Take your pick

Sana Ijaz

Flashing a victory sign, Sana Ijaz demonstrates the fighting spirit of Pakistani civil society, after being arrested for demanding the government do more to counter the Pakistani Taliban. © AP Photo/Mohammad Sajjad

Junaid Jamshed was a rock star in Pakistan during the 1990s. As the adored lead singer of Vital Signs, the band that laid the foundation for the country’s thriving rock-music industry, he was responsible for a string of hits, including the unofficial Pakistani anthem, ‘Dil Dil Pakistan’ (‘My Heart is Pakistan’). He went on to have successful careers as a solo artist and television personality.

But in 2004, Jamshed found religion. More specifically, he joined the Tablighi Jamaat, a fundamentalist religious movement. He denounced music, established a charity, and became a preacher. His sermons, widely available on YouTube, are a good illustration of one particular strand of fundamentalism deeply rooted in Pakistani soil. Tablighi Jamaat’s brand of Islam is all about ritual and supplication and is based on just six points: correct belief, regular prayer, praising God, sincerity of intention, respect for other Muslims and devoting time to preaching. All human problems, Tablighi Jamaat tells its followers, can be solved by prayer and proselytizing.

A DVD of the ‘disco mullah’ Junaid Jamshed on sale in Islamabad.

AP Photo/B.K. Bangash

However, in the Tablighi framework, respect for other Muslims does not include women. The Tablighis are aggressively misogynistic. Jamshed regularly berated women as inferior to men, and argued that they needed to be put in their place. Women need to be covered up, isolated, and told to shut up. But in November 2014, he went a bit too far when he related a story about Ayesha, the youngest wife of the Prophet Muhammad, and how she feigned an illness to gain the attention of her husband. The story, he concluded, ‘proves that a woman cannot be reformed even if she is in the gathering of the Prophet’. That brought him into direct conflict with another equally popular variety of Pakistani fundamentalism, best represented by creepy television preacher Aamir Liaquat Hussain, a former politician and Minister of Religious Affairs.

Hussain, who hands out orphaned infants to adoptive parents on his television show, goes out of his way to appear liberal. He has denounced violence and suicide bombing, and pays lip service to Muslim unity. But he is a fundamentalist puritan for whom the traditional sources and sacred personalities of Islam are above criticism. Not surprisingly, he saw Jamshed’s swipe at Ayesha as disrespect. The ‘Disco Mullah’ had committed an act of blasphemy, Hussain declared on one of his shows. Within a day, the Sunni Tehreek, a national grouping of clerics, had launched a sit-in in Karachi to demand Jamshed’s arrest. A First Information Report (FIR) was registered against him, and the police sought his arrest. Jamshed issued a grovelling apology from his current base in London. But he is unwilling to return to Pakistan.

Traditionalists of all stripes

Both Tablighi Jamaat and Sunni Tehreek represent a fundamentalism that is ingrained in traditionalism. But they are traditionalisms of different types; a difference that can be seen in their respective beards. The Tablighi beard is a thick, unruly affair, with shaved upper lip. The Prophet, they suggest, had a beard the length of a fist – which is what devout Muslims should have. It can be seen flowing on Jamshed as well as on South African cricketer Hashim Amla – the most famous beard in contemporary Islam. In contrast, Sunni Tehreek argues that the Prophet had a well-kempt beard that was sometimes coloured with henna. Its followers have shorter, groomed beards which on occasion may have a deep-red tint.

While Tablighis are obsessed with rituals, Sunni Tehreek is into adoration of saints. Its followers regard the Prophet as a special kind of human being, created from light, who is always present; they venerate the household of the Prophet as well as dead and living saints. While Tablighi Jamaat regards politics as evil and something to be shunned by sincere Muslims, Sunni Tehreek is actively involved in politics – indeed, it has been at the forefront of the blasphemy movement. Its political wing, Jamiat Ulema-e-Pakistan, contests elections and vigorously promotes its brand of traditional, folk-based fundamentalism.

However, Sunni Tahreek’s politics is radically different from another fundamentalist group, the Jamaat-e-Islami. Established in British India in 1941, Jamaat-e-Islami’s aim is to transform Pakistan into an ‘Islamic state’. Its founder, the late Abul ala Maududi, argued that Islam is a total system that regulates all aspects of human behaviour – social, economic, personal, psychological and political. Thus the state must be ruled by sharia, or Islamic, law, and the best rulers are the ulama or religious scholars.

Pakistani fundamentalists exist in mental ghettoes where religion, and only religion, can provide all the answers totoday’s problems

This variety of fundamentalism is essentially modernist, shifting the classical emphasis of Islam from community to the modern idea of a state. Its ideological stance and purity owes more to 20th-century communism than Islamic history. However, Jamaat-e-Islami is not a revolutionary movement; it seeks its goals through democratic means. It has fought several elections but has seldom won more than a few seats.

While Jamaat-e-Islami has failed politically, it has succeeded in abetting another brand of fundamentalism in Pakistan which emerged during the reign of military dictator Zia ul-Haq (1978-88). Urged on by Saudi Arabia, and aided by Jamaat-e-Islami, Zia ul-Haq sought to ‘Islamize’ Pakistan by introducing sharia law and blasphemy ordinances, establishing madrassas and banning music and film. It was all an attempt to establish the Wahhabi doctrine, the Saudi brand of puritanical Islam, as the dominant sect of Pakistan. It turned out to be a successful venture.

Intrinsically violent

A large segment of the Pakistani middle class, including the army, now subscribes to Wahhabi fundamentalism, which has three main characteristics. First, it is ahistorical. Islam as a religion, interpreted in the lives and thought of Muslims, is not something that unfolded in history with all its human strengths and weaknesses, but a utopia that exists outside time. Hence it has no notion of progress, moral development or human evolution. Second, Wahhabism does not recognize, understand or appreciate a contrary view. Those who express an alternative opinion are seen as apostates, collaborators or worse. Third, Wahhabism is aggressively self-righteous and insists on imposing its notion of righteousness on others. While Saudi Arabia has religious police, Pakistan now has self-proclaimed guardians of public morality who attack everything that offends their religious sensibilities. Wahhabism promotes intolerance, misogyny and xenophobia.

On target? Pakistani teachers in Peshawar learn how to handle weapons during a training session by the police. Teachers in the northwest frontier province were given permission to carry concealed firearms following an attack by Pakistani Taliban militants on a school in December, in which 145 people, including 132 children, were killed.

AP Photo/Mohammad Sajjad

There are numerous Wahhabi groups which, like Jamaat-e-Islami, seek to turn Pakistan into an ‘Islamic state’ under sharia law. But not all have democratic inspirations. Some, such as the Pakistani Taliban and its various splinter factions such as Jammat-ul-Ahrar – responsible for the recent suicide bombings of churches in Peshawar – as well as outfits such as Lashkar-e-Taiba and Sipah-e-Sahaba, are intrinsically violent. They have combined their Wahhabism with the ideology of the Kharjites, a rebel sect that emerged during the formative phase of Islam in the seventh century, to produce a truly lethal form of fundamentalism.

The Kharjites believed that history had come to an end after the revelation to the Last Prophet. From now on, no debate or compromise was possible. Since the Kharjites considered themselves ideal Muslims, everyone who disagreed with them, or their politics, was automatically branded an apostate – who could be put to death. This philosophy can be summed up as follows: give all to God, die for God, kill for God all those who disagree with you or stand in your way, and you will have meaning and purpose in your life and paradise in your death. The violent extremists of Pakistan are essentially neo-Kharjites who have embraced this pernicious ideology. That is why they can massacre children without compunction and engage in suicide bombings and other heinous acts without remorse.

Reform from within

All Pakistani fundamentalists – ritual puritans and traditionalists, advocates of political Islam and Wahhabis, and violent extremists – have one thing in common. They exist in mental ghettoes where religion, and only religion, can provide all the answers to today’s problems. Their different visions of an idealized Islam transform faith into a totalistic ideology. The step from a totalistic ideology to a totalitarian order is a small one. The paramount challenge for Pakistan is to liberate itself from all varieties of fundamentalism.

