Monday, April 26, 2010

Power-Hungry Few Exploit Students and Faculty in the Name of Religion, by Arshi Saleem Hashmi

On April 1, students from Punjab University and members of the Islami Jamiat Tulaba attacked Professor Iftikhar Baloch, beating him with metal rods and hitting him over the head with a giant flower pot. Baloch had expelled those students earlier in the month for disruptive activities, and it is assumed that they were taking revenge. Arshi Saleem Hashmi is a Senior Research Analyst at the Institute of Regional Studies in Islamabad and an Adjunct Assistant Professor at the National Defense University of Islamabad, and she shares her thoughts regarding this event here.

What happened at Punjab University campus was shameful, and Pakistanis felt insulted and humiliated when a few hooligans under the patronage of the Islami Jamiate Taliba (IJT), a student wing of Jamat-e-Islami seriously injured Professor Baloch on April 1, 2010 because he was against their highhandedness and was vocal against the abuse of university campus for malicious objectives.

There are two important aspects to this unfortunate incident: one, it shows the “power” of the very few radical beings who still believe in a very narrow interpretation of Islam. They feel that they would transform society according to their version of Islam, thus working as the custodians of morality in the Pakistan.

Second, Pakistani society is going through a battle of ideas, between lawlessness and democracy. Intolerance towards different ideas is yet another reason for this kind of behavior, where a minority group using aggression tries to make others accept their ideas—the choice is to accept them or else be ready to face the music. In the past, minority groups like these have been used by the regimes, not just General Zia’s military regime but later on, when democracy arrived in the country in the 1990s, the power and exploitation of these so-called Islamists was not contained by any administration. No substantive effort was taken to control aggression in the name of religion. It was only when Taliban took over Swat and Pakistan had to take a decision whether to continue ignoring this creeping threat of intolerance and extremism or to take action. Only in 2009 did the Parliament approve the motion in favor of military operations in Swat and tribal areas.

A ban on student politics on campus provided the opportunity to utilize this opportunity. Islami Jamiate Taliba posed as an Islamic group so only they remained active on campus while all other student bodies were banned on the pretext that they were affiliated with political parties. IJT’s political affiliation with Jamat-e-Islami was always ignored and nobody dared to ask the legality of their presence on the campus, fearing this might turned the opinion against them. Anybody criticizing an “Islamic organization” was easily branded anti-Islam. I still remember in the 1990s, when I was a student in the Department of International Relations at University of Karachi and Islami Jamiat Taliba was the only organization allowed operating on campus for unknown reasons, I used to loudly criticize the members of IJT for interfering in our personal life, how to conduct ourselves was none of their business. During a student trip to northern areas, when some of the sympathizers tried to separate girls and boys during the outing, I protested and told them not to make this trip a Jamat-e-Islami tour. If the parents of the girls and boys allowed them to go and explore the country for a week, live in hotels and youth hostel, trusting them completely, who were these so called custodians of Islam to check! Moderate Pakistanis, who are the majority of this country, have been fighting for many years now for their right to live peaceful, moderate, and tolerant lives. They are not at all interested in extremism of any kind, but unfortunately we are made hostage of the ideas of the few.

The issue here is that change does not come when a presidential system changes into parliamentary system or a military dictatorship is rejected in favor of democracy. It does mean a lot, but real change only comes when the society at large accepts the very basic ideas of tolerance, interfaith harmony, pluralism and moderation. Enlightment is nothing but having these ideas accepted by every individual of a society; it does not mean that people have to give up on their faith or belief system, but it rather provides an environment to give space to others.

Pakistani society is still confused. Although the majority believes in pluralism and religious harmony, the impression of the past three decades are so deep that it will take time for the majority to break their silence and any religious or political notion based on narrow interpretation will be completely rejected. Right now, there is no support for the radicals, but still—when religion enters the debate, people tend to remain silent rather than raising their voice against wrong interpretation of Islam. Pakistan will get back to its real self, i.e. a moderate Muslim state, when a forceful, collective voice against the abuse of religion in politics will emerge by the people.

Arshi Saleem Hashmi is a founding member of SAVE Pakistan, and she also works as a Senior Research Analyst at the Institute of Regional Studies in Islamabad and an Adjunct Assistant Professor at the National Defense University of Islamabad. To read more about the incident with Iftikar Baloch, see the full story published in the New York Times at the following link. The Nation, Pakistan has also been covering this story extensively. You can find their website here. The Dawn Media Group has also followed this story from the beginning. 

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  1. I wanted to comment on that people keep silent when it comes to wrong interpretation of Islam. That true. They fear that people will accuse them of eing away from Islam.
    But I really think we need to look on Islam a new look that take in consideration modern world.
    In the same context, many people look at Islam from an extremist view but this is not Islam

  2. Arshi, thank you for sharing this with us and I will echo what Asma has said. It is how the extremists interpret Islam and use it to their advantage. The sad part is that they pick and choose which bits are part of Islam and which one is part of culture. There should be a clear separation between culture and religion and laws to regulate illegal practises of the modern world. This applies to Christianity too, whereby they interpret some teachings literally but not others.
    best regards to all


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