Pakistan’s traditional spirituality hijacked?

Every week sees a fresh wave of violence strike Pakistan. Just two days ago, a suicide car bomb in a crowded shopping street in the north-west town of Charsadda killed almost 20 people and injured dozens. It was the third such incident in three days. These follow blasts in Rawalpindi and Peshawar, which killed dozens in crowded marketplaces, the latter of which coincided with US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s visit.

The violence has put many Pakistanis on edge, many blaming the country’s relationship with the US. They point to the loss of civilian lives in badly aimed drone attacks and a historical relationship that suggests the US looks after its own interests and should not be trusted.

The Obama Administration finds itself dealing with partners in both Pakistan and Afghanistan who do not have the strong mandate of their people, with Hamid Karzai’s recent win in a one-man election in Afghanistan, and Asif Ali Zardari in Pakistan, who as widow of former prime minister Benazir Bhutto has benefited from a Bhutto stranglehold on the ruling Pakistani People’s Party despite being mired in corruption. The shadowy standing of the two leaders threatens the legitimacy of the partnership.

The current Administration has done well in bypassing the leadership and attempting to reach out to the people through cultural dialogue with frank meetings with media professionals and students. Clinton’s visit wearing a billowing blue dupatta to a Sufi shrine in Islamabad moved many and represents in many ways the true spirit of Pakistani spirituality, which has been hijacked in recent years with the rise of extremism.

In the past 10 years, I have seen a steady shift to the right. The folk spirituality of Pakistan, traditionally involving a mixture of Islamic Sufism and saint worship, has given way to a more puritanical form of Islam, which shuns Shiite Muslims and other minorities. Weddings are increasingly segregated and without the traditional Pakistani music and dance that make them so lively. The dupatta, a deliciously sheer piece of cloth worn with colourful shalwar kameez as part of the traditional dress, have given way to burqas and niqabs in certain areas.

The contradictions that lie at Pakistan’s fractured soul are emblematic of its very origin. Pakistan’s founder, Mohammad Ali Jinnah, a secularist and English-trained lawyer, initially used religion as nationalistic rallying cry and political tool for the creation of Pakistan. This backfired badly with Pakistan fighting for its national identity ever since. The question being if Pakistan was created in 1947 as a homeland for the subcontinent’s Muslims than why should it not also be an Islamic State? The historical Jinnah in Pakistan has been transmogrified into a pious, sherwani wearing “Quad-e Azam” or “Great leader”. This image is a far cry from the man found in the Jinnah museum in Karachi who was fond of his suits and cigars.

This is symptomatic of unease with which Pakistan has dealt with the religious question. It seems it does not have the ideological courage to be either an Iran or Turkey but will settle for being both and something in between.

The majority of Pakistanis are moderate, this can be seen in elections where Islamist parties have consistently received a small minority of the vote. If ideologically speaking, Pakistanis are scattered, the building of institutions will be a bulwark against excesses. The lack of education, health, literacy and poor state of women’s rights have put Pakistan at the risk of a kind of national myopia.

Democracy depends as much on the healthy state of an informed public as a free election. The rise of the lawyer’s movement, which protested against former military dictator Pervez Musharraf ‘s move to force out Supreme Court justice Iftikhar Mohammed Chaudhry in 2007, to the creation of community run police-citizen patrols to deal with law and order issues show that the Pakistani people have developed ingenuity to deal with its social problems despite an ineffectual state apparatus. A government whose only occupation seems to be to repeatedly fund and create militant groups it quickly loses control over and an obsessive rivalry with neighbour India.

Pakistanis can only dream of the possibilities of not struggling under the weight of this monstrous disability.

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