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Seminar on “the Pakistan Phantasmagoria: Between liberalism and extremism”

Conflicting perceptions of the traditional religious forces and secular moderate circles have confused the course of determining national identity for Pakistan. Soon after establishment of Pakistan the moderate ruling elites started to provide space to religious elites due to one reason or the other. The Soviet-Afghan war and the Zia regime offered some legal and structural frameworks to the extremists to strengthen their agendas in Pakistan. Since then they have been consolidating their foothold through their own war economies, media, schools and charity organizations. On the contrary civility has no economy to sustain itself. Revival of peaceful co-existence seems the only way out now to curb extremism and religious intolerance. These views were expressed by participants of a seminar titled “The Pakistan Phantasmagoria: Between Liberalism and Extremism,” organized by Pak Institute for Peace Studies in Islamabad on March 7, 2011.

Dr. Ishtiaq Ahmed, former Professor Emeritus of Political Science, Stockholm University, and former Honorary Senior Fellow of the Institute of South Asian Studies, National University of Singapore, presented his keynote address. He said the confessional basis of Pakistan’s foundation have made the question and debate of collective national identity a rather complex and difficult one. Though the common standpoint in freedom struggle was the fear of Hindu domination in post-British united India, however, divergent perceptions and interpretations of traditionalist religious forces and secular moderate circles confused the course of determining national identity after independence. The former wanted Pakistan to be a theocracy while the latter espoused a vision of a moderate welfare Muslim state. Both circles have interpreted Iqbal’s ideas and Jinnah’s vision with their respective ideological lenses.

However the proxy seatrain war of Saudi Arabia and Iran in this region during and after Afghan ‘jihad’ coupled with weak democratic institutions in Pakistan further pushed Pakistan towards religious extremism and militancy. There are no easy answers to do away with growing radicalization and intolerance in the country. However, restoration of democracy in 2008 and realization among the civilian and military elites to confine themselves to their separate domains of activities can be termed as the first step in the right direction.

Dr. Tariq Rahman, Director National Institute of Pakistan Studies (NIPS) at Quaid-i-Azam University Islamabad said the roots of religious extremism were inbuilt but later they were given a legislative form under Zia’s policies of Islamization. Though civilian governments have been myopic but at the policy level the major errors made during different military regimes in Pakistan paved the way for the rise of religious extremists in the country.

According to Mr. Zafrullah Khan, Executive Director Center for civic Education,review of theresignation of Pakistan’s first law minister Jogendra Nath Mandal in 1950 sums up the structural religious tensions in Pakistan. The ruling elites still continue to make compromises on long-term state interests for short-term tactical achievements through political expediencies. This in turn has thrown the county into deep abyss of religious extremism and intolerance. The backtracking of Pakistan Peoples Party’s (PPP) on blasphemy issues in the face of Salman Taseer’s murder is one glaring example of this assertion. The terms liberal and secular have been demonized to such an extent that initiating a debate looks almost impossible now.

Mr. Colin Smith,Senior Advisor to Civilian Capacity Building and Law Enforcement (CCBLE) argued that at the time of Pakistan’s inception the founding fathers of a newly born Muslim state had no model of a modern welfare Muslim state which they could adopt or follow; unlike many European countries where such models took centuries to evolve.

Dr. Shujaul Haq, Professor at National Institute of Pakistan Studies (NIPS), was of the view that living in an era where traditional methods and modes of thinking have become redundant there is a dire need to evolve a new model that can cater to the changing needs of the time. In such transformative times we perhaps need to evolve a new model taking along both religion and state hand in hand. It is a time when religion is as much discredited as much science and modernity.

The presentations were followed by an interactive open discussion and lively question answer session. Answering a question regarding ongoing wave of violence across the country, Dr. Tariq Rahman said the problems of militancy and religious extremism can be resolved through sincere will and change of flawed policies. It is imperative to revise educational curriculum, improve and increase the outreach of state-owned educational system and provide of jobs to unemployed youth especially those in Balochistan and conflict-ridden tribal areas.

Responding to another query regarding the contentious debate of liberal secularism and orthodox traditionalism in the country he said for peaceful co-existence both spheres have to provide space to each other through promotion of tolerance and mutual respect for each other’s views.