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, Karachi, May 2009

Understanding fundamentalism

Roots of the Islamic fundamentalism with Pakistan as example.

Keywords: Use of religion for war, use of religion for peace | Peace according Islam | | India | Pakistan

Religion is perhaps the earliest human quest about the mystery of existence as well as the striving for order in collective living on planet earth. It gave people laws to live by and whetted their wonderment and curiosity, leading to deep contemplation of the self and the universe, exploring their various physical and geographical surroundings, and this strange, miraculous inner self, the human heart and mind. Therein lay the seeds of science, philosophy and arts, painting and sculpture, architecture and music that make the world so beautiful today. Religions made the positive, creative and hence loving aspect of the human persona flourish. Unfortunately, it also reflected the worst side of human beings as there are no ghastly, cruel acts of barbarity that have not been committed in the name of religion since the beginning of history, and perhaps in pre-history under whatever cult or faith those people lived.

We need to recognize that over these thousands of years, religions have come to be an important part of collective and in most cases, individual identities. This part, though, does not necessarily always dominate the mind of the people. There are times when it becomes the premise for group formation, but at other times, it may be substituted by other aspects of collective identity. For instance, in Europe, racism became the basis for slave trade with a clear conscience and after the emergence of the Nation State, nationalism substituted religion for waging wars and colonization. In my own country, one Muslim part of Pakistan seceded from the rest of the Muslim country on the basis of their Bengali identity. Perhaps it is not off the mark to infer, that religion, ethnicity or race, gain importance in proportion to the material benefit or protection against the high handedness of other identifiable groups. For instance, before independence, the same Bengalis, now Bangladeshis, were in the forefront for creating Pakistan because they were, and are, Muslims like the West Pakistanis.

To understand fundamentalism that grips human societies from time to time, perhaps it will not be amiss to observe their class characteristics. I tend to support the views of Erich Fromme, the well known social scientist, whose treatise on the social psychology of fascism « Fear of Freedom » I adapted in Urdu for Pakistan many years ago. He is of the opinion that in classed societies, the middle and lower middle classes, faced with the affluence of the upper classes that is beyond their reach, and the plight of the working classes that they fear, seek gratification from a world of fantasy and with all their might hang on to ritualistic dos and don’ts of religion or any other group aspect as mentioned earlier. He further elaborates that the striving to feel important makes them suppress the natural pleasure instinct and enjoyment of any kind becomes sinful in their vision. They surrender their critical faculties to a “greater power” that is “invincible” and on their side. This suppression of the creative energy and pleasure instinct is especially visible amongst the fanatic, Taliban like Muslims today, but how curious that Fromme had detected it amongst the Germans as it was fascism in Germany he was trying to explain! It is indeed a universal phenomenon and manifests itself in all societies, Eastern or Western. As for fanaticism, one would notice that the more disempowered a community, the greater their tenacity to adhere to religion. In Europe and in many parts of the US, the social empowerment of the people has led to receding of religious fundamentalism over the past centuries.

The common man/woman is sucked into fundamentalism also because post colonial societies have failed to give their people the just and egalitarian dispensation they had promised. IN Pakistan today, any number of citizens are asking ”Compared to the system of justice for the rich only, why an Islamic system would not be better for the people?" “The judicial system being hardly better in India », “Justice in the Ram Raj” could be an equally attractive slogan for the Indians. In India, communal bloodshed is a very frequent occurrence, and its perpetrators are well identified, but not a single culprit has ever been punished. This stark injustice has led religious minorities, most importantly hundreds of millions of Muslims scattered all over India, into mental as well as social ghettos and devalued their life and property, their status as equal citizens , in the esteem of the majority Hindu community. The Indian Muslims, hence, could be prone to become part of militant fundamentalism. If this has not come about so far, the entire credit goes to the early ideals of the Nehru era that still survive among important sections of Indian society and the avowed secular nature of the Indian State.

There is another kind of “fundamentalism” that is supported by the establishment of society and state, that is, by money and power. The upper and middle classes adopt saffron on the forehead and regular attendance of mosques when the party in power supports religiosity. They give it up when another party comes to power. This is common observation and must not be ignored. In essence this is the survival technique of these classes but in critical times it lends support to terrible acts of cruelty to religious minorities.

So much for the psychological and social side of fundamentalism, but for it to turn into a menacing and destructive force, something much more palpable and material is required. We will be making a grave error if we confine our efforts only to interpretation of religion, because the players in this horrendous game of religious bloodshed are very worldly and out to grab power and pelf here and now and not in the other world.

The Islamic fundamentalism today is a case in point. I have often wondered if the amount of weaponry and wealth that has been invested in it by the western world over the last 50 years, was used to support dogmatic Christianity in the past centuries, could European Enlightenment or Reformation be a historical reality today ? Similarly I think, a fierce and wrathful kind of Hindu fundamentalism could not emerge without support from powerful, moneyed classes who fear a loss of status if social hierarchy changed and became more inclusive.

