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Religion, Extremism, and Pakistan

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Secularization – certainly not the key to combat religious extremism

Recently, Pakistan's blasphemy law has been making waves across the country and its political circles. Even the Pope has weighed in, much to the furor of the Muslim population. The assassination of Punjab's governor further helped bring the matter into the focus of the international media. We saw Bilawal Zardari Bhutto speak out as well – a rarity, as we all know too well. Governor Taseer's daughter wrote scathing articles against the prevalent extremist ideology that she feels has engulfed the masses of Pakistan.

The law by itself can no doubt be exploited by using it against religious minorities. But laws as a whole, whether based on the interpretation of Shariah (Islamic law) or what is accepted by the more "liberal" West can be exploited as such. Whether these laws need amending or not is perhaps another debate. The question is, is it the simple law that plagues the society in Pakistan today, and could the amendment be the answer?

As stated earlier, much has been said and done in the scope of this debate. Many, including national media outlets, have pointed their fingers at the extremist ideology that the population as a whole (except for the few elites, of course) has been infused with. One can't speak for Taseer's assassin, but one can critically analyze the situation at hand. With Taseer's assassination, it has all been brought down to one term: religious extremism. This has provided further room for the "liberal" ideology that instructs us to separate religion from the affairs of the government.

Pakistan's incorporation of religion in matters of governance and its constitution as a whole, coupled with its proximity to a country like Afghanistan, is what allows it to become a breeding ground for extremists, and arguably, results in terrorism. The country is viewed as an example of what happens when Islam and politics mix.

Religious extremism is as old as the history of religion itself. Even though Islam has come to be associated with religious extremism, other religions are no exception. The problem of terrorism as we see it today is more contemporary than we admit. Has it been brought about by a clash between our increasingly globalized, modern world and Islam? It is always strange when that premise is put forth. Islam is not a religion restricted to a particular culture, region or point in time. Its ability to encompass every aspect of a follower's life in harmony with his cultural and social identity is what makes the religion so attractive. Islam's versatility to embrace progression of the mind and society has allowed it to stand the tests of time.

Indeed, the problem of extremist interpretations of religion has always existed, and will probably not go away any time soon. The way this extremist ideology has manifested itself in today's society, especially in Pakistan, is a cause for concern.

Ever since independence, it has not been smooth sailing for Pakistan. Military dictatorships saw the economy crumble under the iron fists of the rulers. Democratically elected governments have proven to be ineffective in presenting an agenda for the country to prosper. Infighting between different political factions has eroded the very fabric of society which could have made Pakistan a success story. A vast amount of the population lives in under-developed areas, with no basic necessities, including education. With the illiteracy rate standing over 40%, Pakistan ushered only its elite class into the 21st century.

So as the country's economy lies in tatters, its elite class remains disconnected from the concerns of the average Pakistani, security continues to be threatened by not just the occasional suicide bomber but also the American drones, and its government continues to bow to Western demands, leaving its population out to dry. The level of rage and dissatisfaction is only natural amongst the youth languishing away knowing that the jobs will not come, the campaign promises will not be met and conditions will not improve.

For these masses, their perceptions and interpretations – religious and otherwise – will reflect the realities of their lives. Their interpretation of religion will be one that gives them an outlet to express the built up frustration, rage, dissatisfaction and helplessness that they feel and are forced to live with. It is a backlash from a population that feels betrayed by the cards they have been dealt with in life, making them more susceptible to adopt whatever quenches their thirst for validation.

As Pakistani politicians, with the help of their Western backers, radically push for the secularization of the country and its way of life to combat religious extremism, things will not change unless the much ignored – and perhaps forgotten – needs of the population are met. Removing Islam from the equation will not remove the realities on the ground, nor will it bring an end to Pakistan's woes.

Author of this article: Kaneez Fatima
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