The brutal killing of Federal Minorities’ Minister Shahbaz Bhatti this week sends another signal that extremists are brazenly holding power and support across Pakistan. Mr. Bhatti and Benazir Bhutto both offered an alternative to the hateful rhetoric of extremists: that Pakistan could be a tolerant nation that respects its minorities through the democratic process. Their enemies riddled their bodies with bullets on claims that somehow tolerance and democracy were foreign concepts to Pakistan, and that they were saboteurs. However, when we can look back to the 1980’s to find the foreign invasion of the Pakistani psyche, it came not in the form of Western Imperialism, but through Near West Wahabiism from Saudi Arabia.
Extremists have made a choice that democracy will not be the method by which they will bring their “jihad” or revolution. Some fall into the trap these extremists lay in claiming that rejecting democracy is the only way to free Pakistan of the “evil influences” from the West.
However, the logic of this ideology falters when one realizes that there were several institutions implanted during the Colonial Era by the British that still positively serve people to this day, from the railways to the irrigation system in Punjab. Should one close down all these important elements because they were made by people with bad motivations? Or should these institutions be adopted and remodeled by the newly freed post-colonial leadership in order to assist the day to day living of its citizenry? And even this “imperial” argument is a non-sequitor when native leaders like Zulifkar Ali Bhutto and Benazir Bhutto lost their lives advocating to bring about a democratic change to Pakistan.
With respect to the “inherent intolerance” of the Pakistani people, right-wing conservatives would have us forget the hundreds of years the Subcontinent had existed, defined by its heterogeneity. One need only look to the provinces of modern-day Pakistan to realize how varied the cultural and spiritual landscape amongst the different ethnicities and tribes has been. One should further remember the composition of the cities like Lahore, pre-partition, where Hindus, Sikhs and Muslims lived amongst each other for generations with a great degree of tolerance shared between them.
The religious embodiment of this heterogeneous culture was Sufiism, which was created by philosophers, saints, and poets all in the Indian Subcontinent, many of whom called Lahore and Punjab their homes. Sufiism attempted to find one common spiritual line amongst all these different human beings living amongst one another. They drew from Hindu and Buddhist philosophies to understand Islam more completely, and preached that one could only reach Allah through tolerating and accepting their fellow man.
Their ideals set the foundation for democracy in many ways, as they both achieve the same ends. Sufis believe that an individual must respect whatever beliefs, political or spiritual, held by any human because they both share the same innate value. Thus, this native South Asian philosophy is a predecsor to democracy, which aims to make all human beings equal and to tolerant of each other’s beliefs.
As we can conclude that democratic principles are not foreign to Pakistan’s nature, we must determine who is behind the foreign invasion that has eroded the spirit of tolerance that once existed in these lands. The Wahabi-type ideology of a chauvinistic form of Jihadi Islam was less likely to originate from the Subcontinent, where there was constant mixing of religious and ethnic groups. These ideas were formulated in Saudi Arabia, which has enjoyed a rather homogeneous population, and were exported to Pakistan. This ideology purports that Sunni Muslims are better than all other human beings, that those inferior human beings wish to destroy “real Muslims,” and thus it is the job of every Muslim to attack anyone who is non-Muslim.
This view was taught in madrassas, mosques, and public schools across Pakistan and slowly began turning the public away from its tolerant past, into adopting a new foreign ideal of militant Islam. Supporters of this agenda claim that politicized Islam is the only way to challenge Western imperialism (and democracy along with it). However, they are attacking democracy not because of its Western origination, but because it challenges their very hold on power which is through fear not understanding.
Rule by democracy requires one to empower the public by answering to it; however groups like Jamiat Ulama e Islam would rather bully the public into following its dictates. These same religious groups cannot even gain 10% of the seats in an open election in Pakistan, and thus they attack democracy not because it is foreign to Pakistan, but because it challenges their ability to unquestionably play God over the people.
Minister Bhatti, Salman Taseer, and Benazir Bhutto gave their lives fighting against religoius intolerance and to preserve democratic rule in Pakistan: their efforts should not be wasted. One must directly confront those who claim that Pakistan should be a theocratic state, because intolerant impositions like the blasphemy law are indeed foreign concepts in Pakistan’s long-term history. The development of democratic principles has been embded in the heterogenious culture of the Subcontinent. Sufi poet Bulleh Shah best captured the inadquecy of intolerant Islam when he said:
“You run to enter mosques and temples, but you never enter into your innerself. You fight Satan in vain daily, but fighting your ego you care not. Baba Bulleh Shah says this – you run after what you’ve lost but push aside what you’ve got”