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The Struggle For The Soul Of Pakistan

Jamiat Ulema Islam chief Maulana Fazalur Rehman leads a rally in favor of the blasphemy law in Karachi, Pakistan.
Jamiat Ulema Islam chief Maulana Fazalur Rehman leads a rally in favor of the blasphemy law in Karachi, Pakistan.
In 1999, some friends and I were sitting in the Haji Sahib Turangzai hostel of Islamia College Peshawar, a college built by the British rulers of the Indian sub-continent in 1913 to educate the youth of the frontier region in the modern disciplines of knowledge.

At around 9:30 p.m. we saw a group of students affiliated with a religious political party storm the mud houses of Christians -- who worked as janitors and laborers on the university campus -- just a few meters from us. Holding canes in their hands, eyes burning with anger, the youths chanted “Allah-o-Akbar” and struck at the doors of the mud houses.

A wedding ceremony was in progress, and the Christian families were celebrating with music and dance. This was not acceptable to young men who were taught to silence every voice that is against their narrow interpretation of Islam. The bewildered elders of the mud houses had no option but to surrender to the religious chants, lest the chorus turn to violence. The Christians apologized and the music was stopped.

Similar scenes were playing out in educational institutions across Pakistan. Disappointingly, many students -- even those studying more modern disciplines -- became members of the religious parties and later members of parliament, government officials, lawyers, doctors, teachers, media professionals, and religious leaders bent upon promoting a “mind-set” that excludes everything that is against their will.

There is little doubt that the whole process was part of General Zia ul-Haq’s aggressive plan to radicalize society in order to produce recruits for jihad in Afghanistan and for use later on by Pakistan’s shadowy intelligence agencies to protect and further their strategic interests in the region.

Clearly, the assassination of Salman Taseer by bodyguard Mumtaz Hussain Qadri shows that this extremism has permeated the fabric of Pakistani society.

For years, TV anchors and analysts in Pakistan pointed their fingers at the mountainous tribal areas as the source of all religious extremism. But, what is their answer to the act of Mumtaz Qadri? He was born and educated in the more urbanized environment of Rawalpindi. The venom of intolerance is clearly not restricted to a certain valley or village or a religious seminary.

It is high time for Pakistan’s elites to take steps to keep the country's own house in order before asking the world to give it arms and money for the war against terror. To do so, it will take political will -- not foreign military aid -- and sincere efforts to introduce meaningful reforms in our educational and legal systems.

Pakistan has never faced challenges like it does now -- challenges that cannot be solved by military operations alone. There should be another war -- a war of ideas -- to de-radicalize and defeat religious extremism on ideological grounds.

The fact is that the monster of religious extremism has become bigger and fatter with support from religious groups, right-wing political parties, and a religiously motivated civil and military bureaucracy.

I am afraid Pakistan may win the war against terror on physical grounds by dismantling the militants’ infrastructure and counting bodies of dead militants, but it has to go a long way to reverse the tide of religious extremism initiated by one of its military rulers and encouraged by political and religious expediency.

-- Shaheen Buneri