Choose your fundamentalism in Pakistan

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Choose your fundamentalism in Pakistan

Pakistanis have a choice of many different schools of fundamentalism. This is stopping the development of civil society, writes Ziauddin Sardar.


Sana Ijaz and her victory sign show how Pakistani civil society wants to fight. She was arrested because she said the government must do more against the Pakistani Taliban. © AP Photo/Mohammad Sajjad

Junaid Jamshed was a rock star in Pakistan in the 1990s. His band, Vital Signs, started Pakistan’s rock-music industry. They had many hits, like ‘Dil Dil Pakistan’ (‘My Heart is Pakistan’). Then he started singing alone and became a television personality.

But in 2004, Jamshed found religion. He joined the Tablighi Jamaat, a fundamentalist religious movement. He said music was bad, started a charity, and became a preacher. His talks are on YouTube. They show a very Pakistani type of fundamentalism. Tablighi Jamaat’s type of Islam is all about ritual and prayer. It has six points: correct belief, regular prayer, praising God, sincerity of intention, respect for other Muslims and giving time to preaching. Tablighi Jamaat says that people can solve all human problems by prayer and getting others to join your religion.


A DVD of the ‘disco mullah’ Junaid Jamshed on sale in Islamabad. AP Photo/B.K. Bangash

But, in Tablighi Jamaat, they respect Muslims, but not women. The Tablighis hate women. Jamshed often said women are not as good as men. He said women need to be put in their place, covered up, isolated, and told not to speak. But in November 2014, he said too much when he told a story about Ayesha, the youngest wife of the Prophet Muhammad, and how she pretended she was ill to get the attention of her husband. He said the story shows that a woman cannot change even if she is close to the Prophet. That started a conflict with another popular type of Pakistani fundamentalism, shown by television preacher Aamir Liaquat Hussain. He used to be a politician and Minister of Religious Affairs.

Hussain gives orphaned babies to adoptive parents on his television show and tries to look liberal. He has said that violence and suicide bombing are wrong and Muslim unity is good. But he thinks people should not criticise the sacred people of Islam. So he thought Jamshed did not respect Ayesha and said, on his show, that the story he told about Ayesha was blasphemy. Very soon, the Sunni Tehreek (a group of clerics) told the police to arrest Jamshed. Then Jamshed said he was sorry. He is now living in London and does not want to go back to Pakistan.

All types of traditionalists

Tablighi Jamaat and Sunni Tehreek represent fundamentalism based on traditionalism. But they are traditionalisms of different types; you can see this in their different beards. The Tablighi beard is thick, untidy beard with a shaved top lip. They say the Prophet had a beard like this, and all devout Muslims should have one. Jamshed has a beard like this, and South African cricketer Hashim Amla. It’s the most famous beard in modern Islam. But Sunni Tehreek says the Prophet had a tidy beard, sometimes coloured with henna. People who follow this have shorter, tidy beards, sometimes deep red.

Tablighis have a lot of rituals, but Sunni Tehreek loves the saints. They see the Prophet as a special human being, created from light, always present; they worship the household of the Prophet and dead and living saints. Tablighi Jamaat says politics is evil and Muslims must not get involved. But Sunni Tehreek is actively involved in politics – its political section, Jamiat Ulema-e-Pakistan, tries to win elections. They try to get people to vote for its type of traditional, folk-based fundamentalism.

But Sunni Tahreek’s politics is very different from another fundamentalist group, the Jamaat-e-Islami. This started in British India in 1941. Jamaat-e-Islami wants to change Pakistan into an ‘Islamic state’. Abul ala Maududi (now dead) started it. He said that Islam is a total system that controls all human behaviour – social, economic, personal, psychological and political. So the state must be controlled by sharia (Islamic) law, and the best rulers are the ulama (religious scholars).

This type of fundamentalism is modernist. They have changed the classical community Islam to the modern idea of a state. It is more like 20th-century communism than Islamic history. But Jamaat-e-Islami is not a revolutionary movement; it wants to do things with democracy. It has been in several elections but only won a few seats.