The most urgent problem is to tackle violent extremists. Various governments have tried to ‘negotiate’ a settlement with the Taliban and their offshoots for the last 10 years. But how can one negotiate with groups determined to undermine democracy and turn Pakistan into an ‘Islamic state’ – even if it means the total destruction of the country? Like the Kharjites of early Islam, the Taliban have to be subdued militarily. This is what the majority of Pakistanis have now realized, and are demanding. The popular sentiments against the Taliban have finally forced both the army and the current government to embark on this inevitable course. But containing the Taliban is not enough. The Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) in northern Pakistan need to be developed simultaneously, and some of the genuine grievances of the tribal people met.

This is where civil society has a strong role to play. The FATA region is still administered as though it were a British colony with all-powerful ‘political agents’. The region is excluded from Pakistan’s constitution – which means tribal people have no legal way to fight for their rights. Only an active civil society can ensure that these historic injustices are corrected, basic amenities – such as water and roads – provided, and the madrassas – which serve as hatcheries for jihadi extremists – replaced with an appropriate education system.

A few positive steps have already been taken. Attempts to repeal the obnoxious 1901 British Frontier Crimes Regulation, which allows the punishment of an entire tribe for the crimes committed by one of its members, have begun. Civil society activists are also campaigning hard for the repeal of the sinister blasphemy ordinances. But a great deal more needs to be done.

Beyond that, there is an even bigger challenge: to reform Islam from within. In Pakistan, Islam has become toxic. Almost any injustice can be justified in the name of sharia. There is thus an urgent need to reformulate the sharia on more humane and contemporary principles. The relationship between Islam and politics needs to be rethought and directed away from the authoritarian notion of ‘Islamic state’ and towards the creation of strong civic society. These are formidable tasks. Without serious reforms within Islam, fundamentalisms of all varieties will continue to rear their ugly heads.

Ziauddin Sardar is the author of Desperately Seeking Paradise and, more recently, Mecca: The Sacred City.

Pakistan on the edge of hope

In the balance: a stunt rider at a Pakistani travelling circus mesmerizes the crowd. The country's future, too, is finely poised.

Ed Kashi/Corbis

Visitors to Kohsar Market are greeted by a gushing fountain. Next to it, chirpy parrots, encased in a large wire cage, put on a colourful display. The muezzin calls the faithful to prayer from a small, charming mosque. The market is a favourite haunt for Islamabad’s wealthy residents and Western expatriates. This is where the élite gather to sip their cappuccinos, get their hair cut at Al-Saleem Hair Experience Saloon and buy their copies of the Wall Street Journal.

On 3 January this year, Salman Taseer, the then Governor of Punjab province, had lunch at Table Talk, a small but elegant restaurant in the market. He came out of the restaurant, bought a copy of Time magazine from the adjacent London Bookshop and starting walking towards his car. What happened next threw Pakistan into turmoil and brought all its simmering social, religious and political divisions to the fore.

Talal Tabbasum, a radio taxi driver, was waiting for passengers in front of the restaurant and saw what happened. ‘One of his guards jumped out of his car, pointed his Kalashnikov at the Governor, and casually started firing at him. He continued firing for several seconds,’ he says. When it was clear that the Governor was dead, ‘he threw his Kalashnikov on the ground, and put his hands up in the air’. A police car was on patrol near the market. It arrived within minutes and arrested the killer. As he was being handcuffed, he said: ‘I wanted to kill him; I killed the blasphemer.’

Taseer was an outspoken liberal, secular politician. He championed the cause of persecuted minorities in Pakistan and constantly tweeted his dislike of extremist religious groups. Two months before his assassination, he publicly supported Aasia Bibi, a Christian woman sentenced to death for allegedly insulting the Prophet Muhammad.

But it was not just the assassination of Taseer that shocked liberal Pakistan. Much more troublesome was the lionization of his unrepentant killer, Malik Mumtaz Qadri. A 26 year old with a curly beard, Qadri was showered with petals and projected as a hero. A group of lawyers, who only a few months previously had participated in agitation against the former military dictator Parvez Musharraf, demonstrated in support of Qadri and announced their intention to defend him. The ruling Pakistan People’s Party (PPP), of which the murdered Taseer was a prominent member, turned a blind eye to the whole affair.

Angry PPP supporters took to the streets weeping and chanting slogans against the blasphemy laws. But they were vastly outnumbered by those demonstrating in support of Qadri and the draconian blasphemy laws. In Karachi, a rally of over 50,000 people, led by the religious parties, hailed Qadri as a hero and called for anyone who opposed the blasphemy laws to be killed. Imams even refused to offer funeral prayers for Taseer.

This was the last straw. The country, already plagued with widespread terrorism and suicide bombing and a rapidly disintegrating economy, fell into deep despair. The optimism felt after the overthrow of the military dictator Parvez Musharraf by civil society and the restoration of democracy in August 2008 evaporated overnight.

But even before the Taseer affair, there were wide-ranging concerns with the new government. President Asif Ali Zardari’s government became mired in corruption scandals almost as soon as it took office. ‘We could have put up with Mr 10 Percent’, says Raiz Khokar, a retired diplomat and former ambassador to Washington. ‘But he has actually turned out to be Mr 40 Percent’. The new government also proved to be incompetent and impotent. The economy nosedived and prices of basic commodities escalated. Power cuts, known locally as ‘load shedding’, became increasingly frequent in most major cities. ‘Life for our people, urban and rural, has become intolerable,’ says Riffat Masood, Punjab Women’s Secretary, of Pakistan’s leftwing Labour Party. ‘The vast majority of the poor in Pakistan have a hand-to-mouth existence,’ she says. ‘The market price of what they need to survive, from food stuff to gas, is way beyond their means.’

Feudal chain

Big bully: a police officer kicks a boy to force him back in line at a food distribution point for people feeling a military offensive in South Waziristan.

Who is to blame for Pakistan’s dire state?

There is a ‘chain of deep state’ that controls Pakistan and is responsible for most of the country’s problems, says Ayesha Siddiqa, a highly respected security analyst based in Islamabad. ‘There is an alliance between the military, the politicians, and the feudal landlords, as well as the judiciary. Most of our politicians are feudalists who want to keep the landless peasants uneducated and dependent.’ Political parties are structured on feudal patterns and led by feudal leaders who run them as their private properties, passing on their inheritance to their children.

President Zardari has already declared that his eldest son, Bilawal Zardari Bhutto, will succeed him as the Chairman of the People’s Party. The army itself has evolved a feudalist structure. The judiciary also comes from the same feudal class. So the four main powers of the ‘deep state’ work together to pillage the country and keep the citizens in their place.

The most ubiquitous institution in the country is the military. It has been at the centre of decision-making almost from the inception of Pakistan. And its presence can be felt everywhere and throughout all levels of society – from the fortified streets of the country’s main cities to its ‘defence colonies’, in the universities and the national cricket team. Every major national institution has one or two retired or serving members of the army on its governing body.

The army came to dominate politics through a series of wars with India: in 1947-48, 1965, 1971, and the more recent armed conflict in Kargil in 1999. These wars systematically strengthened the military’s grip on foreign policy, especially policy towards India.

When Pakistan became involved with jihad against the Soviet Union, the military insisted on shaping policy towards Afghanistan and the US. After Pakistan acquired nuclear weapons – it now has an estimated 110 nuclear missiles – the military’s prestige increased manifold, enabling it to have almost total control of foreign and domestic policy. For the past 30 years, Pakistan has been run, in effect, by the army, irrespective of whether it had a military or a civilian government. The army takes a prime slice of the national budget. And no-one, including the Parliament, is allowed to question or discuss the military budget. In 2010, Pakistan received $2.5 billion in military assistance, including $1.2 billion in NATO coalition support for fighting terrorism. Most of this aid went straight to the army – with no benefit to the people.