It is possible that our Indian friends may overlook the crucial part that THE LIBERAL West has played in the creation of militant Muslim fundamentalism in their endeavor to bring the former Soviet Union to its knees. We in Pakistan unfortunately have been eye witness to the systematic destruction of liberal values in our society. We have seen books published for children that taught them to use the gun, “sponsored and funded by the US” proudly printed on the titles. We have seen innumerable militant Madrassas}} sprout all over Pakistan turning the poor youth into ferocious Talibans. Where was the money coming from? In an interview with the BBC after nine eleven, the Saudi ambassador to Britain had said.

« Saudi Arab has funded religious Madrassas in Pakistan but the US has financially contributed to it, dollar for dollar." And even today, as they vociferously condemn suicide bombings, one wonders if they would denounce it equally forcefully if these were to take place in Sinkiang or Chechnya, that is, in the former Super Power that still has to be cut down to size, and in a rising power, that they fear might become a Super Power in the years to come and challenge their absolute supremacy.

Pakistan has most unfortunately embroiled itself in the big game of global Super Powers. In the process a minuscule section of society, the powers that be, greatly enriched themselves and have incredibly fabulous bank accounts in Switzerland and elsewhere. Added to the money factor was also the fond hope that this inexpensive fighting force would help in Kashmir. A tunnel vision that did not foresee that in the process, what havoc would be wrought on Pakistani society. Much like the US, our establishment also believed that the evil unleashed by them would remain under their control. We are now paying the price of this wishful thinking with the blood of Pakistani soldiers and citizens in our Northern areas. Nor is the folly unique to Pakistan. The rise of Bhindranwala in Indian Punjab could be very much a consequence of creating an alternative to Akali Dal , divide the votes of religious minded Sikhs and brighten the chances of the Congress Party in the next elections because it had not won the elections in Punjab for too long. We know that the subsequent tragic events dealt a severe blow to Indian secularism as Mrs Gandhi lost her precious life and so many parts of India had a horrifying communal blood bath.

Social and political realities are never visible in a straight line. We have to see them in their convoluted loops. The solution to the problem that apparently arise out of « religious intolerance » lie outside the parameters of religion. They lie in empowering economically and socially weak communities and exposing maneuvers of national and global vested interests. The emancipation of Indian Muslims lies in friendly relations between India and Pakistan and giving a turn to the Kashmir problem that its solution should be amicably and honourably acceptable to both the countries. Just as Lord Buddha had said « In a conclusive victory, both sides must win equally » It also lies in the firm action of Pakistani army to curb these brain-washed ignorant hordes, who are calling themselves Talibans, once and for all. Please don’t consider it too outlandish if I may suggest that the root of the evil of the rise of the Talibans in Pakistan lies in the unresolved Kashmir issue. That they are out to destroy subcontinental society is a matter that should concern all the peoples of our subcontinent. Today they tried to destroy the shrine of the Pakhtun sufi saint Rahman Baba. Tomorrow they will be happy to demolish the Taj Mahal. Because Taj Mahal is not a mosque, it is only a woman’s grave, a pukki qabar, and that, in the benighted vision of the militant fundamentalists, is sinful to build.

The religious texts, written thousands of years ago are quite ambiguous, to say the least, and can be interpreted whichever way. Still, I would say that within Islam, the Sufis have presented an excellent synthesis of the major religious quests in the world. Society itself created its harmony through the Bhakti movement and Sufism. In this region so devastated time and again by blind communal hatred, it is so heartening and soothing to see Hindus and Muslims throng together to the shrines of Khwaja Ajmer and Khwaja Nizamuddin Aulia, and in Sindh to the mausoleum of our great Sufi poet, Shah Abdul Lateef Bhitai.

In my observation, under normal circumstances, human attitude towards “the other”, is not one of hostility but of curiosity and subtle emulation of each other. Hostilities arise when interests clash. These interests are, or should be rendered negotiable. It is not religion but civilizations where we can safely and fruitfully appreciate the astounding, rich results of cross-fertilization. I have a dream where for our young Pakistani generations, we have seminars and workshops on Siddhantha, the great tract of physics, astronomy and mathematics of ancient India, and how it was translated into Arabic to form the base of many Muslim scholarly works. And where in the universities and colleges of India, young students learn and pay tribute to Abu Rehan Al Beruni, who in the 11th century wrote a voluminous, detailed account of Indian learning and Indian civilization.

We have to look at times past to solve the tangle of the present and bring light to our future :

Let me translate one of my verses for you. We are plodding on this endless path in total darkness. With grieving heavy hearts that knows no hope. But when we suddenly turn around, Behind us we see a cascade of light, Like lamps floating on river Ganga. Such is the mystery of this path, of this carvan, As it plods along its sad and darkened course, A rainbow o light springs from its footprints, And amazes this, our dear abode, the planet earth.