Tuesday, September 14, 2010

The Islamist Demons

The terrible spectre of extremist violence and the so-called ‘Talibanisation’ we are facing today has to do with psychology as much as it has with economics and politics. It is as if the figurative demons of hate and fascistic whiplash repressed deep within our unconsciousness have suddenly leaped out and become a horrifying reality. Laying latent in us have been awkward fantasies about gallant military take-overs and bloody revolutions based on rotating myths of bravado and a worldview that has no room for any grey areas and is simplistically divided between black and white; good and evil, right and wrong.

Such a state of mind has given birth to a cringing strain of neurosis in the society in which a hollow and delusional sense of religious chauvinism, patriotism and ideological self-indulgence comes attached with a persecution complex and an obsessive-compulsive need to deny ones failures. Though most of us are only willing to exhibit our quivering religious/sectarian and ‘patriotic’ biases in the shape of the usual knee-jerk rhetoric on the internet, TV and in newspaper articles, it won’t be all that wrong to suggest that most of what is harmlessly spilled out as patriotic rants in cyber space or the media, has now found its physical expression.
These are the physical personifications of the demons of hate most of us have been nurturing in our minds and souls; demons fed by decades of ‘education,’ propaganda or mythical tall tales of bluster and glory that have actually attempted to isolate the Pakistani nation from reality.

We have been carved out and crafted (by the state, the clergy, the media and the class room) as a people who are on a divine mission to safeguard Islam from its many ‘enemies.’ We think of ourselves as being the chosen people and (thus) are quick to deny and hide most of our moral failings by claiming that these failures do not stem from our bloated perceptions of ourselves, or our myopic understanding of faith, or our blatant hypocrisies.

Instead, to most of us these failings are due to any number of diabolic forces found named and numbered in the usual defensive cliches that are spontaneously spouted by the great number of preachers, politicians and patriots out there: Lingering vistas of colonialism, malicious Indian (nay, Hindu) designs, American tinkering and intervention, democracy, liberalism, secularism …

The truth is, on most occasions than not, it has very much been us and us alone who have brought this country to its knees.

The easiest thing to do is to blame the politicians for their incompetence and corruption. The politicians are but only a reflection of the people at large. Put a middle-class whiner out there and he would behave in no different a manner.  Former Pakistan cricket captain, Salman Butt, who prays five times a day and keeps his wife behind a veil is an excellent example.

Educated, pious, middle-class and detached from the dirt and filth that elects ‘corrupt’ politicians to the assemblies, Butt sahib is alleged to have willingly fumbled when given the chance to make a moral call in matters of making some extra, illegal money.

Nobody remembers God and country in such cases. These two only appear as buzzwords when we have to loudly proclaim our patriotism and faith in front of the public and the self-appointed moral police now found not only within the state apparatus, but across mosques, drawing rooms, TV studios and the internet.
It is as if we have made up our minds that breaking and dodging the laws and morals of the material realm is OKAY as long as we stick to a strict ritual regime of our faith, or proclaim our love of God and country loud enough.

Is this the thinking then? That God will not forgive us if we miss a prayer or a fast; but he will forgive if we break a red signal, or bribe a cop; or pray for the death of a politician whom we consider corrupt (forgetting that politician too, can have a family); or stab someone in the back so we can climb the social and professional ladder faster than our contemporaries; or publicly humiliate or murder women because we believe their ‘independence’ amounts to loose behaviour; or mercilessly beat people to death because we thought they were criminals; or falsely accuse a non-Muslim of being blasphemous so we can profit from his misfortune; or blow up places of worship of those we consider to be heretics, kafirs or bad Muslims?
One can go on and on. The more we deny our own moral and ideological failings, the more aggressive and prominent the physical expressions of our inner most religious and ideological prejudices and hypocrisies become.

These are demons in the flesh that the deniers either ignore as being bad dreams, or see as part of some diabolic (if not ethereal) conspiracy to destroy Pakistan (and thus Islam).

The truth, I am afraid, is far worse: The misdeeds of these monsters and, especially, the reasons and rationales these violent transgressions are based on, are mostly made up of the same dark matter that lies within each one of us.

Educated or otherwise, we (as in Pakistani Muslims of the majority sect), all grew up on fantastical stories of the unchallengeable supremacy of our beliefs; about our ‘destiny’ to sparkle as the most macho Muslim nation with its loud public displays of ‘piety’, and a gung-ho nuclear-powered, AK-47 brandishing masculinity.
We grew up hearing yarns about the subhuman ways and beliefs of other sects and religions; and what dangers that they pose to the Islamic Republic; and how awful and wrong they are by not believing in God the way we do, because our way is the right way, and we will lie, cheat and kill to prove this.


The kind of vicious, rabid propaganda countries like the United States, Pakistan and Saudi Arabia indulged in to prepare almost zombie-like ‘God’s soldiers’ to bury the Soviet state once and for all in the 1980s, flung open a dangerous Pandora’s Box.

The inflexible, intolerant and gun-totting strain of faith that was glorified in this propaganda gradually began making a number of Muslims believe that what they had (peacefully) been practicing as their religion before this, was perhaps wrong.

They began to doubt their faith the way it was. They thought maybe they were not following the ‘true dictates of Islam,’ or that maybe they are not passionate and clear enough to be true believers.
The results of such an existentialist crises are now apparent. The crises turned itself into a daunting dilemma of identity. Subtlety in matters of faith went out the window. The new Muslim society started to judge this subtlety as a sign of weak faith. Consequently everything according to the Muslim individual and his faith became loud and pertaining to exhibitionism.

The preachers and evangelists became more in number and louder in tone. Everyday language started being punctuated with a number of scriptural expressions (mostly Arab). Beards, hijabs and burqas descended upon the populace and had to be worn now to make an instant identity statement to the West and fellow Muslims (and not exactly to God). Mosques began being packed with worshippers.

In Pakistan’s context, has all this turned society better than what it was some 30 years ago? It quite obviously hasn’t. In fact the society as a whole has gone from being bad to worse. We have continued to ignore the warnings from history, i.e., when a religion descends it emerges as a form of guidance from God. It is for individuals to take heed from this guidance. But when this guidance is taken and turned into a series of decrees and tools for kings to rule and the clergy to plough, it becomes a socio-political monolith.
Its spiritual dimensions are clipped away and it is made to freeze and lose its evolutionary and progressive spirit. It then becomes just another political and social ideology. A lumbering dogma.

Such a dogma means nothing spiritually to an individual. It thus leaves him being just a bundle of exhibitionist rituals, ‘correct dressing’ and a speaker of a particular dialect punctuated with numerous holy sounding words. This believer is totally detached from the progressive and evolutionary character and body of a religion. Add politics to this mixture and you have a disaster in the making.

The results of such a scenario in Pakistan are not only about extremist and sectarian monsters creating hell on earth so they can enjoy a heavenly existence in the afterlife.

These results are also about a majority of Pakistanis allowing themselves to be caught in a sluggish and entrapping state of mind and quagmire in which they actually try to fuse and justify pious dogma and bring it in line with their ever present need for modern material artifacts and status.

Not only does politics gets ‘Islamised’ in Pakistan, so does almost everything else, from language, to mobile phone connections; and from everyday dressing to cooking shows – as if becoming a ‘good Muslim’ too had a convenient recipe, like that of nargasi koftay or anda gotala.
Nadeem F. Paracha is a cultural critic and senior columnist for Dawn Newspaper and Dawn.com.

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