But Pakistan’s army is also a business corporation. ‘Our army officers are a bunch of estate agents,’ says Siddiqa. ‘They acquire land very cheaply, develop them into élite colonies, and sell them at vast profits.’ The army owns banks, manufactures cement, makes soap and cornflakes: ‘There is hardly anything in the country they don’t produce, construct, assemble or sell.’ Thus the army has as much control over the economy as politics.

Judges, too

The judiciary also seems to be siding with the ‘deep state’. Judges have systematically looked for loopholes to let off suspect extremists, militants and terrorists, and delayed judicial proceedings against the army. However, no leniency is shown in cases of blasphemy. Suspects get death sentences even when the evidence against them is threadbare and inconclusive.

‘Everyone in power wants to retain the status quo,’ says Professor Saeed Shafqat, Director of the Centre for Public Policy and Governance at Forman Christian College (FCC) in Lahore. Neither the politicians, nor the army, nor the judiciary, nor the feudal landlords are interested in promoting education, social wellbeing, or economic progress. ‘The main concern of all parties is to hang on to their own segment of power by any means necessary,’ he says.

As a result, Pakistan is mired in total paralysis. The only people capable of doing anything seem to be religious fanatics and terrorists. Indeed, religion in Pakistan has gone toxic. ‘Intolerance and bigotry are the only currency gaining ground,’ says Masood.

But Islam in Pakistan, like elsewhere, is not a monolithic religious force or a unified political entity. There are numerous sects each competing for adherents, attention and power. In general, religion serves three broad purposes. Islam links Pakistan to the global Muslim community and serves as a badge of religious and national identity. It defines Muslim Pakistan against its perceived perpetual enemy, Hindu India. It is also a source of legitimacy and authority for local leaders.

According to Dr Mumtaz Ahmad, Executive Director of the Iqbal International Institute for Research and Dialogue in Islamabad: ‘For the vast majority of the poor, Islam serves as a balm against the harsh realities of grinding poverty and deprivation.’

Historically, different Muslim sects – Sunnis of hard-line literalist Deobandi schools; Sunnis of Bravelis schools, who believe in saints and miracles; Shi’as, liberal and progressive Muslims, Sufis and mystics of various tendencies – have lived peacefully in Pakistan.

But all that changed in the 1980s under the military regime of President Zia ul-Haq. ‘The General considered the Shi’a to be inimical to his programme of Islamization of Pakistan,’ says Siddiqa. Urged by Saudi Arabia, his mentors and financiers, who saw Pakistani Shi’a as supporters of their arch-enemy Iran, the General promoted a string of rabid anti-Shi’a organizations. The task of creating and promoting these organizations was handed over to the notorious Inter Services Intelligence (ISI), Pakistan’s secret service.

Enter the ISI

Time for change: activists demand that the 'feudal chain' linking the military with politicians be broken.

Mohsin Raza/Reuters

During the late 1980s and the 1990s, the ISI established four militant outfits – Sipha-e-Sahaba Pakistan (SAP), Lashkar-e-Jhangvi, Josh-e-Muhammad and Lashkar-e-Tayyaba. Apart from engaging in mass killings of the Shi’a, these groups were initially involved in the war against the Soviet Union in Afghanistan and against India in Kashmir. But after the NATO invasion of Afghanistan, they joined al-Qaeda and the Taliban to fight against the US. Now they have turned on Pakistan itself.

The spread of religious fanaticism in Pakistan has been ‘an incremental development’, says Mumtaz Ahmad. ‘We saw it coming. Rhetorical violence slowly turned into actual violence. And all this time our society remained complacent.’

The four main groups have spawned a host of other violent organizations, now running to over 80 militant outfits, almost all based in South Punjab. They are well funded and have active training camps. Their Jihadist members terrorize citizens and frequently come into conflict with local authorities. Apart from ranting against the Shi’a and other minorities, these groups constantly raise the bogey of ‘the Indian threat’.

These ‘Punjabi Taliban’, says Siddiqa, ‘are the foot soldiers of al-Qaeda and Pakistani Taliban who are largely located in the northern provinces.’ They implement the terror plans of al-Qaeda and aim to turn Punjab into a stronghold of the Taliban. ‘The policymakers are in a state of denial regarding the threat of these sectarian groups,’ says Siddiqa. ‘They believe that an emphasis on this region might draw excessive US attention to South Punjab – an area epitomizing mainstream Pakistan.’

Given the complacency of the ruling establishment, it is hardly surprising that most Pakistanis feel that real change is not possible. ‘The people feel that there is no point in agitating for change,’ says Masood. ‘If we bring down the government and there is another election, the same people will return to power.’ This is the main source of despair in Pakistan. ‘It’s like you are stuck in a nightmarish narrative with no escape doors,’ says Gulzar Haider, Dean of Architecture at Beacon House University in Lahore.

The army in disgrace

But there is hope, coming from various quarters. The first and the major source of hope is the rapid decline in the reputation of the army.

Conventionally, the military was seen as the most stable and prestigious institution in Pakistan. Now fractures and divisions are evident. ‘Various groups within the army are competing for overall control,’ says Siddiqa, who has been doing research on Pakistan’s military establishment for over 20 years. ‘There are five ideological groups: US-leaning liberals, US-leaning conservatives, anti-US liberals, liberal Islamists and fundamental Islamists. The common thread between these groups is the fear of India, which they constantly invoke to justify their excesses. But at the same time, each of these groups is trying to undermine the others.’

The effort to ‘undermine’ sometimes leads to open subversion. In the 22 May terrorist attack on the Navy’s Mehran base in Karachi, for example, the involvement of the ‘Islamist’ elements within the army has been confirmed. Four terrorists were involved in one of the biggest attacks on the military in recent times. Two fully armed terrorists, with guns and rocket-propelled grenades, walked in unopposed through the front gates. The other two, with ladders in their hands and sack-loads of weapons, walked through several security cordons and climbed into the base from the back. They knew where their targets were located: they attacked the Orion aircrafts parked on the tarmac, destroying two, as well as several premier anti-submarine and marine surveillance aircrafts. In the ensuing 16-hour battle between the terrorists and the Rapid Response Force, 18 military personnel were killed and 16 wounded before two terrorists were shot and one blew himself up. The fourth terrorist escaped. The government has accepted that none of this would have been possible without inside help and has set up an inquiry.

The Mehran base was the latest in a long line of attacks by the militant Pakistani Taliban on the country’s armed forces. There have been attacks on the Naval War College in Lahore, the military’s general headquarters in Rawalpindi, several attacks on buses carrying cadets and military personnel, and frequent attacks on security forces’ check posts and training centres. On each occasion, the Pakistani Taliban has been quick to claim responsibility. But no-one has ever been arrested for these atrocities.

These attacks are part of a general pattern, not just of infiltration and radicalization of the security forces, but also of an open and escalating war between the military and the militants. The wrath of the militants is directed against the army for specific reasons. The militants, who looked to the military as their mentors, feel betrayed. They see the army as ‘an agent of America’, not just doing its bidding but promoting the Americanization of Pakistan. The American drone attacks in the region, which are supported by the Pakistani government despite public denials, have killed thousands of innocent villagers. Moreover, when the army began its campaign in Waziristan and Northwest Frontier, the stronghold of the Pakistani Taliban, it adopted a policy of collective punishment. A string of videos showing the army abusing and mistreating villagers, including elders and children, and summarily executing suspects, were broadcast on Pakistani satellite channels. The aggrieved villagers provide an excellent ground for new Taliban recruits, including suicide bombers.

Osama’s coup de grâce

It was the assassination of Osama bin Laden that really knocked the military from its pedestal. On 2 May, four US helicopters, carrying 79 commandos and a dog, flew from Jalalabad airbase in Afghanistan to Abbottabad, about 30 miles from Islamabad, Pakistan’s capital. The helicopters flew low and used advanced stealth technology to avoid detection. After killing bin Laden, the Navy Seals took his body with them.

