When religion & politics mix

By Zubeida Mustafa
Source: Dawn

WAS last week’s shocking carnage at Karachi’s Nishtar Park on Eid Milad Nabi a tragedy waiting to happen? People still find it difficult to fully comprehend why any one would want to kill scores of innocent people in cold blood on an occasion considered auspicious by all Muslims.

The ghastly attack wiped out the top leadership of the Sunni Tehreek, which was evidently the main target of the perpetrators of this evil deed.

Given the non-violent creed of the Tehreek and its pronounced emphasis on peaceful coexistence with other sects, no one really believes that this event had a sectarian dimension. It was plainly an act of political violence though one cannot be certain that any party will draw any long term mileage out of it.

Why would any one in a predominantly Muslim society want to kill people observing the birthday of the Holy Prophet (PBUH) who is a universally revered figure in the world of Islam? Why should such a manifestly apolitical and spiritual occasion invite the wrath of players in the game of politics? For the answer to this question one has only to take a look at how society and politics have evolved in Pakistan over the years.

Three phenomena that have emerged in the last several decades have cast a dark shadow on the country. One is the criminalisation of politics that has injected violence into the political process in a big way. The second development has been the integration of politics with religion that has been reinforced by the direction politics has taken in Pakistan not only since 1947 but also in the pre-independence years. Thirdly, the growing religiosity of the people — a relatively recent development — has given a boost to the new trend of religion being used for political purposes. If we analyse the emergence of these three trends, the Nishtar Park tragedy does not come as a surprise.

Whether it is the army or a civilian leadership that has been at the helm, it has become a normal practice in this country for the government of the day to resort to force to impose its writ and eliminate its rivals. Be it through the blatant use of the administrative machinery and the police as was done in the fifties, in 1972-77, from 1988 to date, or through the fiat of a military ruler in 1958-72 and 1977-88, those in office found it convenient to stifle dissent and silence their opponents. As political violence gained momentum, those outside the corridors of power but desirous of gaining entry also learnt the art of using the gun to achieve their political aims. In due course targeted killings became a popular political weapon.

The second phenomenon has been the induction of religion into politics. The religious idiom was first used in politics when the Khilafat movement was launched by the Ali brothers in the 1920s. It helped to mobilise the Muslim masses for political ends vis-a-vis the British colonial rulers. Hence on his return to India, when the Quaid-i-Azam worked to activate the Muslim League and gather the Muslims of India under its banner he also appealed to their religious sentiments. Although secular in his approach, Jinnah freely used Islamic rhetoric in the 1945-46 election campaign for the Constituent Assembly. Slogans, such as “Pakistan ka matlab kiya? La ilaha ilallah”, rang through the length and breadth of the subcontinent and helped the Muslim League win all the Muslim seats.

Although Mr Jinnah did not at any stage envisage a theocratic state, the thrust of his politics defined Pakistan as the homeland of the Muslim nation whose identity derived from Islam. As Pakistan failed to develop a stable democracy, religion and politics came to be intertwined more and more closely. Then came Ziaul Haq and transformed Pakistan totally into a state based on Islamic fiqh as interpreted by a coterie of ulama enjoying the favour of the military ruler.

There has been no going back since then even after democracy was supposedly revived and elected secular leaders formed the government. Religion came to be so closely integrated with politics that religious parties and ulama became political actors. In fact, one finds a distinct shift in their emphasis from the observance of the basic underlying principles of Islam that preach love, brotherhood, tolerance and charity to wresting political control of society and the state in the name of Islam.

Once the religious organisations became players in the game of politics they had to adopt the same rules as the others who were already in the playground — notably the political parties and the military. Thus they have also turned to violence terming it as jihad and calling those who are killed shaheeds.

The Sunni Tehreek was a relatively newcomer to this game — it was formed in the ‘80s — and has so far renounced violence, it has a political programme and has contested elections. Having borne the brunt of violent attacks from other parties, it remains to be seen how long it can remain peaceful. The elimination of its leadership in one strike — obviously by its political rivals whoever they may be — has put it under tremendous pressure to retaliate. Will it or will it not?

On their part the Islamic parties, which draw sustenance from the religiosity of the masses, have begun to appreciate the advantage they enjoy because of their mass following. Hence the compulsion they feel to demonstrate their strength by whipping up mass hysteria and mobilising mammoth crowds on religious festivals. As for the people who provide this mass following to the religious parties, why is their new-found orthodoxy on the rise? We still have the generation, which had reached adulthood when Ziaul Haq seized power and set out to purify Muslim society in Pakistan.

Looking back at the earlier years, one would agree that the people living in Pakistan then were progressive and enlightened in their outlook and better Muslims as far as following the injunctions of Islam in their true spirit were concerned. One didn’t have the exaggerated emphasis on the observance of rituals that has become all important today.

It is partially the religious frenzy that is stirred up by the media, the government and the religious parties that drives people towards spiritualism. People also seek relief in religion for the stresses they face in every day life which are on the rise. Be it the stress generated by poverty, the competition to keep up with the Joneses, the fall-out of bad governance and corruption, or a sense of intense insecurity caused by the rising crime graph, economic uncertainty and political instability, people by and large have to cope with more tensions in their life than their forefathers ever did. More and more of them are turning to Islam in their quest for mental peace and stability. But will they get it in the kind of Islam that is being practised?

Until politics is cleansed of violence and secularised, leaving people free to practise their religion as an act of personal faith and conviction, such terrible tragedies will continue to take place. True greater vigilance of the security agencies can reduce the scale of violence and minimise the loss of life. But if nothing changes, people will continue to be killed to promote the political ambitions of leaders using a bigoted brand of Islam to mask their true intentions.