than class or ethnic identity.
5. Political leaders have been unsuccessful in creating a democratic and peaceful environment in the country. The army has become a political party in Pakistan and has been able to take over the government whenever it wishes.
6. America has played a significant role in suppressing democratic movements and supporting religious fanaticism and army dictatorships. In the past America supported Zia-ul-haq to encourage the Mujahedeen to fight Communism and is now supporting Musharraf to oppress the Mujahedeen by declaring them Taliban. The freedom fighters of one decade have become the terrorists of the next decade. America has also made the whole environment quite violent by providing millions of dollars of weapons to various religious groups over the last three decades.
7. There has been a rise of religious intolerance all over the world in the last few decades. Be they Hindus in India, Christians in North America or Muslims and Jews in the Middle East, there has been an escalation of religious violence. In some cases the rise is only in religious intolerance, while in others people have taken up arms and are ready to kill and die for their holy cause. Such an environment has been fertile ground for holy wars between different religious sects and for all sects to unite against the non-believers. Americans are surprised that different religious sects can join together to fight them, not realizing that they all unite because they have a common enemy in America, which they all hate with passion because of her foreign policy.
Unfortunately all these factors have increased the level of religious intolerance and violence in Pakistan.
While I was flying back from Pakistan I was wondering what Allama Mohammad Iqbal and Mohammad Ali Jinnah would say if they were alive today. Would they be proud or embarrassed to see Pakistan transform into the Islamic Republic of Pakistan and the whole country coming closer to religious civil war every day?
The day after I arrived in Canada I saw the following news in Toronto Star: Wednesday March3, 2004
Shiites slain in wave of attacks…Paul Haven
Islamabad- Attacks on Shiite Muslims in Pakistan and Iraq killed more than 185 people yesterday and exposed the deep fissures that have opened in two key battlegrounds in the US-led war on terror…”The terrorist attacks in both these places are by people who follow the same philosophy of religious extremism” said Mehdi Hassan, a political analyst and retired professor from Punjab University in Lahore.” Pakistan and Iraq have one thing in common, and that is the policies of the United States and the resentment on those policies.”
I think time has come for Americans to review their foreign policy in the Muslim world and for Pakistanis to do some soul-searching. I cannot imagine how followers of a merciful God could kill each other on the name of religion. I think we all need to ask ourselves whether we would like to:
…remain ignorant or enhance education
…follow blind faith or encourage logical, rational and scientific thinking
…live in peaceful and tolerant communities or in a climate where religion and politics join hands to create a violent world.