As per the website of Pakistan Bureau of Statistics 96.28% of Pakistan’s population is Muslim. Hindus make 1.6% and Christians 1.59% of the total population. Whether these numbers are a part of 2017 census findings or projection based on 1998 census is not mentioned. While accessing the pdf files available on the site one can only hope that the numbers are current. This also tells you how the bureau’s data sharing practices leave much to be desired.
Nevertheless, the numbers are more useful than you think. First, they tell you that in a country with such an overwhelming Muslim majority the talk of Islam being under threat is a lie. There is no force powerful enough to change religious patterns of a community this big. Second, in view of such majority the minorities of the country need special protection. Third, the census and data gathering exercises in the country are in denial of the religious issues that have badly affected our society. Try as you might you will not find numbers from an official source on the sectarian composition of the Muslim majority. The denial most likely stems from the omnipresent desire to be viewed being above sectarian divide. Although an admirable sentiment it waylays the society of the ability to come to terms with the reality of a polarising environment. These sects exist to perpetuate themselves and the unavailability of data where they are clearly mapped poses a serious challenge to effective policy planning and further research in the field.
And the problem doesn’t end here. Even when we are willing to ask relevant questions like the sect of a citizen we restrict the inquiry to Shias and Sunnis. I don’t think any record exists where we know how many among our Muslim population are Salafis, Deobandis or Barelvis. This denial then causes us a lot of grief because in the absence of valid data no serious research on possible behaviour patterns of the society and the groups within can be conducted. The lacuna left behind is filled by whimsical, half-baked assessments which end up blindsiding policy formulators and lawmakers.
The challenges posed by this denial are surfacing more often than you like. And yet there is the habit of kicking the can down the road. Consider items 5, 11, 14 and 18 of the 2014 National Action Plan as they appear on the National Counter Terrorism Authority’s website. Item 5 says, “Strict action against the literature, newspapers and magazines promoting hatred, extremism, sectarianism and intolerance.” Item 11: “Ban on glorification of terrorists and terrorist organisations through print and electronic media.” Item 14: “Measures against abuse of internet and social media for terrorism.” And Item 18: “Dealing firmly with sectarian terrorists.” All these items require a nuanced counter-narrative to be developed to undermine extremism and terrorism. And by now you must have noticed how often word ‘sectarian’ figures in the discourse. And yet we choose to be blindsided.
While we are at it let us highlight challenges of coming up with a counter narrative against extremism and terrorism. A lot of extremism emanates from our lack of attention to details. Since many of us pride ourselves on being moderates who are free of a paranoid worldview we do not even attempt to track what the purveyors of conspiracy theories do in our national media. For instance, you do not realise how effectively some in the media managed to weaponise the Islamic eschatology/endism during the past decade until you read Saleem Shahzad’s Inside Al Qaeda and Taliban. Now only a attention to detail reveals that this entire ‘End of Times’ business is based on some assumptions that the interpreter makes while presenting the theories to you and these assumptions about the enemy, the timeline and order of events are not a part of the original texts of Islam. It takes only minutes to separate the wheat from the chaff. However, since are not paying attention not only is the needed counter narrative missing but the same content is aired on television repeatedly. Another example is of suicide bombings. The nation endured too many suicide attacks in the country during past 10 years and nobody had time to realise or point out that since suicide is haram (strictly forbidden) in Islam, suicide bombing was haram too. Consensus on this was reached only recently when this was repeatedly highlighted in the media.
The biggest challenge right now is posed by our approach to religion. The country’s Constitution and history are replete with references to Islam. But somehow this religious secular divide here ensures that total inaction prevails. And here lies the real issue. The consensus interpretation (Ijma) in faith stopped around a millennium ago. That was the time of empires not of nation states. Everything to with the legal, constitutional framework of a nation state like ours and its functioning will remain contentious to our clergy in the absence of a new broad-based consensus. A nation state has to have boundaries as outer limits, however every engagement with the political Islam essentially takes the discussion to pan-Islamism, Khilafa and other concepts that essentially undermine those boundaries. So, for both the religious minded and the secular the solution can only be found through action not inaction. It is clear that in a country where everything becomes political, extremism can quickly contaminate even the most peaceful communities.
And it brings us to Pakistan’s position in the Muslim history. The attitude of our religious communities is one that behooves a satellite. The task of religious interpretation, many believe, is meant for other nations that are central to the formative phase of Islam. That impression is deeply flawed. No other country is as much organically motivated by the Islamic cause as Pakistan. If you are not convinced then just try to notice how many times Islam is mentioned in any serious discussion around you. And since the secular and moderate class of the country doesn’t want to spend any time in the study of faith so central to their existence regardless of their predilections the reactionary elements in the society and the conspiracy theorists have a field day. The country needs a new Ijma at the national level before it can move in any direction at all.
It is neither your fault nor mine that even after 72 years of our existence the nation is confused about its identity. However, whether you want a secular polity or a theocratic one the road ahead passes through the thickets of religious jurisprudence. It is time to make your mind and to act. Inaction will further drag you down.
Published in The Express Tribune, November 6th, 2018.