For the first time in Pakistan’s history, the public started to question openly the motives and the competence of the army. Was the army hiding and hosting bin Laden next to one of its major military bases? How was it possible for the US helicopters to remain undetected in Pakistani air space for over five hours? And if Americans could violate Pakistani air space so easily, what was there to stop India? And if the army cannot defend the physical sovereignty of Pakistan, why is it needed at all? And, most important, why does it need to take the lion’s share of the country’s budget?

These questions were discussed and debated over and over again on Pakistan’s satellite channels. In an unprecedented move, the head of Pakistan’s secret service, the ISI, offered to resign. The generals were forced to appear before the National Assembly and were subjected to humiliating questioning by the politicians. The notion that the military was above critical scrutiny evaporated. It was exposed as incompetent and greedy, its credibility beyond repair.

‘Our army has become a laughing stock,’ one senior diplomat in Islamabad told me. ‘A handful of terrorists in the northern, remote part of the country have inflicted heavy losses on them. They have lost over 3,000 men to the Taliban. They are impotent in the face of suicide attacks. They cannot defend their own bases, facilities, or GCHQ. They are unable to secure our airspace. They are good for nothing. How can they justify their unquestionable budget, their land grabbing, their honour and prestige in our society?’

They can’t. All segments of society – the politicians, the civil servants, the intellectuals, the judiciary and the vast majority of the people – are now insisting that the army should stay out of politics and business. ‘With the military humiliated and in retreat from the public space, it is the best time to ensure that it returns permanently to its barracks,’ says Siddiqa.

Media role

Pakistan’s robust and active media played a major role in the downfall of the military. It’s getting harder to keep things hidden from the public, thanks to around 80 satellite channels – half of which transmit 24-hour news – and an energetic press.

Over the past decade, the media has systematically exposed the atrocities and excesses of the army and the corruption of the ruling élite. During the 2010 floods, when the military and government collaborated to direct the waters away from lands of feudal landlords and towards poor villages which were allowed to submerge, the whole outrage was broadcast live on numerous satellite channels. The government was forced to change its tactics.

Not surprisingly, many journalists have been abducted, tortured or killed – mostly by the ISI. In May, Saleem Shahzed, who was investigating the link between al-Qaeda and the army in the Mehran attack, was brutally murdered, allegedly by the ISI.

Despite such atrocities, Pakistani journalists are not deterred. Many are women. When I visited the headquarters of Dunya News, a 24-hour news channel, I noticed that half the journalists were female. Although the Taliban and Jihadi culture has made it difficult for women to participate at all levels of society, director of current affairs Nasim Zehra Akhlaque has many more women than men applying to work for Dunya News.

When I walked through the campus of Punjab University in Lahore and the Indus School of Art and Architecture in Karachi, I saw more female than male students. The young women students I spoke to were passionate about education, highly independent and ferociously determined to change Pakistan.

Pakistani Spring?

There is also a generation of younger academics and writers who think differently from the generation in power. ‘They shun the military network and refuse to take grants or jobs that are tied to the military,’ says Siddiqa. Art and literature are flowering; and, despite religious restrictions, music is thriving. There is even a theatre in Islamabad, one of the most conservative cities of the country. Young writers such as Kamila Shamsie, Mohsin Hamid and Bilal Tanweer, and artists like Samar Ataullah, Shazia Skinder and Sufian Ali, have acquired a global prominence. The younger generation ‘does not regard India as an enemy, or accept that the West is out to get them, or regard Pakistan as a “failed state” about to implode,’ according to Akhlaque.

Indeed, despite all its problems Pakistan is not about to collapse. But what is surely crumbling is the dominance and prestige of the military. This, more than anything else, will usher in genuine change.

What needs to be done, say a string of commentators, academics and intellectuals, is for the military to leave politics to politicians. The military’s expenditure should be more transparent and open to public debate, the army itself should be more professional and democratic in its military academies, and the rule of law needs to become paramount. In the tribal areas of northwest regions, says Shafqat, ‘the authority of the government and Supreme Court must be established with some urgency’; and the outdated tribal laws must be replaced with legal codes and civil and criminal courts. Violent sectarian organizations have to be properly curtailed and disbanded; and the Pakistani Taliban brought to the negotiating table.

Perhaps all this is too much to ask. But, as a rather subversive ‘public service’ announcement on Geo News suggests, it is not impossible. Over pictures of Facebook and Twitter, and with a clear nod towards the ‘Arab Spring’, the voiceover declares: ‘The people’s awakening will put an end to hopelessness.’ Change – real change – is ‘Coming Soon’.

The determination and resilience of the people of Pakistan may yet surprise us all.


The late Ayatollah Khomeini immortalized on a mural in Qom, Iran.

Patrick Brown / PANOS

Picture this scene. Prophet Muhammad has just died.

A crowd gathers outside his house in Medina. His closest companion, Abu Bakr, comes galloping on his horse. He goes inside to confirm the news. After consoling himself, he comes out to address the swelling crowd. ‘O believers,’ Abu Bakr announces. ‘If you worshipped Muhammad, know that Muhammad is dead. But whosoever worshipped God, know that God is alive, for He cannot die.’ Then Abu Bakr recites a verse from the Qur’an: ‘Muhammad is only a messenger before whom many messengers have been and gone.’ (3:144).

What happens next is a defining moment in Islamic history. Those attending the funeral in Medina ask a natural question: who should succeed the Prophet as the ruler of Muslims? The Prophet himself left the question open for his followers to decide.

A public meeting is organized to discuss the succession. A number of different viewpoints are presented. Some suggest that the Caliph, the successor to the Prophet, should come from the people of Medina who provided him with refuge in his time of need. Others argue that he should be chosen from the people of Mecca, who migrated with the Prophet Muhammad to Medina. There is even a third suggestion: there should be two rulers, one each from Mecca and Medina. Eventually, a consensus emerges, confirmed by a simple show of hands: Abu Bakr should succeed the Prophet as the first Caliph of Islam.

Government by discussion

Many scholars consider this meeting as constituting the basic relationship between Islam and politics. The Qur’an, the sacred text of Islam, does not provide a theory of the State. But it does insist, repeatedly and clearly, that community issues should be decided on the basis of shura, or consultation and discussion. The assembly in Medina established the shura as the general principle of political activity. It also enacted another central tenet of Islam: decisions should reflect an ijma, consensus or the view of the majority.

If democracy is ‘government by discussion’, as John Stuart Mill once said, then both these principles are inherently democratic.

Just before Abu Bakr died, he nominated Umar, another close companion of the Prophet. But he did not impose his nomination. First, he sought approval of all the companions of the Prophet. Then, he introduced a consultative process, involving public discussions and participation of the whole community. Umar’s nomination was confirmed only when everyone agreed.

In his inauguration speech, Umar introduced another key standard of Muslim politics: a ruler can be removed, by force of public opinion, if he fails to perform his duties adequately or ignores the concerns and opinions of the citizens. Obey me, he declared, only as long as I perform my duties. He believed that rulers and the ruled were totally equal. When he heard that one of his governors had built a pulpit for himself in the mosque, he sent a short sharp letter. Remove the pulpit, he wrote, for it is not proper for one man to sit above all others.

Umar ruled for 20 years, a period in which the Muslim empire expanded as far as Syria, Egypt, Anatolia, Persia and Azerbaijan. It was no longer possible to gather the entire Muslim community in a large mosque and consult them directly. So Umar established an Electoral Council of seven administrators to choose his successor. The Council faced considerable problems; it was not easy for them to consult people who lived in distant places. And Umar died before the councillors could reach a decision.

