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The Heart Of The Matter
By Irfan Husain


Ever since 9/11, many in the West see Muslims as being involved in terrorism, and Islam as somehow encouraging violence. Defenders of Islam have constantly and correctly pointed out that their faith is one of peace, tolerance and love.

So a foreigner visiting Pakistan could be excused for asking why these virtues are virtually absent from our society. Why, he could well ask, is the rhetoric of the religious parties so full of hate and venom?

What, for instance, would he make of this recent headline: "NWFP minister threatens to throw people planning girls' marathon into Kabul River"? It seems that Mr. Sirajul Haq, senior minister in the NWFP government, wants to drown anybody contemplating an athletic event for women.


When a number of armed men led by an MMA member of parliament attacked a women's 'mini-marathon' event in Gujranwala, the incident made headlines around the world. This only reinforced the image Muslims have acquired in the West.

Photographs of bearded, lathi-wielding zealots are frightening reminders of the growing gap between two world views. For the mullahs, there should be no progress, no scientific enquiry, men 
should have unkempt beards, and women should be locked securely indoors. In this Talibanesque vision, we should march backwards to the 7th century.

Mercifully, there is a gentler, more tolerant version of Islam practiced elsewhere in the Muslim world. Here, progress is seen as something to strive for; women have equal rights; the minorities 
are protected; and education is not seen as an adjunct of Islamic studies. But in these societies, too, there are limits on the freedom of thought and expression that run counter to the demands of free enquiry and rational thought.

In the modern, secular world view that today shapes the West and other dynamic societies in Asia, there are no eternal truths: everything is questioned, and nothing is beyond criticism. 

In this intellectual ferment, theories are advanced and demolished; new ideas come and go; and the frontiers of human knowledge are advanced all the time. There are many religious people in these 
societies, but their faith does not block progress. Indeed, most developed nations have secularism inscribed as a basic tenet in their constitutions.

A current example of the conflict between extremism and modernism is the unnecessary controversy raised by the clerics about the decision to include the Aga Khan University Education Board (AKUEB) among the examining boards for school leaving students. 

Considering that there are a score or so of such bodies, affiliation to the AKUEB is entirely voluntary, and it has no power to change the curriculum, the furore raised by the mullahs is hard 
to understand.

In a leading Urdu daily, Allama Ayaz Zaheer, the chairman of the Pakistan Madressah Foundation makes this odd accusation, followed by the usual threats: "Very soon, AKUEB is going to be given the charge of madrasahs in Pakistan. 

We will not accept it... The consequences would be horrible if AKUEB tried to take over our madrasahs... We would besiege all Aga Khan Foundation offices and teach the infidels an unforgettable lesson..." Our clerics are fond of declaring their targets non-Muslims while threatening them with violence. They have given themselves the authority to declare who is a believer and who is not.

And while these threats are flying around, what does the government do? Cave in yet again. Just as it meekly gave in to the MMA's demand to include a religion column in the new passports, I expect 
it will soon withdraw the ordinance it had earlier issued making the AKUEB an examining board.

Actually, this vicious anti-AKUEB campaign makes eminent sense for the mullahs. Ever since Zia and the army virtually handed over public education to the religious parties, they have steadily 
eroded its quality. The result is before us all to see. Now, a high school certificate is not accepted by any decent college or university unless it holds its own admission test.

The clerics, backed by many education department officials, believe that an independent examining body would insist on higher standards, thereby exposing the shoddy system they have created. 
These vested interests would be unable to manipulate results for money or for influence, at least for those schools opting to be examined by the AKUEB.

In reality, this debate goes to the very heart of the struggle between extremism and modernity. Mullahs see this as the thin edge of the wedge. If the AKUEB succeeds in raising standards, 
government boards will be under pressure to emulate it, and just possibly, public education might be improved to acceptable levels. 

An example of this knock-on effect exists in the shape of the Aga Khan University hospital that, by offering world class health care, has influenced other private and public hospitals into changing the 
way they function.

At the core of this struggle lies a deep insecurity in the minds of many clerics. They know in their heart of hearts that they are not really educated in any meaningful sense, whatever the election 
commission might say. If their ignorant followers acquire a real education, they might well question the authority the mullahs have gained. 

Islam recognizes no church, no over lordship of any religious leader or party. Each believer prays directly to God without any intermediary. So in a way, the authority of our clergy rests on 
very shaky foundations.

Returning to where we started, why is the language of our religious parties so filled with hate and violence? Where are the love and peace the Holy Book teaches us? Why cannot Pakistani clerics engage in calm and constructive debate? Why must they brandish arms and utter death threats all the time? Is it because they lack the tools of civilized discourse?

Uneducated in everything, their only intellectual weapon is a poorly understood and ill-digested rote learning of the scriptures. With this, they seek to browbeat the rest of us into silence. Unable to contribute anything to the great deeds and thoughts of our times, they want to drag us all back to the mediaeval era. And since they have no answer to real problems of the day, they are 
forever creating unnecessary controversies in an unending effort to distract the poor and the ignorant from demanding a better life.

 

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