Jamaat-e-Islami has failed politically, but it has been successful in helping another type of fundamentalism in Pakistan. This started when the military dictator Zia ul-Haq (1978-88) was in control. Zia ul-Haq was supported by Saudi Arabia and by Jamaat-e-Islami. He wanted to make Pakistan more Muslim with sharia law and blasphemy laws, setting up madrassas (religious schools) and stopping all music and film. He tried to make Wahhabi doctrine (Saudi type Islam) the most important in Pakistan. And he was successful.


A lot of Pakistani middle class, including the army, now follow Wahhabi fundamentalism. It has three main characteristics. First, it is not historical. Islam as a religion did not develop in history. It exists outside time, so it does not have ideas of progress, moral development or human evolution. Second, Wahhabism does not accept that people can disagree with it. If you disagree, you are punished. Third, Wahhabism thinks it is superior. Saudi Arabia has religious police, and Pakistan now has people who control public morality. They attack everything they do not agree with. Wahhabism promotes intolerance, hatred of women and hatred of foreigners.


Police teach Pakistani teachers in Peshawar to shoot. Teachers in the northwest frontier are now allowed to carry hidden guns after an attack by Pakistani Taliban on a school in December, when 145 people, including 132 children, were killed. (AP Photo/Mohammad Sajjad)

There are many Wahhabi groups. Like Jamaat-e-Islami, they are trying to make Pakistan an ‘Islamic state’ under sharia law. But not all are democratic. Some are violent eg. the Pakistani Taliban, Jammat-ul-Ahrar (responsible for the recent suicide bombings of churches in Peshawar, Lashkar-e-Taiba and Sipah-e-Sahaba. They put Wahhabism together with the ideology of the Kharjites (rebels from the seventh century) to make a very dangerous form of fundamentalism.

The Kharjites believed that history ended after the revelation to the Last Prophet. After that, no debate or changes were possible. The Kharjites thought they were perfect Muslims. They said everyone who disagreed with them, or their politics, should be killed. Their philosophy was: give all to God, die for God, kill for God all people 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 basically neo-Kharjites who agree with this dangerous ideology. That is why they can kill children and do suicide bombings without feeling sorry.

Change from inside

All Pakistani fundamentalists agree on one thing. Only religion can give all the answers to today’s problems. Islam for them is everything (totalistic). The danger is that it will control everything. The biggest challenge for Pakistan is to free itself from all types of fundamentalism.

The most urgent problem is to stop the violent extremists. Different governments have tried to make an agreement with the Taliban and their other groups for the last 10 years. But how can you negotiate with groups who want to end democracy and make Pakistan an ‘Islamic state’ – even if it means the total destruction of the country? Like the Kharjites of early Islam, the Taliban have to be controlled by the military. This is what most Pakistanis now understand and want. People are against the Taliban. And this has finally forced the army and the current government to try to control them. But it is not enough to keep the Taliban in one place. The Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) in northern Pakistan need to be developed, and the tribal people need to be helped.


‘The extremist speaks’ by Iranian cartoonist Mohsen Izadi (

Civil society has an important role. The FATA region is run like a British colony with powerful ‘political agents’. The region is part of Pakistan’s constitution, so tribal people have no legal way to fight for their rights. If people fight against this injustice, they can get basic rights, like water and roads for these areas. And they can replace madrassas - where they can train jihadi extremists - with a good education system.

There have been some positive steps. People are fighting to get rid of the terrible 1901 British Frontier Crimes Regulation. This allows the punishment of an entire tribe for crimes by one person in the tribe. Activists are also fighting to end the blasphemy laws. But there is a lot more to do.

And there is an even bigger challenge: to change Islam from inside. In Pakistan, Islam has become toxic. If people say something is sharia, they can justify almost any injustice. So we need to change sharia to make it more modern and humane. People need to think about the relationship between Islam and politics. And they need to stop the idea of an ‘Islamic state’ and start a strong civic society. These things will be very difficult. But if Islam does not change from inside, all types of fundamentalism will continue.

Ziauddin Sardar wrote Desperately Seeking Paradise and Mecca: The Sacred City.

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