Rampant religious extremism and sectarianism are wrecking Pakistan today. The religiously frenzied features of Pakistani culture, politics and society are remnants of the long and dark shadow of General Zia-ul-Haq’s eleven years of Islamist rule that structured the entire state as a theatre of religion.
Zia’s regime was a setback for a faltering democratic process and ushered in an era of religious obscurantism that affected every facet of domestic and foreign policy. He saw Islam as a part of revolutionary process to overhaul Pakistan. But in the last four decades, there has been a complete erosion of the moral values of our society.
The current unrest erupted across major cities in Pakistan after TLP Chief Saad Hussain Rizvi was detained by security forces in Lahore as a “pre-emptive measure” ahead of the party’s April 20 deadline to the government as the PTI government had promised TLP last November that they would take up the matter of the French ambassador’s expulsion from Pakistan with parliament in protest against the publication of blasphemous images in that country.
The siege of various cities of the country by mobilised religious bigots has once again challenged the writ of the state. The entire state looked to be powerless against extremist mobs who openly challenged the state’s writ. This manifestly represents the strength and influence of religious fundamentalists in Pakistan. The way the administration has collapsed in the face of mob violence is alarming and puts the responsibility of forces in question. It also underscores the state’s ability to deal with rising religious extremism.
Religious organisations in Pakistan have a significant influence over particular segments of society, which they can mobilise for their objectives. They draw their strength from their connection to a sizable segment of the society through which they exert pressure on the state to adopt extremist policies.
The role of religious organizations in making Pakistan an Islamic state is well known; their subsequent success in pressuring Z A Bhutto to declare Ahmedis non-Muslims and include clauses in the 1973 constitution to enforce Sharia law is well known. Later, in 1983, General Zia accepted their demand of passing the Hudood Ordinances, which restricted women’s rights.
The growing influence and importance of Islamists helped ambitious and bigoted politicians to benefit from the powerful card of religion. The result is a state divided on ethnic, cultural, linguist, sectarian and provincial lines. The state’s appeasement policy and pandering to the demands by reactionary forces has emboldened them and made them confident of their power to bring the country to halt.
Extremism is the biggest enemy of the nation, which is not only weakening the already deteriorating governance system in the country but is also undermining national dignity and Pakistan’s global image. Given the current religious insecurity, Pakistan has to redesign its narrative and soft policies towards religious bigots and extremists in order to stabilise the state.
It is incumbent upon the state to ensure the supremacy of the constitution and rule of law, which is an effective way to uphold the state’s writ. State institutions should not avoid going against bigots who are able to sabotage peace and stability.