When the government put forth the National Action Plan at the beginning of the year, the nation breathed a sigh of relief. Finally something was going to be done about those seminaries that were acting as incubators of extremism and breeding grounds for terrorists. Sadly, nothing has been done. The powers that be have been busy cracking down on secular political parties that may or may not have some members involved in petty crimes while completely ignoring the factories producing terrorists who continue to wage war against us. However, these are not the only priorities that need to be reevaluated. Madrassah reform remains a necessary action, but unfortunately we have a much bigger problem now as the extremist ideology is not only being propagated in unregulated seminaries but also in our universities.
Page A3 of Daily Times of 21st February features the story, ‘NA committee for programmes on war on terror‘ about legislators calling for new initiatives “for changing the people’s mindset on war on terror”. The problem is larger than just creating new programmes to change people’s mindset, however.
I have written before about how the devil is in the definition. It is often said that one man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter. Ansar Abbasi is among the many public figures who have said something like ‘Aik toh pehli baat mei yeh kahoonga, Amreeka jisko terrorist kehti hia mei usko terrorist nahi manta’. Today, amid outcry about funding of extremism, Saudi Arabia too is hiding behind a dictionary and passing the buck to the Foreign Office.
Saudi Embassy Islamabad has released an official statement denying any funding of extremism in Pakistan. At least, that is how it is being spun with the help of our willing media. Here is what the statement actually says:
“Whenever any seminary, mosque or charity organisations request the kingdom for financial assistance, the embassy refers the matter to the Government of Pakistan through the Ministry of Foreign Affairs for examining suitability of the applicant…when the ministry of foreign affairs informs the embassy in writing that the financial assistance is in the interest of public welfare, the assistance is provided to the applicant.”
This is a very clever defence. The Saudi Embassy says there is no funding of extremism, only funding “in the interest of public welfare”. No mention of how public welfare is defined, leaving open a very wide door for extremist groups who masquerade as ‘welfare organisations’. Groups like Jamaat-ud-Dawa are notorious for running ‘public welfare’ programs as a cover for spreading an extremist message of hate and also recruiting and supplying materials for international jihad.
Saudi Arabia denies funding extremism, but extremist groups can very easily qualify for funding based on the statement released by their Embassy. By passing the buck to the Foreign Office, though, Saudi actually shines the light on the solution to this crisis: The government of Pakistan needs to step up and define careful criteria for organisations to be eligible to receive funding. This criteria should include not just the existence of ‘public welfare’ programs, but the absence of extremism. It won’t get rid of the problem completely, but it will give the extremists one less definition to hide behind.
Pakistan Ulema Council (PUC) recently convened its conference in Lahore where the top issues were discussed. A report by Raza Rumi notes the unprecedented support for minorities given by PUC chief Allama Tahir Ashrafi, and a resolution was passed saying, “government had the responsibility to protect the lives, wealth, honor, dignity and places of worship of all its citizens regardless of their faith.”
This message of tolerance and inclusion is welcome, but it is a paragraph late in the report that exposes the root of our problem.
In his speech Allama Tahir Ashrafi said madrassas were guarantors of peace in the country. Maulana Muhammad Ali Sherazi said an education system given by Christians was a conspiracy against Islam, which had become a victim of the west. “True education is spread through religious seminaries, which are the fort of Islam,” he added.
Is there any better representation of what ails us? In one moment, Ulema calls on government to protect minorities. In the next moment, they accuse non-Muslims of using education as part of a ‘conspiracy against Islam’.
Which is it? Are We are told note to be suspicious and hateful, and then we are given reason to be suspicious and hateful. If government has a responsibility to protect minorities, doesn’t that responsibility include doing something about the lessons in intolerance being taught at certain madrassas?
Ridding ourselves of the curse of religious extremism, the root cause of terrorism in our country, will require us to move beyond mere words of tolerance. We must shed our victim mentality and stop pretending that the threat is coming from outside and not inside our own house.
The senseless and brutal killing of 141 innocents at APS Boys Peshawar has resulted in several policy recommendations to eradicate the menace of terrorism. Among these, the ideas fall into two basic categories: Giving the military more power and reforming the messages being spread by certain madrassahs and mosques. The first point about granting more civil authority to military is receiving significant debate which is important whether one supports a stronger role for military in civil affairs or not. However the second point which is madrassah reform is not receiving the same amount of consideration.
It is undeniable that there are networks of madrassahs and mosques that are projecting hate speech and inciting violence, but this is not the limit of the problem of spreading extremism in society. The Nation makes an excellent point in a recent editorial:
Extremism’s sole refuge is neither the tainted hearts of bearded terrorists belonging to the TTP, LeJ and al Qaeda nor the unrefined minds of this country’s many illiterate. It also resides in the hearts and minds of our ‘educated’ middle and upper class
A perfect example of this can be found in the recent incident involving Aamir Liaquat’s show where his invited guest Syed Arif Shah Owaisi gave anti-Ahmadi statements. Aamir Liaquat is popular with the urban middle-class, and the bigoted message that appears on his show is easily received by this audience. And why not? It fits neatly within the world view that has been constructed.
The majority of Pakistanis, who have grown up on a diet of a sensationalist media and a hate-mongering school curricula, or have been moulded in their thinking by rabid religious or political figures that thrive on the anti-India, anti-West propaganda, their perceptions are entirely different.
This is a country that believes there were no Jews in the World Trade Center building on the day of the September 11 attacks, or that Neil Armstrong actually heard a call to prayer when he landed on the moon. They believe that a car can be run on water.
These are not the products of madrassah education. They are product of Karachi Public School. They are Aitchisonians. They went to University in America and London. They are lawyers who shower confessed killers with flowers and kisses. They view themselves as defenders of national ideology and spread messages that glorify jihad in English blogs and social media and in drawing rooms across the country.
Madrassah reform is essential to tackling militancy in Punjab and throughout the country, but if we are going to succeed in stamping out the problem we must also tackle the extremism problem within the middle class.