So its charismatic chair, Abd al-Rahman, declared that as he was not a candidate he would travel to consult people. After many public meetings and discussions, he discovered that the consensus focused on two people: Othman, another companion of the Prophet, and Ali, his cousin and son-in-law. To decide between the two, Abd al-Rahman called a public meeting where candidates were questioned and cross-examined. On the basis of their answers, Abd al-Rahman chose Othman; and the congregation approved his decision.

Islam is uncompromisingly universal; state is unquestionably parochial

But after Othman, dissent within the Muslim community led to subversion of the principles of consultation and consensus. As Islamic monarchies emerged, the democratic spirit was drained from these doctrines. Both shura and ijma were reduced to mean consultation with, and consensus of, political and religious élite rather than the whole Muslim community.

Classical Muslim scholars and thinkers colluded in this process. The influential 10th century scholar al-Mawardi argued that only those living in the capital city should be involved in the election of a ruler. Moreover, it was not necessary to consult everyone. Indeed, a ruler could also be nominated by a widely respected religious scholar – even if the nominee had little qualification or experience of governance! Ibn Taymiyya, the 14th century political thinker and guru of modern Muslim fundamentalists, held that rulers were obliged to consult religious scholars whom they must obey. He described kings as ‘the Shadow of God’, who must be obeyed even if they are unjust. Both of these thinkers insisted that the sharia (Islamic law) should reign supreme in any form of Islamic polity.

Sharia has also been the dominant theme of contemporary Muslim politics. Proponents of ‘political Islam’, who see Islam and politics as one and the same thing, have championed the notion of the ‘Islamic state’. That is a state where Islam is both the sole religion and dominant political ideology; and where the sharia is strictly enforced – on everyone.

The modern idea of the ‘Islamic state’ first emerged in the writings of the Egyptian scholar Rashid Rida. In his 1930 book, The Caliphate and the Great Immamate, Rida argued that the creation of a modern Islamic state was the nearest alternative to the restoration of the classical Caliphate. Rida’s terms for ‘Islamic state’ – ad-dawlah (simply ‘the state’) or al-hukumat al-Islamiyyah (‘Islamic government’) – exist neither in the Qur’an nor in classical Arabic. They are a new creation: Rida was reacting to the Western idea of the secular nation-state. What turned this secular state into an Islamic one, he argued, was the supreme rule of the sharia.

The notion of the Islamic state really took off during the 1950s when many Muslim countries obtained their independence. It became the major objective of the global Islamic movements such as the Jama’t e-Islami of Pakistan and the Muslim Brotherhood of Egypt. The Brotherhood collaborated with the military regime in the Sudan. Jama’t e-Islami worked with General Zia ul-Haq to turn Pakistan into an Islamic state during the 1980s. But while Rida believed that the sharia had to be revived and adapted to meet the needs and requirements of modern society, contemporary Islamic movements adhere strictly to an immutable and ossified idea of the sharia. Regimes in such places as Saudi Arabia and Iran have ruthlessly imposed the sharia both to give an Islamic connotation to their respective states and to justify their authoritarianism.

The Iranian ‘Islamic state’ was established after the 1979 Revolution. In his book, Islamic Government,1 Ayatollah Khomeini declares that ‘the Islamic state is neither autocratic nor does it make its head the repository of all powers’; rather it is ‘a constitutional state’ ruled by the sharia.

But when he acquired power, Khomeini turned Iran into a theocracy where the head does indeed have ‘all the powers’ – religious, political and legal. Khomeini introduced the innovative concept of Vilayat-e-Faqih, the Supreme Leader. He has the power to: declare war; appoint the Chief Justice and Prosecutor General; approve and reject presidential elections; and appoint the six jurists of Shura-e-Nigahban, the Guardianship Council that approves all legislation passed by Parliament. It’s a prescription, as has become all too evident, for totalitarianism.

Patrick Brown / PANOS

Shura not sharia

The idea of an ‘Islamic state’ is totally un-lslamic and has no precedence in Islamic history. Indeed, the term itself is self-contradictory: Islam is uncompromisingly universal; state is unquestionably parochial. An Islamic state with fixed boundaries and allegiance to a single, particular interpretation of Islam undermines both the universality of Islam and the diversity of Islam and Muslims. Moreover, by turning religion, politics, law and morality into a single, monolithic entity, the very idea of an Islamic state becomes intrinsically authoritarian. Not surprisingly, wherever an Islamic state has been established, and sharia has been imposed, authoritarianism rules and medieval punishments and social conditions have been the major product.

This is why it is now increasingly rejected by Muslim scholars throughout the world. One of Iran’s most senior clerics, Shi’a scholar Grand Ayatollah Hossein Ali Montazeri, regards the Islamic state and Supreme Leader as blasphemous notions. Sunni scholars from Morocco to Indonesia have denounced the whole concoction as totally against the spirit of Islam.

Instead, reform-oriented Muslims are now shaping a new relationship between Islam and politics that returns us to the practice of Abu Bakr and Umar. The Qur’an speaks about community and not state. Therefore all politics in Islam should be about creating a diverse, civic community that is politically alive. This is the stand, for example, of Indonesia’s Liberal Islam Network, which has millions of young followers. The main thrust of forging a political community in the time of Abu Bakr and Umar was voluntary association based on consultation and co-operation. And shura, the network argues, can now simply be interpreted as elections.

Anwar Ibrahim, the reformist opposition leader in Malaysia, points out that the Prophet Muhammad endeavoured to establish a society of free men and women voluntarily holding values like justice, equality, brotherhood and peace. The constitution that he established in Medina acknowledged the religious diversity of the city and was intrinsically pluralistic. Thus, Muslim politics should be about establishing open and accountable democracy and promoting diversity and social justice.

  • Translated by Hamid Algar, Mizan Press, 1982.
  • Ziauddin Sardar is a prolific writer and broadcaster based in London. His latest book is Desperately Seeking Paradise: Journeys of a Sceptical Muslim (Granta).

    Islam: Resistance and reform

    KEY MOMENTS of Islamic civilization

    Before I could reply, my Muslim neighbour, a devout woman of Pakistani origin, jumped in. ‘The very word Islam means peace,’ she said. ‘The majority of Muslims are peace-loving people who live in the modern world. This is the work of a few fanatics who want to turn the clock back to medieval times.’ After a pause, she sighed: ‘I just don’t know where these people come from.’ Both the questions and the answers have a long lineage. The events of 11 September notwithstanding, Islam has always been seen in the West as violent, barbaric and anti-democratic. These stereotypes were formulated during the Crusades and have persisted ever since. As Orientalism, a mode of thinking about and representing Islam and the Muslim World, they have become an integral part of Western art, literature and scholarship. Think of all those ‘Arab terrorists’ in a string of films such as _True Lies_, _Executive Action_, _The Siege_ or even the 1960s classic, _Khartoum_. For Muslims, nothing could be further from the truth. Islam is all about seeking peace for its own sake. Indeed, peace is considered in Islam as an essential precondition for ‘submission’ — the second literal meaning of the word Islam — to the ‘will of God’. Only through the creation of peaceful circumstances can the life of faith be implemented in all aspects of human existence. What the fateful events of 11 September reveal, more than anything else, is the discord between the true nature of Islam, as religion, culture, tradition and civilization, and its contemporary manifestation. Far from being a liberating force, a quest for equity, justice and humane values, it seems to have become an obscurantist, unethical enterprise. Indeed, it appears as though Muslims have internalized all those historic and contemporary Western representations of Islam that have been used to demonize them for centuries. Or, as my neighbour confessed in colloquial Urdu and in a moment of self-realization: ‘We now actually wear the garb of the very demons that the West has been projecting on our collective personality.’ How has this come about?

