Aug 5, 2009

Making the impossible possible

The latest incident of extremist mob violence, this time in a village near the town of Gojra, is a reflection of the anarchy, and the barbarity, we are spiralling towards.

It is as yet unclear what – if anything at all – led Muslim zealots to burn down dozens of houses belonging to the Christian community. At least seven people, including at least three women and possibly a child, were burnt alive. Initial investigations by the Punjab government show no evidence that a copy of the Holy Quran was burnt, as was claimed. We do not yet know if there was a personal dispute of some kind, though this has in the past triggered such acts of insanity. It is also a fact that greed, a desire to seize property or wrest away business has led to similar attacks. The alleged involvement of the Sipah-e-Sahaba Pakistan (SSP), a force known for its incitement of hatred against non-Sunnis, proves too that extremism lives on in the country.

The fact is that the defeat of the Taliban in Swat and other areas does not mean we have overcome our problems with militancy. The problems created over many years cannot of course vanish instantly. Indeed there are many strands to the havoc we face. It is indeed far from certain that we have even finally won back the northern areas. Reports state the militants have simply set up base in other districts or retreated to the mountains, and will attempt a comeback at some point. This is a worrying thought. But the problem of extremism lurks too in other places. The events in Gojra indicate the menace it presents and the fact that such violence can flair up anywhere and at any time. The southern Punjab has been identified as a place where many groups have their base. It is obvious that the ban placed on many of them in 2002 and afterwards has, for all practical purposes, no meaning at all.

Is there then any way of turning back the tide? Of taking steps to ensure other citizens do not perish like the Christians murdered in Gojra? Of building a state of mind that accepts all citizens as being true equals, regardless of their belief or their ethnicity? It has over the past decade become clear how difficult a task this is. But it must be attempted if we are to build a sounder, safer, nation which is able and willing to protect the life and property of everyone who lives within its boundaries. This of course is the primary duty of the state. Its failure to fulfil it is one of the reasons for the chaos we find now, with the Rangers having to be deployed to prevent more killings in Gojra. The chain of happenings there exposes once more the inadequacies of this entity and the decreasing impact it has on the lives and the welfare of people.

So, can anything be done? The main point to be made is that if this is even to be attempted, we need political will and long-term commitment. These are of course hard to find and demand that far more be done than merely making statements condemning the violence. To make any kind of real difference that goes beyond this, we must first make a serious effort to understand quite what went wrong and why. First-hand testimonies from those who lived through the 1950s and 1960s, indeed even beyond these years, narrate how the frenzied passions of Partition quickly died down to leave behind a mainly harmonious society, within which people who held different beliefs rarely clashed. The anti-Ahmadi laws of the 1970s were the first signal of how things could change and how swiftly this could happen.

Since then, the creation of extremist groups, the imposition of discriminatory laws, the cropping up of thousands of madressahs and the change in mindset achieved mainly through school curriculums which promote bigotry have exacerbated the problems we face. Solutions need to be drastic. There is nothing to be gained by tinkering with what exists or making comments that are not backed by deeds. The decision to launch a full-fledged military action in the north was in many ways a brave one. It needs to be followed up still more courageously in other spheres.

It has been said in the past, and indeed continues to be said today, that the madressahs that exist everywhere cannot be shut down. That it is impossible to do so at least in the immediate future; that perhaps the focus should be on reforming these institutions and that not all of them encourage militancy. There is of course some reason behind what is said. But the situation we find ourselves in means we must somehow seek out ways of making the impossible possible. Otherwise we will continue to flounder, and perhaps, one day, sink. It is true not all madressah's teach extremism, but what limited research has been conducted suggests even the so-called 'good' institutions; those whose pupils also sit regular exams and are taught by relatively better-educated teachers, build a particular way of thinking that constructs divisions within society on the grounds of gender and belief. What we need to divert immediate attention to is re-establishing our public schooling system and persuading donors to pour money into this sector, so that they can draw back the pupils they have lost over the decades to madressahs. In many cases the fact that the madressahs offer clothing and food and shelter has been a key factor in this. This aspect too needs to be debated and perhaps means found to offer a meal, or at least a glass of milk, in government schools. Donations have in the past been collected to 'modernise' madressahs. There is no evidence at all that this has worked to alter the nature of these institutions. Questions are now also being asked on where the money for such 'modernisation' went. We need an altered strategy and a readiness to replace madressahs with schools. The dichotomy we see now must end. We also need more research on how the madressahs have altered the face of our society and what can be done to reverse this.

In other spheres of life too we need action. The private television channels have played a part in generating more debate and more open discussion on issues of religion. Such discussions must be encouraged, so that we can regain the lost tolerance of the past. School textbooks too can and should be revised to achieve a similar change in thinking – to alter a situation where even in some of the most elite private schools, small children distinguish between Muslim and non-Muslim teachers.

None of this is easy to achieve. It will take time and a great deal of effort. But the fact is that we need to take drastic action if we are to prevent other acts of inhuman brutality of the kind seen in Gojra.

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