Cognitive Dissonance? Misunderstanding Islamic Radicalization in Pakistan

Are we underestimating the contribution of regular Pakistanis in fostering a climate of violence in Pakistan?

The turbulence seen in Pakistan since the turn of the year has spawned a keen effort, on the part of forward-thinking liberals, to disassociate everyday Pakistanis from the rampant extremism that plagues the country. Their views represent a counter narrative to the likes of firebrand cleric Maulana Abdul Aziz who claim that the “silent majority“ of Pakistanis support mullahs like him and the radical ideologies they espouse.

According to this outlook, the energetic hordes that in recent weeks protested the execution of Mumtaz Qadri, the bodyguard who murdered former governor of Punjab, Salman Taseer; challenged the writ of the state for supporting the decision of the Punjab Assembly to pass a women’s protection bill; and hurled abuse at Oscar-winning film-maker Sharmeen Obaid Chinoy for exposing the reality of honor killings in Pakistan represent the will of a determined minority rather than the people as a whole.

In a comment piece for the British newspaper, The Guardian, author and columnist Bina Shah weighed into the conversation with a spirited defense of ordinary Pakistanis. Writing in the immediate aftermath of the bomb blast at Lahore’s Gulshan-e-Iqbal park, which targeted Christians celebrating the Easter weekend, she contended:

But jihadis are not representative of all Pakistanis. One thing to understand about Pakistan is that most of its people are socially conservative Muslims, but only a minority actually advocates and enacts violence.

The majority of Pakistanis are peaceful and would not act violently towards religious minorities even if they do not share their religious beliefs. Indeed, in times like these, Pakistanis forget about who is a Christian or a Muslim, and only think about helping the injured (…)

(…) Religious extremists will never succeed in taking over Pakistan, even if they maintain deadly effectiveness in spreading the virus of terrorism all over the world.

As with any epidemic, the weakest are always the ones to fall first. Yet humanity is the one thing that inoculates us against its reach. As long as we have our humanity, we will still remain united as Pakistanis, no matter who we choose to call our God.

In many ways the views of Shah and others like her are both admirable and understandable, in that they seek to redress the imbalance of negative perceptions about Pakistan and give voice to those forced into silence by extremists. Evil, they seem to suggest, is not a problem of everyday citizens but a few rotten apples who give everyone else a bad name.

Yet, however well-intentioned, the resulting picture reflects a cognitive dissonance that perilously ignores the complexities of Pakistan’s many internal struggles, including the extensive contribution of regular Pakistanis in fostering a climate of violence, sectarianism, and bigotry that has blighted the country over the last several decades.

The disturbing truth is that no amount of Saudi-funded madrasas, terror networks, and government-sponsored Islamization policies can deflect guilt away from the wider population. Instead of withstanding the influence of these actors, all levels of Pakistani society have, to some degree or another, bought in to their worldview.

One need only consider the extent to which attitudes have hardened in the country to gain a glimpse into the poisonous mind-set that has come to lie beneath the surface of everyday life.

In terms of their religious views, most Muslims in Pakistan back the country’s blasphemy laws even though they are heavily skewed against minorities and carry with them a potential death sentence for insulting the Prophet. Seventy-five percent believe that the laws are necessary for the protection of Islam.

A report carried out by the Pew Research Center in 2013 examining public attitudes among Muslims found 62 percent of Pakistani Muslims favor the death penalty in cases of apostasy as compared to just 36 percent in regional neighbor Bangladesh. There is also widespread support for the implementation of Sharia and a belief that there can only be a single true interpretation of Islam.

Pew also had Pakistan achieve the highest possible score in their index on social hostilities involving religion. It is not difficult to see why. Notwithstanding pervasive animosity to people of minority faiths, internecine antagonisms among Muslims themselves have been a principal cause of sectarian strife. And it is not just fanatics who hold these sentiments. One chief indicator of this is the fact that almost half of Pakistanis no longer consider Shias as Muslims.

Religion-based hostilities have given rise to brutal cycle of persecution, much of which is perpetrated by a mainstream population whose core identity has been shaped in some significant measure by a sense of superiority to those who exist on the periphery of their world. In actual terms what this means is that minorities are routinely subjected to rape, forced marriage, abduction, harassment, destruction of religious property, displacement from homes, and — in the most grave instances — mob attacks and murder.

Even those segments of the population who do not subscribe to or act on these extremes share in the moral burden of their counterparts through their indifference and collective looking away.

An example of this is the passport application process. Any Pakistani who wants to apply for a passport as a Muslim must sign a declaration attesting that they consider the founder of the Ahmadi community a false prophet. All those who sign it, regardless of their actual convictions, opt for bureaucratic convenience over moral courage, with little thought to how their obliviousness castigates an entire community. Not only that, each signature represents, in a broader sense, an official endorsement of religious discrimination.

With the way things are now, vast swathes of Pakistanis stand on the wrong side of history. Instead of challenging the extremism in their midst, they have enabled its rise by either by embracing it or by failing to act on the demands of their conscious. Such guilt cannot be easily shed especially until there is movement of reconciliation with the ugly truth that lies behind it.

Usman Ahmad  is a British freelance writer and photographer currently based in Pakistan. Follow him on Twitter

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