    Modernist panaceas

    To some extent, the predicament of Muslim societies reflects my own experience after 11 September. Just as I was caught in a pincer movement by a modernist news addict and a traditional Muslim woman, Muslim societies too are trapped between forces of modernity and globalization on one hand, and an emergent traditionalism that often takes a militant form, on the other. In the late 1940s and 1950s, when most Muslim countries obtained their independence, modernization — or more specifically development along Western patterns — was seen as a panacea for all social and economic ills. Indeed, most Muslim countries whole-heartedly embarked on a rapid course of modernization. But the strategies adopted were, on the whole, out of step with the traditional societies they were attempting to change. Thus a rift developed between those who backed modernization and accompanying Westernization and those who were concerned about preserving the traditional culture, lifestyle and outlook of Muslim societies. In most cases, the traditionalists saw modernization and the associated policies of ‘development’ as an onslaught on their history, lifestyle and world-view. The modernists saw Westernization as the primary means of survival for Muslim countries. Now, with modernity losing ground both in the West and the non-West, globalization is being projected as the new theory of salvation. And, once again, traditionalists are reacting against globalization just as vehemently, if not more so, as they did against modernity. The modernist leaders who took over from the departing colonial powers maintained their hold on Muslim societies with excessive use of force and by ruthlessly persecuting the traditional leadership and abusing and ridiculing traditional thought and everything associated with it. The economic and development policies they pursued often ended in spectacular failure and concentrated national wealth in the hands of the few. Globalization has further marginalized traditional cultures, creating a siege mentality in historic communities. These factors have contributed to the emergence throughout the Muslim world of a new form of militant traditionalism. Thus the Muslim world finds itself caught in an intense struggle between the combined forces of an aggressively secular modernity and globalization pitted against an equally aggressive traditionalism. This struggle is quite evident in countries like Indonesia, Algeria and Bangladesh where internal battles between modernists and traditionalists have raged for well over two decades. To this complex, we must add another dimension. Both traditionalists and modernists now share the belief that the fate of their societies is actually determined by decisions taken elsewhere. This is why so much energy in the Muslim world is now spent in criticizing the actions and consequences of the centres of power: the nexus of Western government, economy, industry and popular culture where globalization is manufactured and exported to its recipients in the Muslim World. The widespread feeling of dispossession and total powerlessness in Muslim societies is a product of this. Hence the sense of rage that now envelops both modernists and traditionalists alike. But this is only half the truth — the part that my neighbour and most Muslims would accept quite readily. The most significant answers to the contemporary plight of the Muslim people are buried deep within the history, social practice and intellectual and political inertia of Muslims themselves. Muslims, on the whole, are very reluctant to look at themselves or to examine the process through which they have transformed Islam into a suffocating and oppressive ideology.

    Puritanical Wahhabism is once again in fashion among militant Muslims.

    Piers Benatar / Panos

    Reasoned struggle

    This is not a new realization. For well over a century, Muslim scholars and thinkers have been arguing that Islam is in need of urgent reform. Or to use the technical terms, Muslims need to undertake _ijtihad_, literally ‘reasoned struggle’, to rethink and reformulate Islam. It was the Iranian reformist Jamaluddin Afghani, who with the then Mufti of Egypt, Muhammad Abduh, first argued for ijtihad at the end of the 19th century. Since then, numerous other reformists have repeated this call. But the call for ijtihad has fallen on deaf ears. Muslim societies have failed to respond to the summons to ijtihad for a number of reasons. As the term itself suggests, ijtihad requires effort and serious thought; it is always tempting to take the easy option and fall back on historic interpretations and the opinions of bygone jurists. Also, Muslims tend to see classical authors in rather romantic terms: as perfect individuals, incapable of making a wrong judgement. Classical scholars themselves are also guilty of perpetuating this. They have venerated _taqlid_, or the blind following of predecessors, to such an extent that it has now become a sacred principle. It was during the Abbasid period, the so-called ‘Golden Age of Islam’ extending from the 8th to the 13th century, that the classical scholars decided to ‘close the gates of ijtihad’. They were concerned with multiple interpretations of Islam that proliferated during that period. In particular, they wanted to stop the abuse of ijtihad by people who were not theologically or legally qualified. Moreover, they argued that most of the problems of the Muslim society were already solved. Every emerging problem could be solved simply by imitation or by analogical reasoning. The freezing of interpretation, the closure of ‘the gates of ijtihad’, has had a devastating effect on Muslim thought and action. Consider, for example, its effect on the shari’ah, commonly translated as ‘Islamic law’. Most Muslims consider the shari’ah to be divine and think that it is based on the teachings of the Qur’an. In fact, _shari’ah_ as understood today was socially constructed during the Abbasid period. The bulk of the shari’ah actually consists of fiqh or jurisprudence, which is nothing more than the legal opinion of classical jurists. The very term ‘_fiqh_’ did not exist before the Abbasid period; it was invented, formulated and codified during the ‘Golden Age’. The world was simple and could easily be divided into black and white. So Islamic jurisprudence constructed the world as two divisions: Daral Islam (‘the abode of peace’) and Daral Harb (‘the abode of war’). It saw everything outside the world of Islam in hostile terms. Moreover, it incorporated the prejudices — against women and minorities, for example — and preoccupations of the age of Muslim imperialism.

    Medieval feel

    What this means in reality is that when Muslim countries apply or impose the shari’ah the contradictions that were inherent in the formulation and evolution of fiqh come to the fore. That is why wherever the shari’ah is imposed — out of context from the time when it was formulated and out of step with ours — Muslim societies acquire a medieval feel. We see that in Saudi Arabia, Iran, the Sudan and Afghanistan under the Taliban. When narrow adherence to old jurisprudence becomes the norm, ossification sets in. ‘The shari’ah will solve all our problems’ becomes the common sentiment; and it becomes necessary for a group with vested interest in this notion of the shari’ah to preserve its territory, the source of its power and prestige, at all costs. An outmoded body of law is thus equated with the shari’ah and criticism is shunned and outlawed by appealing to its divine nature. The banning of ijtihad has also had serious implications for individual Muslims. If all the relevant interpretations have already been undertaken, people themselves have nothing to do except follow blindly. Individual Muslims thus have no agency themselves; they become simply passive receivers of ancient interpretations and opinions rather than active seekers of truth. And when submissive acceptance of classical opinion is combined with a single, literalist interpretation of the Qur’an, we get a truly potent brew.

    The literalist interpretation of the Qur’an becomes popular when Islam is in crisis

    The literalist interpretation of the Qur’an becomes popular when Islam is in crisis and Muslims perceive themselves to be under siege. Its strongest advocate was the 13th-century scholar Ibn Taymiyya who belonged to a long and heroic tradition of intellectual zealots. He was exclusively concerned with the survival of the Muslim community at a time when Muslim civilization, recovering from the onslaught of the Crusades, was under siege from the Mongols. Pluralistic interpretations of Islam, accompanied by endless discussion, he argued, were dividing and weakening Muslims. Muslims had to return to a purist Islam. Nothing could be read metaphorically or symbolically. Everything had to be based on a single, literalist interpretation of the Qur’an. Ibn Taymiyya’s ideas were taken up by Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahab, the 18th-century founder of the revivalist movement named after him. Reacting to advancing colonization of Muslim societies, Abd al-Wahhab advocated ‘the return to Qur’an and Sunnah’ (the practice of the Prophet) in a literal sense. Once again, a puritan literal interpretation was seen as a solution to the political problems of Islam. Eventually Wahhabism became the creed of Saudi Arabia. Today, Wahhabism is once again in fashion amongst militant Muslims. It spread like a wildfire in the late 1980s after the abject failure of the Revolution in Iran, the naked squandering of oil revenues, and the hopes of a ‘cultural revival’ in the Muslim world all but evaporated. The answer to poverty, corruption, despotism and rampant globalization is seen in terms of a retreat to a more and more romanticized notion of Islam. However, modernist Wahhabism has added an extra dimension to its monolithic literalist interpretation. It now insists that its single interpretation of Islam can only be manifested in terms of an ‘Islamic state’. Thus, Islam is reduced to a pure, one-dimensional, political ideology. But once Islam, as an ideology, becomes a programme of action of a vested group it loses its humanity and becomes a battlefield where morality, reason and justice are readily sacrificed at the altar of political expediency as we witnessed in revolutionary Iran, the activities of Islamic movements in Algeria, Egypt and Pakistan, and in the actions of al-Qaida supporters.

    Now anyone can declare jihad on anyone without any moral rhyme or reason

    The move from multiple interpretations of Islam towards a single monolithic vision is, of course, a form of reduction. Literalist interpretation also reduced holistic Islamic concepts with multiple meanings into entities with fixed single connotations. Consider how the idea of _ijma_, the central notion of communal life in Islam, has been reduced to the consensus of a select few. Ijma literally means consensus of the people. The concept dates back to the practice of Prophet Muhammad himself as leader of the original polity of Muslims. When the Prophet Muhammad wanted to reach a decision, he would call the whole Muslim community — then admittedly not very large — to the mosque. A discussion would ensue; arguments for and against would be presented. Finally, the entire gathering would reach a consensus. Thus, a democratic spirit was central to communal and political life in early Islam. But over time the clerics and religious scholars have removed the people from the equation — and reduced _ijma_ to ‘the consensus of the religious scholars’. Not surprisingly, authoritarianism, theocracy and despotism reigns supreme in the Muslim world.

    The abuse of jihad

    Numerous other concepts have gone through similar processes of reduction. The concept of _ummah_, the global spiritual community of Muslims, has been reduced to the ideals of a nation-state: ‘my country right or wrong’ has been transposed to read ‘my ummah right or wrong’. So even despots like Saddam Hussein are now defended on the basis of ‘ummah consciousness’ and ‘unity of the ummah’. _Jihad_ has now been reduced to the single meaning of ‘Holy War’. This translation is perverse not only because the concept’s spiritual, intellectual and social components have been stripped away, but it has been reduced to war by any means, including terrorism. So anyone can now declare jihad on anyone, without any ethical or moral rhyme or reason. Nothing could be more perverted, or pathologically more distant from the initial meaning of jihad. Its other connotations, including personal struggle, intellectual endeavour and social construction have evaporated. _Istislah_, normally rendered as ‘public interest’ and a major source of Islamic law, has all but disappeared from Muslim consciousness. But the violence performed to sacred Muslim concepts is insignificant compared to the reductive way the Qur’an and the sayings and examples of the Prophet Muhammad are bandied about. Almost anything and everything is justified by quoting individual bits of verses out of context. After the 11 September event, for example, a number of Taliban supporters, including a few in Britain, justified their actions by quoting the following verse: ‘We will put terror into the hearts of the unbelievers. They serve other gods for whom no sanction has been revealed. Hell shall be their home’ (3: 149). Yet, the apparent meaning attributed to this verse could not be further from the true spirit of the Qur’an. In this particular verse the Qur’an is addressing Prophet Muhammad himself. It is revealed during the battle of Uhad when the small and ill-equipped army of the Prophet is facing a much larger and better-equipped enemy. The Prophet is concerned about the outcome of the battle. The Qur’an reassures him by promising that the enemy will be terrified by the Prophet’s unprofessional army. Seen in its context, it is not a general instruction to all Muslims, but a commentary on what was happening at a particular moment in time. The sayings of Prophet Muhammad are quoted to justify the most extreme behaviour. Even the Prophet’s own appearance, his beard and cloths, have been turned into a fetish: so now it is not just obligatory for a ‘good Muslim’ to have a beard, but its length and shape must also conform to certain dictates! The Prophet has been reduced to signs and symbols — the spirit of his behaviour, the moral and ethical dimensions of his actions, his humility and compassion, the general principles he advocated, have all been subsumed by the logic of absurd reduction.

    The way ahead

    What can Muslims do to get beyond the current impasse? Muslims have to realize that Islam does not provide ready-made answers to all their problems. Rather, it provides an ethical and moral perspective within which Muslims must endeavour to find answers to all human problems. The way forward to a fresh, contemporary appreciation of Islam requires moving away from reduction to synthesis, and from single literalist interpretation to a pluralistic understanding of Islam.

    Muslims have to realize that Islam does not provide ready-made answers to all their problems

    Primarily, as individuals and communities, Muslims need to reclaim agency. To insist on their right and duty, as believers and knowledgeable people. To interpret and reinterpret the basic sources of Islam. To question what now goes under the general rubric of shari’ah and to declare that much of Islamic jurisprudence is now dangerously obsolete. To stand up to the absurd notion of an Islam confined by a geographically bound state. The ‘gates of ijtihad’ have to be thrown wide open so that the basic concepts of Islam can be framed in a broader context. Serious rethinking within Islam is long overdue. Muslims have been comfortably relying, or rather falling back, on age-old interpretations for much too long. This is why they feel so full of pain in the contemporary world, so uncomfortable and out of sync with the spirit of our time. If the events of 11 September unleash the best intentions — the essential values of Islam — then the phoenix will have risen from the ashes of the twin towers.

    Writer, journalist and broadcaster *Ziauddin Sardar* is author of many books, including Introducing _Islam and The Future of Muslim Civilization_. His latest, _The A to Z of Postmodern Life_ is just published by Vision.

    Cultural homicide, ayoh!

    It has been my misfortune to arrive in various places around the world only to be engulfed in local crisis. I am no stranger to war, rumours of war, _coups d’etat_ and various natural disasters. But never before had I stepped off a plane to be confronted with cultural homicide.

    Changi Airport is globalization run riot, an impersonal consumerist cornucopia of designer labels. It is also dedicated to being the world’s premier transport hub. From here you can go anywhere, ushered along by the ubiquitous Singapore Girl. Whenever I arrive in the building, I leave as rapidly as possible, hoping for a talkative ride into Singapore city centre, courtesy of a local taxi driver.

    And that is how the full scale of the culture crisis overwhelmed me. I was spared the usual inquisition that introduces conversation– where are you from, how’s the economy there, how long are you staying, what do you think of Singapore. Enough to say I was down from Kuala Lumpur for the weekend to invoke a deluge of angst. _‘Ah, no need sorry for my Singlish lah. You boleh Singlish, ah? Very bad, ah. Prime Minister say Singlish cannot, ah. So now what, ayoh?’_ A few rapid-fire inquiries on my part and the full enormity hit me, as surely as if I’d been in Delhi the fateful day the British took over. Phua Chu Kang was to take English lessons! The End.

    In Singapore it’s easier to find out who is dating whom in Hollywood than anywhere in the world, except perhaps Hollywood

    Let me elaborate. _Phua Chu Kang_ is the highest-rated show on Singapore television. It is a locally produced sitcom about a lovable, rascally private building contractor, the said Phua Chu Kang. In the rich mix that is Singapore, Phua Chu Kang is played by local superstar Gurmit Singh, a born-again Christian Sikh who is married to a Chinese. His greatest comedy creation is a know-all operator who knows nothing and botches everything. The comedy emerges from the delicious observation of everyday, indigenous life expressed in the full tropical profusion of the native dialect. Phua Chu Kang, like most Singaporeans, speaks only Singlish. Singlish is the exotic _lingua franca_ nurtured from English by way of Chinese, Malay and various Indian Subcontinental accretions. It is as rich, encrusted and lush a dialect as the road bridges across the highway from Changi Airport. These concrete structures are completely enveloped by green vines intermingled with brightly flowering bougainvillea. They look like natural phenomenon, outgrowths of the earth.

    Singlish is authentic local repossession. It is an indigenous cultural form that has dug its roots deep into the fabric of imperialism, the force that created the artificial nation-state of Singapore and its ethnic mix. But, Singapore now has globalized visions of future riches. The most successful of the Asian tiger economies, it is the Switzerland of the region. It is an attainment-oriented, high-achieving paternalist autocracy. Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong always strikes me as man at home with Singlish. But that is not the kind of place his Singapore is destined to be. To globalize one must Americanize and Singapore is Americanizing with a vengeance.

    Prior to my arrival, Goh made a speech denouncing Phua Chu Kang for polluting the airways with his native _patois_. Singlish was diverting the youth of the nation from their mission to succeed. It was no random outburst. Nothing in Singapore is random. In precise terms this attack on Phua Chu Kang defines the meaning of globalization. Globalization is cultural homicide writ large, and television is the mirror wherein the future is displayed.

    In the service of global yuppiedom

    Success means inculcating globalized manners, mores and values, as seen on TV. Consequently, internalizing global identity means eradicating what comes naturally. Singapore culture must be ersatz, like all the renovated shop houses around the downtown marina. These elegant buildings, in colonial fusion style, have been lovingly renovated to service global yuppiedom. They house French, Spanish, Mexican, Mediterranean, any nationality except Asian, franchise restaurants. Here tourists and upwardly mobile local entrepreneurs indulge in fine wining and dining to the strains of the latest pop classics. Local architecture is just a quaint backdrop.

    When you globalize everything what you get is Singapore. When you want to know what Singapore is about you watch SBC, the Singapore Broadcasting Corporation, local purveyor of television. Once upon a time SBC was modelled on the BBC, which even seconded staff to train Singaporeans in public-service broadcasting. But that is not the kind of animal globalization is. SBC has become a multi-channelled hydra; its main outlet provides 24-hour entertainment-driven programming, mainly consisting of imported American series. It also runs its own CNN clone news channel. In Singapore it is easier to find out who is dating whom in Hollywood than anywhere in the world, except perhaps Hollywood.

    Being Singapore, the change of direction is deliberate, planned and purposeful. The objective: to be a regional broadcasting hub, a production centre selling regionally, thinking and looking globally; synergistically intermeshing the entire communications revolution experience, IT savvy, hot wired into mass global popular culture. And that is why Phua Chu Kang must learn to talk proper English, or at least a mid-Pacific variant.

    The moral of this tale is rather simple. If the richest, most highly educated, nationalist country in the developing world will willingly sacrifice its cultural identity, the last, best bastion of its individuality, to globalization – we can be sure the pandemic has already happened.

    Globalization is now sold as the best chance for economic uplift of the excluded masses of the world’s poor. It marches forward by stripping them of all that civilizes them in their own tradition, history and cultural expression. Imperialism produced mongrelization. Given independence and time, mongrelization could and does generate indigenous creativity and revitalization, the Phua Chu Kang effect. But to be successful globalized economic empowerment requires something quite different. It needs naked entry into mass popular culture manufactured in America, recycled and parodied by pale imitation everywhere. Indeed, The End – of civilization as the peoples of the world have known it, lived it and cherished its richness and diversity.

    Like a scavenger seeking nourishment, I ingested Singaporean television in the hope of finding a glimmer of a cure, only to get larger doses of disease. I found the locally made documentaries on ‘disappearing Asia’, designed in imitation for sale to such outlets as Discovery Channel. They had recruited Lea Silonga, Filipina star of the hit musical _Saigon_, to front disparaging, patronizing looks at quaint exotica. The programmes out-did classic Victorian lady travellers. Indeed, the commentary sounded as if it could have been written by a Victorian lady traveller, titillated but less than amused at what old Asia once was, and should not be allowed to remain. The victims have become the perpetrators. That is what globalization means.

    Britney, Brad and Mel, Ronan and Michael

    Globalization is about information. The lifeblood of the future economy is instant access, instant comprehension of global information. What this flood of information says is money makes the world go around. To get money requires hooking on to trade, identifying markets. Simply put, it means replicating as swiftly as possible the places where money is centred, derived from, value added to: those G7 giants.

    The port of entry into the new global dispensation is the media. Television is IT, the acme of information technology. Television shows the market what is marketable. It disseminates the style, generates and popularizes by constant repetition the merchandising opportunities. It makes global popular culture the only reality. Every home has a TV, every home becomes a portal on the superhighway to a globalized, homogenized world full of Singapores. Literally, one teleports direct to the new dispensation. The youth of the world are the sacrificial lambs offered up in this slaughter of cultural identity.

    When you globalize everything what you get is Singapore

    The civilizations of China, India and Islam support young populations with average ages between 20 and 25, and their increasing spending power is the lodestar of globalized marketing techniques and multinational merchandising concerns. An advertisement for the Hong Kong Bank says it all: ‘There are 3 billion people in Asia. Half of them are under 25. Consider it a growing market.’

    This ‘growing market’ is being targeted in a specific way. Through television, advertising, movies and pop music they are force-fed a total lifestyle package. What matters is the look, the affectation, the cool; and each of these abstractions can be translated into a merchandising equivalent available at a nearby shopping mall. What in the West operates as a culture of narcissism finds embodiment in Asia as hero worship. The heroes are the pop stars, the movie stars, the TV stars, the sports stars, who rule the global stage mirrored on your TV screen. The audience is positively brainwashed to talk, act, think and live as their heroes do.

    Star power is not Asian. It is Madonna, Britney, Brad and Mel, Ronan and Michael, Manchester United and Agassi. The stars and the world view marketed with and by them are hyped and hyper-ventilated. They are the tools of the global economics of TV.

    The Hollywood television factories make their money in the American market. The content of their programmes is driven by the internal dictates of Americana and its predilections. From its beginning American television has been a marketing device pure and simple. It is organized and operated to serve the tastes and interests of commercial sponsors and advertisers.

    What Hollywood makes in the global marketplace is profit. It sells costly, high-production value, glossy programmes for discounted prices to the television networks of the world. If it costs Singapore, or Malaysia $100,000 to buy an episode of _X Files_, they are getting a product that cost $5 million to make. The cost of bought-in programming is internationally regulated – the poorer the country the less they pay. So it is impossible for Third World countries to produce local programmes with such production values. Locally produced programmes look poor in comparison to imports and seldom attract advertising.

    ‘Best in Singapore’

    While the global economics of TV are compelling, they are not the full story. What is seen on TV takes on an educational meaning; it is the substance of which global success is made. So the children of the élite in newly emerging economies in Asia buy into and act out the lifestyle of the rich and dominant in the West. The studied disaffection of urban youth culture in the West produces the epidemic of _lepak_ in Malaysia. _Lepak_ are young people who spend their days hanging out in shopping malls, affecting the style and perhaps being bored out of their skulls.

    But acquiring the look, the clothes, even the video and cassettes that comprise global popular culture is not a straightforward transmission of purchasing power into the pocket of multinationals. Asia is counterfeit country, home of the genuine imitation 100-per-cent fake. The street markets in every city and town are awash with clothes, bags, sun glasses, watches, electrical and electronic goods, music tapes, videos and computer software cloned, pirated and all locally reproduced. For a pittance, young Asians can emulate their heroes while simultaneously stimulating local enterprise. The WTO hates it, Asian governments must promise to exterminate it – but the black economy is proof positive that resistance is not futile.

    Globalization is a disease. But it just may be the kind of virus that requires the patient to get worse before they can recover. However much television pushes the youth of Asia to venerate global icons, super megastars, one fact remains. The biggest audience is always for local shows. Cheap and cheerful Singaporean, or Malaysian, or Indonesian, or Thai programmes may be. _Friends_, _ER_ or _Star Trek_ they are not. But Hollywood stars don’t speak Singlish, or Malay or Urdu. No matter how young people try, such icons do not and cannot look or know or experience what makes young Asians tick. Eventually, we all want to look in a mirror and see ourselves.

    Maybe Phua Chu Kang is right after all. His catchphrase, ‘best in Singapore’, is proved by the ratings war – he is the king of comedy. So beyond the global noise of the information super highway, perhaps we should be listening for the siren song of local heroes calling us to a new departure. Perhaps local routes in developing countries can lead us back to the place we belong: a self-made world, rich and various. Prime Minister Goh, please take note.

    *Ziauddin Sardar* is editor of _Third Text_, the critical journal of visual art and culture. His most recent book is _The Consumption of Kuala Lumpur_ (Reaktion Books, London, 2000).

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